Non-Ugly American?
March 21, 2007 7:42 AM   Subscribe

Obnoxious American visits charming European city. What do I wear in London to appear less of an ugly American?

We're going on a week long holiday in London in a couple months. My goal is to sample lots of wonderful cheese (yes, I have both Neal's Yard shops marked on my map) and come back with hundreds of great photos. My wife has informed me that going to London wearing my typical attire will cause undue attention and much thinly veiled contempt.

Typically when out doing the tourist photo thing I wear jeans and t-shirts with extremely nerdy stuff on them - My RegEx shirt which features a long regular expression in fine print, my MetaFilter t-shirt (really), my "Molten Core Swim Team" shirt with a big 60 on the back. You get the idea.

I don't want to be immediately seen to be an ugly American. And since I'll be carrying a few thousand dollars in camera equipment, it might be better to blend in. My wife even claims that she was charged less during her London trip back in the 80s when she made an attempt to hide her tourist status.

What casual, about-town wear should I be looking for? Will wearing nerdy American t-shirts really be a problem? We'll be doing lots of walks, popping into (not upscale) restaurants, and doing touristy stuff when we can avoid crowds. What should I wear?
posted by Tiddles to Travel & Transportation around London, England (90 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You're overthinking this. Just don't stand in the middle of the pavement gawping, and don't wear an 80 litre backpack while navigating the tube.
posted by Leon at 7:49 AM on March 21, 2007

If you don't want to look American, just dress casually and speak softly. Many American tourists are easily identifiable because they speak about 10dB louder than the average European.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 7:51 AM on March 21, 2007

I agree that you're overthinking this. When I first started traveling, in the late 80s, there were big differences between the way that Americans and UKians dressed, but that's much less true now.
posted by craichead at 7:54 AM on March 21, 2007

My British coworker claims he has never seen people in England wearing jeans with dress shirts (I guess that would be called "creative casual" here in the states?).

Living in a touristy town myself, there are several ways to mark yourself as an out-of-towner. Walking around with a map out, large backpack, staring at all the monuments the locals usually just walk right by. Men also seem to be very fond of wearing Hawaiian shirts, even though it's winter in New England.

I've also found that it's helpful not to wear your camera around your neck. Wrap the strap around your hand and hold it, or keep it over the shoulder if you need both hands.

Really, though, the best way to not look like a tourist is to look like you have a purpose and actually know where you're going, rather than wandering aimlessly.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:57 AM on March 21, 2007

Agree on the overthinking, but the following will mark you out as American (for me, anyway): sandals, sandals with socks (wtf), baseball caps, t-shirts with US sports teams on, speaking loudly. But really only the loud speaking is a bad thing. Nerdy t-shirts are fine - we have plenty of nerds over here anyway.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:58 AM on March 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

I know what you mean. When I went to Italy there were times when I felt acutely, um, schlumfy. I think it's that Americans tend to dress like highschool kids (e.g. t-shirt, jeans, sweatpants, baseball hat, etc). To fit in, I bought a couple of nice accessories: a scarf, a nice hat, gloves, etc. A nice pair of shoes and a nice watch make those jeans and shirt look a lot better.

The Metafilter shirt will read as supercool anywhere you go in any situation. :-) Seriously, you'll probably get a shout out.
posted by xammerboy at 7:59 AM on March 21, 2007

sandals with socks (wtf)
I don't think this is American! I grew up in a super-touristy part of the U.S., and we considered that a dead giveaway that a given tourist was from continental Europe.
posted by craichead at 8:01 AM on March 21, 2007

Best answer: Try the "casual Friday" look. Avoid sneakers, tennis shoes and their ilk. Clean darkish jeans are probably okay, as are dark slacks. Wear a blazer if temperature permits, and you can even get away with wearing a nice t-shirt underneath as long as it isn't plastered with logos.

That being said, your body language will still give you away as a tourist/visitor, but you will look savvy, which will earn you some respect. And it's London, so you can get away with a lot more than you can on the continent anyway. Relax, and have a great time.

Yeah, on preview, ditch the ball cap.
posted by malaprohibita at 8:01 AM on March 21, 2007

No shorts, no sunglasses, avoid loud t-shirts. Wear normal jeans in neutral colours, wear toned down shirts. However, the real key to not being recognized as a foreigner is in your posture.

Avoid making the Akimbo. Don't stare into the sky, feet spread out, stomach sticking out, constant eye contact like Americans do. The British tend to walk with feet inwards, make eye contact only shortly, and look either straight ahead or down. Their heads tend to point straight ahead, and they look a bit up at you. Americans tend to point their heads upwards and look down at you.

Just dress down a bit. When you go into a place, be dressed for the place. Don't go into a medium range restaurant dressed for a fish and chips place.

And most of all, if you meet anybody, avoid going on and on about America and how different it is. It's so annoying when people do this.
posted by markovich at 8:09 AM on March 21, 2007

Slacks and shoes that aren't sneakers are the two major ones. Jeans are ok if you're under 30. It's not so true in the UK, but on the continent, some sites won't let you in if wearing shorts. Shorts say USonian (or German).

Sandals-with-socks says Nordic or German to me.

Avoid the bum-bag (and don't call them "fanny packs"). Easy to pick pocket anyway.

You're not going to blend in, but at least you won't shout "Tourist!".
posted by bonehead at 8:15 AM on March 21, 2007

Wear nice shoes. The most expensive you can afford. Nothing even vaguely athletic.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 8:15 AM on March 21, 2007

Response by poster: "Avoid sneakers, tennis shoes and their ilk."

We will be walking nearly all day. Several miles probably. Just how out of place will sneakers be?
posted by Tiddles at 8:18 AM on March 21, 2007

What, you think they don't have geeks across the pond? That RegEx tshirt looks kind of dorky here in the states - sort of the point of wearing it, right (I say this in the nicest way possible - my wardrobe is full of such things)?

And to avoid appearing out of place, maybe try not refer to London as "Europe", because it isn't.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 8:19 AM on March 21, 2007

When I lived in London the number one giveaway of a person's tourist status was the habit of just stopping suddenly to look at... whatever... and regardless of the throng behind trying to get past. Sidewalks in London are busy and most people on them are going somewhere. Step to one side before stopping and thousands of Londoners will be grateful.
posted by normy at 8:21 AM on March 21, 2007

No sneakers ("trainers"); add a waxed cotton jacket if you want other tourists to ask you for directions -- worked for me. They about fell over when they heard my Yank accent.
posted by theredpen at 8:26 AM on March 21, 2007

Best answer: No sneakers or tennis shoes.
No sports team memorabilia.
No baseball hats.
No sandals.
No shorts.
No bright colors.
No T-shirts.
Buy an A to Z(ed) London Map ASAP
No Fanny Packs or Camo/brightly colored backpacks either.
Don't talk so damn loud everywhere you go, especially on the Tube.
Admire objects of interest, don't gawk.
Make sure you know a bit about London's and British history.
Figure out the Tube Map before you go instead of gawking at Tube Stops.
Act like you are a guest, not an Imperial American.
posted by MasonDixon at 8:29 AM on March 21, 2007

For shoe ideas, check out the Keens on REI's website. The Bronx/Briggs are just amazing.
posted by malaprohibita at 8:30 AM on March 21, 2007

Whether you are overthinking this or not, I totally understand what you are saying. In my trips to NZ and UK I was absolutely obsessed with not looking like an American, at least the obnoxious type. I wore neutral tones, I tried not to gawk at things and get in the way of pedestrians (this is just good advice anywhere), and wore the right shoes.

Beyond the behavioral baggage that we Americans carry like a billboard, I don't think anything identifies an american more than footwear. With very little error I can identify a Euro tourist in a U.S. crowd by footwear alone. It's dead easy.

Since you have a regEx shirt, I nerdily suggest the following
my $suggestion = "good walking shoes that don't look like crap. I'd suggest a shoe like Keen, Asolo, or Born";
$shoes =~ s/[tennis|athletic|velcro|white]*\s*[shoes|sneakers]/$suggestion/;
posted by mcstayinskool at 8:33 AM on March 21, 2007

We will be walking nearly all day. Several miles probably. Just how out of place will sneakers be?

Invest in something like this:
Rockport World Tour Walkers
Touring Shoes
posted by anastasiav at 8:33 AM on March 21, 2007

Dang, malaprohibita, you beat me to the Keen suggestion. I have a pair of Bronx myself.
posted by mcstayinskool at 8:35 AM on March 21, 2007

I have a pair of Bronx myself.

Best shoe ever!
posted by malaprohibita at 8:38 AM on March 21, 2007

Seconding xammerboy and malaprohibita. What many Americans (of all ages) would just consider casual clothes are worn just by teenagers in UK/Europe.

If nothing else, ditch the sneakers. Bring your nicer jeans and some non-jeans pants. No baseball caps. If you're otherwise dressed non-schlubby, your t-shirts are fine.

Also, don't get in the way of commuters. Every time I travel, there's always some tourist who stops cold in the middle of the tube/metro stairs in the thick of rush hour, then protests when he gets snarled at.

On preview: Keen, Clarks, any kind of comfy walking shoe or low boot will do you just fine.
posted by desuetude at 8:38 AM on March 21, 2007

Honestly, obnoxious Europeans are way more of a pain in London than Americans. Just be polite and don't wear a Bush/Cheney t-shirt and you'll be fine.
posted by meerkatty at 8:39 AM on March 21, 2007

1. London is an incredible city. Charming?

2. I think the question concerned what to wear, not how to behave (e.g., pretend you are not what you are, a tourist). But I'm sure the suggestions are welcome.

3. My tuppence: you will probably reveal yourself no matter what you wear or how you attempt to behave. This may be depressing, but I think it also suggests that you shouldn't go out of your way to wear uncomfortable shoes or otherwise spend a lot of money on camouflage -- it will eat into your supposed haggling savings from pretending to be something you're not.

3. Just be a good guest (and as someone said, avoid being an Imperial American, while also avoiding the other American tendency to act like an inferior colonial).

4. The main remaining objective will be to dress in such a way that will convince your spouse that you are not to be blamed for any ill fortune that befalls you.

5. Avoid wearing a "Pure Gold" t-shirt.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:41 AM on March 21, 2007

Don't worry about it. London is full of people dressed in all sorts of ways, including very many dressed like American tourists although they are not. Nobody in London cares what you're wearing or what you're doing (so long as, as others have said, you're not in their way).
posted by Phanx at 8:41 AM on March 21, 2007

Sorry, one other thing: if you want comfort, but not to look American, consider a track suit. To me, these look much more European than American when worn out and about, but others may differ.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:42 AM on March 21, 2007

Nothing even vaguely athletic.
I don't think this is true anymore, although it certainly was 15 years ago. Maybe it's an age thing: I look young, and I didn't feel at all out of place in trendy athletic shoes when I was in London last summer.

So here's my take on this. When I first started traveling outside the U.S., I completely freaked out about fitting in. I had heard that Americans were thought to be loud, so I spoke in an inaudible whisper. I worked so hard at not wearing "American" clothes that I completely lost my personal style. I was so afraid of offending people that I said only totally bland and boring things. Halfway through my junior year abroad, I realized that nobody in my classes knew that I was American, but very few people in my classes knew that I existed. I was so focussed on being inoffensive that I had completely obliterated my personality. So I stopped doing that, because being boring isn't preferable to being American.

You are who you are. It's nothing to be ashamed of. I spent a month in Dublin last summer, and I definitely didn't blend in. For instance, young Dublin women pretty much all seem to iron their hair stick straight, and my long, wavy hair made me stick out as a foreigner. And that's ok. I am who I am. I could have gone out and bought a flat-iron, but why bother? I don't have to blend in. It's ok not to look like everyone else.

I think that, rather than focusing on blending in, you should focus on not being rude. Talking loudly is rude because it annoys people. Stopping in the middle of the sidewalk is rude because it inconveniences people. Dressing in a way that is starkly inappropriate for the setting is rude, so don't wear shorts in a culture that values modesty or jeans to a fancy restaurant. But don't feel like you have to throw out your entire wardrobe in order to fit in. London is a super diverse city. People there are ok with the existence of folks who don't dress like them. It's ok to wear comfortable shoes.
posted by craichead at 8:43 AM on March 21, 2007 [6 favorites]

With American dressing, what you should also avoid are there two:

1. Wearing a t-shirt, and a shirt on top of that and leaving the shirt unbuttoned

2. Jeans that are too big for you. These are not worn by adults in Europe. Wear good fitting jeans. And don't wear those pale sky blue jeans.
posted by markovich at 8:46 AM on March 21, 2007

The answer to this question totally depends on how old you are. However the recent Vice Global Report has some good advice about what boys are wearing in London this season:

The new-rave day-glo thing that the Klaxons invented is kind of dying out because everybody else in the world is copying it. Instead, guys have started to wear dark browns and blacks and grays but they’re gaying it up with daring things like shorts and pink socks and scarves. Cardigans, both vintage 50s-style and big, knitted-by-your-mom-style, are really in. So are slip-on shoes from Merc and Trickers brogues. People are starting to embrace the Aquascutum label as a kind of thinking thug’s Burberry, while grime kids are all over black Stone Island jackets. Skinny white or black jeans are pretty much essential for everybody and even rap fans here are starting to curb the wideness of their trousers. Guys in bands are wearing these crazily colored shoes with gold trimming that you buy in the African gentlemen’s boutiques. Jamie Reynolds from Klaxons (them again) just ordered a pair with tiny mirrors all over them.

Seriously though, the number one mistake my 35 year old former co-worker from Ohio used to make was wearing light blue jeans, with a pair of actual running shoes (any "just for fashion" sneakers are fine), and some kind of practical rain proof jacket. Don't dress for all eventualities, don't dress in sportswear, and don't wear any kind of t-shirt that you picked up travelling elsewhere. As other people have said adult american men holidaying in London often stick out because they dress like unfashionable UK teens.
posted by roofus at 8:54 AM on March 21, 2007

I am one of those who will disagree with the track suit idea. No one looks good in those things, not even athletes.
posted by malaprohibita at 8:56 AM on March 21, 2007

tennis shoes or "trainers" are ok for the day, but the person who said "Nothing even vaguely athletic" is on to something. when i was in northern england around new years, every semi-respectable night spot had signs saying "no trainers, no football tops, no hoodies, no tracky bottoms." basically, don't dress like a chav. i was good most places, though some trashy nightclub in bolton rejected me because my shoes were too trainer-like.
posted by kendrak at 8:59 AM on March 21, 2007

How to dress like a European.
posted by ericb at 9:10 AM on March 21, 2007

Actually, sandals with socks would even more likely mean that you're German or Austrian, wouldn't it?

I tend to agree on the "nothing athletic" thing, it would be good if you didn't look like you were on your way to the gym, a baseball game, or a fraternity party. If you don't wear white tennis shoes, a baseball cap, or American sports shirts... people might not even believe you're FROM America. (Sometimes Brits will wear soccer themed attire, but that's not something an American would do either.)
posted by miss lynnster at 9:10 AM on March 21, 2007

Ok, paranoid Americans visiting Europe, go and listen to this now, have a laugh at yourself, at the ugly Americans, at the non ugly Americans, at the snotty Europeans, at the non snotty Europeans, then please go and wear whatever the hell you like, especially if you're going to London! It's London, you'll see all kinds of crazily dressed people! You really have nothing to be ashamed of, even if you were going to London with an hawaiian t-shirt, baseball cap and kakhi shorts in the middle of winter, no one would care! I promise. If anyone cared, London would stop and point and laugh at itself all day.

As long as you're not wearing faded gray skinny jeans that don't look good on anyone and have crazy asymmetrical haircuts that ditto, in which case please stay home. We have enough of those thanks.

There you go, glad to be of help. Enjoy your holidays!
posted by pleeker at 9:15 AM on March 21, 2007

...don't wear a Bush/Cheney t-shirt and you'll be fine.

But, this one is okay.
posted by ericb at 9:15 AM on March 21, 2007

Be normal, except:

1. Don't talk so damn loud (especially if you're going to say things like "OH THIS PLACE IS SO CHARMING - SO QUAINT").
2. No bum-bags, ever - there are no excuses.
3. Can the Hawaiian shirt and camera-around-neck too.

That's all you need to know.
posted by reklaw at 9:16 AM on March 21, 2007

If you don't wear white tennis shoes, a baseball cap, or American sports shirts...

Eh, there are all kinds of people living in London, and all over Europe, wearing those very things and none of them are American. Come on.

Ok maybe you can spare the baseball cap, but tennis shoes, sneakers, trainers, they're universal, not American...

What kendrak said about anti-chav door policy to get into clubs is another matter, of course.
posted by pleeker at 9:24 AM on March 21, 2007

We will be walking nearly all day. Several miles probably. Just how out of place will sneakers be?

Unless you're actually out running, wearing running shoes and t-shirts around town makes you look a bit like a child or a scruff. You can get good, comfortable shoes that you can walk several miles in. I recently walked all over Warsaw in a pair of Eccos. Try any of several Ask Me threads about shoes.

But it's not just the shoes. Try dressing up a little. People expect Americans to be a bit vulgar. Prove them wrong. Dress as if you could put on a tie without looking weird. (And bring an actual tie or two just in case.) Better to be a little overdressed than a little underdressed. No one will turn you away from a club or restaurant for being too well dressed, and you can still go and be the best-dressed customer at McDonald's if that's what you prefer.

And remember: as soon as people hear you speak, all of your camouflage will be for nought and people will think of you what they always think about all American tourists. Restrict the number of people who can hear you. If you are talking to one person, try to adjust your volume so only that person can hear you. If it's you two sitting at a table having lunch, don't let everyone else in the place hear about why you have weeping sores on your feet because some idiot on Ask Metafilter convinced you to wear shiny shoes instead of sneakers.
posted by pracowity at 9:26 AM on March 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

be yourself.

If there is a problem, it's theirs, not yours.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:26 AM on March 21, 2007

What are you, a spy? Wear what you feel comfortable in because you will be identifiable as a tourist in many ways other than and more obvious than your clothes (your camera equipment, where you go, how you talk, etc.). I walked around London for two days wearing a Boston Red Sox sweatshirt and got nothing but delightful treatment from every single Londoner I met (plus I got knowing nods and waves from fellow expatriates of Red Sox Nation).

And on preview, as pleeker says, who cares? My favorite thing about London were the crew of punkers in studded leather jackets with three-foot mohawks hanging out across the street from Big Ben, carrying sheets of cardboard that they would cover their faces/hairdos with when a tourist tried to take their picture.

Your wife just wants you to dress better in general and is taking advantage of this opportunity.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:27 AM on March 21, 2007

from roofus's quote - 'Skinny white or black jeans are pretty much essential for everybody' - oh noes it's never gonna end
posted by pleeker at 9:28 AM on March 21, 2007

This shirt will probably inspire some conversation, though...
posted by miss lynnster at 9:31 AM on March 21, 2007

Your wife just wants you to dress better in general and is taking advantage of this opportunity.

Bingo. Clever wife, though. There's worse things than exploiting intercultural stereotypes for a possibly good cause.
posted by pleeker at 9:32 AM on March 21, 2007

Its all the the headwear, Tiddles. A young foreign gentleman who wishes to fit in with proper London society should immediately make his way to Locks of St James where he may purchase a bowler hat for everyday wear, a boater for Henley, a deerstalker for weekends in the country and one of these for his driver.

[seriously it's a great shop]
posted by rongorongo at 9:34 AM on March 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

Having lived in Brighton for a while, let me just offer two words of advice: dress socks. You can wear tennis shoes, but don't wear the white crew socks with them. Most Europeans I've seen never wear white athletic socks unless they are actually exercising.
Also, you can just look at what people are wearing on Flickr. Apparently jeans aren't verboten. You'll be safe with slacks and dark colored tops, especially oxfords or polos. I would suggest a nicer sweater or cardigan. They can dress up any outfit, they cover up t-shirts (geeky or otherwise) and they don't wrinkle when packed.
Have fun.
posted by HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal at 9:34 AM on March 21, 2007

People tend to overstate how well people dress in cities. Maybe the natives are sharp, but half of London is probably visiting for the day, and the average middle-aged UK person is about as fashionable as your average American.
posted by smackfu at 9:36 AM on March 21, 2007

Here's my biggest advice, only because I was incredibly embarrassed by a fellow American when I was traveling in Norway:

Do not assume that "American Money" is okay! I was at a museum and this guy walks in, in a vaguely CAMO jacket and is SHOCKED, ABSOLUTELY SHOCKED, that they won't take his US dollars!
posted by gregvr at 9:44 AM on March 21, 2007

Most Europeans I've seen never wear white athletic socks unless they are actually exercising.
I had a whole conversation with a guy in Dublin this summer who said that the two giveaways about Americans were white socks and shiny faces. I have no idea about the shiny face thing, but from what I understand the white socks stem from our different sock-matching philosophies. Americans tend to match our socks to our shoes, while other people match their socks to their trousers. ("Pants" means something else in British English!) So unless they're wearing white trousers, they will probably not wear white socks, even with athletic shoes.

I cannot vouch for this theory, but it makes sense to me.
posted by craichead at 10:05 AM on March 21, 2007

My British coworker claims he has never seen people in England wearing jeans with dress shirts (I guess that would be called "creative casual" here in the states?).

What!? That's almost the exclusive dress code of the more cosmopolitan parts of London, Manchester, and Leeds.

My advice on this question is not to wear hooded sweatshirts. They're almost never worn here. I bought some in the US and wear them here and it makes me stick out. Also.. wearing anything with US sports teams or universities on is an obvious thing to avoid.
posted by wackybrit at 10:11 AM on March 21, 2007

As an American who lived in London, I found myself perpetually underdressed, but I didn't care too much.

If you're dying to wear sneakers for walking around, go for more fashion-forward ones.

If you wear jeans, again, go for fashion-forward, i.e. darker.

Funny t-shirts are a bit rarer there, but I rocked them all the time. Maybe go with a plain color?

If you like cheeses, try Bourough Market. My e-mail is in the profile, but my former housemate works at a fancy French cheese shop there.
posted by k8t at 10:13 AM on March 21, 2007

Red Maple Leaf Tshirt.
posted by seanyboy at 10:14 AM on March 21, 2007

Response by poster: "If there is a problem, it's theirs, not yours."

I suspect this sentiment is a huge part of the reason folks around the world think Americans are vulgar and obnoxious. Luckily I'm mature enough to recognize when I'm a guest, and also see the value in being a respectful one. When I'm trundling around the US I'm quite comfortable being vulgar now and then. But acting that way in a place I need a passport for seems like a mistake.

Thanks for the advice. I'm not going to try and hide my nationality or anything. I just don't want to stick out and cause offense.

So dark jeans or slacks, unadorned polo shirts, non-sneaker walking shoes, don't stop in traffic.
posted by Tiddles at 10:17 AM on March 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

The topic's been pretty well covered, but I'll offer this. I go to London once every year (I'm an American) and trust me on this: there will be plenty of ugly Americans over there that will divert 99% of the disdain that would be directed at you if you exercise even a modicum of respect toward their country and culture.

Don't walk around with your mouth open and don't bring a fanny pack. One other thing I didn't see mentioned: you will get lost and/or lose your bearings at least once. Don't freak out about it and for God's sake don't open your map and stare at it in the middle of the sidewalk. Duck into a pub or coffee shop, buy something, and leisurely figure out where you're going. You'll be fine. Have fun!

PS - if you're looking to add to your nerdy T shirt collection, you might want to check out Camden Market. They had a ton of Star Wars and movie-themed T shirts last time I was there. Regardless, it's a great place to people watch and shop.
posted by Atom12 at 10:25 AM on March 21, 2007

A great big Maple Leaf.

Ever since anti-Americanism became the fashionable face of racism in the UK I've noticed an unbelievable rise in the number of visiting "Canadians".
posted by alby at 10:37 AM on March 21, 2007

Thanks for the advice. I'm not going to try and hide my nationality or anything. I just don't want to stick out and cause offense.

In London, you totally won't cause offense. If you want proof, hang around Camden Town on a weekend.

London is really, really weird compared to the rest of the UK. I'm from there originally, but now whenever I go my mouth is agape with the sort of clothes people get away with there. Nothing you could consider normal will anywhere approach the level of clothing insanity reached by half of Londoners.
posted by wackybrit at 10:37 AM on March 21, 2007

Actually, sandals with socks would even more likely mean that you're German or Austrian, wouldn't it?

Among my crowd here in San Francisco, the term for this look is "German Tourist".
posted by trip and a half at 10:39 AM on March 21, 2007

As others have said, it's hard to stand out in London so I say wear what you like when you're on vacation. That said, if you really want to avoid the American tourist look, don't wear really light blue jeans with white sneakers and a tucked in t-shirt or dress shirt. Like Jerry Seinfeld. Don't do that.
posted by gfrobe at 10:42 AM on March 21, 2007

Apart from the horror of white athletic socks, really don't worry. In London, you'll find about 15,000 forms of everyday dress.

But if you take a day trip to Oxford or Cambridge and buy the American-style 'campus athletic' clothing hawked at the tourist shops, your wife has my permission to beat you with a cricket bat.
posted by holgate at 11:12 AM on March 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Jeans suck for travel anyway. They're heavy, and you can't wash them out in the sink. Do not, however, take this as an invitation to substitute those horrible trekking pants that zip off into shorts.
posted by matildaben at 12:01 PM on March 21, 2007

errr...OK, I am an American in London and there really is a clothing difference. I dress pretty shlubby which means I look like I am about to head to the Northwoods with sport sandals, khakis and a long sleeve shirt paired with a layering of fleece and rain shell (dependent on weather). I know I look gawky and scream non-local but hey, it is me.

The main difference between Americans and Londoners is that the Londoners are more composed and put together, even if you see a chav or trackie bedecked wanton I assure you that they will be coordinated down to their over-exposed thong and neat too. Also, scarves, winter time and fall season people wear scarves much more than the US.

Do what everyone else has suggested and that is not block people's paths, speak with your "inside" voice, don't be obnoxious and don't feel bad about being a foreignor -- I assure you that London's multi-cultural mix has more than a few Americans especially around Chelsea.
posted by jadepearl at 12:04 PM on March 21, 2007

don't be the shithead that gets caught in the rain w/o his umbrella
posted by Salvatorparadise at 12:08 PM on March 21, 2007

I agree with the Keens. Wholeheartedly. Get a subtle messenger bag in place of a backpack. Have a map, but don't wield it like a Spartan shield. Know where you're going. Umbrella not slicker or poncho. Get an easily accessible card wallet, like a magic wallet so you can whip out your tube pass. Solid colors are your friend, but Boston Red Sox hats are not. A foreign newspaper and a composed look will go a long way.
posted by santojulieta at 1:29 PM on March 21, 2007

Dress dark.
posted by brautigan at 2:06 PM on March 21, 2007

Don't do the stupid maple leaf thing. Lordy, that advice always pisses me off. Even more important than footwear is this advice: when you are traveling, try to represent America WELL & use behavior that gives us a good name. Don't do/say those things that make people around the globe think Americans are rude, arrogant, ignorant jerks. It's amazing how much of a difference one person can make in the opinions of others by simply representing America well & setting a good example.

Don't pretend you're not American! Be proud of your heritage; just don't act like a retarded asshole. Tennis shoes be damned, they matter the least really.
posted by miss lynnster at 2:21 PM on March 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Don't do the stupid maple leaf thing.

This is such excellent advice that I have to repeat it.
If considerate Americans like yourself don't take the trouble to break the Ugly Tourist mold, then who will?
posted by bonehead at 2:41 PM on March 21, 2007

On the whole map thing: it's expensive, but if you can swing it, a GPS-enabled phone with a data connection to Google Maps is SO worth it.
posted by bonehead at 2:43 PM on March 21, 2007

My partner and I, just back from years abroad in the UK, now play 'Spot the Brit' here much the same way we played 'Spot the American' in England. So much of what I'm about to list is still very current.

Major differences:
*North Americans wear lots of sporting gear as normal clothing. This includes athletic shoes meant for running or cross-training. Europeans do much less of this (team insignia gear notwithstanding).

*Caps are fine, but get a British one. They're cut differently and fit the head differently.

*Dark jeans, rather than light jeans.

*Never wear white socks.

*Don't wear a white t-shirt underneath a dress shirt. If you must, then don't leave it unbuttoned at all--wear a tie.

(And contrary to what another poster's friend said, there are lots of Brits who wear jeans and dress shirts together, but it's all in the cut and the level of skin exposure. If you don't believe me, watch the most recent season of Ladette to Lady, fourth episode.)

You'll actually do quite well if you shop at Zara or H&M in the US and then wear what you've bought in the UK.
posted by yellowcandy at 2:50 PM on March 21, 2007

[I'm a New Zealander who used to live and work in central London.]

I'm mostly just echoing here, but [IMHO]:

*clothes are less important than behaviour

*dress how you like, as long as you're not being totally offensive to local customs - in central London, most of the people around you will be tourists. So they'll all be dressed differently. The locals don't care how you look or anything else, they just want to get to and from work, the pub, etc, without hassle. So:

* Don't get in peoples' way
- stand on the side on the tube (subway) escalators (this is a BIG thing - stand in the middle, someone will push you out of the way as they walk down the escalator)
- don't stop in the middle of a busy footpath to read your map (also, walk briskly, or at least walk on the side of the path so people can pass you)
- don't carry a great big pack, especially on the tube at rush-hour (but if you have to, you have to - we've all done it at some point.....just get it into a corner out of peoples way).

* Know something about where you are. Learn the names of the major tourist sites you are looking for (I had a woman ask me where "Buckminster" Palace was. Something like asking directions to the "Black House". When you're in NYC).

* Try to get the pronounciation right. English names are often pronounced quite unlike the way they are written. Most obviously: Leicester Square is pronounced Less-ter, not Lie-cess-ter. A little bit of research will mark you out as a thoughtful and considerate visitor.

*Expect people to ignore you. My default setting if someone speaks to me on a London street is that they are either crazy or a beggar. If you're asking for directions, you may need to speak fast or you'll find them walking away ;)

* Echoing the "don't try to use American money" comment.

* Don't do the Maple Leaf thing. Represent your country with pride and be a positive example. There are plenty of good American tourists; equally, most locals may stereotype you and be initially hostile, but they'll hopefully come around when they've interacted with you.
posted by Infinite Jest at 3:11 PM on March 21, 2007

Do not assume that "American Money" is okay! I was at a museum and this guy walks in, in a vaguely CAMO jacket and is SHOCKED, ABSOLUTELY SHOCKED, that they won't take his US dollars!

I hope that's a joke! but if it isn't, I would assume this is on such a level of obvious that otherwise I'd have to assume the asker is a complete idiot and should not even be allowed to travel.

I'd also taken for granted suggestions like act respectful, don't get in poeple's way, don't talk too loud, don't be obnoxious, etc. because that's what I suppose someone concerned enough to ask this question would do anyway, home or abroad. Although it's always good to get reminders when you're abroad because like it or not, fair or not, no matter what nationality you are, you are indeed perceived as 'representing' your country and generalisations get made even from a sample of 2 when the impression is strong enough. This does not happen only to Americans, not by a long stretch, it's certainly not 'racism', it's just a fact of life in a globalised interconnected world like Friedman would say.

Nothing to add except strongly second what Infinite Jest says about clothes being far less important than behaviour. Also second H&M if you want to do some shopping, but that's regardless of the camouflage intent. And no please no Maple Leaf, it's a myth anyway.
posted by pleeker at 3:47 PM on March 21, 2007

You are not overthinking this.

My husband is British and I lived in London for 10 years before we moved to Ireland. It is indeed often easy to spot Americans, and even easier to hear them!

MasonDixon has the "what not to wear" part nailed. I would add that plaid is not worn outside of Scotland, and there, only on kilts :)

In terms of what to wear, just as a point of reference, my husband wears black Docs, black socks, black or dark blue Levis or tan chinos, a black or white button down (untucked), and a black or heather wool jumper basically all the time. OK, so not the snazziest attire ever, but not objectionable, either.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:58 PM on March 21, 2007

You are not overthinking this.

My husband is British and I lived in London for 10 years before we moved to Ireland. It is indeed often easy to spot Americans, and even easier to hear them!

Because, God forbid, you might be mistaken for what you are. And you should simulate for purposes of your trip someone whose unobjectionable attire is custom-built for the environment. Even though your accent would give you away in a minute.

I don't really mean to criticize the poster, who is being helpful. But this goes a bit beyond not wanting to have your camera stolen or cause offense.

Out of curiosity, would the average Brit tourist to the US buy a wardrobe of crappy T-shirts, trainers, and light colored (sorry, coloured) jeans? Perhaps some accommodation would be made, but probably she or he would be reasonably happy to be identified as a Brit and distinguished from the Yanks.

For my money, the key is to not be a target for thieves, dress comfortably without causing complete offense, and avoid behaving like a jackass.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 4:21 PM on March 21, 2007 [4 favorites]

Visiting London for the first time I was struck by:

- general higher level of dress, as people have been saying. More formal looking clothes, tasteful accessories, etc. More composed, as someone upthread said.

- generally darker and more monochrome outfits, at least on the 25+ crowd.

- at that time (5+ yrs ago), much more closely-fitted clothing than is usual in the US. Baggy trousers with pleats, baggy jeans, baggy shirts all stood out as dumpily American.

- especially on trains and in cafes, people really do speak much more quietly. Keep an ear out for this, and try to lower your voice accordingly. I was amazed by how much louder even my normal, pleasant indoor voice was than the typical London train voice.

- how very expensive everything in London was! I was very budget-conscious, and had less fun than I might have. If you can afford it, try to go in expecting that you'll drop a bunch of cash, and then just enjoy the food etc without worrying about every dime.

- how physically large the city is, so how long it took to get from place to place. Plan your daily itineraries with an eye to the scale of the map, or you may find that you're exhausted at the end of the second day. So much good stuff to do and see.

Have fun!
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:38 PM on March 21, 2007

ABSOLUTELY SHOCKED, that they won't take his US dollars!

I hope that's a joke! but if it isn't, I would assume this is on such a level of obvious that otherwise I'd have to assume the asker is a complete idiot and should not even be allowed to travel.

I've witnessed this several times. In fact, in Montreal, I witnessed some guys annoyed that the ATMs only dispense Canadian dollars.
posted by desuetude at 4:46 PM on March 21, 2007

Because, God forbid, you might be mistaken for what you are. And you should simulate for purposes of your trip someone whose unobjectionable attire is custom-built for the environment. Even though your accent would give you away in a minute.

Well, for you the key may be "to not be a target for thieves", but the OP's money is on "I don't want to be immediately seen to be an ugly American." I wasn't suggesting he clone my husband's closet; I was just providing, as stated, a point of reference for native London attire.

FWIW, I'd argue that not looking like a tourist is, in fact, key to not getting mugged, but I'm not going to the mat over it or anything.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:47 PM on March 21, 2007

Oh, and their justification for wanting to use US$ was, and I quote, "But isn't the US dollar, like, better?"
posted by desuetude at 4:47 PM on March 21, 2007

Also, see this thread for comfortable, non-sneaker shoe recommendations.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:48 PM on March 21, 2007

I'd argue with the folks saying "worry about being a nice American rather than an invisible one". I almost always am able to spot the Americans in local attire pretty quickly even when the look is spot-on for whatever locale we're in. There are a bunch of tells that would be difficult to mitigate. Typically these tells are cumulative: hanging out with like-minded camoflagists gives away the group. There is something very "uncanny valley" about such groups that calls more attention than if they were wearing their own clothes and just doing their thing.

The tells? Probably too many to do anything about: hairstyle, body english, facial hair, "new clothes walk", "new shoes walk", skin tone, makeup -- hell, even the way you walk some say.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 4:59 PM on March 21, 2007

The poster isn't trying to pass for British, he's trying to avoid coming off as a complete prat.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:02 PM on March 21, 2007


Sorry, genuinely, for seeming hostile. I tried to make clear that I thought you were being helpful to the OP. I guess the points of disagreement between us are whether (1) he was overthinking it (which is a value judgment on which reasonable minds were differing, and as to which you seemed definitely to be weighing in on the worry-about-conforming-to-local-dress side of things), and (2) whether a true local's clothing could mask a ferrener carrying a camera, looking at maps, staying in a hotel, going to the Tower, talking like a nonBrit, etc.

You wouldn't want to see me in a dashiki, whether or not I was braying and trying to spend USD.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 5:07 PM on March 21, 2007

Darling Clyde -

No worries. We can agree to disagree. I'm sure that the OP can dress himself without us, whatever he decides :)
posted by DarlingBri at 5:28 PM on March 21, 2007

I'd argue with the folks saying "worry about being a nice American rather than an invisible one"

After reading your post, I'm thinking you meant to say that you'd agree with -- or argue on the side of -- the people posting to be a nice American rather than an invisible one. Not that you'd argue with us. Yes?

And strangely enough, when I was in Egypt people actually asked me to pay for things in American dollars. I was shocked, I've never seen that in any other country I've been to & Egypt was the last place I expected dollars to be widely accepted. I was encouraged to tip some people in $5 bills and they were actually happy about it, which really blew my mind.
posted by miss lynnster at 5:47 PM on March 21, 2007

This Londoner used to wear trainers, white socks, shorts and t-shirts regularly and was never mistaken for an American or a tourist, far as I can remember. I don't think people in London generally care what you wear any more than people in the US (within the bounds of decency and outside of a business context or posh restaurant or something). When you're traveling being comfortable and being yourself trumps keeping up appearances.
posted by normy at 6:24 PM on March 21, 2007

Ultimately, there's an over-riding belief that Americans abroad are the enlightened small-percent with passports. Even Rick Steves looks like an American Tourist, but there's no harm there: Londoners are much more kneejerk towards milling Euro school parties than lone Americans.

Dollars are hard currency, and in countries with a soft local currency, they give you access to luxuries and expensive goods, and aren't as subject to inflation.
posted by holgate at 6:29 PM on March 21, 2007

I've only had trouble with clothes in London twice. (I'm an American and have been there a handful of times.)

When I was young and foolish, the staff in
Dirty Dicks Pub
ignored me and my friend. When we finally asked what was going on, we were told "No gentlemen in denims."

I attended a concert at Ronnie Scott's on a really hot day last summer. I had called ahead to make sure there was no dress code. When I showed up in shorts, the bouncer was incredulous, but he let me in.

For what it's worth, I've been surprised how many people in London are under-dressed.
posted by lukemeister at 7:34 PM on March 21, 2007

When you guys talk about sneakers/trainers etc are you just talking about goofy xxxxx-treme basketball shoes with lights and air pockets? All my current kicks are pretty subdued shoes that might have been considered athletic back in the 60s/70s but are really just considered casual in my part of the world.

Would shoes like this or this really be considered inappropriate for everyday use?

As a young adult, I'd feel pretty self-conscious walking around in Clarke's or Keen's. They're nice shoes, very well-made but look really dorky to me. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge dork too. But I'm talking old tight white Dockers, pocket protector, braided leather belt, stained Member's Only jacket dorky. That's not to insult the mefites who wear those shoes, just that kids my age wouldn't got to a bar or club wearing them. I'm sure that in a professional context they're much more appropriate.

What's th age cut off for wearing sneakers and not looking too immature?
posted by Telf at 10:11 PM on March 21, 2007

Would shoes like this or this really be considered inappropriate for everyday use?

Nah. The Samba-Gazelle-OneStar-Camper retro style is generally fine in casual situations, other than clubs or pubs with bouncers and a strict 'oi! no-trainers!' policy; and as a tourist, I'm not sure you'd want to hang out in places like that, especially on weekends. What matters here is basically colour: white trainers and white socks equals 'eew'.
posted by holgate at 1:23 AM on March 22, 2007

Check out this site devoted to London street fashion, and I promise you that you will see many young adults in trainers, including white trainers.

My sense is that young people in London are, on the whole, more invested in fashion than young people in the U.S. Some of them look fabulous and a lot of them look fashion-victimy, but they mostly look like they've put in some effort. So if you're wearing white sneakers because that's your default and you don't care very much, it will probably show. But if you're wearing white sneakers because you're rocking a look that you've put some thought into, you'll probably be ok.
posted by craichead at 6:03 AM on March 22, 2007

Check out this site devoted to London street fashion...

That's not representative of the people you'll actually see on the street, though, is it? It's one guy's photos of a selection of people he wanted to photograph for his London Street Fashion site because he liked their style, people who wanted to stop and pose for such a person. The site doesn't show the thousands and thousands he didn't photograph because they were too average looking or too busy or too old or too young or too fat or too old or too ugly or...
posted by pracowity at 7:00 AM on March 22, 2007

Telf: The shoes you link to are okay. Old-school-style sneakers get a pass. Before you dismiss Keen as pocket-protector dorky, though, note that they're not really in the "function above form" category of Clarks.
posted by desuetude at 7:54 AM on March 22, 2007


Yeah I looked over more of the Keen catalog and felt bad about my original comments. It's not to my taste, but there are some cool designs there. Certainly less gnomey than a lot of the Clark shoes, comfortable as they may be.
posted by Telf at 10:43 AM on March 22, 2007

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