Posted by: 4initalia | October 4, 2010

Are You Packing for Europe? How To Blend In Now

Americans are easy to spot in a European crowd because of the way they dress. Paying attention to those differences can help you blend in.

In general, Europeans dress more formally than Americans.  Have you seen Mad Men, or Leave it To Beaver?  Europeans dress like Americans did in the 1950 and 60s. Americans also wear styles from the 1950s – but they dress like Wally and “the Beave.”  Americans, in sneakers, jeans, and baseball caps, dress like the children of the 1950s.

Americans are obvious in a European crowd because the color and cut of their clothing is distinctively American. In general, Europeans wear muted tones and form-fitting clothes in black, gray, and olive, with splashes of bold color, in scarves and shoes.  Here are specific tips for men, women, and kids:

What Do European Men Wear?

While American Baby Boomers favor loose cotton pants, especially khaki-colored Dockers, European men wear well-cut  rayon or wool pants in dark colors. In summer, European men wear cotton pants, but they’re slim cut and in muted tones. One odd exception: Italian men wear bright-brick-red pants; don’t try that at home. American men of all ages prefer boxy cotton shirts in plaids or bright colors, or baggy t-shirts, while older Europeans choose fitted polos in darker shades that would look right in a country club dining room.   European shirts are cut close to the body. European men also wear shades of pink and salmon, and look fabulous in lightweight scarves in colors like pumpkin and gray. Younger men flaunt their flat abs and narrow waists in tight-fitting polos or dress shirts and scarves, and look great in skinny jeans.

The term “European Cut” is, ahem, fitting:  based on size alone, it’s easy to pick Americans out of a crowd. But well-cut clothes in darker colors are slimming and help Americans to “fit” in.

There are also definite differences in the way European men wear shorts and shoes. When vacationing in Europe, American men dress like they’re going to a baseball game.  Europeans may dress more formally because they’re on their way to work, not play. But even on vacation, European dress to impress. When it’s really hot, European men wear shorts, but those tend to have slim-cut pockets. When they wear cargo shorts, the pockets do not bulge.  Why not? Bulging pockets are a pickpocket’s dream.

What about shoes? Europeans wear athletic shoes, but the style of the shoe is different. Americans wear tennis shoes, running shoes, or sneakers, that have thick white soles, uppers that are bright white with lots of contrasting trim, and thick white shoelaces.  European athletic shoes tend to be black or in muted shades of leather, with dark laces. The sole of the shoe is thin, and the shoe itself is tapered, not clunky; European athletic shoes look more like regular shoes than sneakers. The exception is athletic shoes in neon shades.  Bright white American sneakers do stand out, and you can be recognized as an American for wearing them.

To blend in, American men should wear fitted pants and real shoes.  Don’t wear Dockers – they are distinctly American.  Don’t use a fanny pack or stuff your cargo pockets, get a man-bag in leather or a dark color, which will also foil pickpockets. Don’t pack a baseball cap, either – that’s totally American, and let’s leave that to the Beave.

What Do European Women Wear?

To dress with Euro style, think dresses in muted shades in body-hugging fabric. Boxy cotton in pastel or bright shades, and prints that would look appropriate on the wall of a nursery will mark you as an American tourist.

Women blend best in muted colors, in rayon or polyester. Black works everywhere in Europe, and travels well. In Italy, the most popular colors are black and shades of plum, olive, brown, tan and taupe.  Deep reds also work well, as do sophisticated prints in deeper shades. In the summer, there is a lot of coral, turquoise, and bright white cotton, but white is hard to maintain while traveling. So if you bring whites, a bright cotton scarf will help keep your look fresh and your shirt clean. Always err on the side of simplicity, elegance and understatement. While jeans and jean jackets are fine during the day, dresses work well any time and everywhere.  Skirts are dressier than shorts, and both look great with flats. If you wear shorts, they should be long (to the knee or lower) and not baggy.

In the fall, a dark trench coat travels beautifully; for the winter, a well-cut black wool coat is chic and stylish. If you’re wearing sweaters, go for solid colors in darker shades, no plaids or prints. A black sweater you can dress up with a scarf is a great choice. Black pants with a touch of Lycra hide stains, city grime, and excess baggage.

In any season, lose the bright-white, thickly padded sneakers! By all means wear comfortable shoes: for city strolls and treks over hard marble floors and uneven cobblestones, you’ll need them. Leather sandals or ballerina flats are classic and comfortable; Italian women also wear leather and suede boots even in the summer. This summer, the sandals are bejeweled, and the heels are sky-high. It’s impressive to see women striding over cobblestones and riding bikes, in stilettos. Only try that if you have great insurance.

A foot-saving tip: If your shoes hurt, check pharmacies or supermarkets for “Compeed.” Unlike plastic bandages that look unsightly and fall off after a shower, these are clear silicone pads that attach directly to the foot and provide a comfortable and lasting cushion. They come in a bright blue package in several shapes and sizes – some wrap around the toe, some around the heel, or cover the ball of the foot.  Look at the photo on the label to decide which type you need, and buy several packages to bring home – they cost around 7 euros, and are the absolutely best way to pamper your feet while you indulge the rest of your senses.

Always avoid flashy jewelry – that only gets you attention from people who want to steal it. Souvenir bags and cameras mark you as a tourist, so carry a big black shoulder bag for your camera and purchases.  And pick up scarves in silk or cotton – they’ll keep you warm, dress up and outfit, and help you blend in.

What Do European Kids Wear?

European kids look like kids everywhere: they wear jeans, t-shirts, and shorts. European teens tend to wear clingy shirts, hoodies, and skinny jeans. Kids wear Converse sneakers in bright colors.

Oh Darn, You May Need to Go Shopping

Americans may be able to pull off a European look by scrounging in their own closets, but you may have to go shopping. Where?  You don’t have to spend a lot to fit in. Before my last trip to Europe, I went to a discount chain.  They had racks of dresses, in black and white and jewel tone prints that were straight from the pages of  ’60s fashion magazines. Perfetto. (If you’d like to know how to shop in street markets, see “Retail Euphoria: How to Shop Italian Street Markets for Fun and Exhilaration” on this site.) 

Keep in mind that many hotels do not provide irons. In summer heat and humidity, cotton separates, even in black, wrinkle easily, absorb perspiration, and dry slowly after washing. After one wearing a cotton outfit is either dead weight in your luggage, requires pricey hotel laundering, or you’ll waste hours in a lavanderia.

But even after 16-hour days scrabbling onto planes and trains, climbing towers, and blasted by the heat of dusty streets, my polyester print dresses were cool and comfortable, and I never got that look. If I washed my dress in the hotel sink at night,  in the morning I was ready for another day of feeling as crisp and cool as Audrey Hepburn.

Of course, you’ll want to shop in Europe. Stores are tantalizing, and street markets in Europe are loaded with fashion finds at great prices. If you go to the street market, be sure to bring a size conversion chart, because you usually can’t try things on. For more advice on how to shop Italian street markets, see:

If fashion is your passion and you would like the expert advice of a fabulous fashionista, Melanie Payge of PlanMilan can show you the best of Milan fashion – and help you   find what looks best on you. For a fun expedition for yourself and your friends, schedule a makeover with Melanie;

Are you ready for Europe? In any culture, it’s good to look less like a tourist and more like part of the crowd. Especially when that crowd looks so fabulous.

Want to know more about how to get the most out of your European adventure? See “13 Lessons From Travelling in Europe”:


For cooking in Italy, see “Reality Bites”:

For a walking tour of a town considered one of Italy’s best-kept secrets, see “Italy is God’s Attic:”

A funny story about Venice:

How about getting rescued by Italian fire fighters? See “Rescue Me.”

If you love Italy and love reading funny stories about living there – keep reading. And please, leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you!


  1. Are You Packing for Europe While the U.S. Is Under A Travel Alert? Here?s How To Blend In…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

    • Thanks! There’s a lot of funny stuff about living in Europe on the blog. Go check out “Fabio On The Balcony.” : )

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    • Ciao! I’m so glad you like the blog! Where in Italy are you from?

  3. Ah! You covered the red pants that the Italian men wear, but you forgot the Orange and Purple! I have come to the conclusion that Italian men are just more comfortable with themselves – more self-assured with their masculinity vs. color choices. I too found that you could spot an American at 100 paces (or more)…the clothing, the ball caps, and… the walk. We stride, Italians stroll.

  4. Hi Caterina – I lived in Modena, which was pretty conservative. I saw a lot of purple shirts, but no purple pants on men. And no orange – just brick red, which really stood out to me.

    I thought Italian men were all about style – I watched a man in the airport put on an elegant scarf, with a precision usually seen in nuerosurgery. In Milan, clusters of businessmen, hair iced gray, stopped to chat in exquisitely tailored suits. They were in their sixties, maybe even seventy, and they looked fit and fabulous. Sigh…..

    I think it’s funny that Italians dress like American adults did in the 1950s and early 60s – and Americans dress like American kids dressed in the ’50s and early ’60s….Hmmmmn.

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