How to Dress in Turkey – Why Context matters
I want to share a quick story before sharing my suggestions for how to dress for travel in Turkey.
On June 17, my wife, kids and I relocated to the summer beach town of Arsuz. On that day the high temperature in Adana and Arsuz was around 32⁰C/88⁰F. I took the day off of work, and on our way out of town, we stopped off at McDonalds. My wife, Rana was wearing shorts and a modest tank-top, ready for Arsuz. We ate our lunch outside at McDonalds while the kids played on the play area. It was HOT and the play area was packed.
Rana observed that of all the families with kids eating at Mcdonalds watching their kids play, Rana was the ONLY woman wearing shorts. In fact, she felt like people were staring at her to the point that she felt uncomfortable.
When we arrived at Arsuz 2 hours later, we were greeted by the same temperatures, but a totally different social climate. Everyone wearing shorts, from the elderly to the laborer. Streets filled with men in T-shirts and shorts, ladies of all ages in tank tops, many less modest than the one Rana was wearing. Rana fit in perfectly.
What changed? We were only 100 KM away, the temperatures were the same, and we were still in Turkey. The big difference was that we were in a vacation town. We’d just come from a city center on a week day.
Let’s come back to the idea of going unnoticed when traveling in Turkey. What can we learn about this? One might jump to this conclusion after the trip to McDonalds: “Women shouldn’t wear shorts or tank tops in Turkey”, I’ve even seen travel advice for Turkey that states exactly that, but that’s really not true. The important thing is the context. Rana was wearing an outfit that was appropriate for the weekend or a vacation town, but it was a weekday and we were in the heart of Adana. It didn’t fit the flow of what was going on, and she stuck out. As a foreigner who wants to blend in, the lesson here is that you can’t have hard fast rules in your mind like “Turks don’t wear shorts” or “Turks dress more formally” or “Turks dress more modestly than Americans”. Those stereotypes don’t hold much water. The key is to observe what others around you are doing and go with the flow.