Fashion Revisited

So I guess I offended a few people with that last post.  Sorry I didn’t know that your kulots and crocs were so sacred.  But I also had some people ask the positive advice of what should be worn in Haiti on a short term trip.  So here’s my response.

The number one thing that you need to pack when coming to Haiti is a sense of humor!  You’ve got every right to break any of my previous fashion rules, but if you do, be prepared to respond to any criticism with a light heart.  If some Haitian says, “Why have you been wearing the same pair of baggy shorts all week?”  You look them straight in the face and say, “It’s because I used up all of the space in my suitcases to pack medicines to save the lives of your children!  So get off my back!”  Or if some young Haitian punk asks you why you’re wearing such ugly work boots that should only be used in situations of 2-foot deep mud, don’t hesitate to tell him “These boots are so I can kick the crap out of you whenever you get mouthy!  Now shut up and help me build this house for your mama!” 

The truth is that you may never even hear the criticisms from the Haitians if you don’t speak their language or have built enough trust with them for them to be completely honest with you, but believe me, they’re thinking it.  And when they do verbalize their disapproval of your appearance, they can be ruthless.  I have heard such harsh comments from Haitians directed towards foreign visitors as, “She’s so ugly she looks like instead of being born, she just popped out when a zombie farted!”  or “Her head looks like a donkey just threw up on her shoulders.”  Or, as one commenter pointed out after my last post, “How come he smells like a big white cockroach? ”  Haitians also tend to exaggerate everything and make their words as dramatic as possible, but this doesn’t mean that their offensive judgements have no basis.  These comments weren’t made about necessarily unattractive people, but people who greatly misjudged the importance of looking decent.  I could show photos of these same people from Facebook to the same Haitians who said such things and they would say that they are beautiful, desirable, wonderful looking folk.  But make one poor fashion choice and you become donkey vomit. 

At the same time, you don’t have to be a supermodel to get a genuine complement from a Haitian either.  You just have to care.  A little self esteem goes a long ways and it shows through it the way you dress and there’s nothing more beautiful to a Haitian than confidence and a friendly smile.  No matter what you decide to wear, as long as you know you look good in it, then chances are that Haitians will think you look good too.  But if you just put on something because it’s comfy, or it can get dirty, or because you don’t want to attract any attention, then you’ve chosen your outfit for the wrong reasons and it will have an impact on your interactions with the Haitians that you intend to serve.

So, what about the t-shirts?  I can’t seriously condemn the use of matching t-shirts 100% can I?  No, I don’t.  I am actually completely in favor of well designed group t-shirts in appropriate situations, but they must come with their own set of rules.  First of all, PLEASE do not wear them in the airports.  Do not come marching into or out of the country wearing them like some sort of army.  With cell phones these days there is absolutely no reason why this would be necessary.  However, your team may decide that you want t-shirts for use when you are giving programs in your home country about your experience or even while you are in Haiti for any sort of larger program that you may be involved in.  But in these cases, please make sure that the t-shirt is well designed, of a subtle color (for heaven’s sake NO TIE-DYE), and don’t include any stupid slogans.  I would suggest that if your team does decide they want matching t-shirts it is best to ask your hosting organization if they have any t-shirts that you could buy from them.  These t-shirts are usually more professionally designed and include the organization’s logo and name.  To be seen in a t-shirt such as this can actually be an automatic source of respect from the Haitians in your community who already recognize the organization and know what they stand for.  Also, please if you are going to have matching t-shirts, buy enough extras for the Haitians who will be working with you from the start, don’t just leave yours behind for them afterwords. 

I know it may seem silly, and superficial, and shallow, to make such a big deal out of fashion when there are so many other very serious issues to worry about in this place.  But the truth is that so much of what we wear as foreigners to Haiti are just outer representations of much deeper misunderstandings that many still hold about this place and its people.  So, what I’m really trying to say with all of my fashion advice is not just to change your outfit, but change your attitude.  In the end that’s what’s really going to make the difference. 

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7 comments

  1. I LOVED your fashionista piece… nothing could’ve been more true. DON’T back off, please. Even the Haitians are saying, “save Haiti by leaving your old t-shirts at home.”

    1. Lee, first of all, you are hilarious. Love your blog. I like the way you use humor to get your point across. I haven’t been to Haiti, but I have been to the DR, and being so close, I think they are similar in a lot of ways. The Dominicans also have a strong sense of fashion. My Dominican son in law always looks sharply dressed. Down there, you see people living in shacks, coming out looking crisp, spotless, dressed stylishly, their hair and that of their children beautifully arranged. We Americans have an international reputation of looking sloppy. In Europe I often have heard derisive comments from Europeans about Americans walking around in public wearing shorts, jeans, baggy Tshirts, caps, crocs, flip flops and the like. Over there, you see young women out walking their baby strollers, dressed to the T’s , in beautiful dresses, even high heels. We just need to be aware that what flies here does not elsewhere. You hear a lot of Americans saying, “When in America, do as we do” …… it applies overseas too.

  2. “Sacred crocs” are going to have me smiling all day.
    We all need a dose of not taking ourselves so seriously.

  3. I’m with Judy in that I didn’t feel like you needed to back off at all, but I definitely enjoyed reading this post as well. 🙂 There is definitely a lot of good information in there and insight into the culture as well! Looking forward to reading more!

  4. Hey Lee…Love your fashion advice. I think everyone tries to do the right thing, but glad you cleared things up. I guess when I go to Mizak I don’t dress any differently than I do at home. I don’t go to Good Will to get clothes but I also don’t go to Dick’s Sporting Goods to look like an American Outfitter. Why change your fashion when you go somewhere such as Haiti? I think it is important to go as you are. It is good for me to give up my favorite outfits for friends in Mizak. I am giving them a piece of who I am and not something I picked up at Good Will or Dick’s. I think if you are a sloppy dresser..go as a sloppy dresser. If you are Miss Fashion Queen…. let yourself shine:) I could be wrong, but that is my attitude. Nice post…good, healthy, and needed.

  5. Fashion in Haiti is a priority. These beautiful people come to our medical clinic dressed in their finest and always neat and clean. One sweet gentleman who came to see us was always in his dress pants, crisp white shirt, fashionable black shoes and his Sunday straw hat. Just one example of the dignity they show themselves and those of us visiting their homeland. I feel you should dress as you do in your daily lives, but be yourself and be respectful of the local people’s customes.

  6. Thank you for giving advise on what to do, and how to be appropriate. I also feel strongly that when traveling abroad one should dress to be yourself but be very respectful of local customs. I generally enjoy your posts, and think that you are a true proponent of sustainable activism! That last post was definitely from the Judgy McJugder voice in you. I just had to laugh because a moppy haired dude wearing a ‘do’ rag giving fashion advise is hilarious in any country!

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