At GLA, we get a lot of student and parent questions about what to wear when volunteering abroad:
“What’s appropriate to wear at my service site?”
“Why does it matter what I wear?”
“Just how long do my shorts have to be?” (Answer: this long!)
These are all great questions! Showing up to a community dressed inappropriately, no matter how well-intentioned we are, can have more serious consequences than you might expect. It sends a message of disrespect and unwillingness to assimilate into the culture of our host community.
When we’re in settings with any local leader, health professional, youth, organization or school, or attend an important cultural event, our clothing will be noticed. What we choose to wear reflects upon us, both as individuals and as representatives of our home culture and organization. By not looking professional—dressing for the job we signed up for—we run the serious risk of not being able to work well with our partners, or losing projects that are important to us.
Form, function and fashion!
Tips from Sarah
As a Regional Travel Specialist for GLA, Sarah has prepared hundreds of students and families for their programs each summer. She’s also GLA’s resident fashion guru, so heeding her advice will get you points for dressing appropriately and ensure that your outfit is always on point.
Here are some of Sarah’s suggested items to buy and pack, and tips for dressing for success on your program this summer:
Girls: Lightweight Capris (Prana)
“When considering what pants to wear for service, think about being able to move around easily, stay comfortable in humid climates and last in dirt. These meet all those criteria, plus they also quick-dry and have spandex and a drawstring waistband for adjustability. I’d be happy throwing these on for both service and adventures near the water! Prana also produces their clothing sustainably—a big plus for me.”
More: Patagonia, The North Face, Target
Girls: Bermuda Shorts (Macy's)
“If you really want to wear shorts (sometimes the heat just seems unbearable), be sure they are the appropriate length. As a rule of thumb, your shorts should extend well past your fingertips. They also shouldn’t be supertight—almost every community service project will involve squatting, picking objects up off the ground, walking and possibly running after kids during recess. Pack shorts that are easy to move around in!”
More: American Eagle, Prana, Old Navy
Boys: Pack a short-sleeve button down shirt (American Eagle)
“Luckily for guys, the dress code is probably closer to what you wear at home: T-shirt and knee-length shorts. No tank tops or loud patterns, please! For those who are volunteering in a school setting, I also suggest packing a few lightweight, short-sleeve button-downs. Dressing up a little is actually a great trick for gaining some authority with the kids! The teachers and staff will appreciate the effort too.”
More: Target, Billabong, Gap
Everyone: Hiking Pants
“Hiking pants are a great option for pants that cover all your bases on a GLA trip: They’re an appropriate length for service, durable enough to wear multiple days in a row, good for hiking of course, and not bad looking! Pro tip: Pick pairs that roll up and button for two additional lengths, and are breathable enough for wearing in high-humidity places like Thailand and India.”
Boys: The North Face, Columbia, Amazon
Girls: REI, Columbia, Kohl’s
You can still be creative!
“I’ve learned through travel that being required to wear different clothes than what I’m used to isn’t all just a big inconvenience. In fact, it’s expanded my creativity with the way I dress. Seeing the different way local communities dress and adhering to new standards have actually inspired me to think outside the box when it comes to my own personal style.”
Incorporate the local attire
“In so many of the countries GLA travels to—Fiji, Bali, Ghana, Tanzania, Thailand, India and more—there are elements of traditional dress that people still incorporate into their modern outfits. Elephant/harem pants, patterned blouses, sarongs and scarves, etc. You’ll probably have the opportunity to shop and visit local markets, so take advantage of those times to get some traditional pieces that can work as part of your service outfit, but also double as a unique souvenir.”
Have a T-shirt DIY night
“To be honest, I’m not the biggest fan of the typical crew neck T-shirt and I don’t know a lot of us who are! There’s a very good reason to wear your blue GLA T-shirt on travel day (otherwise we won’t be able to locate you at the airport!), but after that, ask your local staff for a pair of scissors and have a T-shirt DIY night. There are tons of tutorials that show you how to transform your old Hanes Beefy T into something you’ll actually want to show off.”
Q: “But the locals themselves are wearing shorter shorts. Doesn’t that mean they’re acceptable?”
A: Nope! You might occasionally see a local woman walking around her home in running shorts or the like (key word: her home). But remember that unlike the locals we encounter, our group is arriving in these communities as visitors. Back in your home country, you wouldn’t dress as you do for lounging at home to visit your parents’ friends, go to work, have dinner with your grandparents or see other people you respect, so why apply that logic here? Short shorts may be tolerated in the local community (out of politeness), but they aren’t necessarily accepted.
Q: “But long shorts and pants of capri length just aren’t flattering on me. Do I have to wear them?”
A: Trust us, coming from an office full of travel-savvy ladies, we agree that fashion is important! Just not as important as the projects we’ll be working on. Try to look at the bigger picture of why you’re here and whom you’re serving. Also, let’s be real: If long pants or capris can prevent those pesky bug bites, we’ll take them in every color!
Q: “I see photos or comments on social media, or other GLA marketing material, that shows students wearing short shorts. Why is that?”
A: Unfortunately our past materials may have allowed a few misleading photos to slip through. To set the record straight, short shorts weren’t acceptable at community service then, and they aren’t acceptable now either. We ask that you join us this year in our effort to double down on our dress code policy to prevent future miscommunication, and strengthen the relationships we cherish with our partners. (P.S. Some old photos you’re seeing may depict students at Home Base, away from community service sites. When lounging at HB, dress code is less strict!)
Make sure your footwear is practical! Service often involves dirt, mud and cement—you might not want to be wearing your most fashion-forward sneakers (or worse, sandals). We recommend bringing a pair of sport sandals (like Chacos) and hiking boots. Check the Travel Portal for specifics on your particular session.
Your program staff will be your guide on whether your outfit is appropriate. They will always provide you with the day’s schedule so that you can plan your outfit(s) and pack your day pack accordingly.
If you have any questions about buying clothing or packing, check the Travel Portal or get in touch with your Student Coordinator. When in doubt, erring on the side of practicality and modesty is your best bet!