Style, in a way, functions as a kind of sociocultural GPS, a psychic location finder. You can tell you’re in Paris, of course, because that’s the spire of the Eiffel Tower piercing the sky and there, in the distance, is Notre Dame, with its bell towers and flying buttresses.
Just as confidently you can confirm your presence in the City of Light by the vision of its female residents disporting themselves along cobbled streets in pencil skirts and bank-heist satchels and blouses that require an instruction manual. Where but in Paris do women promenade in six-inch platform-wedge sandals worn as casually as if they were Keds?
Despite the relentless march of globalization, a Parisian look persists. Others may ape it; eventually, they will throw up their hands in defeat. And while the French are generally (and possibly too much) celebrated for their clever scarf-tying techniques, on anyone but an authentic Parisian a casually knotted kerchief from Hermès can just as easily say Girl Scout troop leader as paragon of chic.
True, I am trucking here in stereotypes, both sartorial and nationalistic. Yet cliché images of soigné Frenchwomen and Dutch boys in knickers and wooden shoes didn’t come out of nowhere. I blame the United Nations gift shop for leaving this wide-eyed first-grade class tripper with early misimpressions about folks from other places, the idea that the Dutch all looked like the bowl-cut kid on a box of household cleanser and that Asian children universally wore pigtails and had pencil erasers for feet.
Since then I have watched as, decade by decade, the distinctive superficial markers of regionalism disappeared. Away went kimonos and then wood-soled clogs and then sarongs and then Javanese teluk beskap and then turbans and eventually saris. Time-tested uniforms have become so endangered that in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan the ruler made it essential for male citizens to don a belted traditional robe called a gho. It didn’t matter. The second the country relaxed its trade restrictions, Bhutanese guys fell in line with globalization and started wearing their gho over Lady Gaga T-shirts and acid-washed Mom jeans.
Still, something mysterious persists in the human spirit, some subtly coded flock mentality. Thus a Parisian who exchanges clothes with a Kansan will likely end up looking French regardless, just as, to an experienced eye, a Milanese gent can never be mistaken for a Roman one, though they share a nationality.
Whether learned or innate, the specific sartorial code of each city remains distinctive, and you can tell a Milanese gent at a glance by his plumage and by a sober northern Italian style of tailoring that favors a smartly structured jacket, trousers snug and cuffed at the ankle, monk-strap shoes that are de rigueur for business or else the slouchy-casual driving loafers few have ever worn to drive an automobile (except perhaps to go zooming down the two-block length of the Via Montenapoleone, Milan’s main shopping drag, in a Maserati Ghibli).
That man with an old wristwatch of modest dimensions, worn on a leather strap: Milanese. The zip-front cashmere sweater; the Moncler puffer worn over a jacket; the loden coat are all giveaways. And so is the pocket square tidily drawing a line of contrasting color at the breast pocket of a Caraceni suit.
No cloud of paisley-patterned silk will be seen to puff from a Milanese gentleman’s jacket. For that you have to go to Rome. In Rome, patterns are boldly contrasting, ties knotted wider, shirt collars more generously expansive—as if to signal that, unlike their uptight northern cousins, Romans know how to chill out.
Roman women signal this tendency by maintaining their tans regardless of the season. Never mind that tanning is universally understood to cause premature aging and cancer. To a Roman like the designer Valentino Garavani, the risks are insignificant compared to the satisfaction of attaining a skin tone somewhere between Sunkist orange and burnt brick on the Pantone scale. And no one can argue that a walnut tan is not perfect for setting off the sorbet colors Romans favor—or for creating a contrast with the thick gold chains they drape at their throats or the gilded manacles they cram onto their wrists.
Well, a Florentine might. But that is only because in Florence a lunar Giaconda complexion remains popular five centuries after the Renaissance, but never mind that.
Among other things, magpie travelers like myself become collectors of sense souvenirs—fragments that, while they seldom add up to anything definitive, are pleasing to revisit and arrange in memory’s vitrine.
Foodies store up recollections of the old-socks perfume of truffles; the voluptuous flesh of an Alphonso mango; the sizzle of a dumpling fried in oil at some Singapore hawker’s stall. Personally, I tend to forget what I’ve eaten the moment the knife and fork are crossed on the plate. In truth and in general, I prefer to eat with my eyes.
Traveling, I consume, with equal parts befuddlement and abandon, images like one spotted on a warm spring afternoon on the Tokyo metro. Standing on the platform of the Meiji-jingumae station were two groups. One, a coven of the demented goth Lolitas called Harajuku Girls, was clad in Frankenstein boots and nurse uniforms and had bleached-blonde dreadlocks or else tie-dyed yarn hair clipped into ponytails with real-life dentures. The other, a collection of office workers, was dressed, penguin-style, in Identikit black suits, white shirts, black ties, and black shoes.
It struck me then that there has got to be something strong in the cultural water to produce both Harajuku Girls and salarymen and contrasts of a kind you will observe in Tokyo and no other place on earth.
I love this quiddity, the somewhat inexplicable fact that in Munich, say, folks of all sorts cling to customs of formality in dress and also elements of rustic Bavarian fantasy.
In Munich it is no rarity to see people at the opera or strolling through the Englischer Garten dressed in Maria von Trapp–style dirndls or boiled-wool jackets or stiff bürgermeister loden coats with elkhorn buttons or Trachten hiking hats adorned with $1,000 Gamsbart hat brushes made from the whiskers of Alpine nanny goats. Not only during Oktoberfest do men loop the suspenders of suede lederhosen over their shoulders and button up saucy trapdoor flaps.
If Paris is a city of well-turned ankles, Munich is a city of knees.
And Brooklyn is a borough of body modification, the whole of Bushwick populated, it can sometimes seem, by people who spend their idle hours poring over catalogues of tattoo flash art or surgical supplies. Like Greenwich Village beatniks and San Francisco hippies before them, the hipsters of Brooklyn oblige the random visitor by dressing the part.
Exit the Morgan Avenue stop on the L train and emerge into a style landscape whose governing rules are as little varying as those of the Sepik River valley. Where the indigenous of New Guinea tend to go in for nose-bones and scarification, the Bushwick folks favor Gold Rush whiskers, Sailor Jerry tattoos, and gauge-stretched earlobes expanded to the size of portholes.
And the natives of Los Angeles dress as if to blur to invisibility any boundary between public and private, indoors and out.
If you happen to have been raised in Manhattan at a time when men and women alike considered it appropriate to wear a hat and gloves in town, there is exoticism to be found in the Angeleno habit of wearing sweatpants and shower shoes in almost every setting or sloping around in fur-lined bedroom slippers or wearing a bikini, as Joan Didion once did, to do her grocery shopping at Ralph’s.
The novelist Robert Stone remarked—in Prime Green, his underappreciated memoir of the weed-scented 1960’s—that the best-looking people in the U.S. are to be found in Salt Lake City. That is, if you happen to like “the Anglo type.” Certainly, it is true that generations of Mormon intermarriage have produced a comely and startlingly homogeneous population.
Yet the influence of Mormonism goes well beyond genetics. In the Utah capital the streets are filled with fit and even-featured men dressed alike in short-sleeved white shirts and crisply pressed trousers, and women in low-heeled pumps and the kind of Donna Reed shirtwaist dress so seldom seen in other places that a visitor to Salt Lake can sometimes feel as though he’d wandered into a black-and-white kinescope someone stealthily colorized.
Distinctions like these still hold in most of the cities of this country and also of the world. And they produce one of the great and reliable pleasures of travel, a mental Instagram album in which you can click on an image of stork-thin slackers perched on Pike Street in Seattle clad in Doc Martens and snap-brim trilby hats; or of London city types hastening down rain-slicked Piccadilly wearing Savile Row suits with hourglass waists; or of flocks of faceless ravens in hijabs alighting at some refrigerated mall in Dubai; or of ruddy San Francisco kite-surfers clad in neoprene and Polar Fleece arrayed like gulls along the shoreline at Crissy Field; or of dignified Malian vendors preening themselves on a corner in Harlem, the hems of their richly patterned and voluminous boubous suddenly lifted by a breeze on Lenox Avenue.
Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.