By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
What’s the appropriate dress for a visit to the city of Oaxaca? It doesn’t matter whether you’re spending an entire vacation in the state capital, or intending to sneak away from the beach for just a couple of days to get your fill of culture, cuisine, and of course mezcal. With the holiday season upon us, the answer becomes clearer. Consider the cool December/January climate in the mountains away from the coast, especially evenings; and perhaps wanting to fit in a bit more during an extremely festive time of year. How would you dress back home, in order to feel comfortable both in terms of not catching a chill, nor receiving a cold shoulder?
It’s important to remember that Oaxaca is a city filled with First World character: theater, music, museums, art galleries and fine dining; more than just crafts, ruins and colonial architecture. So to this extent, Oaxaca is no different than New York, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver or Los Angeles – but with a Latin flare, often reflected in relaxed dress – but not beachwear or cottage clothing.
Acceptable attire is not the same in the city as it is on the coast. Sure you can “get away with” wearing virtually anything, since after all you’re not a native Oaxacan and everyone knows it, if not earlier then as soon as you open your mouth. And yes, bringing along just shorts, t-shirts and halter tops, sandals and flip flops, may be just fine, certainly in most resort environments, day or night. But the city of Oaxaca is different.
How Urban Oaxacans Dress
Men in Oaxaca usually wear long pants and a shirt with a collar. Footwear tends to be leather shoes. Oaxacan women usually wear a blouse and skirt, a dress, or a top and long pants or capris, and either leather sandals or fashion boots, and even heels. While for going out in the evenings the dress is at times a little more formal, often there is no difference. Frequently throughout the daytime both men and women wear blue jeans.
The only time one normally sees urban Oaxacans wearing shorts is on Sundays, attributable to the fact that Sunday is often both a day off work, and a sports day with many men not changing after playing soccer or baseball with a pick-up team.
The Difference in Attire in the Towns and Villages in the Central Valleys
In the towns and villages of Oaxaca’s central valleys, laborers, craftspeople and campesinos wear all manner of clothes, and anything is acceptable, dictated often by economics and type of work. For the middle classes, regardless of occupation, dress is only somewhat more relaxed than for city folk. When Oaxacans from the state capital or Mexicans from further abroad venture into the villages, either sightseeing or for example shopping in the Thursday Zaachila market, they dress a little more casual, with jeans or shorts, a shirt and sandals or running shoes.
How Should Tourists Dress in Oaxaca
It is suggested that if reasonably possible, both men and women, as tourists to Oaxaca, should wear clothing similar to that of urban Oaxacans. For men, a shirt with a pair of casual pants or jeans. Running shoes are acceptable. Safari wear is also acceptable, but one will definitely stand out, aside from skin color and camera around the neck. For women, just as Oaxacan women dress, of course without feeling compelled to bring along a pair of heels for the trip.
Despite the foregoing, as long as one does not wander about in a sloppy t-shirt or tank top, very short shorts and flip flops, a more casual approach to clothing is quite acceptable for tourists. For example, leather sandals or other shoes comfortable for walking, longer shorts and a more casual top are absolutely fine.
For the evenings, formal wear as customarily worn in the US or Canada is not necessary. Men should never feel compelled to put on a tie, for example. Even for weddings in downtown Oaxaca, trousers with sport jacket and open shirt is acceptable, or a long sleeved guayabera without a jacket is okay. As long as a pair of pants and a long-sleeved shirt is packed, men should be fine in most urban situations. For going to the theater or out for dinner, even to Casa Oaxaca, Origen or Los Danzantes, the same attire is acceptable. For women, a simple cocktail dress brought along in a corner of the suitcase might come in handy, but is certainly not necessary; a blouse and skirt or long pants serve in most cases.
Touring the sights in the central valleys is a bit different for both men and women. Walking shorts are fine as suggested above. For footwear, certainly rubber soled shoes, running shoes or hiking boots are fine given that tourists will likely be visiting ruins, hiking, and / or walking along the odd dirt road.
Respect as a Visitor to Oaxaca
Tourists ought to show a modicum of respect for those who reside in Oaxaca. Of course it’s understood that travelers cannot bring along an extensive wardrobe. But a grown woman in the evening in a tank top and short shorts, or a man sporting a torn t-shirt and sandals, is neither appropriate nor necessary. Trust me; dressing a little more upscale than first impressions would otherwise dictate will make you feel better about yourself, more welcomed by members of your host society, and result in a more enjoyable and fulfilling visit to Oaxaca.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). When he moved to Oaxaca from Toronto in 2004, he brought 74 ties. Most have never left his closet.