Clothing styles are among the most noticeable elements of any culture. Whenever one encounters a new culture, it is easy assume that others are less intelligent due to their clothing styles. How bright can these people be if they dress so dumb?
Clothing differences surely helped form the colonial attitudes so unfortunately prevalent in nineteenth-century missions. Missionaries frequently required converts to adopt Western clothing styles in addition to the gospel message.
However, people don’t have to go traipsing about in loincloths in order to arouse our condemnation. All a culture has to do is wear our own clothing styles slightly differently. We see people wearing t-shirts with misspelled or nonsensical English, and we assume that we’re much smarter because we understand a language that they obviously don’t. Meanwhile, they are feeling superior because our t-shirts betray the fact that we have no idea how to read Chinese or Japanese.
Imagine going to a mall or fast food restaurant with a couple who has never had any interaction with Western culture. The first thing they might wonder is “why is everyone wearing blue pants?” Imagine if you went somewhere and everyone was wearing green or red pants. It would seem odd. However, our culture has conditioned us to expect the majority of casually-attired people to be wearing blue pants.
Culture sets our expectations and helps us draw impressions. When we’re outside our own cultures, we need to be constantly mindful of potential cultural differences and conscientiously withhold judgment. Don’t start making assumptions about people who just don’t wear blue pants.