If you travel abroad and dress like a slob bound for the mall - you know the look: baggy shorts, stretched-out T-shirt and sandals - ask yourself, what does my appearance say about me and the United States?
And, if you have the money and an appetite for fine dining and fancy hotels in cities like London, Paris and Milan, why would you stroll in looking shabby? As my wife would say, "Can't people have a little style about them?"
Security specialists always advise Americans traveling abroad to blend in with the locals. Wearing faux athletic department T-shirts, cargo pants, fanny packs, and flip-flops in foreign capitals is like wearing a bull's-eye on your back. Guess who the pickpockets and scam artists are keeping their eyes on?
Americans, it seems, have taken casual Friday to an extreme, abandoning self-respect and common sense in favor of a childlike attitude of "I'll dress the way I want to." Politics aside, is it any wonder Europeans look askance at Americans who troop through their cities and shrines - Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Tate and Westminster Abbey - looking slovenly?
Nobody says you have to dress like Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn to visit museums, cathedrals and historic neighborhoods. Clean khakis or jeans, a nice shirt and Rockports will do for men. So will capris or slacks, a blouse and comfortable shoes for women. It doesn't make much difference whether you shop at Brooks Brothers, Nordstrom or Target; it's not difficult to have a functional travel wardrobe, and it needn't cost a bundle to look great. Plus, there's a payoff.
"People treat you differently if you look put-together," says Clinton Kelly, cohost of TLC's What Not to Wear.
A colleague recently back from Paris wrote me that she and her husband had been surprised to see some casually dressed diners lunching at one of the city's best - and priciest - restaurants, the opulent and historic Le Grand Vefour. (Famous patrons have included Napoleon and Josephine, Victor Hugo and Colette.)
"No complaints about the food and service - excellent all around, and what a fabulous-looking dining room," my colleague said. "Call us old-fashioned, but the experience would have been truly brilliant - especially when lunch cost about $400 - if the restaurant had a dress code."
Europe's finer hotels and restaurants go to great pains to keep their properties looking elegant, and they'd prefer that their guests do the same. At London's Dorchester, guests are asked to refrain from wearing shorts or flip-flops in public areas, a spokeswoman said, adding, "The hotel attracts guests from many different walks of life, so it's hard to generalize how people dress. At dinner, however, gentlemen are politely asked to wear a jacket in the Grill."
At the tony restaurant Le Meurice in Paris, tourists dress very well, "especially the ladies, who wear very sophisticated, chic and glamorous clothes," a spokeswoman wrote.
"Parisians usually tend to go to dinner directly from the office, which means they look smart and wear clothes that take them through the business day but also work in the evening without being under- or overdressed," she wrote. "A lot of French ladies have one or two accessories in the office which add an 'evening touch' to a smart dress or suit.
"We like our male guests to wear a jacket for dinner, but there is no obligation for a tie," she said, "and, at lunchtime, people tend to dress a little more casually, unless they are in for a business lunch."
The equally elegant Plaza Athenee has a dress code, and security folks might say something if you are improperly dressed.
"For the ADPA [short for Alain Ducasse's three-star Restaurant Plaza Athenee], you need a jacket and a tie," a spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail. "If you don't wear a jacket or tie, the restaurant can lend both to you. In the hotel's other restaurants, we prefer that men wear a jacket (no tie required). In the bar, after 11 p.m., the dress code is more 'cutting edge' "
She continued: "Generally speaking, sneakers and flip-flops are not welcomed at the hotel. Neither are shorts."
In Milan, Italy's capital of fashion consciousness, the representative at the Principe wrote in an e-mail: "The hotel does not have a strict dress code. On weekends you will find clients who are more dressed-down, but always in a casual-smart attitude. Our international clientele is primarily businessmen, and therefore they tend to wear suits both during the day and also in the evening. In the past there was a period where people tended to dress down and the casual look was more in vogue, but now we are witnessing that our guests are again starting to pay much more attention to what they wear and are more inclined to dress elegantly."
Andrew Harper, who publishes Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report, a newsletter reviewing peaceful and unspoiled places, has logged a lot of miles visiting upscale establishments and observing their clients.
"There are places my wife and I won't return to any more, places to go for a special occasion," Harper said. "Now, the special occasion is gone, because people are so sloppily dressed."
The move to casual dress started in California and rolled east, Harper said.
"In Europe, there still is a general air of formality when you are going out to dinner at night. I'm not talking about dinner at real casual restaurants, but at more formal restaurants," Harper said. "The majority of people who are dressed more casually are the visiting Americans. It's something in our culture that has just gotten pretty laid-back when it comes to dressing."
If you are among the tens of thousands of Americans who will travel in Europe this summer, you will see tourists from around the world - many dressed, well, like Americans.
So, as you pack your bags, think twice. Don't fall into the slob trap. You'll feel much better about yourself.