Fashion tips for the female EFL teacher
In honour of the blog offering fashion advice for men, in response to the many comments on that article from women asking for a fashion article geared for women, and because I kinda like clothes, here is a fashion article geared towards EFL teachers of the female persuasion.
Before I get into the meat of the article, full disclosure, I have never actually worked in Thailand, so I'm not 100% sure that my advice is relevant to Thailand. However, having worked in Korea, Kuwait, Mongolia, and Myanmar as a teacher, I feel that I am at least somewhat qualified to offer advice to women working as EFL teachers in Asia and unsure of what to wear. Let's get started:
As a woman, I think you can get away with fashions that men can't get away with (in the fashion tips for men blog post, short sleeve dress shirts are discouraged, whereas a short-sleeve blouse for women is not only encouraged but in fact super cute).
Also, for women, it's not necessary to stick exclusively to button-up blouses (unless your school has a very strict dress code for teachers). You can have a little fun with your shirt; you can even get away with wearing a t-shirt as long as it's "classy" (i.e. plain, in a classic colour, and with no printing or slogans on it).
One thing to be aware of is that, despite however hot it might be outside, tank tops are viewed as unprofessional and even considered pretty revealing in many parts of Asia.
In Korea, even though women walking around in skirts so short they barely cover their lady bits are still considered completely office-appropriate, if you wear a nice tank top with a pair of trousers, that is just slut-tastic. And I don't think this is specific to Korea, either.
When I first moved to Myanmar, I was dressing for work in a manner which I had thought was appropriate for school, but after a few weeks, one of my superiors came to my office to have an awkward conversation concerning my clothes. Apparently everything I was wearing into work was inappropriate. I was quite shocked, as the exact same clothes had been appropriate for work in Kuwait, a place where many ladies cover from the top of their heads all the way to their toes.
Seeing as I'm aware of how showing your shoulders is viewed in Asia, the outfits in question involved dresses which reached to my mid-calves or down to my ankles and thin spaghetti straps at the top which I covered with a cardigan so I was showing a minimal amount of skin. This was still apparently too risqué for Myanmar.
I guess that, even though my décolletage was by no means plunging or overexposed, it was still too much. Moral of the story: keep your shoulders covered and choose shirts that keep you covered up to your collarbone or higher.
Sweaters and Cardigans:
This probably goes against every ounce of common sense you have. Thailand is sweltering; who in their right mind would suggest wearing a sweater or cardigan in such a hot place? Me. I think the concept of layering your clothes is the Spaghetti Monster's gift to getting dressed.
In such a hot climate, you will be in out of air-conditioned environments all day long. Outside it may be stifling hot, but inside might be downright chilly. Not keeping a regular body temperature is a great way to get a cold.
One way to fight off the air conditioner is to carry a sweater or cardigan in your bag. Cardigans are also great for the modesty factor when you need to cover up bare shoulders and I think a nice cardigan makes any outfit seem even classier.
Another good use for a cardigan is that if you get a stain on your shirt, a cardigan will cover it up until you can get home to change.
Cardigans are truly a multipurpose tool for women. Just today, I found a tiny, filthy, frightened, sick, injured kitten on the side of the road. I knew if I just kept walking, it would certainly die, but I didn't necessarily want to touch it with my own hands because it was so dirty, so I took my cardigan out of my bag and scooped up the kitten. See? There are all kinds of uses for cardigans!
Since you do live in a hot climate, you don't need to go for thick or heavy sweaters or cardigans; all you need is a nice, simple, lightweight cotton or cashmere sweater or cardigan. I got some really nice lightweight cotton/silk/cashmere blend sweaters from UniQlo once for a song, and I found some long-fibre cotton cardigans at Gap another time (the length of the fibre makes the cotton feel extra soft, and I think extra soft materials feel cooler against my skin).
If you choose nice quality lightweight sweaters and cardigans, you really don't have to wear them all day long, as they take up minimal space in your bag and (if the fabric is a decent quality) they tend not to wrinkle, so they're easy to carry around and will still look great when you retrieve them from the depths of your bag.
Phil's advice for the men-folk is such good advice, generally, that I'm just going to copy and paste it here:
Always go for dark colours like navy blue and you can't go wrong. Cream and beige trousers might look very nice in tropical climates but you'd be amazed how quickly board marker ink can transfer from a whiteboard to a trouser pocket.
Avoid wearing trousers more than three days running. Letting trousers have a day off and ‘hang' on the hanger allows them to regain their shape and you'll avoid the ‘shiny-arse' syndrome.
The range of trousers in Thai department stores these days has improved a lot and I actually think you get much better value for money buying off-the-peg trousers compared to having them made at a tailor's shop. Tailored clothing is not the bargain it once was.
The one massive disadvantage of buying trousers from a department store is if you need them altered and taken up an inch or two. Most department store staff have never heard of ‘invisible stitching' and I could cry when I think of some of the ‘dog's dinners' I've had presented to me in the name of trouser alterations.
If you've got time on your hands, buy the trousers and seek out one of those roadside sewing machinists. They'll do a much better job.
Dresses and Skirts:
I think these are acceptable attire for the classroom, so long as you keep them classy and don't look hoochy. This means nothing too tight, nothing sheer, nothing too short, and covering up on top with a cute cardigan or bolero. It is better to err on the side of caution with regard to length and choose knee-length skirts or longer.
Even if you see Asian women dressed in super cute super short dresses and skirts, as foreigners, we tend to be judged without mercy and are not able to get away with the hem length that many Asian women get away with. It's a double-standard, sure, but you just have to roll with it. With regard to your hem-length, don't give anyone a chance to get all judgy at you.
Hot climate pro-tip: a long, loose, flowing dress made out of lightweight cotton is another gift from the Spaghetti Monster to women living in hot climates. You wear a long, loose, flowing, lightweight dress, and it feels like you are completely naked, even though you're fully adhering to the modesty factor.
My confession du jour is that I simply do not wear closed-toed shoes whilst living in a hot climate. I wear flip flops and that's all there is to it. Once in Kuwait, my school sent a memo around reminding us that flip flops were strictly beach attire and that as we were professionals, we were meant to wear shoes at work. My response was, "But! They're dressy flip flops!"
Fortunately, here in Burmaland, flip flops are standard footwear and nobody bats an eye at me at work in my flip flops. I think my flip flop lines are permanently tanned onto my feet.
If your school holds you to a higher standard (or if you hold yourself to a higher standard), at least do yourself a favour and remember that, as a teacher, you will likely be on your feet for much of the day. Heels are works of art and the Spaghetti Monster's gift to a woman's leg, but they are not a great footwear choice for someone who has to be on her feet for most of the day.
Heels are actually really bad for you, as they shorten the, idon'tknow, Achilles tendon, so if you must wear heels, you should plan on wearing them for as short a period of time as possible.
For work as a teacher, if you're set on wearing closed-toed shoes, choose something comfortable and flat like some cute ballerina flats or, depending on how casual you can get away with going, maybe some Toms shoes* or some Sanuks. Oh! And a little shoe-care tip: shoes are not meant to be worn two days in a row. You should allow your shoes to air out for at least one day between wearings.
I have definitely found plenty of cute shoes in both Thailand and Korea. Full disclosure: even though I wear nothing but flip flops every day, I have a massive weakness for shoes, and the closet in my room in my parents' house back home is full of heels which I've acquired over the years. There might also be a few more boxes full of shoes in storage in Canada, too.
Shoes are beautiful things, and you simply have to love them, and Asia is a perfect place to find all kinds of dainty, feminine, beautiful, unique heels.
Vests / Undershirts / Undergarments:
I'm with Phil here that wearing some sort of undergarment beneath your clothes is a wise idea. Here's what Phil had to say on the matter in his original post:
Wearing some sort of undergarment beneath your long-sleeved shirt is always a very wise idea. People seem to think that wearing another layer under your business shirt is going to make you sweat even more but in reality, an undergarment of some cotton description actually keeps you cooler. And of course you avoid those horrible armpit sweat patches. The teacher arriving for a lesson dripping in sweat wins admiration from no-one, regardless of where the taxi or bus broke down and whatever the temperature might be outside.
I always have on at least two layers: a cotton tank top (cotton is breathable and keeps your skin feeling cool) and the shirt that people are actually meant to see over top of it. If I'm in an air-conditioned environment, I'll add a third layer: my sweater or cardigan.
One final undergarment tip for the ladies: it's cotton's breathability which makes it such a winning choice as an undergarment, and when choosing a garment that will stick directly to your special lady bits all day long, you really do want to choose a garment which will best allow you to breathe.
If you choose non-cotton panties, you run the risk of trapping moisture down there, which could lead to thrush, which is certainly no picnic. Uh, not that I'd have any experience with that.
And bras. If I'm going to have a piece of clothing stuck to my body all day long which is wet for a good chunk of the day, it is somehow just so much more comfortable if it is cotton.
Belts, Bags, and Accessories:
In the comments on the original fashion article, someone mentioned that if you buy your pants the correct size, then you have no need for a belt. While this is true, strictly speaking, wearing a belt makes your look seem so much more finished and professional, and in a place where you are often hired based as much on your looks (if not more) as you are based on your actual skill set, looking as polished and professional as possible is certainly not a bad thing.
I'm more of a brown person, myself, but if you only have the money to buy one nice belt (belts are surprisingly not cheap), invest in a nice black belt to start with.
Ladies, you can use your belt to accentuate your waist or even to create a waist if you're a little thicker around the middle. Quality belts can make cheap clothes look more expensive. I was once invited to an ambassador's party. I wore a sleeveless floral dress which I had bought for 100 baht on Khao San Road and paired it with a cute brown leather belt from H&M at my natural waist, some nude pumps from Aldo, and a little pink cardigan from Forever 21 and I got tonnes of compliments on my outfit, even though no part of my outfit was even remotely expensive.
Bags are pretty much my favourite things ever (they're tied with shoes and scarves for favourite things). Just like belts, when buying a bag, you should look for quality leather. A good bag can make cheap clothes look more special.
As a woman, I don't think we have quite the same bag conundrum to deal with as the men-folk have to deal with. I carry around a large leather bag and if I have important documents which I need to put in the bag, I'll either slip them in a clear folder (especially if I know I'll need to remove it from my bag in front of people who I'm trying to impress) or, in a pinch, I'll slip the documents in the middle of a magazine to keep them from crinkling. I do not like to carry around a leather bag when it is raining, however. For the rainy season, I invest in one or two cute canvas totes.
I firmly believe that you should not go overboard on accessories. I used to avoid them entirely, but then I started reading a few books on fashion (it was a new year's resolution one year to start dressing better) and I read that you get treated better when you are wearing accessories because of the history behind wearing accessories (they were talismans or something like that).
I'm not sure 100% that I agree that I get treated better when I'm wearing accessories, but they are pretty darn fun. I really try not to go overboard, though. If I'm wearing a ring, I will not wear a bracelet. If I'm wearing a statement necklace, I will not wearing earrings (and possibly not a bracelet, either).
I think the key to accessorising is proportion, which can be a tricky thing to get right. But living in Asia, you've gotta fall in love with accessories. You can hardly walk down the street without spotting something cute on offer from a street vendor. Some of my favourite jewellery was found by chance on the sidewalk from random street vendors. Oh, and if you're based in Bangkok, as tacky as the shop name is, Pink Pussy is pretty much the greatest thing ever.
Take a cue from the local women. It would be reasonable to keep your hair in a similar style. Generally, if you have long hair, it's best to keep it styled nicely and/or tied back. Keep hair off your face, unless a (well-kept) fringe is part of your hairstyle.
Asia is simultaneously an amazing and terrifying place to experiment with your hair. It's amazing because prices are way cheaper here than they are back home and there are services on offer that are really difficult to find back home (magic straight perm, anyone?), but it's also terrifying because some hairdressers here in Asia do not speak English and/or do not have experience working with Western hair and really don't know how to deal with it.
I got my first ever she-mullet in Asia. And my second one, too. And my third one. However, hallelujah, I have finally found a hairdresser who I trust completely. He works in Central World, he speaks English, he insults me and my hair nonstop, and I think he's just delightful. Oh, and he gave me one of the best haircuts I've ever had in my life.
It is no exaggeration when I say that, making my pros and cons list of staying in Southeast Asia versus leaving Southeast Asia, this guy is way high up on the pros list.
As far as styling hair, my hair is extremely mischievous and refuses to stay flat and sleek all day long (whivh is how I would prefer it). No matter how much time I spend passing over my hair with the flat iron, my hair goes pouffy, fluffy, wavy, and frizzy the second I step out my door.
Therefore, in hot humid climates, my hairstyle of choice is a simple ponytail at the nape of my neck. If I need to do something fancier, I make a low ponytail, I backcomb the shit out of my hair, and I pin it into a big messy (but classy) bun. If you want to go a little more feminine or if you have a little more talent when it comes to styling your own hair, check out the Faceshop Myanmar's facebook page. They often post cute ideas of easy ways to style your hair, like this:
One more caveat about hair is that Asians tend to be more conservative.
Resist the urge to dye your hair an unusual colour. If you simply must colour your hair, choose a colour which is a plausible natural colour. And if you are starting to go grey, you should definitely consider covering up those greys. In Asia, appearance is of the utmost importance, especially when it comes to gaining employment.
Keep in mind that you are often hired based as much on your appearance on your actual skills, so you should do what it takes to make the absolute most of your appearance. I had one friend in Korea, a drop-dead gorgeous brunette, but she kept her hair dyed blond because she knew that Koreans preferred girls with blond hair, and that having blond hair helped her get more, better-paying, private lessons.
Hands, Feet, and Nails:
This advice is actually hypocritical coming from me, as I've only ever had one manicure in my entire life and I've never had a pedicure, but manis and pedis are way cheap in Thailand, and you should take advantage of that in order to keep your hands looking presentable (and your feet, too, if you wear sandals often).
If you're a plain jane like me, though, as long as your nails are trimmed, filed, and clean, I think you're good to go.
Skincare and Makeup:
The Koreans and Japanese are on top of it. BB Cream-gotta love it, right? Invented in Korea! All kinds of good products are coming out of this part of the world, and you should make the most out of it while you're here. Think of yourself as a cultural anthropologist, trying to understand the culture a little better.
There is a reason that so many amazing skincare products are sprouting up in Asia, and it's something of a recurring theme in this article: appearance is very important to Asians.
By taking an interest in your own appearance, you're taking steps to fit into the culture. Another reason to dive in and try the new beauty products which keep popping up everywhere: back home, those same products are both highly coveted and super expensive, but here, they're just everyday things and fairly inexpensive.
A prime example is BB Cream. It's pretty standard in a woman's beauty routine nowadays, I think, and it's not too expensive to pick up some good BB Cream here and (here's the kicker) the quality of the BB Cream which you'll find here in Asia is generally much better than the quality of the BB Cream which you'll get back home.
And of course it's fun to walk into the beauty supply stores and play around with all the various samplers. In this section I've referenced Korean cosmetics companies quite a bit for a few reasons: (1) I lived in Korea for three years so I'm more familiar with them, (2) I've never lived in Thailand, so I'm not familiar with any Thai brands, and (3) Korean cosmetics are definitely available in Bangkok.
Your skincare regimen should involve cleansing, toning, and moisturising in both the morning and the evening. Also consider using an exfoliating scrub once or twice a week. And don't forget that skincare extends past your face. In a place as hot as Thailand, you might want to start and finish every day with a shower to clean off dirt, grime, and sweat. There are all kinds of scrubs and cleansers on the market designed for the body.
I don't want to sound vain here or anything, but I don't feel like I need to wear makeup, so I don't wear any makeup. It's not that I think I'm super beautiful (I'm actually not beautiful), but I just like myself the way I am and I don't like the way makeup feels on my skin, especially in a hot climate.
That's probably why skincare is so uber-important to me: if you are going to present a blank canvas to the world, that blank canvas had better be pristine. That having been said, I had a student in Korea tell me once that it is considered rude not to wear makeup to work. It is rare to have an Asian be that blunt about something, so when it happens, you should value the advice.
So, fellow female teachers, consider investing in some tasteful makeup if you don't already own some. You do not want to end up looking like a ladyboy out on the prowl at night, but at the same time, you do want it to come across that you do put effort into your appearance. In a (potential) employer's eyes, this could be interpreted as you will put more effort into the job.
Keep your teeth clean. And please floss them. People can see and smell the difference when you floss your teeth regularly.
If you have other dental problems, you might want to consider getting them fixed up for cheap as long as you're living in the Land of the business of Smiles. Dentists are everywhere and, compared to back home, their services are extremely inexpensive.
Popular services on offer are cleaning and whitening, but you could also have more intense dental work done like crowns or veneers, and you would still save a pretty penny compared to what you would have to pay in the West.
Diet and Exercise:
I think that to an extent, as long as you are obviously farang, you will always appear chubby in an Asian person's eyes, no matter how not chubby you actually are.
However, you can minimise the extent to which you are viewed as chubby by giving a fuck about your diet and exercise regimen. Yes, it's tempting to live on nothing but burgers and pizza and beer (please someone affirm that I am not the only one who fights this temptation regularly), but by watching your diet, drinking plenty of water, and getting exercise at least somewhat regularly, you will feel better, you'll have more energy, your skin will look clearer and brighter, and your clothes will fit you better.
What is not to love about all of that, especially in a part of the world where your appearance is constantly being appraised?
The above fashion guide for female EFL teachers was written for ajarn.com by Marguerite Anne Tremel
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I've been working in Thailand for over a year in the northeast of the country. You can read about the Thai dress code on my blog and see some pictures of various outfits I typically wear to work:
By Laura, Thailand (12th December 2017)
Eh? That sounds NZ or Canadian. I've been in Thailand 2+ years and appreciate the article.
In the classroom, often barefoot, shoes at the door. No trousers allowed, except on sports days, unfortunately for me because I like to cover my less than attractive legs. Generally I stick to long skirts.
Check with individual schools, my first had a skirts must be below the knee policy, the second not, but not super short either.
There are often specific colour days, some schools provide shorts for those, others not. I have used the dread, school supplied, polo shirts on those days.
Check with other teachers in your school, the more rural the more conservative, but always conservative to some degree. Professional dress is usually conservative and unprofessional as the EFL industry is we at least want to appear professional. I make the unprofessional comment as a criticism of the structure (lack of), not as one of individual teachers..
By Jill, Lampang (22nd April 2014)
I'm a bit offended about the part at the end about diet and exercise. Weight is not always tied to "giving a fuck" and if your clothes are suited to your current body, even if you do lose weight, they will not "fit better." I love my whole body and I treat it well, but ignorant people will always tell me that it's not good enough or that I'm not making enough of an effort. Loving and looking after your form go hand in hand. And hatred never made anyone healthier.
By Jenny, (3rd February 2014)
"How wrong is this article"
The problem is Jenny that I've been waiting over 10 years for a female teacherr to write a companion to my 'teacher's fashion guide for males"
And while there are always plenty of people who will say "this article is wrong" and "this blog is shit" etc, etc, etc - those same people can never be bothered to put pen to paper and make a contribution.
It's the way of the world I guess.
By philip, (14th July 2013)
How wrong is this article.
Teachers wearing flip flops to school as stated this article has no bearing on what happens in Thailand.
I am surprised to see a quality website such as ajarn.com allowing an article like this to be posted.
The writer hasn't even taught in Thailand and is trying to give advice. Oh my Buddah!
By Jenny, Bangkok (14th July 2013)
Great blog :)
Some really useful advice ...
I might even print this off and use in our Teachers' Manual for next year!
By Daniel, ChiangMai (7th June 2013)
Helen, I'm the first to admit that I've never taught in Thailand. I appreciate your feedback and comments, but let's keep it constructive, eh?
As far as it being "too bloody hot" in Thailand for a cardigan, well, I've just got this to say about it: I've spent a fair amount of time in Thailand (for a combination of vacations, muay thai training camps, and visa runs from Burma), and if I had to say that one or the other is hotter, I'd say that Burma is definitely hotter. And I do wear cardigans here. And so do the Burmese teachers at my school. All year round. And being a poorer country, there are fewer air-conditioned places in Burma. And women still cover up with a cardigan. It goes back to the modesty factor. And even if it's true that the local women don't wear cardigans, you do realise that behind your back, they are picking apart everything about you and your clothes, right? It's a double-standard, but they really do notice if you show too much skin and for sure it's been talked about.
In Burma, trousers are seen as the men's domain. When I first wore trousers to work, my colleagues asked if I was ill. But they got used to my funny western fashions. And when clothes /were/ an issue at work, it was not because of my pants; it was because of my decolletage (another great reason for a cardigan... you can button all the way up to your neck if you start feeling overexposed).
Flip flops. If the rest of your outfit screams "PROFESSIONAL!!!", people don't notice that you've got flip flops on your feet. Today, I wore a light blue button-up men's-style linen blouse, charcoal trousers, and accessorised with a thin gold watch. Trust me, no one was looking at my feet. And I hope I'll last five minutes in a Thai school because I've had enough of the crazy inflation in Burmaland and I'll likely be moving to Thailand at the end of the month. :D
PS. I would not personally wear trousers three days in a row. I might go three wearings before washings (in this climate, usually only one or two, though), but that would be over the course of about two weeks. And no, I don't stink. And although my country was once part of the empire and we still have the Queen on our money, I'm not British. EH!? ;)
By Marguerite, RanGoonies (6th June 2013)
Helen, I think you're picking holes in it to be honest.
"Wow, she couldn’t be more wrong. Then again, she’s never actually taught in Thailand"
But she does teach in Burma, which has a similar climate doesn't it?
"so it’s odd Ajarn would even print this"
No disrespect but the guy running ajarn.com is a bloke.
"Trousers? Not usually allowed for women at any Thai school"
Are you sure about that? How many have you worked at in order to be able to make the judgemant that ALL Thai schools don't allow trousers for women? Just for the record, I've worked in four and women could wear trousers in all of them.
"I appreciate the effort, but maybe get a woman who has actually taught in Thailand to give some tips?"
Well, it's been a 13-year wait so far.
By philip, (5th June 2013)
Wow, she couldn't be more wrong. Then again, she's never actually taught in Thailand so it's odd Ajarn would even print this.
Trousers? Not usually allowed for women at any Thai school and I've taught at about eight of them. And wearing trousers three days in a row? Is she British? You'd absolutely reek.
Cardigans? Even the Thais don't wear cardigans. It's too bloody hot.
And as far as close-toed shoes go, they're mandatory at almost every Thai school.Flip flops? This girl wouldn't last five minutes at a Thai school.
Really Ajarn. I appreciate the effort, but maybe get a woman who has actually taught in Thailand to give some tips?
By Helen, Bangkok, Thailand (5th June 2013)