Saturday, October 17, 2015

Mongolia Inside & Out 105: What (not) to wear

Welcome back to the Mongolia Inside & Out series!  This post will focus on appearance and dress in Mongolia, as I've found it too difficult to tease apart the more abstract concept and the more concrete practice when it comes to talking about what (not) to wear here.

A version of this post has been sitting in my drafts folder for several months.  I realized recently that I had wasted a lot of time and energy writing a very judge-y indictment of the fashion choices of other foreigners in Mongolia, which is simply not the tone I want to take in this series nor how I want to interact with my fellow human beings.  Sure, it can be cathartic or amusing to recall Mongolian friends' and colleagues' reactions to white-guy dreadlocks, or to bemoan the American journalist who wore rumpled hiking clothes to a one-on-one formal interview with the President of Mongolia.  But that's the stuff of summer evening carp-sessions at a beer garden with other expats, not fodder for a series where I aim to provide useful information and hard-won experience for those coming to Mongolia for study, adventure, or permanent relocation.  I prefer to use my knowledge for good in this series.

And, just like Cookie, I learned those things the hard way

Let me offer some recommendations for several distinct sets of 'foreigners' coming to Mongolia, because where and how you plan to spend your time will dictate what you want to wear:

Intrepid traveler:

You've come to gallivant about the countryside, bask in the glory of Mongolia's natural beauty, and have some life-changing adventures.  More power to you!  You'll want to come packed for all four seasons, even if you're coming in summer time, because Mongolia's weather is both extreme and unpredictable.  Layers are your friend!  Prioritize undies and socks over outwear - you can wear one or two sweaters and one or two pairs of pants for your entire trip.  Coverage is key; the sun here is unbelievably harsh and the wind will blow grim and grit all over you, drying you out and making your skin crack and peel.  Bring or buy here a hat with a brim and/or a lightweight scarf to cover yourself.  Even taking the wild steppe wind into consideration, a giant hat will serve you well.


Some folks bring a pashmina or long travel skirt, which doubles as a light-weight blanket and screen for using a "steppe toilet" (use your imagination).  If you plan to spend even one day in Ulaanbaatar, consider packing one presentable outfit in order to blend in with the fashion-conscious citizens of UB.  Shoes always take up a lot of room in one's luggage, so prioritize a pair of hiking boots and a pair of sandals.  Those who are planning to do any horseback riding should seriously consider bringing chaps or proper riding boots.  You can buy traditional leather Mongolian-style riding boots for $35-50 at Narantuul.  This style of shoe is designed for the wearer to wrap his/her feet with additional fabric or to wear several pairs of socks; keep that in mind when trying on boots here.  Narantuul is also an excellent place to buy inexpensive socks, mittens, hats, scarves, and leggings made of camel or goat cashmere, yak wool, or regular sheep's wool.

Summer student or researcher:

You'll enjoy the best of both worlds by spending some time in UB but also escaping to the countryside at least once during your summer in Mongolia.  I have been you many times in the past.  Back in the days when I spent my entire summers on field projects in the countryside, I would pack like an 'intrepid traveler'; I recommend that you do the same.  However, if you will be doing research or studying partly in Ulaanbaatar, you will face the practical downside of packing for both field and city, plus whatever research equipment you'll need to bring along.  But how are you going to fit all of that into your inevitably-limited luggage space?

Sure, just pack wisely
Pro-tips: 1) bring things that roll up or pack down well, 2) allow yourself to pack more 'small' things (underwear, socks, sports bras, tank tops) but only one or two of each type of 'larger' clothing (sweater, rain coat, field pants, jeans, dress), 3) find a way to do laundry or hand-wash your clothes regularly (everything dries incredibly quickly in Mongolia) to cut down on the number of each item you need to bring, 4) wear your largest/heaviest shoes and bulkiest clothes on the plane or train, 5) stuff socks and underwear inside your shoes when packing a bag or suitcase, and 6) don't bring a puffy or down jacket (it will take up too much room and you probably won't need it).

In addition to a scaled-down version of the intrepid traveler's gear, you need some UB-appropriate attire.  This includes at least one pair of nice dress shoes - I am NOT kidding, this is important - and one business casual outfit for any formal meetings.  These shoes should be presentable but allow you to safely navigate the treacherous streets, sidewalks, and construction zones of Ulaanbaatar, a subject I will address in greater detail in a future Mongolian Inside & Out post on health and safety in Mongolia.

You'll be more comfortable walking around UB, making contacts and friends, and visiting museums, galleries, and stores if you're wearing clothes that at least gesture at current fashions.  Pro-tip: do not wear a short skirt unless it is fitted close to the thigh!  Long skirts or fitted skirts are your friends.  The wind in UB will flip up your skirt when you least expect it, giving passers-by an unintentional peep show (ask me how I know!).

But even more so :/

Relocating to Mongolia (UB in particular):

So you've decided to live and work in Mongolia for over six months.  Welcome!

 No matter where you hail from, your decision means planning in advance, because your options for clothing will probably be limited in terms of selection and quality.  Bring a good-quality, nice-looking heavy winter jacket and extreme weather-rated insulated boots with good tread for icy, slippery winter streets. At a bare minimum you'll need a work/city wardrobe of 2-3 outfits, an outfit or two from the intrepid traveler's wardrobe, and some less formal but still presentable city clothes for weekends and hanging out.

Certainly you can go clothes shopping in UB; there are upscale boutique-like shops in multi-story malls and vendors' stalls in numerous markets.  However, most clothes sold this way are imported and highly marked-up, especially considering that they are usually of only middling quality.  Moreover, unless you have a slight build, you may struggle to find anything in your size (ask me how I know!).  The bigger you are (especially if you are a woman), the harder it will be to buy clothes that fit.  There are some gargantuan Mongolians - just look at the wrestlers - but most of the clothing in UB is imported from China and is laughably small for one of Valkyrie stock such as myself.

But there is no Sears in Mongolia!
A few places have imports from Europe and Turkey, notably Grand Plaza on Peace Avenue near the Ramada Hotel, but your selection will be limited.  Another challenge is that most places, especially the stalls in open-air markets or small boutiques, do not have fitting rooms.  How anyone manages to buy pants that fit when they can't try them on is a mystery to me.

One option is to get clothing made.  There are numerous tailors and seamstresses all over Ulaanbaatar and they charge relatively low prices for their work.  I've had a fitted dress deel made: my Mongolian teacher connected me to her seamstress and helped me buy the fabric; the seamstress and I agreed on a pattern, price, and timeline; I went for several fittings; and now I have a truly gorgeous two-piece dress deel.  My understanding is that most of these tailors and seamstresses are better for alterations, traditional clothing, and clothes made out of non-stretch fabric.  You may also have my experience: being that tailor or seamstress' first foreign client, meaning that they may struggle a bit with fitting a non-Mongolian body type.

There is a very strange rumor going around that Mongolia is a conservative country when it comes to dress.  In my experience, Mongolia is, in this respect, one of the least conservative countries one could come across, and its population is more fashion- and appearance-conscious than one might expect.  You absolutely do not need to cover up for modesty's sake - unless, of course, you are visiting a monastery - and there's nothing wrong with 4-inch heels, a miniskirt, and a plunging neckline if you so desire (just look around the streets of UB!).  As a foreigner, you may get more attention for this garb, but it's not because you're unseemly or breaking any cultural taboos.  Grimy backpacker clothes will probably attract more negative attention than bare shoulders. [Note: some entitled asshole may harass you and you may feel like it wouldn't happen if you wore more conservative clothing; do what makes you feel safe and comfortable, but know that it's not your fault and that you can get sexually harassed even when wearing a giant winter coat and anti-pollution mask - ask me how I know...]

Speaking of anti-pollution masks, anyone planning to spend time in Ulaanbaatar between November and March should plan to wear an anti-pollution mask any time that they are outdoors in the city.  [You should also bring an electronic air purifier for your apartment or plan to purchase one in UB.  It must have a HEPA-grade filter in order to be effective at the level required by UB air pollution.  I will devote a future post in the Mongolia Inside & Out series to health and safety in Mongolia, where I will give special attention to the air pollution crisis and personal management strategies.  In the mean time, you can find out more about your best options in Mongolia through Smart Air Filters Mongolia]

During winter Ulaanbaatar has the second-worst air pollution of any city in the world.  Worse than Beijing!  On bad days it is like walking through an endless tire fire, and the nights are always worse.  You will need a mask that can filter out the smallest particles, as these are the most carcinogenic.  Although designed for the Chinese context, this page compares available anti-pollution masks and lays out the biochemistry of urban air pollution.  Personally I wear a Respro Techno mask whenever I am outside during winter, and I change the filter every 3-4 weeks to account for the amount of particulate matter that gets trapped in the filter each day.  Currently several vendors distribute such masks in Ulaanbaatar, including the Respro line AKA the Bane masks.

Bane: my UB winter style icon

You will get stares when you wear your mask, maybe some laughs, yelps of surprise, and even frightened mutters.  Your health is more important than blending in; wrapping a scarf around the lower portion of your face will attract less attention if you are feeling sensitive to others' reactions.  More and more Mongolians in UB are wearing masks, although most are the largely-ineffective medical masks that do not filter out the carcinogenic particulate matter.  Experts now estimate that 1 in 10 deaths in UB are related to the air pollution, as are the soaring rates of asthma, respiratory infection, birth defects, and lung disease in the capital.  Two scholars - Chisato Fukuda and Christa Hasenkopf - study the effects of air pollution in Ulaanbaatar and I encourage you to check out their work.  Ulaanbaatar now has an interactive website that tracks air pollution levels at several stations across the city.  Anyone living in UB should definitely monitor these levels but, when in doubt, assume that the particulate levels are high enough that you should wear your mask.  Plus, wearing an anti-pollution mask will keep your face warm in -40 weather!

A few words on appearance beyond clothing:

-Tattoos probably won't get you any more grief than you already get from your grandmother.  I've seen lots of hip young Mongolians with huge, elaborate tattoos, and a smattering of those from older generations (mostly men but some women) with less ostentatious tattoos as well.

-Facial piercings may get you some stares, especially a septum piercing (which will elicit comparisons to a yak, camel, or cow behind your back, ouch!).  Your employer may ask you to take out your piercings, especially if you are working as a teacher.  On the other hand, earrings are standard for women and a number of young guys in various subcultures sport them as well.

-Makeup is certainly not a requirement in Mongolia although the majority of Mongolian women and girls wear a lot of makeup in Ulaanbaatar.  I now wear more makeup than at any point in my life, although this isn't entirely due to living in Mongolia (getting older, changing skin issues, etc.).  On the other hand, I (and probably other foreign women) have gotten passive-aggressive feedback on my appearance when it comes to makeup.  This mostly in the form of colleagues and friends making a point to tell me how nice I look when I wear full makeup, how much they like my makeup, and so forth.  Since I am a clumsy and unskilled makeup artist, this is well-intentioned indirect encouragement to get me to wear makeup everyday.

I'm right there with you, Tina

-Overall it's not a social faux-pas or masked slight in Mongolian to comment (even negatively) on someone's appearance the way it is in America.  If you work in an office or teach in a classroom, you may get some comments that feel rude.  While there are rude people everywhere, my experience is that this is a cultural difference that you can learn to navigate.  My recommendation is to take those comments with a grain of salt and let them go whenever you have the spoons to do so.  However, if you still feel bothered, find a way to explain to your friends and colleagues that, in your culture, comments about your appearance are considered inappropriate or hurtful.  People with good intentions, in Mongolia as anywhere else, will usually respond well.

With that in mind, the more your appearance deviates from what is considered 'the norm', the more likely you are to hear about it.  Plus, simply by virtue of being an obvious foreigner (especially if you are not of Asian descent), you will hear a variety of comments motivated by intentions good, bad, and downright baffling.  You can't do much about people on the street; adults and teenagers are more likely to say something hurtful,  but the (sometimes-hilarious) small children who blurt things out at you may be the most frequent commenters.  Little children in UB have squealed or shouted all the following at me, usually amidst peals of laughter, in Mongolian:

-"foreigner", constantly

-"Russian", mostly when I wear my faux-fur trapper hat

-"Muslim", when I wrap a scarf around my face and head to hide my anti-pollution mask

-"blue ninja" (my heavy winter scarf is blue and can be wrapped several times around my entire head) in Mongolian and in English.  This is hands-down my favorite and usually causes me to laugh along with them.

-"scary" (giant trapper hat + giant black coat + pollution mask + dark glasses = scary).  They have a fair point...

-"Bane".  Of course.

Mongolian fashion and traditional apparel:

But enough about foreigners - what are Mongolians wearing these days?  Lots of different things, as presentation and fashion are functions of age, gender, class, personal taste, and numerous other factors.  I will point out some fashion highlights of Ulaanbaatar 2013-2015 just to set the scene.  The single greatest motivation to get a smartphone in Ulaanbaatar is to surreptitiously record the amazing fashion, accessories, and hairstyles that the citizens sport on the streets every day.  Since I have ethical qualms about taking someone's photo without their knowledge (and I'm poor), I haven't gotten a smartphone or started a campaign of guerrilla street fashion photography.  But I admit that I am sorely tempted!

Let me paint a few pictures with words, describing as best as I can some personal favorite trends over the last 2+ years:

1)  The statement T-shirts.  There are so many legendary examples that I can't pick just one!

-"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?" guy.  Block print, all-caps.  What, indeed.

-"It's science, fool".  Condescending and confrontational, like Professor Snape.

-"Don't touch me, my uncle is in the ARMY".  Whoa, the ARMY?  That sounds even more serious than the Army.

-Many, many iterations of "f*ck": in a sentence, stand alone, with an exclamation point, in all-caps.  It's everyone's favorite English word!

2)  Marijuana leaf hats worn by children under the age of 14.  This was a hot trend (in my neighborhood, at least) in spring and summer 2014.  For every adult male wearing a pot-leaf hat, I saw at least three little boys wearing a junior's version.  Considering Mongolia's draconian drug laws, I'm betting that this was a case of widespread societal naivete.

3)  Neon.  Neon was IN during the winter of 2013: blinding pink, electric yellow, violent green.  Did this happen in the US, too?

4)  "Reindeer" fur boots.  Some of these boots are legit reindeer fur, others are made from the coats of China's more unfortunate dogs :/

5)  Drop crotch pants.  I drafted a post about ultra-hip young dudes in UB and their drop crotch pants back in November 2013.  That is how much that trend meant to me!

6)  "My So-Called Life"

You could do worse in terms of fashion inspiration
The dream of the 90s may be alive in Portland, but the fashion of the 90s has been resurrected in UB to spectacular effect.  The hipsters here look amazing in flannel, long lanky hair, loose-fitting stone-washed jeans, and combat boots.  The next logical step in this evolution of fashion is clearly "Clueless":

Still adorable 20-odd years later

Let's take a moment to talk about the national dress of Mongolia, the deel (pronounced 'dell').  If one looks through archival photographs, early modern paintings, and the few medieval outfits preserved in caves and arid-climate burials, the historical continuity of the deel is readily apparent.  But like with any garment, its particularities have changed with fashion trends; today there are a number of types of deel suited to different wearers and occasions, made out of different types of fabric, and tailored with different cuts and lengths.

Three gentlemen in traditional mens' deel at the danshig naadam in July 2015
(photo courtesy of Reade L.)

Unlike many other traditional outfits around the world, the deel is in many ways a unisex outfit.  Deel colors are not gendered and therefore men in traditional outfits are not restricted to the narrow color palette of the Western patriarchy.  Gentlemen rock deep magenta, Pepto-Bismol pink, shiny lavender, and peach deel at all ages.  While elaborate dress deel for men may look rather different than women's formal dress deel (especially for fashionable young ladies in UB), couples can now get matching deel and traditional men's and women's deel are, to an inexpert eye, only distinguishable by the belt.  The traditional belt is a long colorful piece of fabric, usually brilliant yellow or orange, coordinated with the color of the deel. A traditional men's belt is much longer than a women's and worn lower (below the waist), whereas the shorter women's belt is worn tighter and at the waist.  Both men and women also wear a variety of leather belts; the men's is much thicker and often adorned with a large buckle and other silver decorations.

Badamkhatan egch and I wore cashmere deel on Shinii Gurvan, Tsagaan Sar 2014

Hats are extremely important in traditional Mongolian society.  Donning a full outfit for Naadam, Tsagaan Sar, or a significant event or ceremony necessitates a hat be worn.  When Mongolians conduct official greetings and gift exchanges - particularly during Tsagaan Sar - both parties must wear hats.  A complete wrestler's outfit (see below) includes a very particular kind of hat full of symbolism; the treatment of a wrestler's hat - worn into the ring, plucked off the wrestler's head by a coach or referee, held carefully for the entirety of the match, and placed back on the wrestler's head as he exits the match - is a very important component of the ceremony of official Mongolian wrestling.  Archers also wear hats during competition, but I am not sure if the rules governing their hats are as strict or as complex.  Mongolian culture contains a number of hat-related taboos, including: do not step over someone's hat, do not toss someone's hat to him or her, do not pick up someone's hat without his or her permission.  One reason for the importance of hats and the taboos surrounding the treatment of hats has to do with the belief that one's khiimor' (akin to mojo, spiritual energy, or life-force) is concentrated at the top of the head, which collects in one's hat due to the constant and close proximity.  Few people in Ulaanbaatar wear hats for day-to-day life in nice weather, but the hats invariably come out during cold weather or for special occasions.

Last but not least, the Mongolian wrestler's outfit:

The shorts, vest, and hat with the tassels of an accomplished Mongolian wrestler, who is warming up before a match with the traditional eagle dance
 Legend has it that the Mongolian wrestling outfit was developed to prevent women from competing in the sport; specifically, a Mongol princess (sometimes the daughter of Qaidu or another Chinggisid) was so talented at wrestling and so resistant to marriage that she declared, "I will marry the man who beats me in the ring, but any man I best must give me 10 horses!".  She died unmarried with a herd of over 1,000 horses, or so the story goes.  After this, Mongol men were keen to avoid future embarrassment, and required all wrestlers to wear the vest that would expose a woman's breasts, thereby excluding them from competition.

Two younger wrestlers locked in combat as another competitor watches.  Their distinctive and ornate traditional wrestling boots are on full display.

From a technical perspective, the wrestler's outfit minimizes the places where an opponent can grip, forcing wrestlers to develop high-level grappling and throwing techniques that do not rely on finding purchase with just any grab.

And there you have it - all of my pertinent thoughts when it comes to what (not) to wear during your time in Mongolia.  In future posts in the Mongolia Inside & Out series I'll return to some of the topics and issues raised here, especially the air pollution in Ulaanbaatar, but this should be ample material to help you pack your bags and prepare for what you'll see when you arrive.  In the mean time, wear what makes you happy enough to dance like this:

Janelle Monae and Jidenna, setting the bar high as usual


  1. Wonderful! I love your humor and the content is fabulous.I'm heading to Mongolia twice this year and will heed your advice.

    1. I love that you love my humor :D Sorry it took me a year to reply, but once Mongolian Time enters your heart, it never truly leaves...Have a wonderful time in the Land of Eternal Blue Heaven!

  2. hi i am planning to go next year..
    i would like to know mongolia more from you.
    where did you tailor your deel?
    how long and how much did it cost you? do they hv the material in the shop? can you pm me in my email?

    many thanks...
    from cher

    1. Hi Cher,

      1) I last visited the tailor who made my most recent deel in 2015, so I couldn't say if she still has her shop in Sansar (a district of Ulaanbaatar east of the center of town). Your bigger issue is communicating with your tailor; you will need someone with strong Mongolian language skills to explain what you want and to have the tailor explain what she can/will do.
      If you want a hand-tailored deel while you are in Mongolia, I would recommend asking for help from Mongolian friends, colleagues, or students. You can also browse the selection of pret-a-porter deels at Narantuul market (lots of options in style and color, good prices, but watch the pickpockets!), the State Department Store (more limited selection and higher prices), and Dunjingarav market.
      2) I can't recall the price but a hand-tailored deel is not cheap; a pret-a-porter deel will be less expensive, but a nice one will not necessarily be cheap, either. Plan to buy the material at a fabric store (there is a shop building in Sansar where Ikh Toiruu intersects with Peace Ave on the NW corner of the street with many, many kiosks selling fabric and other materials you would need to sew a deel from scratch) *after* you have your deel design in mind. My tailor had a book of deel options that we went through together with the help of my beloved and esteemed Mongolian language teacher. I would highly recommend that you go with a Mongolian to translate and help you through the process!
      3) Time is a funny thing in Mongolia. If you get a firm estimate from your tailor, mentally add a week to that date as a minimum. You should also plan to return to the tailor at least once for a refitting.
      4) I have two pret-a-porter deels in two very different designs and materials, and two tailored hand-made deels in very different designs but similar material. The pret-a-porter deels can be stunning and totally fit you, if you go with someone who can help you with fit at the shoulder, the sleeves, and overall length. If you are in a hurry or the tailor process sounds overwhelming, go with a pret-a-porter deel.
      5) Last but not least: do not forget the right belt! You absolutely cannot wear a traditional deel without a belt. Here you should again ask a Mongolian friend's help in picking a belt that will suit your deel (leather vs. fabric, traditional vs. tailored part of your outfit).

      Good luck! / Amjilt husey!