What is the difference between how people dress in the UK and the US?

posted in: Style advice | 31

I read lots of fashion and dressmaking blogs and I have noticed that the styles that are worn in the UK, US and Australasia seem different. I am not sure what it is, but when you look at a photograph you almost always know if the wearer is “local”. In fact when I was organising a shopping trip to Hackney in East London I started scanning through Instagram looking for photos of people who were in England, preferably London so I could invite them. What was I looking for? Sometimes clues like countryside or background, but there are other tell tale clues.

What are the essential differences between nations or cultures in terms of how they dress? Obviously weather is important. Every part of the US is to the South of Britain, and in most parts of the US and Australia the longer days and sunny weather creates many more opportunities to wear shorts, dresses and casual sporty clothes. The UK with its generally dull, damp and often chilly climate tends to require coats, jackets, long trousers and thick tights and shoes. But of course there is something else too.

When, back in the 1970s, I had a couple of American “pen pals” or “pen friends” as we called them, they would send me a school or college photograph which was unlike anything I had ever seen. Taken by a professional photographer, their hair was impossibly glossy and apparently blow dried (at the time my hair was washed with some economy lemon product and dried in front of the fire), wearing a little pink lipstick, with pressed clothes, a smudgy blue or mauve background and amazing teeth. Our school pictures – wearing horrible uniforms, often spotty with gappy teeth and terrible haircuts, – would not cross the Atlantic.

I thought I would set a quiz. Can you tell me whether pictures A or B in each section are from the UK or the US. And what was the give away for you?

Firstly here are the students – bearing in mind that certainly in the UK (and I assume in the US too) we have very large numbers of overseas students, so this may not be fair. Which is taken in the UK and which is the US?

Let’s have a look at some working men and women. But first, listen to an American friend who now lives here to give me his opinion. He said

“British people like worn clothes, whereas Americans prefer new. Not just worn, but ideally a bit crumpled, not too sleek, and ideally mismatched. They do actually wear tweed, and pink shirts which I never saw in the US. Having a very nice suit that looks like you  slept in it the night before is perfect, with bonus points if the tie and the shirt subtly clash.”

Now look at the picture and decide which is the City and which is Wall Street, A or B?

How about the mothers – Moms or Mums? Both groups are sitting in the park with their littlies. How do you know which country they come from they are from?

My friend continued.

“Of course different parts of the country have their own codes, and different classes and political views have their preferences. But there is a much stronger emphasis in the US on youth culture, college sports. warmer weather helps. We do like labels. Additionally the silicon valley look is that of an average electrical engineering student. I would say the UK is more formal with fewer jeans and less dress down Friday.You seldom will see a London in a coat that is brighter than black. Seriously, almost all overcoats are black. Several times I have walked into town wearing Khakis and have noticed that I am the only person wearing light-coloured trousers. Everyone else is wearing dark blue or black trousers – often denim, but never anything lighter than navy. “

Mrs Mole mentioned Cowboy boots on women, for weddings, which I have never, ever seen in the UK. Also while baseball caps are catching on a bit the style we have over here seems different to me – especially in term of the peak. Hoodies, shorts and a beenie?
My fourth picture is of black and ethnic minority business men and women. This may be tougher, but look at the clothes. Any obvious differences you can see?

Of course globalisation means we are all buying, eating and wearing the same products and the same global brands. My husband likes the Preppy Ralph Loren look, but toned down with an old Barbour. The now fashionable notion in the UK of buying local, and celebrating our own special products is a reaction to McDonalds on every corner. The One year One outfit project is really strong on the idea of only using what is local to you. Here is a great piece by English Girl at home on what UK products you can buy in the UK. 

Finally can you tell the old folks/senior citizens apart? Although the clothes are very similar there is something detectable here. Is it the hair? You tell me.

 The Answers
Thank you for all your amazingly interesting comments below. The suit with loafers and no socks is a very British thing at the moment Nakisha. You spotted lots of things I had missed – coffee v tea, the newspaper, how people hold their knives and forks . The correct answers to all of them were given by a few of you – Rosa, Ruth Ann, Helene, Stephanie – well done. UK people are ABBBA; the Americans are BAAAB.

31 Responses

  1. Hila

    Your post fascinates me for 2 reasons: my husband is American and I did a PhD on national cultures and whether these are detectable. Like most research the outcomes have limitations. I found the mothers easy to tell apart. From my holidays in US with that side of the family I have always felt frumpy with my car boot and charity shop years old clothes. They have a shiny sheen to what they wear as well as their kids. Hair glossy with near perfect teeth. So picture A i think is US. The students I think pic A is UK. I have noticed American men wear chinos a lot. Something i dont see as much here (though i live in Northern england so it might be a regional thing). Its the chinos.
    The elderly are tricky but I just think pic B is US – something about the checked shirt. I cant tell for the black businesspeople because the age groups are quite different . But if I had to guess Pic B is UK? As for Manhattan have no idea – Pic A is US maybe.

  2. Angela

    My guess is the US is B, A, A, A, B. Very interesting. I do think weather plays a bigger role in how we dress than it is given credit for. I have always lived in the southern US, so linens and cottons along with looser styles suit my climate more. And sometimes it seems the warmer the climate, the brighter the clothes, the more relaxed the body language and facial features even. It seems to me that (at least the bloggers I read) those in the UK prefer very fitted clothing. In general, I think the US and Australia have a little more relaxed silhouette, partly because we are trying to stay cool (vs. trying to stay warm:).

  3. Lara

    This is tricky for me, maybe because I live in Australia! But I’ll have a go. First one, the students – A is UK. Next, the workers – A is UK. The third one, the mums – B is UK. Fourth picture – A is UK. And the last one, the older people – A is UK.

    So really, I have no idea in such a direct comparison – although I do agree with you, I generally have an impression about where people are from in blogland from their photos. But I’m not always correct.

  4. Jenn

    Another Aussie here and I have no idea of the first three, but the fourth I would say that A are the Americans, I follow a few American bloggers and notice the pantsuit is still very much workwear for women over there. As for the older folk, A are English because she is in beige (and I have never seen so much elderly beige than in England:) )

  5. Susan

    This is a very interesting post, and I also usually have a general idea about where people come from by looking at their photos. However, I do think that fashions in the US vary by region. When I visit family in the Midwest of America I rarely see anyone not dressed in jeans, track suit bottoms, t shirts, and trainers. I have frequently seen people shopping in their pyjamas. I know girls who have had the professional photographer take their school photos, but will go to a party dressed in a fleece jacket and trainers. Yet I read several dressmaking blogs written by people in the US who are sewing beautiful garments and wearing them. Is it regional, or are there other influences that determine how we choose to dress?

  6. Julie

    In the photo of the older people the clue is the way they hold the knife and fork, I think A is definitely the UK because Americans can’t use a knife and fork properly. I was very interested in this article as I have been giving this some thought recently, I am going to Miami in 2 weeks and saving as hard as possible so I can hit the shops but then suddenly thought ‘what if I don’t like American clothes’. I am not a casual, sporty style person which springs to mind when I think of Americans, also I am conscious that the climate in Hull is very different to Miami so must not get carried away with too many warm weather items. Now I am worrying about the things I am going to wear while I am there, don’t want to stick out as a Brit abroad!

  7. Anne Frances

    How fascinating. And yes, I have noticed differences in what people in the US and the UK sew and apparently wear. So for your pictures: students. A (left hand) is UK, B is US (brighter colours, more formal, more skirts/dresses. Workers A is UK – thicker coats/jackets, a bit more dishevelled. Mothers and Children A is USA – brighter colours, more glossy. Business people – A is USA I think – brighter colours, but that one is really difficult. Elderly – B is USA – check shirt, haircuts and the shape of the faces. Hope you will let us know and look forward to seeing what others think!. Anne

  8. thedementedfairy

    INteresting post! I’d say that the US pics are BBAAB. Reasons:
    1] Brightly dressed students do not appear in the UK
    2] Better haircuts in US
    3] Soccer moms!
    4] Women in brighter colours, but more ‘mumsy’ somehow
    5] Roast dinner!

  9. mrsmole

    I’m with thedementedfairy, BBAAB and having lived in both the UK for 8 years and the US/Canada for many of the rest, the colors give it away and perfect teeth. When I lived in the north of England, I was told not to wear jeans downtown, jeans were for washing the dog or gardening and never proper for a 40 year old woman to appear in public like that. My casual clothes were put away until I returned to the US. Like Angela mentioned…depending on your area in the US, we dress to stay cool so cottons and linens well pressed are the norm and good haircuts since hats are not so common. You would rarely see an older woman wearing a plaid wool skirt like the woman sitting down in the last photo and it would be replaced with long pants. The two older folks look like are dressing like their grandparents before them…traditional bland cashmere sweaters/jumpers…a dead giveaway. Growing up in the 50’s US dress was much more formal, think Jackie O in the White House, but once the Swinging 60’s took over we were free to add color and less structure and many clothes could do double-duty, hence the term “day to evening” or “office to night-on-the-town” where before clothes had time/venue and occasion restrictions.

  10. Cherry

    I’m a Brit by birth, have lived in the US for 20 years, but Mid-Atlantic where we still get four seasons of weather. Well, at least three, sometimes Spring skips a year. I do a lot of fashion sewing, so this post got me thinking. I agree with Mrs Mole in her choices, but I also think that the photographers in the US photos, assuming I have them right, have made a better job of composition of their photos, and this may be influencing me. Or perhaps that’s just another symptom of US/UK style.
    I fight with my former self: “I could make a good wool skirt, here’s a lovely piece of cloth”. “Who wears a good wool skirt nowadays?” “But I could make it shorter and wear with flat boots and tights”. “You’d only wear it once, twice max” and so on…….

  11. Elle C

    This post is fascinating! As a Canadian, we seem to fall somewhere between the American and UK style of dress, and even that varies by the season. Where I live it can get as cold as -20C in the winter, and in the summer it can get as high as +40C. We dress more like Brits in the winter, and Americans and Australians in the summer. I would love to see a comparison of Americans in the southern US and Australians, Americans in the north and Canadians, etc. I am not up to the challenge as I live in a small bland community and my eye doesn’t see the subtleties of dress easily. Anyone up to the challenge?

    Anyway on to my guesses.

    1. Right American. Brightly coloured clothes.
    2. No idea. Maybe American on the right.
    3. Left American.
    4. Left American.
    5. Right American. Plaid shirt and American football in the newspaper, and the use of knife and fork.

  12. Stephanie

    Such interesting comments. Most people have already said what I would have said. I especially appreciated Elle’s comparison of Canadians and Americans, which I think is true. Travelling frequently to Europe, too, I would describe Europeans as more understated in their dress and Americans as more casual, bold in terms of colour palette, and more coiffed/made up. And of course there are those teeth!

    The workers could go either way, but based on a few of the haircuts on the men I would pick B for the UK between those photos so I’m with Angela in selecting BAAAB.

    Just a note on Americans in Florence. The Americans are easy to spot as the college students always wear shorter, skimpier, more brightly-coloured dresses (plus flip flops), even when it isn’t that warm. I always want to give them my coat! I wonder if it’s just that they come unprepared? Gianni always comments, “Aren’t they cold?” An Italian in comparable weather would wear skinny jeans and boots with a tailored shirt or cashmere sweater. The British students tend to blend in a bit more or wear a more bohemian look in the spring/summer. The dead giveaway of a middle-aged American man for me is that they wear white running shoes/trainers with jeans (often crisp). You didn’t show any shoes! The women, when they travel, are generally more coiffed and styled, and will wear status items/brands like Hermes scarves, etc. That said, plenty also travel wearing fleece and North Face jackets, etc., especially if travelling with children.There’s a lot of regional variation, and variation based on age, region of origin, education, etc.

    Funny story: I lived with a girl from Mississippi when I lived in Washington, D.C. I remember one time we were sitting around and she said to me, “You must love living in Canada, as you are attractive and the girls there are all so unattractive” (based on one trip to Toronto, I think). I puzzled over that comment for a long time, as the multiculturalism in Toronto means that there are plenty of lovely girls. The southern girls were much more coiffed and styled though and so I suspect it meant something more like that, as our look tends to be a bit more sporty/natural (not always, but generally).

  13. oonaballoona

    this is so interesting!! i’m going to go with americans as a,a,b for the first three– as for the last two, it’s a toss up, because 1) black folks know how to dress, and 2) older wiser folks know how to dress.


  14. Hélène

    Hey, what an interesting post. I think the US pictures are : 2-1-1-1-2. The last one was the trickiest one, but the cup of tea vs the coffee mug gave it away. As far as I know, the Web has contributed to level off fashion frontiers. I live in Québec and I remember visiting Paris in the ’80s with a student group: we looked like farmers coming to town. Now, when we go to Paris, I can say that the fashion trends are very similar and we don’t feel we are lagging behind.

  15. Sew It Or Throw It

    Ooh what a fun game! I called my husband over to play over my shoulder, here’s what we came up with:
    Students: left is UK, right is US. We agreed on this one, I think it has to do with the way the girls are lined up in the right hand picture, the feet all in a row, looks very sorority, like this lined-up pose is something that’s become automatic through repetition.
    Next picture: left is Wall Street, right is City. We disagreed on this one, he thought is was the reverse, because of the light in the photo, I was looking at haircuts mostly.
    Moms vs Mums: I thought mums on the left, moms on the right, because that’s how the moms group I was in looked, all sitting everywhichaway, each focused on their own kid instead of on the group as a social event, while he thought the moms were on the left because they were “on” for the camera! Oh how embarrassing.
    For business men and women we agreed the right is the UK, based on the slim cut of the men’s suits.
    For old folks, we agreed the right hand picture is the US, but couldn’t think of why. The plaid maybe? Oh and that guy is reading about football, maybe that’s it.
    How interesting! I love that you were looking through Instagram to identify locals based on their clothing! That’s some costume design level stuff right there.

  16. Nakisha

    I’m an American and I think:


    I also found it funny, as a Black professional, that with the Black professionals, I was unsure! I ultimately decided that I don’t know any guys who would wear a suit with loafers and no socks. Ha!

  17. C

    Here is a different point of view from a Mexican who works with American people every day:

    1. B, light color and shoes give it away.
    2. No opinion, I opened the photos in a new tab to see them bigger and the title gave me the answer.
    3. A, hair is distinctive american.
    4. A, clothes color and shoes are the difference.
    5. I think B, I’m not sure.

    This was fun!

  18. Annieloveslinen

    I agree with Hila and a surprised that it was easy to differentiate yet had I been asked I would’ve said that I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. The choices were instinctive maybe I subliminally notice these things.

  19. RuthAnn

    Fascinating! I studied anthropology in school and am interested in fashion. I live in the US. I read blogs from all over and it seems to me that Americans usually dress more casually. However, when I was in Ireland and the U.K recently, I made a game of guessing where the people I met on the street were from. Often I couldn’t tell until they spoke. Whereas when I visited Paris a number of years ago, it was clear who the Americans were. In any case, my guesses are the UK photos are ABBBA. In the last photo, the headlines in the newspaper helped but in the other photos I went mostly by dress and, in some cases, facial characteristics. Enjoying reading the comments and looking forward to the reveal!

  20. Rosa

    Such an interesting post!
    Although there are less and less differences between what people wear anywhere, I think there is a touch of “national style” to the clothes we wear.
    I’d say that UK pictures are
    A– Still remember my time studying in the UK!!
    B– “City” people!!
    B– The hair and toothy smile of picture A is very American.
    B– The guys’ suits tell the difference.
    A– The lady’s cardigan screams UK! The haircuts of both.
    All on pure (european) instinct!

  21. Theresa in Tucson

    I’m not going to comment on UK vs US but US vs Europe. We went to Germany in 2011. We lived there in the late 80s, early 90s as military. What we noticed about the young people was, that we could not really tell who was local and who was not until they spoke. One exception, though, not as many tattoos. H&M was everywhere and we were visiting Heidelberg, a college town, and they all looked like our college students to me, With the older folks it was much easier to tell who was who. And yes, there are very great regional differences in the US. I live in the southwest, and we live in casual clothes, jeans, sandals, boots (Rodeo Week is coming up and we will all be dressed for that) and pretty bright colors. It’s a big city, but not urban. More condensed areas with larger populations have a different style.
    Theresa in Tucson

  22. Alli

    Ooh, how fun! I’m looking forward to seeing the answers tomorrow! My guesses are:

    students: B, A
    business people: A, B
    moms: A, B
    minorities: A, B
    senior citizens: A, B (I think the “Sporting” in the newspaper gave that one away 😀 )

  23. Sarah Liz

    I’ll do the students and the mums – A, students, UK, I dress like that still (I’m UK born). And the Mums, B, UK. Australians in these groups tend to dress in much the same way, excepting the climate is different, so it might be shorts and thongs for students and mums.

  24. Kim Hood

    The only one I got wrong was the city/wall st, but the others I was surprised to have right. I went pretty much on instinct but if I was forced to give an opinion I would say that the UK pictures showed a more relaxed and fun nation. Not what I expected at all.

  25. Sheila Harvey-Larmar

    I guessed them all correctly although some were more obvious than others – can you imagine a UK student in a shirt and tie?! I also actually put a photo on my blog last year from when we went racing at Royal Ascot; the first time I had noticed the trend in the UK for skinny-cut suits with loafers and no socks. Odd. I didn’t know there was any other way to use a knife and fork though, can anyone enlighten me as to the US way?

  26. Rosa

    I had some advantage as I lived in London for 3 years and have travelled to the US quite frequently for business.
    Loafers with no socks have been in style down here (in Spain) for years! This year you can see young people wearing sneakers with the shortest ankle socks you may think of in Winter! Their ankles get purple because of the cold.
    Happy to know my instinct was right!

  27. Elizabeth

    I know I’m late but —

    1. American guy in baggy pleated khakis on the extreme right. No chance of finding that in the UK, that is a classic US telltale style. That I hate and wish would die.
    2. Much tech on display in the US.
    3. US moms are barefoot.
    4. I guessed right but looking again as to why, I see that none of the black British women are wearing trousers. Perhaps that’s something I subconsciously noted in Britain.
    5. Dinner/forks and the plaid of the American man’s shirt.

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