What movies get wrong about dressing for my job

When I first went to put together my wardrobe for my very first stint on an archaeological field school—everyone I chatted up online about it beforehand would just recommend “khaki,” make a joke about wearing a pith helmet, and leave me to my panicked thrift store shopping.

Turning to movies was no help either. In fact, the advice from pop culture was even worse. According to the wardrobe department of the best archaeology films and TV shows, women working abroad on scientific research, environmental projects, archaeological excavations, and humanitarian work all wear the same thing—a bikini, a white shirt, and, yep, you guessed it: khakis.

It looks great on women in action movies trotting through a steamy jungle with a machete—but it’s actually not so much with the practical when you wear it as work gear in the remote regions of the world.

Sure, Marion looks killer in white during her stint in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But it’s pretty hard to keep anything white white when you’re stuck hand-washing your clothes at a campsite. At the very least opt for something already off-white.

Unless you’re doing some kind of marine biology or other underwater work, you’re going to be endlessly uncomfortable in that bikini top on land, and far better off in a sports bra. I’m pretty sure that’s exactly why sports bras were invented and yet you don’t see Penelope Cruz in the fabulously underrated Sahara wearing one.

Not only are those kind of skimpy fashions not very practical for long days in the beating sun and dust, but they’re also likely to offend the local sensibilities of the conservative communities you’re working in. Plus, it’s kind of boring. Even Lara Croft mixes it up with a different color top occasionally, though she too is far from the realistic fashion role model a lady needs when she’s out in the trenches digging, lugging heavy machinery around, and coordinating the inevitable clipboards and gadgets that somehow coalesce together into scientific research.

Seriously—Lara’s short shorts would simultaneously offend the nearest village and ride up your bum were you to wear them to do any actual work. It’s a wonder she ever managed to raid a tomb at all wandering around as conspicuously as she does. Okay, it’s based on a video game I know, but still.

After years of archaeological field work in the Middle East and Europe, I’ve come to a wardrobe compromise that keeps the tone of ‘adventure fashion’ while still being practical, comfortable, and most importantly, me. Here is how I figured out how to dress for work in an environment that demands more than business casual.

What I wear depends on where in the world I’m working.

You’d be surprised at how many people over the years have turned up for two month field seasons in freezing cold weather without anything but their regular jeans, a stack of t-shirts and tennis shoes. It’ll be a lot more comfortable for you if you knew to bring along a jacket and extra leggings to ward off the early morning chills (archaeo-field seasons typically kick off at ridiculous-o-clock in the cold early morning). Or alternatively, if you’ve opted for light weight fabrics that will handle any kind of extreme heat if your weather promises are of a sunnier nature.

It’s also much easier on you observe local rules— like not showing your shoulders off when you’re working among the Bedouin of Jordan or playing around in Italian churches. Not only will it keep arguments from breaking out, but if the locals love you—you’re more likely to have their cooperation, enthusiasm, and sources for the top tips on where to eat and what to see in the area.

My solution to everything is leggings.

I hate pants. I know. It’s a bit random. But I’m far more at home in leggings and a dress than in hardcore outdoorsy style pants. I therefore try to mitigate that as much as possible. Sometimes a pants-heavy field season is unavoidable (like the aforementioned two month desert winter scenarios), but other times, you can slip in work-appropriate alternatives, like leggings and shorts, leggings and dresses, and well…did I mention how much I heart leggings? They might not be for everyone. But the important thing is that you choose the types of clothing that works best for you. If you’re going for an adventure, you don’t want to worry about feeling uncomfortable in your own shoes.

The most important work attire I own are my boots. 

Hiking boots are probably going to be a must-have for most international adventures—whether you’re volunteering to build wells in Africa or walking round Macchu Picchu with a study abroad group, hiking boots are your best bet. Get good ones. And wear them in a bit before you go. There is nothing as painful as the first day in the field in brand new boots. Except perhaps the second day.

But those hiking boots aren’t the only shoes you should bring. A sturdy pair of flip-flops goes a long way towards making sure you have in-between shoes in camp, and something you can wear in any dodgy showers or to to any nearby beaches (always track down those nearby beaches, wherever you are roaming). I’m quite partial to packing a pair of brightly colored ballet flats too. They come in handy for any professional meetings that crop up abroad, for any in-door conservation work I’ve done on historic buildings, and are the best shoes to wear on a plane. Plus. Brightly colored.

But really, I decide what’s professional. And that’s the bottom line. 

You don’t get to take many pieces of clothing with you on fieldwork projects, so it’s important to be thoughtful about what you do take. I’ve learned to play with colors, embrace leopard print, and express myself whenever I can. I firmly believe we should all be creating our own fashion norms of what is professional and what is appropriate for us to wear in our place of business—whether that’s an office in an urban jungle or a campsite in an actual jungle.

Don’t let patriarchal pop culture dictate what you wear. The only time you should be wearing a bikini on fieldwork is if you’re actually swimming, or on laundry day.

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