How Important is Appearance in Thailand? The Way You Look is Everything

thai dress traditional
While Thais certainly don’t expect you to dress like this, a nice appearance is still very important in Thailand – copyright Mattes, Public Domain

Many western newcomers planning on teaching in Thailand hear the phrase “appearance is everything in Thai culture” but, even having heard it, they still don’t always understand how important it is. What that phrase means is, above everything else, the way you look and the way you dress is vital in Thailand, not only when it comes to getting a teaching job but in your every day life as well.

Appearance in Thailand, if you are a teacher in particular, is more important than your education, how intelligent you are, how many years teaching experience you have, how motivated you are and even how good a teacher you are. If you do not dress appropriately and do not ‘look the part’, your chances of even getting a teaching job in Thailand will diminish and the respect you receive from Thais will disappear right along with them.

Why is appearance so important in Thailand? – In the 12 years I’ve lived in Thailand, I’ve asked this question to literally hundreds of Thais as I’m fascinated by how immaculate most of them look — even the poorest of the poor.

Responses, of course, differ from Thai friends telling me they don’t want to look like day laborers, so wearing clean, pressed and perfect clothing is a must, to Thai business contacts saying it is absolutely vital if you want to be successful in business in Thailand. Even more vital than the knowledge you have or the customer service you provide.

In fact, in many instances in Thailand, if you don’t ‘look the part’ for whatever career you plan on being in, you won’t even make it out of the starting gate. That, of course, goes for westerners in Thailand who plan on getting jobs as teachers as well.

What kind of appearance should a teacher have in Thailand?

Whether male or female, there are specific ways a teacher should dress in Thailand so that their appearance conforms to what each school expects. Throughout Thailand, with a few minor differences, each school will require teachers, both Thai and non-Thai, to all dress the same way.

That means, even though Thailand is incredibly hot, you had better be willing to dress the way the school expects you to or you’ll find yourself not employed at any school for long.

Dress for female teachers in Thailand – As appearance is so important for teachers in Thailand, for female teachers it’s even more important, particularly when some western women planning on teaching in Thailand think spaghetti strap shirts, mini skirts and flip flops are ‘acceptable’. They’re not.

Women teaching in Thailand will be expected to wear skirts that are at least knee-length, conservative blouses with three-quarter or long sleeves, and full shoes with a small heel. Back-less sandals and flip flops are not allowed. The only blessing to this is at least Thai schools don’t expect their teachers to wear pantyhose.

Bras should never show, either straps or through the shirt fabric, and neither should nipples, so padded bras are required. Cleavage, of course, is an absolute no-no.

Some schools do allow their female teachers to wear slacks, but these schools are rare. Jeans are never allowed, even on ‘casual Fridays’.

Dress for male teachers in Thailand

Appearance is just as important for male teachers in Thailand, and dress is just as conservative.

Male teachers, Thai and non-Thai, will be expected to wear dress slacks with a short-sleeved or long-sleeved shirt. Full, conservative shoes in a dark color (no sandals, ever) and dark-colored socks. The rare school also expects their male teachers to wear a tie, but most schools don’t — again, at least one concession to ridiculously hot Thailand.

Shorts are not allowed and neither are tank tops. Even if you’re teaching sports, most teachers will be expected to wear well-cut sweat pants and a short-sleeved sports shirt. In fact, in all the schools I’ve taught in, the only time I’ve ever seen a Thai male teacher in shorts was during Scout camp, when the teachers and the students all wore shorts that were part of the Scouts uniform.

Cleanliness – If there is a cleaner race on the planet than the Thais, I’ve yet to find it. Thais are always clean and never smell, except of baby powder or a light perfume, which is likely because most Thais take at least two and usually three showers a day. Thailand is a hot country and you sweat a lot, so copious showering and anti-perspirant is practically mandatory.

The appearance of a teacher in Thailand is not just important when it comes to how they look, but also how they smell – or don’t. You should never smell of cigarette smoke, alcohol or body odor. If you do, you are likely to notice Thai students stay away from you and your Thai colleagues may at some point comment.

One Thai school I worked at used to pull western teachers into the principal’s office if they smelled and warn them it had better not happen again. If it did, they could expect to never see a contract renewal from that school at the end of the semester.

It’s also advisable to save your partying for the weekend as, if you’ve been drinking a lot of alcohol, the smell of it will often emit from your pores when you sweat.

I’ve worked with western teachers in Thailand who reeked of booze every day at school, and not one of them lasted more than a few weeks in the job before the Thai school asked them to leave.

Respect for teachers in Thailand – Teachers are highly respected in Thailand and, thus, are expected to act and dress a certain way. Conservative dress and a clean body are mandatory if you expect to get a good teaching job in Thailand and keep it.

If you can dress and appear the way Thai schools demand however, you can not only expect to recive a high level of respect from students, their parents and the Thai staff at the school, but in your every day life in Thailand as well.

With that respect often comes better paying jobs and longer tenures so, in most cases, it’s not only nice it’s advantageous as well.