International Students Face Fashion Culture Shock in Madrid

On leaving the US, Students pack sweatpants and leggings but find themselves returning home with a Zara scarf or trench coat
Anuj Gandhi with a black thrifted leather jacket he thrifted in Madrid alongside a women’s suit jacket that he uses as a shirt thrifted in Saint Louis. He knew exactly how to pose during this five-second photoshoot, which was terrifyingly admirable.
Anuj Gandhi with a black thrifted leather jacket he thrifted in Madrid alongside a women’s suit jacket that he uses as a shirt thrifted in Saint Louis. He knew exactly how to pose during this five-second photoshoot, which was terrifyingly admirable.
Valerie Rosqueta

Linen pants. Satin tops. A knit sweater, oversized, but not swaddling. A black flight jacket; it’s thrifted, of course. He stowed his life in one checked bag and carry-on, with plenty of room for new stories. Anuj Gandhi knew the fashion standards would differ between Madrid and the lecture rooms of Morrissey Hall. He was ready for the demand. Gandhi, a senior psychology major, sports a self-proclaimed “soft-academia” style, one he wanted to supplement–but not substitute–with European clothing.

“When you look good, you feel good, and you do good, so I intentionally chose clothes that reflect my own style while still adapting to European norms,” Gandhi said. “There were pieces I needed once in Europe, like blanket scarves. Trench coats too, but I could never wear the sunglasses.”

Studying abroad is an exciting—and challenging—moment in a students university career. They must navigate a different campus, language, and arguably the most visible culture shock of them all: the fashion. Study abroad students have a semester to rise to the challenge and adopt the trends or commit to their own style, however “American” it may be.

Once in Europe, a study-abroad student’s fashion sense, if not adjusted, immediately points them out to Spaniards as American. No longer can they wear overpriced, hastily bought at the bookstore on move-in day university merch, not if they want to match the “Spanish” look.

Spaniards are critical of their standards of dress. One time in class, my professor told us that they didn’t want to see us wearing sweats in class. As if it actually matters! I don’t shame for sweats personally.

— Anuj Ghandi

Spaniards are critical of their standards of dress. One time in class, my professor told us that they didn’t want to see us wearing sweats in class. As if it actually matters! I don’t shame for sweats personally.[/pullquote]

Spaniards are critical of their standards of dress. One time in class, my professor told us that they didn’t want to see us wearing sweats in class. As if it actually matters! I don’t shame for sweats personally.[/pullquote]

Spaniards are critical of their standards of dress. One time in class, my professor told us that they didn’t want to see us wearing sweats in class. As if it actually matters! I don’t shame for sweats personally.

However, students say they feel free to express their fashion on campus however they want. Meg Scott, a SLU-Madrid permanent student in her final semester, reflects on the campus’s divided yet relaxed fashion standards.“There’s those who dress the stereotypical “American college student look” and those who have their own individual style that they have mastered or cultivated. We all seem to embrace each other despite the different aesthetics. It adds to the nature of the student body,” She said.

Scott describes her style as “youthful elegant”. Her go-to outfit? A cream cotton sweater and pleated skirt combo, completed by a gabardine trench coat, chunky boot heel, and adorned with a black wool beret. A Texas native, she credits the SLU-Madrid community and the Madrid city dynamic for encouraging her to experiment with fashion—especially when colder months challenge her to find balance between style and function.

“I appreciate that SLU-Madrid has always made me feel safe with my fashion. I like to include bows, fun colors, bright scarves, etc to make the style my own,” She said.

The fashion journey can be a winding road for study abroad students.

“I thought I found my fashion sense back in Saint Louis. Then I went to a Madrid club,” said Emma Brooner, a junior study-abroad. Her first outing to Kapital—a seven-floor nightclub popular with international students—was nothing short of a nightmare. Students of all nationalities had suit jackets, jeggings, slicked hair, and t-shirts with incorrect English phrases such as “Stance: Born and Stand Out!” Among the flashing lights and blaring lyrics of Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night Away”, Brooner, an inexperienced clubber, found her own style despite the trends. Her semester abroad has taught her to embrace both comfortability and a pop of color. An avid fan of the tight crop top and baggy pants combo, Emma is known for her purple wide-leg jeans and white cropped blouse in the club and in the classroom.

“I do care about looking good in Madrid,” says Brooner.“I’ll put on a nice shirt to go out instead of the sweatshirt I would in Saint Louis. But in terms of fashion standards, it’s important that I prioritize what I want to wear over anything else.Who cares what other people think?”

Clara Reyes was a fashion icon as an underclassman at SLU-Saint Louis. Her floormates on the seventh floor of Marguerite Hall asked her to borrow her mid-length silk tube dresses for sorority parties and her street-style clothes took up two resident hall wardrobes. The students of SLU-Madrid have made her reconsider her style.

“I was intimidated and inspired at the same time,” Reyes said. Walking into the San Ignacio Hall cafeteria in August, she saw students dressed in every style under the sun, from a girl tapping on her laptop with a red lip and a midi-length royal blue floral skirt to the group of friends slinging tote bags on their shoulders as they place croissant mixtos on their plates. Reyes appreciated that SLU-Madrid students were unafraid to express their style.

“I thought the Madrid style would be business casual. Now I’ve seen that it’s more smart casual, and I’ve been adapting my style to fit that,” She said. Back in Saint Louis, Reyes would find most of her outfits at the local Goodwill outlet store, a twenty minute walk from campus. In Madrid, she and other study abroad students go to Zara to buy glittering tube tops for parties and ripped jeans for daily life. While cheap and convenient, both options have left Reyes wanting a more consistent, intentional fashion sense.

“I want to invest in long-lasting pieces rather than follow trends. I’ve been thrifting more lately,” Reyes said.

Rhea Ibarra with a 60 euro black faux fur jacket from Zara bought at the insistence of a friend. It does little to protect from the cold, but the added texture is an appreciated statement.

For Rhea Ibarra, transferring to SLU-Madrid has been liberating for her personal, school, and fashion life.

“Back in Saint Louis, people would poke fun at me for my style when they would wear sweatpants and sweatshirts every day,” said Ibarra.

Her first week at SLU-Madrid, she passed by two Spaniards walking to CEU Universdad San Pablo. One wore a black lace mini dress with matching Dior heels and crossbody purse. The other sported an oversized tweed suit jacket with leather shorts and a Brandy Melville baby top. Ibarra sped-walked past them, terrified.

However, the experience revealed that she could break out her pearl necklaces and fur cardigans, free from the criticisms she received in Saint Louis.

Ibarra’s fashion sense is two-fold. As a first year, she experimented with brown puffer jackets and knitted oversized sweaters, the Honolulu native never before needing winter clothes. After experiencing backlash from her friends, however, she settled for black Lululemon leggings and a SLU-branded sweatshirt, typical for a main campus student.

Now a SLU-Madrid permanent student, Ibarra is slowly returning to the free-spirited fashion fiend she used to be. She’s usually seen with a knitted sweater, topped with a vintage leather jacket as statement pieces: fashionable yet comfortable.

“I have friends who motivate me to pursue my own style,” Ibarra said. “SLU-Madrid is a place where I can express myself through fashion because students don’t care about following European fashion protocol.“

She joked about the increased fashion standard in Madrid. “I may look like a mole rat, but I’m a mole rat with a hat on.”

Annie Vo on her Semana Santa trip in Nice, France. Her Converse, sports leggings and Lululemon fanny pack are typical of an American on the travel grind. (Valerie Rosqueta)

Annie Vo studied abroad in the Spring 2023 semester. After returning to SLU-Saint Louis, the Human Resources major uses the style she gained in Madrid to continue her fashion choices.

“I layered a lot more and went with neutral items. In Madrid, I shopped at fast fashion stores but did not buy the item if I didn’t see myself wearing it in five years,” She said.

Vo is a loyal follower of capsule wardrobe fashion, where she owns neutral pieces that easily match with other pieces. Lots of crop tops, sweaters, jeans and leggings with neutral colors that can be dressed up or down. Whether traveling to Nice for Semana Santa or leading Business Service Leadership programming in Saint Louis, Vo learned in Europe that the right articles of clothing go a long way.

“I still shop at the same stores I used to in the States, but now I buy neutral color items that I can wear for a long period,” She said.

With days until he packs his suitcase again, Anuj Gandhi will return to Saint Louis unafraid to wear his elevated outfits.“My sense of style has only grown because of my time in Europe,”He said. “Although I did wear the blanket scarves and trench coats typical of European fashion, I chose prints and fabrics of those pieces that reflect who I am. Fashion is an expression of character and personality. It is an individual thing, and it can change.”

 

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