Some clothing reveals the region of the world from which the wearer resides or identifies. Even in ancient times, clothing held great significance and revealed a lot about the person. Learn about the fascinating history of clothing from around the world; you may be surprised to discover the origins of the clothes you wear in the present day. From the Indian sari to the Vietnamese conical hat, the world is full of different varieties of traditional dress. Some colorful, some immersed in history and specific to the country’s culture, and others due to circumstance or status – they are almost always eye-catching. Learning about them gains you an insight into the country they are part of, so I have rounded up a few items to give you a lowdown on traditional dress around the world.
The Sari, India
Ostensibly the simplest item of clothing possible – a single length of fabric, up to nine meters long – the sari is also one of the world’s most versatile and stylish garments, which can be draped in dozens of different ways. The sari spans all of Indian society, from simple cotton versions that are woven in the street throughout the villages of India to extremely glamorous contemporary styles that grace the catwalk during India Fashion Week. The sari shares similar features to arabian dresses from Arab culture.
From Braveheart to Strictly Come Dancing, the kilt has been used to represent all things Scottish, anachronistically so in the case of Mel Gibson’s costume as William Wallace. However, visit any Scottish Highland Games, and you will see that kilt-wearing traditions are alive and well, from the immaculately dressed competitive dancers to the pipe players in formal attire and, most impressively of all, the participants in the “heavy events” – for you cannot toss a caber properly unless wearing a kilt.
Balinese Temple dress, Indonesia
Anyone visiting a Balinese temple in Indonesia should at least wear two basic elements of Balinese traditional dress, a sash (selendang) and a sarong-style skirt known as a kain. However, the full Balinese outfit for women, which also includes the kebaya blouse, is an elaborate ensemble worn for temple festivals that shows off Bali’s gorgeous textiles, such as ikat weaving and batik, to the full.
Maasai beadwork, Kenya
One of the smaller ethnic groups in Kenya, but one of the most recognizable, the Maasai’s reputation worldwide belies its size, no small part thanks to their stunning attire: brilliant red cloth, extraordinarily intricate beadwork, and – for young men – long, ochre-dyed hair. The beadwork in particular contains much meaning, a bride’s collar being the pinnacle of Maasai craftsmanship.
Herero women, Namibia
The traditional dress of the Herero women in Namibia is an adaptation of Victorian dress, as worn by the German colonists they fought in a bloody conflict at the start of the twentieth century, and now retained as a proud part of Herero identity. The silhouette is distinctive: a full, floor-length skirt, fitted bodice with puffed sleeves, with a magnificent horn-shaped hat, the shape of cattle horns, completing the look.
In Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom tucked between China and India, it’s obligatory for everyone to wear the national dress. For men, this means the gho, a knee-length gown tied at the waist by a belt called a keram. For formal occasions, a silk scarf, a kabney, is added to the ensemble, the color of which depends on the wearer’s status. For the women, traditional dress is typically an ankle-length dress called a kira, and the equivalent scarf is called a rachus.
Bowler hats, Bolivia
Think bowler hats and the first person who springs to mind is an English city gent – Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins perhaps. But in the markets of La Paz in Bolivia, you will see Aymara women, known as cholas, wearing hats that bear a striking resemblance to the classic bowler as part of their traditional outfits. It’s said that a consignment of hats was sold cheaply to local women in the 1920s when they were found to be too small for the European workers they were intended for, and so starting a fashion trend that endures.
Nagaland, Northern India
Visit the northern Indian region of Bolivia in December and you will witness a sartorial treat. During the festival each of the tribes of the Nagaland shows their finery, each tribe having its own magnificent style, and with a spectacular range of headdresses on display, incorporating feathers, cane, dyed goat fur, and boar tusks. The region is also known for its crafts and weaving, including beautiful Naga shawls.
Conical hats, Vietnam
Vietnam is home to an extraordinary wealth of clothing traditions, with the most elaborate outfits found in the north, such as red brocades of the Flower Hmong people and the decorated headdresses of the Red Dao. However, the most recognizably Vietnamese item is the conical hat, or non la, an essential accessory throughout the country. The version available Hué, non bai tho, has lines of poetry written into the brim, only visible when you hold it up to the light.
Flamenco dresses, Andalucía, Spain
Last but not least we have ‘raje de flamenco or traje de gitana’ – these are the flamboyant dresses that finish in a cascade of ruffles (volantes), which are synonymous with the flamenco dancers of southern Spain. Seville’s Feria de Abril is the best time to see them worn by local women. However, the ultimate flamenco dress is the bata de cola, the long-tailed version worn for the style of dance of the same name, an intricate and beautiful dance where the dancer controls the tail so that it swishes and flicks as if it has a life of its own.