Cultural Fashion Around the World
Fashion can inspire, connect, and bring people together - especially traditional clothing around the world. The fashion industry itself is becoming more globalized, and it frequently draws from different cultures. Sometimes fashion borrows for the better; for instance, Now Chase the Sun tells the stories of cultures from around the world including India and Sri Lanka through fair trade jewelry making and youth empowerment, then donating some of the funds to non-profit organizations. But sometimes fashion borrows for worse, appropriating culture without properly honoring it. In order to appreciate fashion around the world with an ethos of social consciousness and sustainability, here’s a guide to some cultural clothing around the world. These are traditional clothing that people from all over the world wear every day or at special cultural occasions.
Head wraps are traditional cultural dress in various parts of the world, and they include turbans, headscarves, and other hair coverings. Sometimes they are a regional fashion choice, and other times, they are worn for a religious or spiritual reason. One early practice for wearing head wraps occurred during the 13th Century BC Assyrian Empire, which is now modern-day Middle East and North Africa, where women wore veils.
In the photograph above, a woman weaves in Akwete, Abia State in Eastern Nigeria. She wears a headwrap with a bright African print. This head wrap is called Gele, a popular choice for the Yoruba people of Nigeria. In the old times, it was a symbol of wealth for women. It was known to be a highly transformative fashion statement. This traditional clothing accessory can be tied in diverse ways with a small or large knot. There are special Gele for occasions like weddings and other celebrations, called the Aso-Oke. While informal Gele are made from the same fabric as traditional clothes, there are couture gele made with premium fabric and even embroidery, as well as Gele accentuated with precious stones and beads.
Head wraps are traditional for most African cultures, and most women wear a head wrap every day. In addition to being tied, Gele can be pinned at the bottom so they can be worn like hats. Nigerian fashion has seen a boom in business, and tailors who make everyday Gele as well as couture designers with global influence are reaping the benefits.
Turbans and Bandanas
Many men wear head cloths too, including turbans. Turbans are usually worn for religious reasons. Men who follow the Sikh faith wear turbans use the turban to signify equal status among the religion’s followers. The turban was worn from the 15th through the 18th century in South Asia, but only by the elite class in society. Indian and Mughal emperors wore highly elaborate turbans that were often bejeweled and heavily embroidered. Since the Sikh faith teaches equal status amongst everyone, it mandates that followers wear a turban to signify this core belief.
It also performs the function of respect. Covering the head in public and in religious spaces signifies humility and covers uncut hair, which is another identifying component of faith. Unlike men, women wear a long headscarf called a chunni or a dupatta.
The turban comes in many colors, and people who wear this cultural garb can also wear it in prints. For Sikh weddings, many people choose to wear red turbans. Turbans come in different styles, some of which are for special occasions. For the Dastaar Bandi, or turban tying ceremony, a larger turban is usually worn. The Dumalla turban is typically worn by Nihang Khalsa Sikhs, and originates from a kind of turban worn in battle. It is held in place by a Chand Tora, a metal symbol of a crescent sword with a double-edged sword at the center of the turban. This kind of turban is now considered formal. A Gol Dastaar turban is slightly smaller, and a Patka turban is tied with the hair in a bun at the very top of the head.
Men wear bandanas all over the globe as a fashion choice. While some head cloth apparel around the world functions as a cultural or religious marker or regional standard of dressing, others like the bandana are more generic multi-regional fashion choices that have been adapted all over the globe.
The word bandana most likely originates from the Hindi word bāṅdhnū, which means ‘to tie.’ It is actually thought to originate from these South Asian and Middle Eastern head wraps, but is now also associated with Western culture and cowboys.
In many cultural outfits, draped cloths are a commonality. Draped fabric can be seen in Indian traditional clothing as well as tribal clothing. It can easily adapt to the weather, with heavier draping for the cold and lighter draping for heat.
This cultural dress is thought to be one of the oldest forms of clothing in the world. The Indian sari (sometimes translated as ‘saree’) is mentioned in the Vedas, one of the oldest pieces of literature dating back to the Indus Valley Civilization from 3300-1300 BCE. The cloths used to make saris were luxurious exports traded in some of the earliest trade systems. Now, it’s often still worn every day and even on the runway at couture shows.
The design philosophy behind the sari is the ancient Hindu belief that stitching cloth renders it impure. That’s why the cloth is worn with a sophisticated draping. More than 80 ways of draping the sari exist. Sari cloth often includes cotton or silk.
Draped Clothing with Stitched Garments
The above photograph shows children in Sware, Kenya, wearing a mixture of draped clothing and stitched dresses. Below, Masai Kenyans wear more traditional outfits. Kenya alone has more than 70 ethnic communities, so African fashion is widely diverse and ultimately irreducible to a single style.
One type of traditional African clothing is the Kanga, which is especially popular in Eastern African regions. The kanga is usually brightly colored and consists of a thin, breezy cloth. They originate from the 19th Century, when Muslim women in Zanzibar and Mobasa bought printed bandanas from Portuguese traders to sew together and drape.
In addition to wearing these draped clothing in a traditional manner, African designers draw inspiration from draping in mainstream fashion lines for a unique look.
Ruffles and Flounces
The above picture shows Mexican traditional dresses for baile folkórico, a kind of Mexican traditional dance that often includes mariachis. These traditional dresses are not worn on an everyday basis, but are saved for dance performances. Baile folkórico originates from various Mesoamerican traditions and styles, including danza, mestizo, and bailes regionales. It comes from Indigenous, European, and African influences. The veracruz, for instance, represents African influence. When many women perform together, the ruffled dresses become a spectacle as the women turn and tap.
During Spanish occupation, these dances had to be practiced in secret because the Spanish aimed to erase this cultural practice. However, indigenous populations maintained the dances and now performances often happen outside for everyone to enjoy.
Ruffled dresses are also an important component in Spanish culture, especially for the flamenco dance. The flamenco dance originates in Andalusia, Spain, and the ruffled dresses are similar to those worn by farm workers (who also wore aprons to cover the frills). Originating from cattle fair style, the flamenco dress is now worn to perform these traditional dances.
Tassles are now a common embellishment on all kinds of cultural garb and even in interior design. They were originally a common Middle Eastern flourish. The kandora is a kind of menswear without a collar that features a long tassel called a tarboosh. Similarly, the dishdasha is a white or earth-toned traditional wear with a tassel that tends to be shorter.
Wooden beads are a minimalist fashion accessory that can add an accent to an already bright outfit, or add a nice touch to other earthy tones. Wooden beaded jewelry originated in 10,000 BC from Libya, and Egyptians in 1500 BC also produced these accessories. Makai beaded jewelry uses strict tribal rules to dictate the color and design of jewelry and when it can be worn. These beads were a lucrative trade item. Often times, wooden bead jewelry holds a spiritual significance.
Feathers are a common feature in clothes around the world, especially in contemporary Western clothing. That’s partly because feathers were an important aspect of Native American traditional clothing due to the strong symbolism that birds hold. The eagle is a symbol for bravery, strength, and spirituality, so eagle feathers were used in sacred ceremonies.
Feathers are often used to adorn Native American headdresses in many tribes. Warbonnets, a common symbol of Native American culture but only actually worn in about a dozen tribes (including the Sioux and the Cheyenne), were made of feathers, ermine skins, beads, and sometimes red dye.
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Bright Textiles and Patterns
The women wearing traditional clothing in Malindi, Kenya show brightly colored prints and colorful jewelry. African clothing is often tye-dyed, a technique used to produce bright patterns that are often one of a kind. There are different techniques depending on the material, including wool, raffia, and cotton.
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High collared necks
Vietnamese Ao Dai
The Vietnamese cultural dress pictured above is called an ao dai, previously worn by both men and women but now primarily worn by women. This cultural dress is traditionally worn with white trousers. It pervades Vietnamese art and culture, and originated as the costume for southern courtiers during the rule of Nguyen Phuc Khoat. It is influenced by Chinese cultural wear.
While the original Ao Dai was plain, the influence of French-trained Vietnamese artists in the early 20th century created elaborate ao dai designs.They became increasingly romantic and feminine, soon becoming a symbole of beauty and exquisiteness.
The cheongsam, also known as a qipao, also has a high collar. However, it is slightly more close fitting than the ao dai. While these dresses are an iconic aspect of Chinese fashion, they originated in 1920s Shanghai. After the founding of the Republic of China in 1912 and following the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, traditional robes were forgotten and replaced by these dresses.
While they are an adaptation of the early changpao, a men’s garment, they are now known to be a symbol of femininity. These dresses were known to be a symbol of the cosmopolitan woman in the 1930s and the 1940s. They lost popularity in the 60s, when mass-produced clothing was an easier option.
Last but not least, plaid is a common Western fashion that originates back to Scottish culture. It was first called a tartan, which is a weave between alternating bands at right angles. The first known use of plaid actually dates back to the 8th Century BC, as the mummified corpse of the Cherchen Man was discovered in Central Asia wearing ‘a twill tunic and tartan leggings.’ Plaid became popular in Scotland in the 1700s and made its way to the United States during Scottish immigration.
In the 18th Century, Scottish immigrants traded these plaid garments for pelts and woven blankets made by indigenous people.
Not only is cultural garmentry diverse, but many traditional clothing pieces that we associate with a specific culture draw inspiration from other regions and cultures. Now more than ever, it is becoming common for designers to draw inspiration from these unique garments all over the world.
One of the greatest benefits of our interconnected culture is the diversity of cultural trends and fashion practices. It is often interesting to see clothing on the runway borrowing from more traditional roots. Nevertheless, it’s always important to remember that there is a fine line between celebrating culture and appropriating it.
That’s why at Now Chase the Sun, we handcraft our artisanal products in regions all over the world. Our gorgeous Sunburst Necklace, for instance, is made by Sri Lankan women, and the Harmony Bracelet is made in India. Our accessories draw inspiration from fashion from around the world, and you can spruce up your favorite outfit with these exquisite pieces.
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