The National Costume round of Miss Universe 2021 took place in Israel last month. In this round, contestants dazzled in one-of-a-kind costumes that represented their nation’s culture and heritage. Such events are impressive reminders of how nations’ culture is deeply rooted. It provides a link to the past and helps keep the tradition alive, across generations.

More than just offering protection, our attire also signifies our identity and culture. From the Indian saree to the Japanese Kimono, the world is full of varieties of traditional attire. Some immersed in history, some adapted according to the geographical climate and a few others reflect the country’s culture- they’re almost always eye-catching. Let’s take a virtual tour around the world, as we explore the fascinating traditional clothing, the history behind them, and the craft that goes into them.

1. Saree (India)

India is a land of myriad and exquisite cultures and subcultures. One of the main traditional dresses of India is the Saree. However, you’ll find a variety of different attires per sub-culture across the country. Derived from Sanskrit for ‘strip of cloth’, it is a single-length fabric that is 5 to 9 meters and worn with a blouse. The Saree can be draped in many different ways, making it world’s most versatile garment.

Some prefer to wrap a simple cotton version due to the hot and humid climate, while others opt for glamorous pieces for festivities and occasions. The garment has evolved over time and 75% of Indian women wear it every day. Also people in parts of Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka wear it

2. Kebaya (Indonesia)

Kebaya is a traditional blouse-dress combination from Indonesia and also people in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, southern Thailand, Cambodia, and the southern part of the Philippines wear it. Prior to 1600, only the women of the royal family wore the Kebaya, but gradually adopted by everyone. It is usually made from cotton, velvet, silk, lace, and brocade. One interesting fact about kebaya is that even the female flight attendants of Malaysia and Singapore Airlines wear kebaya-style uniforms. The Indonesians are making efforts for Kebaya to be an Intangible Cultural Heritage to UNESCO.

3. Hanbok (South Korea) 

Hanbok is the traditional Korean dress also known as the Joseon-oth in North Korea. The term means Korean clothing and they designed it to allow easy movement. The two-piece attire comprises a jeogori (blouse) and a chima (skirt), for women and jeogori (jacket) and baji (trousers) for men. People wear it during formal or semi-formal occasions such as festivities and celebrations.

Traditionally, the Koreans made it in vibrant colors that represent the five elements of the yin and yang. In 1996, the Korean government announced October 21 as “Hanbok Day”.

4. Kimono (Japan)

Kimono – which literally means a thing to wear – is a full-length robe. Both men and woman wear it in Japan and it is secured with an obi, which is a fabric sash.

Worn for festivals and occasions, it is one of the oldest national costumes still in use. The kantoi, which was the 1st prototype, traces as far back as the 3rd century. It commonly has floral patterns, cherry blossoms, and symbols such as the crane, indicating good fortune and long life.

It has different versions- the yukatais casual wear made of cotton, linen, or hemp, while the bright-colored furisode is usually a family heirloom gifted to a woman in marriage. ‘Arigato’ to Japan from the rest of the world for this lovely attire. 

5. Kilt (Gaelic, Scottish)

Originating as the traditional dress of the Gaelic men and Scottish boys, it is a knee-length, skirt-like garment with pleats at the back. Worn on formal occasions, kilts are made of woolen fabric in a tartan pattern. 35 years after the ban on Kilt by King George II, out of fear of rebellion, was lifted, it began to become associated with the whole of Scotland. People wear the kilt often with ornate belts, woolen socks worn to the knee, sturdy leather or brogue shoes, and a sporran – a pouch that hangs from around the waist. Although predominantly only men wore the kilt, also women adopted it to wear during events like sports and dancing, and is today a symbol of Scottish National pride!

A fact about kilts that results in some giggles is that traditionally, men would not wear any underwear while wearing a kilt- and many still don’t!

6. Kanzu (Central and East Africa)

They are cream or white African traditional clothing worn by men in the Africa Great Lakes region.

These include Ethiopians, Tanzanians, Ugandans, Kenyans, Rwandans, etc. The English call it Tunic whereas the Arabs call it Thawb. Originally the Arab traders influenced it. Men usually wear it to weddings and festivals. Initially, only members of high society wore it, but later people produced it locally and therefore it became readily available to more. 

7. Dashiki (West Africa)

Derived from the Yoruba word ‘Danshiki’ for ‘loose-fitting pullover, this is a V-neck colorful garment. Dashikis are African traditional clothing indigenous to the Ewe people of Ghana. It gradually gained popularity in other parts of Africa too.

It is comfortable enough to wear in the heat and has African-inspired cotton prints or solid fabrics. Sometimes people wear it with matching trousers. Both men and women wear it, whereas women often wear the dashiki dress.

8. Huipil (Central Mexico, Central America)

Women of central Mexico and Central America wear the Huipil as a traditional dress for over 3000 years. A tunic made from several pieces of woven fabric, combined with a blue morga – a skirt with an embroidered seam. Traditional people heavily decorated the Huipil with lace and embroidery. The length of Huipils can either be short blouse-like or long. It is made of cotton with feathers, wax, and gold thread.

‘La Malinche’ is the 500 years old, oldest surviving Huipil worn by Hernán Cortés’ interpreter

9. Keffiyah (Arab World and Palestine)

Keffiyah, derived from the Arabic word ‘from the city of Kufa’, was traditionally worn to protect against the sand and sun. People considered the Keffiyah as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism and is a black and white chequered piece of cloth.

10. Beret (Spain and France)

Beret, the round flat-crowned cap, became popular in the 15th century among the French and Basque farmworkers. In ancient Greece and Rome, people wore petasos – a floppy sun hat and conical píleos. This over time evolved into a flat, floppy wool hat. It is now a symbolic representation of France and is common military wear.

From the 1920s artists, writers, movie stars, singers wore a beret on the streets of Paris. In the 1970s it became a revolutionary symbol. Beret has certainly evolved from having a peasant’s status to now a political stance or even a fashion statement. 

11. Sombrero (Colombia)

The word Sombrero derives from the Spanish word sombra- meaning ‘shade’. Used to protect from the sun, this wide-brimmed hat from Mexico usually has a high-pointed crown. Previously, they made the sombreros from the fibers of palm trees. However, Craftsmen believe that Sombreros were first made by the Zenú group, more than 300 years ago.

Every region of the world is a melange of its own unique language, lifestyle, cuisine, or costume. In the era of Globalisation, we must preserve the nation’s rich culture in the form of such traditional garments, cuisine, language, etc. 

You might have to wait for festivities and events to wear traditional attire. But what you wouldn’t have to wait for is learning more about different cultures and learning a language at SPEAK! ?

Hope you enjoyed the short virtual tour of traditional clothing around the world. Do you know more traditional clothing that we should include in this list? Mention them in the comments below.

Author: Mohini Soman

Mohini is a marketing professional and a Co-Founder at SPEAK Dublin. Hailing from India, she now works in Dublin. Apart from being a language enthusiast, she is a trained Indian classical dancer and is also very fond of exploring different places, meeting new people and embracing diverse cultures.

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