Ethnic Dress

Men in traditional kilts

Ethnic dress ranges from a single piece to a whole ensemble of items that identify an individual with a specific ethnic group. An ethnic group refers to people who share a cultural heritage or historical tradition, usually connected to a geographical location or a language background; it may sometimes overlap religious or occupational groups. Ethnicity refers to the common heritage of an ethnic group. Members of an ethnic group often distinguish themselves from others by using items of dress to symbolize their ethnicity and display group solidarity. The words "ethnic" and "ethnicity" come from the Greek word ethnos, meaning "people." Many anthropologists prefer to use the inclusive term "ethnic group" instead of "tribe," because the latter is often employed as shorthand for "other people" as opposed to "us." Sometimes the term "folk dress" is used instead of ethnic dress when discussing examples of ethnic dress in Europe and not elsewhere in the world. "Folk" and folk dress ordinarily distinguish European rural dwellers and peasants and their dress from wealthy landowners, nobility, or royalty and their apparel. Ethnic dress, however, is a neutral term that applies to distinctive cultural dress of people living anywhere in the world who share an ethnic background.

Ethnic Dress and Change

The readily identifiable aspect of ethnic dress arises from a garment characteristic (such as its silhouette), a garment part (such as a collar or sleeve), accessories, or a textile pattern, any of which stems from the group's cultural heritage. Many people believe that ethnic dress does not change. In point of fact, however, change in dress does occur, because as human beings come into contact with other human beings, they borrow, exchange, and modify many cultural items, including items of dress. In addition, human beings create and conceive of new ways of making or decorating garments or accessories, and modifying their bodies. Even though changes occur and are apparent when garments and ensembles are viewed over time, many aspects of ethnic dress do remain stable, allowing them to be identifiable. In many parts of the world, ethnic dress is not worn on a daily basis; instead items are brought out for specific occasions, particularly holiday or ritual events, when a display of ethnic identity is a priority and a source of pride. When worn only in this way, ethnic dress may easily be viewed as ethnic costume, since it is not an aspect of everyday identity.

Ethnic Dress and Gender

Woman in sari with husband
Woman in sari

Across the contemporary world as well as historically, gender differences exist in all types of dress, including ethnic dress. Thus, ethnic dress and gender become intertwined. Sometimes women retain the items of dress identified as ethnic while men wear items of dress and accessories that come from the Western world, especially in urban areas. For example, in India, many women commonly wear a sari or salwar and kameez, but many men wear trousers and a shirt or a business suit. One explanation is that those who work in industrial and professional jobs connected with or stemming from Westernized occupations begin to wear types of tailored clothing that have arisen from Europe and the Americas. Another explanation for the continued wearing of ethnic styles is that a widely shared cultural aesthetic in dress may influence preferences for particular garments. For example, the soft lines of the sari in India, and the shapely but body-covering sarong and blouse (kain-kebaya) in Indonesia, reflect the cultural ideal of femininity in those countries.

Selected Examples of Ethnic Dress

Garments and accessories for ethnic dress are fashioned from a wide variety of materials, often thought to be made by hand. In today's world, however, many are manufactured by machine. Textiles of many types are most frequently used for garments, although in some locations, people wear furs, skins, bark cloth, and other fibers. Particularly in tropical and subtropical areas in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, examples of ethnic dress include wrapped garments, such as the wrapper, also called lappa, the sari, sarong, and pareo. In moderate and cold climates on all continents, tailored or preshaped clothing is cut and sewn to fit the body closely to provide warmth.

Asia and the Pacific

Hmong girl in ethnic dress
Hmong girl in ethnic dress

On the Asian continent, where the climate extends from tropical to Arctic, garment types range from wrapped to cut-and-sewn examples. Throughout India, women wrap six to nine yards of unstitched fabric in specific styles to fashion the wrapped garment called the sari, which is ordinarily worn with a blouse (called a choli). Many styles of wrapping the sari exist that distinguish different ethnic backgrounds within India. Indian men wrap from two to four yards of fabric to fashion garments called lungi and dhoti that they wear around their lower body. Among the Hill Tribes of Thailand, Hmong women wear a blouse and skirt with an elaborate silver necklace, an apron, a turban-type head covering, and wrapped leg coverings. In the steppe lands of Asia (for example, Mongolia), tailored garments of jacket and trousers are worn with caps and boots. In China, types of dress have changed over time, in relationship to contact with other peoples. Turks, Mongols, Manchus, and other peoples of China's Central Asian and northern borderlands sometimes influenced the cut and style of tailored garments in China itself. The fitted, one-piece women's garment with mandarin collar and side-slit skirt known as a cheongsam, or qipao, was invented in Shanghai in the 1920s as a garment that was acceptably both "Chinese" and "modern." Its use declined in the People's Republic of China after the late 1950s, but it continued to be worn in Chinese communities outside the mainland and is widely regarded as the "ethnic dress" of Chinese women. In Japan, variations of the garment known as kimono are cut and sewn, as well as wrapped. The kimono's body and sleeves are formed by stitching textiles together, but the body of the garment wraps around the human form and is secured by a sash known as the obi. The Korean ensemble called a hanbok includes a skirt for women and pants for men that are cut and sewn, but the top garment, a jacket for both men and women, is called chogori and wraps across the breast.

In Indonesia, cloth (kain) is wrapped around the lower body for both women and men, and is worn with a blouse (kebaya) or a shirt (baju). Another option for clothing the lower body is the sarong, cloth sewn to make a tubular garment. (This word was borrowed by Hollywood to refer to the wrapped garment worn by Hedy Lamarr and Dorothy Lamour that also covers the breasts. Among many of the peoples of Indonesia, the latter style is regarded as highly informal, worn for example by women on their way to the bathing pool.) Bare feet or various types of sandals and slippers are worn with these garments.

On many of the islands of the Pacific, such as Samoa and Hawaii, the wrapped garment is called a pareo. The long, shapeless dress called a muumuu, or robe mission ("mission dress"), introduced by missionaries to clothe women who traditionally were only lightly dressed, is now widely accepted as a form of ethnic dress throughout the Pacific islands. Elaborate feathered headdresses are worn in many parts of New Guinea with few other body coverings. At the time of European arrival in Australia, Aborigine dress consisted of animal skin cloaks, belts, and headbands along with body piercings, scarification, and body paint. Tattooing various parts of the body has been common among many groups in the Pacific, such as the Maori people of New Zealand and some groups of Japanese.

Because of extensive colonization in Asia and the Pacific, Europeans influenced garments and accessories of indigenous people. In return, the colonizers were influenced by exposure to Asian types of dress and borrowed or modified Asian garments, such as the cummerbund, the pajama, and bandannas, into both everyday and formal dress, thus culturally authenticating them.


Massai man in ethnic dress
Massai man in ethnic dress

The African continent extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the Cape of Good Hope and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean, providing a wide variation in climate, temperature, and terrain. A majority of indigenous garments include wrapped textiles. Both men and women in West Africa wear wrappers that cover the lower body and a shirt or blouse on the upper body. African women's head ties also exemplify a wrapped textile. In Ghana, some men's garments wrap the body with a large rectangle of cloth pulled over one shoulder that extends to the feet, similar to the Roman toga. Many indigenous people wrap blankets and skins around their bodies in South Africa, and in East Africa ethnic groups like the Maasai and Somali wear variations of garments wrapped around the torso and over one shoulder to below the knees, exposing bare legs and sandals. Distinctive printed textiles that evolved from Dutch influence in Indonesia are highly visible in African ethnic dress, but the patterns and motifs are now specifically African and often manufactured on the African continent. In North Africa, Islamic influence in dress exists that ties some of this region of Africa to other countries that are primarily Islamic in the Middle East with such examples as the gowns called caftan, djellaba, and jilbab. Tailored fashions with European influence also prevail across the continent, particularly in cosmopolitan cities, where the frequency of Africans wearing ethnic dress is particularly diminished. Many Africans have traveled elsewhere in the world, are exposed to mass media such as television, cinema, magazines, and newspapers, and also share knowledge of fashions from Europe and the Americas based on their colonial past. Schoolchildren frequently wear Western-style school uniforms. The secondhand market of clothing from Europe and America has also affected what Africans wear in many countries. Alterations change the garments into local fashions. In comparison to the higher prices of ready-made or tailor-made garments, the lower cost makes secondhand clothing highly desirable. Europeans and Americans who have visited or lived in African countries borrowed items and styles of dress that became incorporated into their wardrobes. Examples are the dashiki, the Yoruba shirt adopted by returning Peace Corps volunteers who served in West Africa during the 1960s, African women's head ties and hairstyles (such as cornrowing) worn by African American women, and children, and garments made from the striped Ghanaian textile called kente.

Europe and Eurasia

Ethnic dress in Europe and Eurasia consists primarily of ensembles, often called folk dress that relate to garments generally from the eighteenth century on. Many such examples can be found in folk museums, such as the Benaki Museum in Athens or the Nordiskmuseet in Stockholm. Sometimes the distinctive aspect of ethnic dress appears minimally to be one item, such as the plaid or tartan kilt of men in Scotland or the elaborate lace headdress of women in Brittany that is known as the coiffe. Such items become romanticized as ethnic dress, worn for special events and holidays. A strong argument has arisen that indeed the tartan is a relatively recent invention that arose for clan distinction in Scotland. Among most European countries, from as far north as Norway and as far south as Greece, smaller geographic areas are often identified with a specific ethnic group that initially occupied the area. The members of these groups may vary their ensembles or particularly distinct dress items only minimally to set themselves apart from other groups within that country as in the examples of both Norwegian and Greek ethnic dress. The Saami (formerly known as Lapplanders) who live in northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland wear a distinctive tunic-suit, sedge-grass boots, and the "four-winds" hat with four corners that allow the storage of items. For those coming from the ethnic backgrounds known as Czech and Slovak, a large linen shawl and a matron's cap surface as ethnic social indicators.

The Americas

The enslaved Africans arrived with few examples of garments or their traditions remaining from their past, except for the African women's tradition of wearing a wrapped piece of cloth on her head. In the northern part of North America, the Inuit people (formerly known as Eskimo) fashioned furs to keep their bodies snugly warm from frigid winter temperatures. The many examples of indigenous people across the two continents often called Indians (also known as Native Americans or Native Peoples, depending on government policy and idiomatic expressions) had traditions that stemmed from various weaving and embroidery practices in Central and South America. Many weaving traditions continue from earlier times that first set apart the garments of indigenous people from the Spaniards and Portuguese who encroached upon their land and wore European-types of clothing. In such cases, it is tempting to call only the indigenous examples "ethnic dress," yet the Argentine gaucho ensemble that arose from the work traditions of Argentinean cowboys can equally be called ethnic.

See also Caftan; Clothing, Costume and Dress; Dashiki; Jilbab; Kente; Qipao; Sari; Sarong.


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Ethnic Dress