The Ultimate Guide to Traditional Dresses in Asia
The Ultimate Guide to Traditional Dresses in Asia
There are many ways to learn about another culture.
When we travel, we eat the food, we visit the historically significant landmarks, and some even enjoy interacting and attempting to speak with the locals.
One of the most insightful ways to learn about a culture is through traditional fashion. The world is now more globally connected than ever. This means that fashion options and clothing stores are accessible anywhere in the world, and people are starting to dress more and more alike. Take the modern day suit for example - you’ll find professionals from all continents wearing one.
But whatever region of the world people come from, they still proudly wear the traditional outfits of their culture past as a way to celebrate and honor their roots. Through these outfits, we can get a window into the past, and acquire a better understanding of the present.
We’ll take a look below at some of the iconic and traditional outfits from different countries and cultures in Asia. Through examining the history and the cultural impacts of such cultural relics, let’s appreciate how rich our background and our stories really are.
The guide is broken up into subregions of Asia: South Asia (the Indian subcontinent), East Asia, and the Middle East.
Let’s dive in.
South Asia (The Indian Subcontinent)
The traditional clothing styles in South Asia span the people who live in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
This region boasts some of the oldest cultural relics around. For example, Hinduism is considered one of the oldest religions with customs that date back 4000 years old.
In the same way, the traditional dress of this region, the sari, has its roots that go back thousands of years.
The Sari: The ‘Strip of Cloth’ that can be Worn 100 Different Ways
Location: Indian Subcontinent
The sari is an iconic symbol of Indian history and culture.
Women wearing saris at a wedding
The sari is a long garment of unstitched cloth that wraps around the body and can be draped over the head or shoulder. The literal translation from Sanskrit means “strip of cloth.” It is worn in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, and is a very versatile clothing. You’ll likely be able to see it both on the streets of the big cities and rural areas in India. It’s featured in fashion shows and Bollywood movies, and worn by both young adults and their grandmothers.
The sari might be one of the longest dresses in the world by the amount of material - it makes the Vietnamese Ao Dai and the Chinese Cheongsam look short (both translate literally to mean ‘long shirt’). The garment is wrapped and draped around the body, and ranges from around 5 to 9 meters in length. To understand how long 9 meters is, consider the following diagram. It’s 10 meters, but it’s pretty close.
How long is 10 meters?
The production of saris currently supports an industry of millions of handloom workers too. The Textile Ministry Annual Report in 2016 estimates that 11 million people are employed in crafting and producing these garments.
A Brief History of the Sari
The sari is one of the oldest known styles of clothing that is still worn today. And it’s not only used in formal occasions and events; around 75% of the female population in India still wear it in the 21st century, many of them on a regular basis.
The sari has deep roots, both in India and beyond. The first images of the sari can be seen in sculptures dating back to 100 B.C., while some date the origin back to records from the Indus Valley Civilization up to 5000 years ago! Saris are known for their wide variety of colors, patterns, and draping styles.
Where did the idea of such a long piece of cloth come from? It was not because they lacked scissors, or didn’t know how to sew. Rather, the unstitched single piece of cloth came about from Hindu beliefs that stitching clothes made it impure. Furthermore, they preferred the flexibility of draped clothing. As a result, the long sari garments came to be. The modern day look evolved from an outfit originally consisting of 3 pieces: a chest band, a lower garment, and a wrap to cover one’s shoulders or head.
While there can be debate about when the sari originated, it’s generally accepted that sari-like garments have been worn by South Asian women for a long time, and that they have been donned in their current form for at least a few hundred years.
In the past, all saris were handwoven, with the material differing by status. The wealthy and the royalty wore saris woven of silk, while the commoners wore roughly-woven cotton saris. But with the advent of technology and the boom of the textile industry, things have changed. They are largely manufactured and woven on machines, and they are made of artificial fibers like nylon and polyester.
That’s not to say that hand-woven and hand-decorated saris aren’t valuable. Though they may be more expensive, they are still very popular at weddings, and as heirlooms to pass down from generation to generation.
Fun Facts about the Sari
Some of the sari colors are reserved for particular occasions. For example, a woman would wear white when mourning. Yellow saris are worn after childbirth. Women wear red for marriage, and black during times of sadness. Today, light pastel tones featuring washed-out, vintage-inspired floral prints are popular.
Patterns of animals are also quite popular. You will see saris with a pattern of parrots, peacocks, fish, birds, and elephants included on the garment. Some of them have symbolic meaning: if you happen to notice a fish pattern, this represents resourcefulness and fertility.
In terms of how to wear a sari, you’ll usually see it wrapped around the waist several times, tucked into the waistband, and with the remaining fabric draped over the shoulder. You would imagine wearing so much material would be difficult or require safety pins, but it’s actually one of the easiest outfits to wear.
And because the material is so long, there are over 100 different ways to wear it! But if you don’t know where to start - don’t fret because there are many Youtube tutorials on how to wrap the sari.
Now, let’s talk about modesty. There’s an interesting contrast between saris that are worn modestly, and saris that are sheer and show skin. While some designers design saris that reveal more of the midriff, many wear theirs more conservatively without showing any skin and even cover their heads. But since modesty has been popular recently, designers are reverting to more traditional concepts and principles.
Why else is the sari so popular? Besides being a cultural staple, it’s effective in keeping cool in the summer, and keeping warm in the winter. It’s a stylish fit for all types of occasions: professional, celebratory, and casual. So whether one is a farmer or a big-city politician, you’ll see all people from all walks of life sporting this popular traditional outfit.
Two of the 100+ ways to wear a sari
The sari is also a key indicator of wealth and status. While everyone wears it, not everyone has the means to afford it. For example, an Indian woman may have only one or more saris that they commonly wear, with an additional 2 or 3 saris reserved for special occasions like weddings. But poorer families who do not have the financial means may rarely buy a sari in their lifetime.
Thankfully, saris make for great gifts during celebrations and festivals, and are passed down from generation to generation as family heirlooms.
When we categorize East Asia, this includes countries such as China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
This section takes a look at three of the most well-known traditional dresses: the Ao Dai, the Kimono, and the Hanbok. Each dress has hundreds of years of history, and each expresses beauty and elegance in different ways.
There are certainly more (including the Hanfu and Qipao in Mainland China). In fact, it’s hard to explain the other dresses without first addressing China’s influence on the region. Nevertheless, with China’s extensive history, we may save their dresses for a separate post.
The Ao Dai: The Beautiful Vietnamese ‘Long Shirt’
Woman wearing a Vietnamese Ao Dai
The Ao Dai is the national costume of Vietnam. Though the translation - literally “long shirt” - sounds basic, the ao dai is renowned on a global stage and is a symbol of Vietnamese feminine beauty and national pride.
A Brief History of the Ao Dai
This traditional Vietnamese dress consists of a long, tight-fitting silk tunic with long sleeves in bright hues and patterns. This is commonly paired with loose, high-waisted pants. Its roots date back to the 18th century (the Nguyen Lords at Hue). Lord Nguyen required southern court officials to wear the Ao Dai to distinguish themselves from their northern rivals. Specifically, Lord Nguyen commanded that they wear a long gown and trousers. This marked the birth of the Ao Dai.
There were other political reasons for this decree too. The clothing style resembled the clothing of the Cham people: those were conquered by the Vietnamese. Lord Nguyen used the Ao Dai as a way to garner support from the Cham people and show respect for their culture.
The look was not always the form-fitting dress we’ve come to know today. It was originally loose, plain and unflattering to the female figure. But around the 1930s, designers blended elements of the Ao Ngu Than (a different type of gown) with French fashion to create the elegant and beautiful Ao Dai we’ve come to know today.
The Ao Dai gained prominence on the world stage on various occasions. The First Lady of South Vietnam from 1955-1963, Madame Nhu, wore it to promote her New Woman Movement. A negotiator for the Vietcong, Nguyen Thi Binh, also wore the Ao Dai to the Paris Peace Conference.
Since the 1980s, the Ao Dai has grown in popularity and Vietnamese women wear it for many occasions. Once a very plain outfit that was pushed for political purposes, now the Ao Dai has a life of its own as a breathtaking fashion statement that exudes elegance.
Fun Facts about the Ao Dai
Unlike some other East Asian traditional clothing worn only on special occasions, the Ao Dai is a staple in Vietnamese culture. Teachers, airline attendants, receptionists, and waitresses wear it. Brides wear it for weddings, and schoolgirls wear it as a uniform, symbolizing a rite of passage into maturity. Because of its prevalence in daily couture, the Ao Dai continues to be modernized and tweaked to improve comfort and utility.
The Ao Dai is associated with femininity, modesty and refinement. Yet one of the defining characteristics of the Ao dai is how form fitting it is, and how it beautifully emphasizes the one’s torso and curves. As they say: “The ao dai covers everything, but hides nothing."
Read into that what you will. But just know that if you desire to wear an Ao Dai (there are Ao Dai for men too!) you will want to get it tailored and fitted.
Kimono: The Iconic Japanese ‘Thing to Wear’
The word ‘kimono’ literally means ‘a thing to wear.’ Though the definition is quite general, people understand the kimono to mean the traditional full-length robes worn in Japan. They are often adorned with an obi (belt) and have massive sleeves. Kimonos come in colorful and floral patterns, and are worn with white socks.
Women posing in kimonos
Nowadays, Japanese individuals rarely wear the kimono in everyday life, and reserve them for celebrations such as wedding celebrations, funerals, and other special events. Nevertheless, people around the world know about it due to its popularity and presence in movies and popular media. But let’s take a look at how it has evolved over the years.
A Brief History of the Kimono
The origin of the Kimono can be traced back to the Heian period from 794-1192. What differentiated the kimono from clothing from prior eras was how the clothing was assembled. Kimonos were produced by cutting pieces of fabric in straight lines and sewing them together.
Matching a woman’s body shape was not a priority. This is in stark contrast to the Vietnamese Ao Dai, where each garment is tailored to match and accentuate the woman’s body.
During the following two eras, the Kamakura (1192-1338) and Muromachi (1338-1573) periods, both males and females wore vibrantly colored kimonos. Warriors wore colors that represented their leaders.
Throughout the Edo period (1603-1868), a Tokugawa warrior clan ruled Japan. The lords at the time wore outfits that contained 3 parts: a kimono; a sleeveless garment known as a kamishimo used over the kimono; and also a skirt called hakama. The kamishimo was made from linen.
With a lot of samurai garments to make, kimono manufacturers improved and kimono making became something to master - a work of art. Kimonos became more valuable, and they were passed down from generation to generation as treasured heirlooms.
Kimonos were the primary fashion in the 1800s. However, during the Meiji period in the late 1800s, Japan was greatly influenced by foreign cultures and as a result, the kimonos became less prominent. The government urged people to embrace Western culture, and government officials ordered those in the military to wear Western clothes. Commoners wore kimonos on special occasions, with their garments decorated with their family crest.
Though not worn as often as its peak in the 1800s, kimonos are still worn for special occasions in Japan today, such as weddings, with modern variants worn all over the world.
Fun Facts about the Kimono
The kimono is one of the most well-known traditional dresses because of its exposure in the media, such as popular movies like The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha.
How a kimono is made is also fascinating. It’s similar to the concept of origami: from one square piece of paper you can make a crane, a lion, and a variety of other shapes.
Kimonos were crafted in much the same way. They are made from a single piece of fabric, called a ‘Tan,’ about 38 cm wide and 12 meters long. The fact that the Tan was standardized meant that Kimonos could be mass produced, and the fabric could be sold at marketplaces next to other household products.
After cutting the Tan garment into 7 pieces and putting them together, the result is a garment that is shaped like the letter ‘T.’ Talk about being resourceful.
How Kimonos are Constructed
Kimonos make wonderful family heirlooms to pass down from generation to generation. They last a long time with the proper care, and they’re often decorated with the family crest. There’s also an entire industry devoted to preserving and restoring kimonos to keep such a significant piece of family history in good condition. But if the kimono is no longer wearable, the fabric and materials can still be repurposed as artwork or accessories.
As the (now 2021) Olympics will be held in Tokyo, the world will be able to see again the rich traditions of Japan’s history. This of course includes the Kimono, which is the ultimate symbol of traditional Japanese culture. As well known as Kimonos are throughout the world, they will no doubt take center stage and increase in popularity once again within fashion culture.
The Hanbok: ‘Korean Clothing’ for the Special Occasion
Location: South Korea
The hanbok in South Korea is the traditional Korean dress. It is characterized by vibrant colors, simple lines, and baggy silhouette. Although the term literally means ‘Korean clothing’, Hanbok usually refers specifically to clothing of the Joseon period (~1300 AD), and is worn today as formal wear during festivals and celebrations.
The Korean Hanbok
Unlike some of the more fitted and tailored looks of traditional dresses from around the world, the Hanbok has a much looser fit that provides comfort and ease of movement. Such qualities were important to accommodate the nomadic lifestyle at the time.
A Brief History of the Hanbok
Almost all of the traditional hanboks that we see today are fashioned in the style of the Joseon Dynasty, which began in the late 1300s. However, the Hanbok has its origins much earlier than that. Researchers have found evidence of the Hanbok in murals within tombs dating back to the 3 Kingdoms Era - over 1600 years ago. Some other researchers have claimed to trace hanbok styles to ancient Mongolia and Siberia.
At the beginning of the 3 Kingdoms Era (57 BC), men and women wore short and tight fitting pants (bajii) and waist-length tops (jeoguri). As the era progressed, women of higher class started wearing long skirts (chiima) and shorter tops.
The Joseon Kingdom several centuries later was a turning point in the gradual transformation of the hanbok. The women's top became much shorter and tighter than before, and the skirt was worn higher above the waist. By the late 1800s, the skirt came up to the chest and was worn with a sash around the chest. Many of these same qualities persist in the hanboks that are worn today.
Since that time, the hanbok has been gradually replaced by Western clothing in everyday life. But there are still plenty of occasions and events to wear it - for weddings, New Years, and other ceremonies. And it’s definitely making its mark in popular culture, being featured on more period epic movies and TV shows. Tourist attractions and temples in South Korea also incentivize visitors to wear hanboks by offering them free admission.
Fun Facts about the Hanbok
During the Joseon Kingdom, the hanbok style indicated one’s social status. Since they could not pay for the expensive dyes, the commoners would only be able to wear white hanboks. They could wear pale colors on special occasions. As a result of most Koreans wearing the color white, Koreans earned the title, “the people in white.”
Historically, the bright and colorful hanboks that we’ve come to adore were exclusive to the royalty and upper class. They would also wear hanboks with patterns of mountains, water, fire, dragons, and tigers.
Different colored hanboks also expressed different moods and one’s social status. Besides the color white, below are a few examples of the significance of the color of your hanbok.
Red symbolizes wealth, excellent fortune (luck), and joy. Lunar New Year events and weddings are decorated in red. Since red is associated with joy, Koreans were forbidden to use red at funeral services.
Green and blue are viewed as variations of the exact same color, and they share the same character in the Korean language. In nature, green and blue can represent trees, wood, clouds as well as rain. It’s qualities include a cool and feminine energy, and is associated with spring and new beginnings. You will see Korean shops that are covered in green to draw in prosperity and success.
Yellow hanboks showed nobility. Today you'll see brilliant as well as bold designs appropriate for anyone. As a matter of fact, unmarried women may occasionally put on a yellow hanbok, as it indicates their youth as well as femininity.
Black represents the darkness. It’s an indicator of knowledge and severity, and therefore black hanboks were often worn by those who were educated.
These are not hard and fast rules, but it helps to understand the reasons why certain events and social situations require one color over another.
Hanboks were once worn as everyday attire in Korea. However, within the last 100 years, the traditional hanboks are now limited to special occasions like Lunar New Year, the Doljanchi (a child’s first birthday celebration), and other weddings and traditional ceremonies.
Fashion designers have been modernizing the hanbok, and today there are an increasing number of ‘modern hanbok’ styles for young ladies to combine the traditional elegance of the hanbok with a more contemporary fit and flair.
Hanboks with a Modern Twist
The Middle East
At first glance, this section may feel out of place. How do the dresses of East Asia share the same category of the functional and simple attire of the Middle East? Are you going to now talk about men’s clothes when the first few sections were about the elegant dresses for women?
Remember that the Middle East is part of Asia. Asia is just that enormous, where cultures from one side of the continent could not feel more different than cultures from the other.
A guide on Traditional Dresses in Asia would be remiss to not include some of the most culturally and religiously significant clothing in the entire world. The Keffiyeh and Thawb may not look like a Kimono, but their cultural impact cannot be denied.
The Keffiyeh: The Headscarf to Stay Cool and Make a Statement
Location: The Middle East, common in Palestine
Related: Shemagh (Jordan), Ghutrah (Saudi Arabia)
Keffiyeh: scarf headdress from the Middle East
A Brief History of the Keffiyeh
The Keffiyeh is a scarf headdress worn by men around the Arabian peninsula. Keffiyeh literally means “from the city of Kufa,” a city in Iraq located along the Euphrates River. However, the roots of the headdress in this region can be traced back to ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, dating as far back as 3100 BC.
Fun Facts about the Keffiyeh
Due to the intense heat and sun exposure in the region, the Keffiyeh serves to protect against dust, sand and the scorching sunlight. It comes in various patterns and colors, but plain white is the most popular choice.
This traditional piece of fashion has also become a political symbol ever since the Arab Revolt in 1936. Palestinian rebels would wear them to hide their identity and avoid arrest from the authorities. Years later, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) popularized the black and white version as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. As a result, people around the world began to wear it as a show of solidarity, while certain countries banned the Keffiyeh to suppress such support.
Arafat wore his fishnet patterned Keffiyeh in a particular way: wrapped around his head and draped over his right shoulder. However, there are many different ways to wear one: as a turban, or loosely draped around the back and shoulders.
Yasser Araft wearing a white and black Keffiyeh
If you travel to the Middle East, do be aware that while many can wear it as a political symbol, it is still a common and functional fashion item that may not serve any political symbol at all. It might just be a really hot day.
The Thawb: The Full Length Garment to Stay Cool while Staying Modest
Location: Arabian Peninsula, East and West Africa
The Thawb: a long robe worn in the Middle East
The Thawb is a very common dress in the Middle East that has roots that date at least back to the Middle Ages, if not thousands of years ago. Thawb literally means, ‘a garment’ in Arabic. You’ll notice that often traditional clothing has a very simple etymology.
A Brief History of the Thawb
Though not solely linked to religion, the Thawb is a popular and common outfit for Muslims, and a symbol of pride. The spread of the Thawb around the world can also be connected to the growth of Islam around the world.
Fun Facts about the Thawb
It is a long and loosely flowing robe that offers comfort while providing modesty. Similar to the Keffiyeh, the Thawb is popular largely because of how functional it is. It is loose and comfortable enough to help people stay cool under the intense heat. Covering yourself in white cloth is a great way to protect yourself from UV exposure too.
Fun fact: you can distinguish the country that someone is from based on the details of their Thawb, and how they wear it.
For example, the Kuwaiti Thawb features high quality material and a one button collar with a slim fit. The Omani Thawb doesn’t have a collar, and there are loose tassels attached near the chest. It goes with a hat that is embroidered with colorful patterns and personalized details.
The Qatari Thawb is shiny and sometimes features a shirt pocket. What’s more interesting is that the headdress is starched and shaped into looking like a venomous snake.
The Saudi Arabian Thawb are a tight fit with a 2 button collar, and it’s made be used with cufflinks. The look is complemented by a red and white head scarf.
Take a look and see if you can spot these subtle differences in the infographic below!
Differences in Thawb by Country
As we go full circle from India, to Korea, and back to the Middle East, we were able to see the hundreds and thousands of years of history that shaped the fashion of each unique culture.
As fashion continues to change, the fact that these traditional dresses stood the test of time means that people still celebrate them.
It means that people desire to remember and wear them.
It means that people appreciate their roots.
Or it could mean that it’s a really hot day, and a white Thawb will do the trick.
Whatever the case, let’s continue to appreciate the different forms of beauty and function from all over the world. We’re just scratching the surface, as there’s many more countries and outfits left to explore.
Have any requests for a country or outfit to profile? Leave a message below in the comments.
Special Thanks to the Following References