From the Indian sari to the Vietnamese conical hat, the world is full of different varieties of traditional dress. Some colourful, 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’re part of, so we’ve 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 metres 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.
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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’ll 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.
Tracht, Southern Germany and Austria
Tracht – that’s lederhosen for men and dirndls for women – is the traditional dress across southern Germany and Austria. There are many variations on the basic styles depending on the area and on fashion, from the pom-pom hats of the Black Forest (bollenhut) to thoroughly modern versions: there’s nothing quite like a tight pair of leather shorts worn at a Pride festival to put a contemporary twist on those Bavarian lederhosen.
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.
Balinese women in traditional costumes – sarong, carry offering on heads for Hindu ceremony © Tropical studio/Shutterstock
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Maasai beadwork, Kenya
One of the smaller ethnic groups in Kenya, but one of the most recognisable, 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 sleeve, with a magnificent horn-shaped hat, the shape of cattle horns, completing the look.
Sámi clothing, Lapland
The northernmost reaches of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the Kola peninsula of northwest Russia, are home to the Sámi, who are among the oldest peoples in Europe. There are variations in costume throughout the region, though the main item is the kolt (or gákti in northern Sámi), a tunic or dress. The simple bright colours of blue, red, yellow and green always feature and reindeer skin and fur is used for belts, boots and gloves.
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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 colour 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’ll 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 were 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.
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Nagaland, northern India
Visit the northern Indian region of Bolivia for the Bolivia in December and you’ll witness a sartorial treat. During the festival each of the tribes of the Nagaland show 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 recognisably 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.
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Flamenco dresses, Andalucía, Spain
Traje de flamenco or traje de gitana 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.
The ten-gallon Stetson, Texas, USA
Yee ha! Enormous Stetson, boots…rhinestones? The southern cowboy’s work wear has been glammed up a bit, thanks to the stars of both kinds of music, but the hat remains a true American icon. John B. Stetson was in fact from Philadelphia, and he started his company there in 1865, but it’s always been a symbol of cowboy country, and in Texas the ten-gallon Stetson is the only style to be seen in.
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Sardinian traditional dress, Italy
Closer to North Africa than mainland Italy, Sardinia’s mixed history is evident in its traditional dress, elements of which have strong Spanish and Moorish influences. Though each village has its own style, there are common features – a veil, bonnet or shawl, long pleated skirts and richly embroidered blouses. Some of the most spectacular are from the province of Nuoro.
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Changing the Guard, Seoul, South Korea
Seoul is a frenetic, modern city in South Korea, and its pop culture is taking over the world, but at its heart are a series of beautiful royal palaces such as Gyeongbokgung. Here they have revived the costumes and traditions of the Joseon dynasty’s Changing the Guard ceremony, which is re-enacted three times a day.
The keffiyeh, shemagh or ghutrah, the Middle East
The scarf headdress worn by men across the Middle East comes in many variation of colour, style and name. It’s known as shemagh in Jordan and the ghutrah in Saudi Arabia, where it is normally either white or red and white, and held in place by the agal, a black band. However, the Palestinian black-and-white keffiyeh is the most recognizable verson, having been appropriated worldwide both as a symbol of protest and a fashion item, most absurdly when Balenciaga produced one for their 2007 catwalk show.
Coiffe, Brittany, France
A coiffe is an intricate lace headdress worn as part of the folk costumes of Brittany, France, though now only seen for local festivals, or pardons. The most striking is the bigouden coiffe, from the area around Pont L’Abbé, a starched lace cylinder that rises to up to an astonishing 30–40cm tall.
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Meaning ‘the thing worn’, kimonos are the ultimate symbol of traditional Japanese culture. From the seventeenth century onwards they developed as the main item of dress for men and woman, and a means of expression for the individual wearer. They are still worn for special occasions in Japan, such as weddings, with modern adaptations making an appearance all over the world. The surface decoration is significant, with symbols such as the crane, for example, indicating good fortune and long life.
Menswear, Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Guatemala
Maya textiles are evident throughout the Guatemalan Highlands, nowhere more so than Todos Santos Cuchumatán, where local traditions are still widely observed. Mam is the first language, not Spanish, and the clothing for men in particular is brilliantly distinctive – red-and-white striped trousers, black woollen breeches, embroidered shirts and straw hats. Visit for the All Saints fiesta to see Todos Santos culture in all its glory, in particular the frenetic horse race that starts the festivities.
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The Chanel suit, Paris, France
The uniform of a certain type of woman on New York’s Upper East Side, the Chanel two-piece suit may be made from a Scottish-inspired tweed, and be worn by the well-heeled the world over, but its home will always be the Parisian couture house. To pay homage to the classic, visit the building on Rue Cambon in Paris which was Chanel’s apartment when she first designed it in the 1950s, and which still houses a Chanel shop on the ground floor.
© Darya Chacheva/Shutterstock