Though your journey getting in touch with local life may begin upon your arrival in a new destination with a cautious, perhaps foreign, “Hello,” it’s helpful to remember that the culture you’ll be exploring has been developing for centuries. Often a quick glance into the past can broaden your understanding about modern life, wherever you may be. And one of the best ways (and easily the most colorful way) to explore the past is through Traditional Dress.
Most hill tribes in Northern Thailand have been residing in the areas around Chiang Rai for hundreds of years. Yet, most of these ethnicities can trace their roots back to surrounding lands, ranging from the neighboring countries of Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Laos to as far off as Tibet and China. Making use of the lush soil at higher elevations, Thailand’s hill tribes keep their heritages alive not only through agricultural tradition, but also through the garments they wear. Akha women pass along the skills necessary to make their family’s clothes, which usually feature wide leggings, black skirts, embroidered black shirts and a detailed hat adorned with silver trinkets and coins.
The Ao dai is a long dress traditionally worn by women in Vietnam. The basic attire was initially only for Chinese imperials and aristocracy in Vietnam, but by the early 20th century the fashion had caught on through all classes. Though the fabric can be a number of different colors, the garments are often a simple, solid white. Eventually the presence of the Ao dai waned, as it was reserved only for formal occasions. However, a revitalized national spirit and the introduction of the Ao dai as a girl’s school uniform has led to a resurgence of the traditional dress, even in relatively casual settings like work or small get-togethers.
Hats have many uses, beyond keeping your head dry or showing support for your favorite team. In the Peruvian Andes, a hat can almost say a thousand words, but in what language? A montera, a red and black hat, is also known as the “Native Hat” because wearing it suggests that you are very connected to Quecha culture, and you likely only speak the original language of the Inca. Brown bowlers can be found throughout the Sacred Valley. These are usually worn by people that are bilingual and have had some formal education as well as a bit of western exposure. Locals that don a purely white hat are proclaiming to the world that they’re full-on scholars, having completed 11 years of school. How much does your hat say about you?
Touring the cosmopolitan city of Buenos Aires, you’re unlikely to find anyone dressed in gaucho garb; soccer jerseys, Levis and a few high fashion sightings are more probable. However, as you make your way south, into Patagonia you may find residents decked out in these eye-catching vintage vestments. A rough equivalent to the American cowboy, the gaucho dates back to the 19th century when cattle ranchers spread themselves across Patagonian plains, forging out a living through hunting and herding. Though the dress is generally reserved for special celebrations, the figure of the gaucho persists perennially as a symbol of the free, adventurous spirit that lives on in Patagonia.
Flamenco stands as one of the most prominent features of Spanish culture. A derivative art that draws on influences from Moorish, Jewish and indigenous Andalusian people, its origins are cloaked in mystery. Yet its accompanying apparel has a much more public history. The draped sheaths worn by modern Flamenco dancers stem from the work dresses that women wore to livestock markets in 18th century Seville. Colorful and form-fitting, the dresses certainly turn a few heads, but there’s a reason for that. They have evolved along with the art form to draw attention to the performer’s every subtle step, assuring that the audience doesn’t miss a beat.
Historical dress can vary quite a bit from region to region in Costa Rica. While many traditional outfits feature bold, solid colors, others are made up of white tops and colorful bottoms, or even all black clothing. Because the Costa Rican climate can fluctuate quickly, layers remain one of the most ubiquitous features of traditional dress throughout various regions. For women you’ll often note the common, loose blouse and draped skirt. Most Ticos have adopted the typical western-style dress that you see at home, but ancestral frocks are often sported during festivals and celebrations. And thankfully, Costa Rica has no shortage on reasons to celebrate!