Until recent decades, one of the most identifying features of a nationality around the world would have been their style of dress. Travel and exposure to foreign cultures changed the planet in many ways, and fashion is no exception, although some nations still cling to their national dress with a strong sense of patriotism.
Perhaps one of the most iconic of Asian dress styles, even today, is the Japanese kimono. Still worn in the modern day for ceremonial purposes (such as weddings, and ‘coming of age’ ceremonies), the kimono is almost as iconic as the geisha and sumo wrestlers who still wear the style of dress daily. The word kimono literally translates as ‘thing to wear’, and are ankle-length robes tied around the waist by an obi.
Far more than simply clothes to wear (despite the literal translation!), kimonos can also reveal if a female is married (longer sleeves on a girl’s kimono such as furisode sleeves indicates their single status) and the color and pattern is often chosen to reflect the season. The most highly prized kimonos are made with the finest silk and can cost as much as US$ 10,000. Cheaper cotton ones can set you back around just US$ 20 though, so don’t let the high price tag of the silk put you off!
The national dress in Thailand was devised by King Chulalongkorn after he visited British India in 1871 and took a liking to the style of officials he met there. The military-style jacket, known as raj pattern or ratcha pataen is now worn mostly as uniform for civil and military services.
A more recent introduction (circa 1979, during the current monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s reign) to Thailand’s national attire for men who aren’t involved with the military or civil industries is the suea phraratchathan. The ‘Royal Thai’ word (slightly different from regular Thai language) phraratchathan means ‘to give’ making the literal translation ‘shirt given by royalty’. The phraratchathan is similar in appearance to the ratcha pataen jacket, but is more casual and carries much less of a military influence.
In Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore and some parts of Thailand, women can often be seen wearing a kabaya – a traditional blouse made from silk or cotton with intricate embroidery and flowery patterns, usually worn with a sarong. Kabaya were originally the clothing of royalty and the aristocracy, though gradually the garment’s popularity spread to the masses. The style of dress is still commonly used and also airlines such as Singapore Airlines and Garuda Indonesia use the kabaya as uniform to proudly reflect their national identity.
The national dress of Vietnam is the ao dai. Worn by women, the ao dai is a tight-fitting tunic, often made of silk that is combined with color-matching trousers. This traditional style of dress (like many things in Vietnam) borrowed essences of French design flair in the 1930s, before changing to the tight-fitting incarnation in the 1950s. Although becoming controversial for their provocative style (ao dai are sometimes referred to as ‘the dress that covers everything but hides nothing’), the national dress underwent a resurgence of popularity in the 90s and now some schools and universities, especially in Hue, use white ao dai as uniforms for female students.
If you are on your way to Asia soon and would like to literally put yourself in the shoes (trousers, shirt and hat!) of a local, or perhaps purchase an outfit as a souvenir or keepsake, get in touch with one of our Travel Specialists, who will be happy to ‘tailor’ your trip to include a visit to a local outfitter.