Many of us have purchased a piece of clothing while travelling, that upon returning home has never seen the light of day. Baggy pants in kaleidoscope prints, funny hats and exotic shoes may be new, exciting and just the thing to wear in their native setting. However, brought back onto home turf suddenly they might seem outlandish, silly, attention seeking or hippie.
There are so many good reasons to incorporate traditional dress pieces into a contemporary outfit. While they may take a little more consideration and creativity, they are wonderful fashion statements of individuality and world experience. Here are five great reasons to buy and wear cultural dress items.
All natural for your comfort
The traditional dress of most cultures dates back to long before the industrial revolution and modern synthetic fabrics. They are generally made from natural fibres that are abundant in their location of origin. This makes them comfortable, easy to care for and eco-friendly. Though it pays to beware of contemporary, tourist-targeted versions of traditional outfits, which are often made in synthetic fabrics to reduce costs. A polyester guayabera may be “iron free” but will have you sweltering unnecessarily in the Caribbean heat and through your homeland summer.
Unless you’re channelling a more primitive tribe, which I don’t encourage, most cultural traditions are careful about keeping themselves covered. Therefore traditional pieces are not only great when you are on location and not wanting to offend locals’ modesty, but will uphold the propriety of your day-to-day wardrobe.
Bright and beautiful
You only have to look at the vibrant textiles of African tribes or minority ethnicities of Asia to see colour in all its glory. Historically people harnessed the colours of nature to produce dyes from roots, berries, bark, leaves and even bugs, among other organic sources. Not to mention the exquisite beads and shiny accessories to please your inner Bowerbird.
Wearable souvenirs and enviable talking pieces
A while ago I wrote a blog post about the benefits of choosing native handicrafts over designer knock-offs – what I wrote also applies to buying cultural clothing items. Consider that by choosing a traditional dress piece you are part of an exclusive club that didn’t walk into a store and conveniently pick something off the shelf. YOU got on a plane, went somewhere exotic, learnt how it was worn traditionally and then creatively adapted it to your own wardrobe. That piece is intrinsically attached to the memory of your experience, a beautiful reminder of your time abroad. A traditional dress item will also become a conversation starter, as people wonder where you got such a unique item.
I mentioned before, most traditional dress evolved before modern technology and prior to the ecological destruction wrecked by fast fashion production. Local artisans have been practising their trade for many years and probably developed their techniques over a number of generations. Sure, there are varying quality products available in a tourist market because travellers have demanded lower prices and the quality has suffered. Ask around for recommendations on a reputable producer and be prepared to pay a little more for an item produced by largely traditional methods. You will help keep local people employed, culture alive and the environment intact.
Word of caution
Be thoughtful about how you wear a traditional dress item. Remember these pieces are not “costumes” as we sometimes we refer to them, but an important element of somebody’s culture which is often rich with symbolism. Educate yourself about a particular piece and how it is traditionally worn. Wearing national dress pieces is meant as a respectful ode to traditions and cultures. Worn inappropriately, such as during certain festive periods or in the wrong colour, may insult someone.
See Duende’s “Style” category for posts like How to Kill it in a Nyonya Kebaya. I feature individual pieces with their history, origin and how to avoid cultural and fashion faux pas when you wear them.
Dig out those wearable souvenirs from the back of your closet, or put them on your next Soulful Souvenir shopping list. These pieces are slow fashion gems, carefully crafted for your comfort at maximum quality. Please give them the place in your wardrobe they deserve and enjoy the treasured memories of your travels every time you put them on.
Peace, love & inspiring travels,