Clothing first appeared as a necessity and has played an important role into human development, “paving a way” for mankind’s expansion throughout the entire world. Ever since, clothing has evolved and taken on a new more “fashionable” role, especially in religious rites.
Almost all cultures have their own unique sets of costumes, packed with symbols and meanings, gathered from the world around them and interpreted through the way of their belief system. These traditional costumes are basically the perception of a people in regards to how Mother Nature looks like in their eyes.
The Herero people are an ethnic group who live in present-day Namibia and Botswana. Their origins are uncertain but their tribe is believed to have come here from Central Africa during the 16th century AD. A semi-nomadic people who make their meager living by raising cattle, have suffered a great deal during the European colonial period.
When Africa was divided among the European powers during the 19th century, Germany was ruling over Namibia (then South West Africa), and the Herero were subject to discrimination and persecution by both the colonists and the rest of the native population. Despite all of this, they managed to keep their customs and also incorporate new elements, mainly in their wardrobe.
Along with the Germans came the Rhenish Missionaries who introduced the Victorian attire typical to Europe at the time. Women of the tribe began wearing these long sombre dresses which were soon remodeled into a more African style by using more color and by adding a horned headdress to resemble the cow for which the Herero have great respect. Willing to further show their love and respect for this animal, their vital livelihood, the Herero also perform the “cow dance” in which they stamp the ground, lifting dust and mimicking a bull.
Originally from Mongolia, the Padaung tribe has since moved to Myanmar, near the border with Thailand. With around 50,000 individuals, these people live in a couple of villages, deep inside the jungle, near the Salween River. They are seldom seen outside their territories, so to meet one, you have to actually go to there.
What is so shocking about them is their unusual jewelry worn by women. From the young age of 5 years old, girls are fitted bronze rings around their necks. As a sign of beauty and status, these rings are added gradually thus narrowing the collarbone and making it look like part of the neck. The more rings there are, the higher the status each woman has within the tribe. However, this was not always the case. The origins of this custom are uncertain but it is believed that, to avoid being taken by slave traders, these rings were fitted to make them undesirable. Another belief is that they were used as protection against tiger attacks which were common in their native homeland of North China.
Another practice among the Padaung is their harsh punishment for adultery. If married women are unfaithful to their husbands, these rings will be removed, leading to dire consequences. Because the neck muscles have atrophied over time, these poor women will have to spend their entire life lying down on their back or risk asphyxiation. However divorce and adultery is extremely low among the Padaung.
Like all European countries, Bulgaria has a rich cultural heritage. Not only of Christian descent but also filled with many pagan rituals belonging to the Thracians and other peoples that once lived on those lands. Every region of the country has its own different traditions and costumes, but ultimately belonging to the same people.
On the first day of every year, the Babugeri come out in the town of Bansko in South West Bulgaria, celebrating the arrival of the New Year. Made out of goat skin and with an 1.5 meter (5 feet) woolen hood, these “creatures” dance together and brush against married women, bringing them good fortune and many children. In the past they wore a red “phallic” rod around their waists but were since replaced with a stick held in their hand.
One of the oldest countries in the world and with a vast cultural and religious heritage, India doesn’t lack any intricacy in its traditions. Every little part of the subcontinent has its own different customs, worshiping various gods and cults. The Kathakali come from the state of Kerala in South India. Dating back from the 17th century, they are a dance-drama, known for their complex make-up and elaborate costumes.
The performance is very religious, depicting scenes from the Hindu scriptures (Puranas), starting in the evening and usually lasting throughout the night. The show is done entirely by men, even the female characters are portrayed by male actors, dressed in women’s clothing. Their costumes are very intricate, as well as is their make-up which can be easily mistaken for a mask. Each color has its own meaning. Red for example, worn on the feet symbolizes an evil character or someone with evil intent. This dance-drama relies heavily on hand gestures (mudra), very common in the classical Indian dance.
The Whirling Dervishers are a branch of the Mevlevi order which is part of the Sufi tradition in Islam. This order was founded by Celaleddin Mevlana Runi in 1273 and whirling is one way in which the Islamic ascetics (Sufis) get closer to Allah. These dancers, following the laws of nature, try to get in contact with a higher power never losing consciousness or reaching a state of ecstasy. Instead they try to get in harmony with all things around them.
The belief is that by spinning along with everything else, from the atoms in our bodies to entire galaxies in the universe, the Whirling Dervishers recognize their part in this world. They come ever closer to understanding and appreciating perfection through God, no longer judging and discriminating others by their beliefs, race or status.
The performance is done entirely by men, dressed in long white skirts. If you can witness such a religious and spiritual event, you should not applaud during the spectacle but if you insist, you can do so discreetly after the performers leave the stage.
5. Papua New Guinea
It is believed that people have first come to Papua over 45,000 years ago. They have lived in tribes across the island and have been engaged in wars and disputes among themselves for millennia. One of these tribes is the Huli Wigmen. To impress and intimidate their adversaries they paint their faces bright yellow, white and red with elaborate wigs made out of their own hair intertwined with colored feathers and other indigenous materials.
Peace is a foreign concept to the Huli and becoming a man is a very important and arduous process for young boys. To enter adulthood one must leave home and go to a “bachelor school” for a period of up to 3 years. During this time boys cannot have any contact with women and especially sexual contact which will contaminate their “male essence”. Meanwhile they are taught everything about becoming a man, warfare and hunting.
Taking care of their hair is also a very important activity for the Huli with a cult expert taking care of each boy’s lock, splashing it often with ritual water to grow strong and fast. For a period of about 18 months they will have to sleep on a headrest, not to damage their growing mushroom-like wig. To become chief of the Huli Wigmen one must prove his valor in combat and resolve disputes among his subjects, so having an intimidating appearance can surely help.
Nomadic life on the Mongolian steppes is hard. Quick changes in temperature, sand storms and the occasional blizzards would have us believe that people living in these harsh conditions have no time for fashion. Fortunately we would be mistaken because Mongolians do love to look good. They have somehow managed to combine both fads and versatility in their everyday clothes to the extent that intricate design can include hidden pockets and storing spaces.
The deel, which is the base of all Mongolian attire, can also be used as a blanket or tent, depending on the situation and weather, when out in the wilderness, herding sheep. A silk sash is always worn by both men and women. It is not simply an aesthetic accessory but can also hold a knife or pistol and on long horse rides can act as a cushion between saddle and rider.
Boots are specially made for horseback riding and hats vary depending on tribe, sex, age, status and occasion which can exceed 100 different styles. Festive apparel is especially decorative and complex, being a strong influence in Queen Amidala’s wardrobe in the 1999 Star Wars movie.
The Mursi tribe lives in the Omo Valley in Southern Ethiopia. There are an estimated 10,000 members of this sedentary tribe whose women are an endless source of wonder and fascination. From the age of 15, girls have their lower lip cut by an elder and held open by a wooden plug until it heals. After which larger and larger clay plates (dhebi a tugoin) are introduced into the incision, stretching it.
Reaching diameters up to 12 cm (5 inches), their size can determine the girl’s price when marrying but more importantly it depicts social adulthood and childbearing potential. Today it is up to the individual girl to decide how wide she wants to stretch the incision. Along with sophisticated headdresses made out of animal horns, corn and other social important objects, these Mursi women enjoy a source of validation and self-esteem among their tribe.
2. Island of Sardinia (Italy)
The Boe di Ottana Carnival takes place in the town of Ottana on the island of Sardinia. Predating Roman times, this custom represents the transformation of man into beast while herding oxen and goats months at a time in the wilderness of the island. Every year men dress up as oxen-like creatures (Sos Boes), wearing goat hides, many giant cowbells and wooden horned-masks “rioting” on the streets.
Meanwhile the peasants (Sos Merdules), whose faces are covered in black masks, try to “domesticate” and control them with sticks and ropes. On the last Sunday of the carnival the Merdules will offer everyone present a drink that nobody can refuse or both them and the Boes will attack the unwilling, mimicking a beating.
The Dogon tribe native to Mali in West Africa number around 400,000 individuals. A very religious and spiritual people who live on the cliffs of Bandiagara near the city of Timbuktu, have influenced 20th century western artists like Picasso and Braque even being a catalyst for the Cubist movement.
They have many ceremonies with most of them being secret to outsiders, involving very diverse and amazing masks. One such mask is a 6 meter (20 feet) long wooden pole carved out of an entire tree branch. Elaborately decorated and very heavy, it brings the Dogon ever closer to the world of Heaven. Only the strongest members of the tribe use this mask as they have to swing it back and forth and side to side, holding it only with their teeth. This ceremony only takes place every 60 years with the next one taking place in 2027.
Much of what we know about the Dogon is what they let us witness as they perform some of these shows for tourists. Many of their traditions are a very close guarded secret that involve a lot of bizarre costumes which we will probably never have the chance to see.