Asian countries have such rich cultures, and one aspect of those is their traditional garment wear, many of which have maintained their history and meaning throughout centuries, while others have evolved to modern uses and versions, allowing people to keep traditions alive. I can still remember my Hanbok, the Korean traditional dress, that I owned when I was younger that I’d wear for special occasions. Below are 10 traditional Asian garments, some you probably have heard of and others that will be completely new to you.
These articles of clothing are all similar types of attire and can be found predominantly in China and Hong Kong. The Hanfu is a term used for any gender. The Qipao and Cheongsam both refer to the same thing - clothing for women - but the different words are used depending on the origin. Lastly, the Changshan is for men. The Hanfu traditionally has consisted of a robe or shirt for the upper body, paired with a pleated skirt below. The Cheongsam, pictured below, has its origins from the founding of the Republic of China in 1912. It signified a desire for a modern society, including more rights for women. Throughout the years, it has transformed from a loose fitting dress into form fitting one with side slits up to the thigh, accentuating women’s bodies. Florals have remained the most common design, and it is most often paired with high heels. While it used to be common everyday wear among fashionable women, Western clothes have now gained popularity, though you can still see the clothes as a uniform for people in the restaurant industry, or hotels.
The Ao Dai is Vietnam’s traditional clothing, and it is called the same thing for men and women, though it is more commonly worn by women. Ao translates to shirt and Dai to long in English. It consists of an ankle length one piece with long sleeves and slits down both sides that extend up to the hip. It is paired with trousers underneath. For men, it’s a looser fit but women’s dresses are tight, emphasizing the body’s curves. The Ao Dai is still widely popular in Vietnam, and is worn during weddings, Tết (Vietnamese Lunar New Year), and as a uniform for teachers and students, flight attendants, receptionists and more.
Taiwan, with a population of about 23.5 million people, was inhabited by the indigenous people around 6,000 years ago. Currently, over 95% of the population is Han Chinese, and roughly 2% is Indigenous. While the Han Chinese in Taiwan traditionally wear the Qipao or Hanfu, the many different aboriginal groups of Taiwan each have their own unique traditional attire. Colors range from dark blue or black, which the Paiwan, Rukai and Bunun people use, to red or sky blue, which is used among the Amis, Tsou and Atayal. For women, the clothing differs depending on their marital status or age, with single women’s clothing more colorful and intricate, and older women wearing dark colors such as black or blue. Pictured below is the clothing of a Puyuma woman, with very vivid and colorful designs, jewelry, and headpiece.
Fun fact! The Puyuma tribes, native Austronesian in Taiwan, were matrilineal. Inheritance was passed down through the female members and their vast networks of clans were headed by powerful matriarchs.
Slightly different from the rest of the items in this list, Batik not only refers to an article of clothing, but also the Indonesian technique of wax resist fiber art, a method of applying colored dye designs to fabric. It was invented in Java, Indonesia and spread throughout the world. On October 2, 2009, UNESCO recognized Batik as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, and since then, every year Indonesians celebrate National Batik Day on that day. Batik is also popular in Singapore and Malaysia, though they use differing methods from Indonesia.The different regions across Indonesia each have their own traditional pattern, making them easily distinguishable by using certain colors, designs, etc. The Batik is prominent in traditional Javanese rituals, such as the “tedak siten” ceremony where a child touches the earth for the first time, or “naloni mitoni”, where a mother-to-be is wrapped in seven layers of Batik.
The Hanbok is South Korea’s traditional attire, and is called the same thing for men and women. It originates from ancient royalty, who wore them as their everyday clothing and have evolved into clothing mainly for special occasions. A full set of Hanbok for men consists of a vest, top jacket, and pants, while for women it consists of a top jacket, undershirt, skirt and pants, though there are a wide variation of styles and designs, such as a one piece dress for both genders. The Hanbok is a loose fitting costume and can be found in many varying colors, ranging from neutral, solid colors to vibrant multicolored jackets and skirts. The modern Hanbok is becoming more frequently popular, with K-pop artists donning them, bringing a resurgence of interest in them among Korean citizens.
Perhaps one of the more popular Asian attires, the Kimono is Japan’s traditional article of clothing. It comes in various styles and can be worn by men and women, with the most common style being a T-shaped, full length wrap garment, paired with an Obi, or belt. The colors of the Kimono are symbolic, and the combinations can represent the seasons, marital status, age, or political class one belonged to. Though it was once everyday wear, it was replaced by Western clothing in popularity. Now, it is worn only during special occasions such as weddings, funerals, tea ceremonies and others.
The Sari (also spelled saree) is the traditional female garment of Bangladesh, but is also worn in many other South Asian countries. It is a dress that varies in length between 15 to 30 feet that is wrapped around the waist and then draped over the shoulder in a very particular way, although there’s more than one way to wear it. In addition to the Sari, there is also a blouse and underskirt (petticoat) that is worn in combination. The Dupatta is a shawl-like scarf worn around the neck or shoulders. It is commonly part of the Shalwar Kameez, a woman’s traditional outfit found in South and Central Asia. The word Dupatta is sanskrit, meaning double strip of cloth. Similar to western scarves, Dupattas act as an accessory and add flair to an outfit.
The Baro’t Saya or Baro At Saya literally translates to blouse and skirt from the Tagalog language, and is the traditional dress of women in the Philippines. It consists of 4 pieces: a blouse, a long skirt, a kerchief worn over the shoulders and a short rectangular cloth worn over the skirt. The male version of the baro’t saya is called the barong tagalog. It combines elements of both pre-colonial Filipino designs and colonial Spanish styles. During the Spanish colonization period, the Baro’t Saya was the everyday wear of Filipino women and slight differences in the decoration or style of wearing was symbolic of one’s social status. They are now worn for formal occasions and office uniforms. A version of the baro’t saya developed into what is now called the Maria Clara gown or Filipiniana dress, which is a modernized version worn by the wealthy and upper class.
Chut Thai literally translates to “Thai outfit” and is Thailand’s traditional wear. There are several different types of chut Thai for women, composed of different styles, patterns, accessories, and occasions for wearing each one. The Ruean Ton is the most casual of outfits. It consists of a long, tube-style skirt, called a sinh, which is also worn in Laos, and a long-sleeved collarless blouse. The Chakkri is a formal and elegant outfit and is produced by using a weaving technique called “yok”. The sinh has two front pleats and is worn with a “sabai”, a shawl like item that wraps around the upper body and trails to the ground on one side, covering one shoulder. It often incorporates gold or silver-colored thread, making the Chakkri a more expensive outfit.
We know there are so many more traditional Asian garments with their own unique history and story but hope we were able to introduce a few that you may not have heard of before, as well as provide more background on the ones you have! Comment below if you have a story about wearing your heritage’s traditional clothing, or others you know about that weren’t listed here!