lao dress

Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in Southeast Asia

Welcome back to the anthropology in fashion series, where we look at different traditional dresses from around the world. This week we explore the cultural clothing in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia is the region that lies to the east of India, south of China and north of Australia comprising of 11 countries namely, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste and, Vietnam.

The region is most popular for its distinct culture influenced by its neighbouring countries, its colonizers, its own indigenous people and its rich history.

The countries are most popular as tourist destinations that offer sandy beaches with pristine blue waters, exotic foods, traditions, customs, beliefs, people, historic landmarks, diverse topography and of course, a warm tropical climate.

Today we look at the clothes of Southeast Asia. Clothing in this region has been heavily influenced by clothing in India and China introduced by the trading routes that date back to 500 BC. In addition to that, they’ve also been influenced by Europeans who had arrived in the region in the 16th century. Moreover, the indigenous methods of producing textile, their culture and the climate have also been seen as factors influencing fashion. The region being in close proximity to the equator is a tropical zone, maintaining a hot and humid climate throughout the year. As such, light-coloured, light material garments that encourage airflow and repel heat are expected to be seen. One such garment is the sarong, which is a long piece of fabric used to wrap around the waist in order to cover the lower portion of the body, worn kind of like a skirt. This is a common piece of clothing seen all across the region because it suits well with the climate of this region.

This post looks at some of the most unique and frequently worn traditional costumes in this region and finds out how these clothes prove functional to the diverse people of this region.

1. Cambodia 

In Cambodia, the national dress consists of a sarong made of silk called Sampot. It is a long and wide piece of fabric that is sewn together, forming a tube skirt. The wearer step into the skirt folds the excess cloth at the waist and ties it together to tighten the cloth.

The sampot was apparently created during the Funan period  (50AD -550 AD) when the Funan King asked his subjects to wear the dress to cover themselves to impress Chinese diplomats visiting the kingdom.

This garment is now worn mainly for special events, ceremonies and performances. However, it was the common outfit for the Khmer people up until the 19th century. At the time, the type of cloth, embroidery work, colours and designs vary depending on the occasion and/or a person’s social class.

The sampot is worn by both men and women however it is the upper garment that differentiates the styles of the two genders. There are many types of upper garments for both men and women however the most popular style for women is a full sleeve or ¾ sleeve blouses with a silk cloth wrapped around one shoulder. The men wear a long-sleeved shirt that is in fact more like a jacket, with decorative buttons extending just below the waist.

khmer dress
Khmer attire of a man and a woman. Image Credit: Pinterest

The sampot and the upper garments meant for special occasions such as weddings are all vibrant in colour and decorated with silk brocades or golden embroidery.

All sampot, regardless of the purpose have distinct motifs and designs depending on the sub-sub regions they’re produced in. Interestingly, similar types of clothing are worn in the neighbouring countries of Laos and Thailand as well.

2. Indonesia

Batik cloth is used to make the national dress of Indonesia. Batik is the process of wax-resist dyeing the fabric. In this process, the designs are first drawn on the cloth then; a wax needle is used to trace the designs using wax from bees or pine resin. Then, the cloth is dyed to colour the parts that aren’t covered in wax. The cloth is then dried and the process is repeated until the right shade of colour is achieved. After that, the wax is removed by dipping the cloth in boiling water.

Indonesian Batik pattern. Image Credit: Pinterest

The end result is a textile with beautiful, detailed and ancient designs. The technique has become a national identity of Indonesia and is even recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

Men: Batik shirt and Sarong

A full sleeve collared shirt is sewn using the batik fabric. The shirt is accompanied by a sarong, which like the other countries in Southeast Asia, is a long piece of fabric sewn into a tubular skirt. In Indonesia, the fabric used is Batik. The skirt is tightly folded and either tied or tucked in at the waist to secure it in place. The outfit is completed with a peci cap which is a three-dimensional oval cap black in colour, worn by Muslim males throughout Southeast Asia.

batik sarong
Men wearing the Indonesian national dress. The lowers are sarongs made of batik. Image Credit: Know your world

Women: Kebaya

A Kebaya is a national dress for Indonesian women. It comprises a full sleeve blouse made of silk, cotton or batik well fitted to the body and a sarong, a tubular skirt similar to the ones the men wear.  Only the sarong is worn with a kebaya made of the same material and colour as the blouse. The outfit is completed with a decorative hijab for Muslim women or, with metallic hair accessories for non-Muslims.

The art of batik and the dresses mentioned above are native to the islands of Bali and Java however, due to its popularity and association with the national identity, the clothes are appropriated by all especially for formal gatherings, special events and occasions.

batik kebaya
Batik print Kebaya. Image Credit: Habra Haut


3. Myanmar

Men: Longyi, Taipon and Guang Baung

The longyi is a long piece of fabric that is stitched into a cylindrical tube. The tube covers the lower portion of the body as it is worn at the waist, fastened with a knot, or simply folded tightly and tucked in. The longyi is worn with a full-sleeved jacket called a Taipon. Finally, the heat is covered with a Guang Baung, a cloth used to wrap the head. The Guang bang today is purely decorative but, earlier when men fashioned longer hair in Myanmar, they’d tie it up and wrap their head using the cloth.

Students in traditional Burmese dress. Image Credit: Go Myanmar Tours

Women: Thummy, Eingyi and Shawl

Similar to a Longyi, Thummy is also a tube skirt wrapped around the lower portion of the body. The only difference is that the Thummy is a lot tighter at the waist making sure that it doesn’t need to be adjusted frequently. An Eingyi is a buttoned blouse with buttons either at the side or at the front, worn to cover the upper part of the body. Depending on the occasion, the women carry shawls on their shoulders as well and lastly, to complete the look, they put flowers on their hair for an extra touch.

A woman wearing the Burmese national dress. Image Credit: Fashion Dresses

The clothes are made of either cotton or silk dyed in both plain and bright colours. The two most common patterns are colourful stripes and checks.

The attire is extremely functional in the Burmese context as the longyi and thummy are easy to wear, comfortable in the hot climate, sufficiently modest and formal and, can even be used as a pouch. If the cloth is readjusted, the extra fabric can be tied into a pouch to carry groceries or other items. At present, the lower garments are worn on a daily basis by nearly all Burmese people, sometimes replacing the traditional uppers with western-style shirts and tops. The complete outfit is worn at formal events, special occasions and cultural performances.

4. The Philippines

Women: Baro’t Saya

In Tagalog, the words mean blouse and skirt. It is the national dress of Filipino women and is made up of more components than just a blouse and skirt.

The outfit is the result of the Spanish colonization of the Philippines and the local craftsmanship. What is most interesting is that the fabric is made out of pineapple fibres, an indigenous type of textile from the islands. The outfit was worn throughout the period that the Philippines were colonized by Spain. The conservative style of clothing is a result of the requirement to wear modest clothes as Catholic Christians.

There are seemingly variations to the outfit but, the most popular type is the Maria Clara Dress, an outfit with a total of 4 components. The first is a blouse or the camisa that extends to the waist, with no collars and bell-shaped sleeves.  The second is the saya, the skirt shaped like a bell that extends from the waist to the feet, touching the floor. The third is the panuelo, meaning scarf which is a firm triangle-shaped scarf that covers the chest and the back. Finally, the tapis, an overskirt clinging to the body is worn to cover the lower torso.

maria clara
Maria Clara Dress. Image Credit: Pinterest


Men: Barong Tagalog

The Barong Tagalog is the national dress of Filipino men. It is a collared, full sleeve shirt made of light, almost translucent fabric made from either pineapple or banana fibres. The shirt is loose fitted and is worn over a tighter white collarless shirt called a camisa de Chino or, Chinese shirt. The shirt contains outlines of traditional Filipino embroidered designs at the front and the fabrics are usually light coloured, proving effective against the heat. The shirt is paired with loose fitted trousers that were introduced by the Spanish.

barong tagalog
Barong Tagalog Shirt. Image Credit: Tanailee

In fact, both the Baro’t Saya and Barong Tagalog though, cover the whole body, are still effective against the tropical heat thanks to the fabric made of plant fibres. The loose fittings and the bell-shaped dresses even provide the necessary airflow to stay cool in the Filipino climate.

Today, the outfits are worn on special occasions, during cultural events and performances and, at formal gatherings.


5. Timor-Leste

In Timor- Leste also known as East Timor, a distinct type of fabric is woven by hand using cotton threads, called Tais. The fabric is traditionally made by women and the traditional clothes of the country are made using the cloth. The patterns in this cloth

The designs and colours vary among the different communities, however; elements such as the patterns known as kaif are similar. These patterns are geometric in nature, though mostly linear. The patterns form columns of colourful stripes with a gap in the middle. The space in the middle is used to weave beautiful and detailed designs that narrate folklore and East Timor history. The patterns are repeated one after the other, forming a unique type of textile.

Tais fabric. Image Credit: CGTN News

The art of making Tais is a symbol of national pride and identity over time and the local authorities are trying to preserve the art form and, provide economic opportunities to women through the art to empower them.

Men: Tais Mane

This is the traditional dress of the men in East Timor. A large piece of the Tais is wrapped around the waist like a sarong, covering the lower portion of the body.

tais mane
Tais Mane outfit. Image Credit: Pinterest

Women: Tais Feto

Tais feto is the dress of the women. Like the Burmese Longyi, the Tais fabrics are stitched into a tube, only here the tube covers the entire body as opposed to just the lower part.

tais feto
Tais feto outfits. Image Credit: Munisipiu Lautem

In addition to the dresses, nowadays a long but thinner piece of the Tais is placed on the neck for certain occasions. The Tais clothes were originally only worn for ceremonies however, today, the fabric is being fused with more modern designs of clothes and accessories.

6. Vietnam

The Ao Dai is the national dress of the dominant ethnic group of Vietnam- the Kinh. It consists of a long tunic that reaches below the knee and has deep slits on both sides of the legs from the waist and a pair of loose fitted trousers. Occasionally, the iconic conical bamboo hat completes the outfit. The tunic doesn’t cling to the body but, it isn’t extremely loose fitting either. The overall outfit allows the skin to breathe and allows air circulation in the hot and humid climate of Vietnam. The slits ensure that the tunic doesn’t restrict movement and, finally, the hat protects its wearer from the bright sun.

Both men and women wear the Ao Dai however the length of the tunic but differ between the genders. The length of the men’s tunic remains below the knee. However, the women’s tunic is slightly lengthier, extending all the way to the ankle.

ao dai
A woman and a man wearing the Vietnamese Ao Dai. Image Credit: Jake Hornberger

Many believe that the Ao Dai is related to the Chinese cheongsam. However, records show that the Ao Dai was, in fact, worn even before the cheongsam became known to the region in the early 20th century. The Ao Dai was created in the 18th century, during the rule of the Nguyen dynasty.

Today, the outfit is on a daily basis in rural Vietnam as it is well suited to the weather and feels comfortable to wear even while running errands and working. People generally prefer lighter coloured ao dai made of cotton for daily use.

In the more urban areas, the costume isn’t worn as frequently as in the remote areas but, it is worn in, formal spaces, cultural events, special occasions, ceremonies and festivals. The more ceremonial Ao Dai are some of the most extravagant articles of clothing that are made of silk dyed with vibrant colours and are decorated with embroidery or brocades.

The Ao Dai is truly a symbol of Vietnam, not just because it is their national dress but also because it is integrated into their literature, music, art, life and culture in general.

Finishing Thoughts

Nowadays, these cultural dresses aren’t worn as frequently as they used to be. Western-styled dresses such as jeans, T-shirts and sneakers have become most popular in Southeast Asia, especially in the urban areas. However, as the cultures there are still very connected to their heritage and still observe most of their traditional events, the opportunity to don these clothes is high.

The scope of this topic is vast as sub-regions and varying ethnic groups within these counties have their own style of dressing however, this post attempted to look at the bigger picture to get a broader understanding of the type of clothes worn in this region.

This series shall continue next week as once again we look at the traditional costumes of another region.

If you missed the last two posts in this series, here are the links below:

  1. Anthropology of clothing in culture from prehistory to present day
  1. Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in the Middle East


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