women wearing the koto

Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in the Guianas and Brazil

Welcome back to another week of the anthropology in fashion series, where we learn about the traditional dresses from one region in the world every week. This week, we’ll be looking at traditional clothing from The Guianas and Brazil.

The Guianas is one of the four sub-regions in South America comprising the countries of Suriname and Guyana, and French Guiana, an overseas department of France. This region is located in the northeastern part of the continent, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the north, the Amazon River delta in the east and the Orinoco River in the west and bordered entirely by Brazil to the south.

Since the objective of this post is to explore cultural clothing found in the eastern portion of the continent, we will also cover Brazil. Brazil is the largest country on the continent, which occupies the entire eastern portion of South America. It also covers nearly half the landmass of the entire continent.

Evolution of Clothing in the Guianas and Brazil

The Guianas were first discovered by the Europeans when Christopher Columbus spotted the region in 1498, during his third voyage to the Americas. At the time, this area was inhabited by various subgroups and tribes of the indigenous Arawak and Carib people. They were the same group of people inhabiting the Caribbean and other parts of South America in pre-Columbian times.

Brazil, on the other hand, was discovered in 1500 by Pedro Alvares Cabral, a Portuguese explorer, who accidentally ended up on Brazilian shores instead of finding his way to India.

At the time, several indigenous tribes inhabited the land. Many were agricultural tribes while others were still living as hunter-gatherers. The settled tribes were categorized as Tupi and non-Tupi people groups and they mostly lived in villages near rivers or coastal areas.

a tupi person wearing loincloth
Illustration of a person from the indigenous Tupi tribe. Image Credit: Wikipedia

In one of the earlier posts in this series, we explored the cultural clothing in the Caribbean and saw that the Arawaks and Caribs wore very little clothing. These agricultural groups would only cover the lower half of their bodies with loincloths, aprons and belts made of cotton that they were already cultivating. They would also paint their bodies with natural dyes, and wear accessories made of stone, bone, shells and metal on their arms and legs. Additionally, they would wear elaborate headdresses on special occasions.

Similarly, the indigenous people in Brazil also wore very little clothing. They also wore just enough clothing to cover their genitals. Like the Arawaks and Caribs, they also wore feathered headdresses, painted their bodies and wore accessories. The Tupi-Guarani warriors, for instance, painted stripes on their bodies for every enemy that they killed.

What type of clothing did the Europeans introduce?

Dress of a Dutch East India Company Soldier
Dress of a Dutch East India Company Soldier. Image Credit: Dutch Genealogy

After spotting the Guianas, the area wasn’t given a lot of attention until about a century after its discovery, which is when European explorers went searching for the mythical kingdom of Manoa and its king, El Dorado. The Guianas were targeted by the major European powers of the time, which they scoured in the hopes of finding the lost mythical location. And, to extract valuable resources and acquire more land.

The English, Dutch and French grew increasingly interesting, as did Spain and Portugal, the existing powers present on the continent at the time.

Brazil, as well, was being used as a Portuguese trading post. However, after exporting local resources like Brazilwood, a native tree that produces red dye (it is also what Brazil is named after) to Europe, various European powers tried to get trading rights in Brazil, realizing its value. Portugal managed to retain Brazil as its colony till 1822, but not without finding themselves with other European powers in the region.

As the Europeans arrived and settled in their colonies, they introduced their clothing to this part of the world. Tailored garments such as shirts, doublets, bonnets, hats, hose, breeches, jerkins, stockings, trousers, cloaks, boots, skirts, whalebone bodices, gowns with petticoats, frocks, coats, wigs, etc. were part of the common attire of the Europeans. Additionally, foreign materials like linen, silk and velvet, among others, were also introduced. With them, new weaving equipment and techniques also reached this region.

Dresses of the Enslaved

Slaves in Brazil wearing white unifroms
A detail from a photo of slaves going to the coffee harvest. Vale do Paraiba, Sao Paulo, 1885. Image Credit: NPR

As they continued to settle over the centuries, the colonists established several plantations, growing profitable crops like coffee, cocoa, sugarcane and cotton. Since their arrival, the population of the indigenous groups was already declining because of foreign diseases such as smallpox, measles, and flu, which they carried with them. Many of those who survived were enslaved and made to work in plantations on their land. On top of that, they were mistreated, which led to a further decline in their population. Out of the ones that remained, many escaped into the depths of nature, to protect themselves. To replace this rapidly declining workforce, the Europeans sought to bring slaves from Africa. Of all the slaves that were ever brought to the Americas via the transatlantic slave trade, 40% of them were brought to Brazil.

The masters of the enslaved people would provide them with minimal clothing as a uniform, once or twice a year. Men and women received coarse clothing like a low-quality woollen jacket, a hat, 6 yards of cotton, and a piece of canvas. As they received such limited amounts of clothing, they would often wear the same outfit for days at a time, thus looking shabby.

Slaves serving wealthier masters were provided better quality white clothing, which they’d adorn with jewellery. This was a way for them to display their wealth and power.

Dresses after the Abolition of Slavery

Image of a group of Indian bonded workers in Suriname
Indentured labourers from India in Suriname. Image Credit: Indian Express

After slavery was abolished in the late 19th century, there was another drastic change in the ethnic make-up in this region. This was when Indians, Javanese, Chinese and Middle Eastern people were brought as indentured labourers, to work on the plantations. This further influenced the culture in the region, as they introduced their respective ethnic clothes to the Guianas and Brazil.

Over time, all these cultures combine to create unique regional cultures. It formed an ethnically diverse society where all cultures live more or less in harmony. As for clothing, the standard western-style clothing has been adopted all over this region, as a result of modernization and for the reason that it is overall more practical for today’s fast-paced lifestyle.

Traditional clothing today can hardly be seen outside rural areas. They are reserved for very special occasions like festivals and cultural demonstrations. Nonetheless, they are a symbol of cultural identity which embodies the key events in history, reminding the wearer of their roots.

Let us now look at a few of the clothing that is distinct to some of the places in the Guianas and Brazil.


Suriname is an ethnically diverse country with a culture that has Indian, African, European, specifically Dutch and Amerindian influences. As such, there is no singular dress that can reflect this diversity. However, the Koto dress is perhaps the most iconic costume in Suriname. The koto is an instant identifier of Surinamese culture as it is distinct to this country.

Surinamese women wearing koto
Women wearing the koto. Notice the different ways the angisa is tied. Image Credit: Pinterest

The koto is a dress that is worn by Afro-Surinamese and Creole-Surinamese women. It is a multi-part dress, which, depending on the type of koto, can even have up to 12-13 pieces. The few basic components of the dress are the koto or long skirt, a short blouse known as a yaki, a jacket and angisa. The angisa is a matching headscarf that is worn with the outfit. The way it is tied can convey the mood of the wearer or a message that they might secretly want to send to another person.

Here are some of the messages that a koto can indicate the following:

“The garbage truck gathers garbage but not guilt”

“I’m a grown woman in my own home, I can do as I like.”

‘Keep your tongue”

“Wait for me at the corner” and,

“Let them speak.”

Origins of the Koto and What it Represents

The outfit is rooted in Surinamese history. First of all, the koto’s origins can be traced back to 1879, when the Dutch colonial government made it mandatory for women to wear a dress or a piece of clothing that covered their chests, along with a jacket in public. This mandate was seemingly issued as an effort by the Moravian Church to get the local women to be more modest. Another theory is that the Surinamese would be bare-chested, which would make the slaveowner’s mistresses jealous. Hence, this rule was imposed to cover them up so they no longer envied them.

The koto was even a symbol of resistance for free women of colour, before the abolition of slavery. They weren’t permitted to wear large amounts of fabric or jewellery. So, as a form of resistance, they would wear these large, layered kotos that are made of a lot of fabric. With their outfit, they were secretly communicating the message – ‘Let the people see this is mine!’

The dress also reflects how dependent the people are on the land. Cassava, a plant that grows abundantly in Suriname, is mashed and mixed with water to stiffen the headscarf into the desired shape. The mixture releases starch which helps with this process. They even starch the outer skirt to add volume and structure to the look.

This is a very special outfit that is reserved for occasions such as birthdays, funerals, weddings, etc.


Brazilian gauchos wearing bombacha pants
Gauchos wearing bombacha. Image Credit: Gustavo Mansur and Palácio Piratini via Fotos Publicas

Brazil is massive, in terms of landmass and population, and like many of the other South American countries, Brazil is extremely diverse. Every region and every culture has its own form of traditional clothing. There is no single dress that combines this diversity, but there are some distinct outfits that are easy to identify as uniquely Brazilian.

The first is a pair of trousers called bombachas. They are a sort of baggy trousers made of cotton. Bombachas were traditionally donned by cowboys from the state of Rio Grande do Sul. The material and fit made it ideal for horseback riding. These pants are also commonly called gaucho pants, after the name given to the cowboys of South America. Both men and women can wear these trousers.

Clothing from the State of Bahia

Baianas wearing the Baiana dress
Baiana dress. Image Credit: Erins Travels

Another distinctly Brazilian costume is the Baiana dress from the state of Bahia. The Baiana de Acarajé is a dress that Bahainas wear. Baianas are simply the women of Bahia. It is a dress that is deeply rooted in Afro-Brazilian culture.

The cotton dress is made up of a large ankle-length flowy voluminous skirt. On top, the bodice has half sleeves and is cinched at the waist before the rest of the fabric flows on top of the skirt. Underneath the dress, women wear a camino, which is a pair of white cotton trousers. The dress is decorated with traditional embroidery at the borders and with lace decorations, which are a Portuguese influence.

The dress, particularly the skirt, can come in a lot of striking colours and patterns. However, in Bahia, the dress is usually white in honour of the Candomblé religion. Candomblé is an Afro-Brazilian religion that was developed by the slaves brought to Brazil through the transatlantic slave trade. They had combined their animist religions from Africa with Catholicism to show the Europeans that they were indeed faithful Catholics. White is a symbol of Oxalá, one of the Orixás or the spirits that is associated with creating the world and humans.

The head is wrapped with a white lacy headscarf, finally, completing the ensemble with a collection of jewellery including earrings, necklaces, rings, and bangles.

Samba Costume

samba dancer in carnival regalia
Image Credit: The Guardian

Perhaps the most iconic dress from Brazil is the Carnival costumes of the Samba dancers. Women wear extravagant and colourful regalia consisting of a heavily decorated bikini, feathered headdresses, beads, jewels and high heels. The dancers are constantly dancing in warm weather with a massive crowd surrounding them. As the bikinis leave much of the body unclothed, it cools down the body quickly in a setting like that. Thus, actually proving useful to the dancers.


Cultural clothing in Guyana depends on ethnicity, religious beliefs, personal style, climate, profession and function.

Guyana, like the other places in the Guianas, is a multicultural country that draws influences from Amerindian, African, Indian, European, and East and Southeast Asian cultures.

At present, the Indo-Guyanese people are the largest ethnic group in the country. These people are the descendants of hundreds and thousands of indentured labourers who arrived between 1838 and 1917 from India to Guyana. They had come to work in the country’s sugarcane plantations when it was still a British colony.

As a result, traditional clothing in Guyana is similar to traditional clothing found in India. When the labourers immigrated to the country, they carried their clothes along with them, which they wore on special occasions.

brown sari being displayed
Sari display at the Miss Guayana Sari Pageant. Image Credit: Stabroek News

Hindu women drape a colourful sari decorated with fascinating motifs, embroidery, brocade and decorative jewels. Or, they wear a salwar kameez, which is an ensemble, comprising a knee-length tunic (kameez) with ¾ sleeves and slits at both sides of the garment. And, a pair of loose fitted trousers (salwar) that is tighter at the ankles and fastened with a drawstring. The outfit is completed with an orhni or dupatta, which is a piece of light cloth used to cover the chest or head. Muslim women also wear the salwar kameez, only they replace the orhni with a khimar. A khimar is a type of veil that covers the head, neck and shoulders, similar to a hijab.

Indo-Guyanese Men’s Clothing

kids in jilbab, salwar kameez and khimar
Guyanese Muslim kids in traditional attire. Image Credit: Guyana Times International

Hindu men wear a kurta on top, which is a collarless tunic, similar to the women’s kameez, only it doesn’t have any slits and tends to have longer sleeves. They come in various materials and colours. Kurtas are worn with a dhoti, usually white. A dhoti is a long piece of cloth that is wrapped and tucked around the waist and legs, to resemble loose trousers. Alternatively, they may also wear pajamas, which are loose fitted trousers that do not tighten at the ankles. They are also fastened with a drawstring. A pajama usually comes in a contrasting colour to the kurta.

Muslim men wear a jilbab, which is a full-sleeved ankle-length shirt without collars. They may come in many colours and are worn for prayers and special occasions.

A quick recap

Clothing in the Guianas and Brazil initially comprised simple loincloths that the native inhabitants of this region used to wear. After the Europeans discovered this part of the world and began settling in, they introduced their clothing to this region. As a result, western attire from the early modern period was common attire in the colonies. While they enjoyed wearing the finest clothes they could afford, the people they enslaved mostly wore coarse and uncomfortable clothing. Over the years, all the cultures that were brought together as a result of imperialism, combined to form a unique mixed culture that is reflected in the traditional clothing.

Link to last week’s post, in case you missed it: Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in Colombia and Venezuela 

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