Striking Photos of Cultural Fashions You Have to See
These vibrant cultures were slaying their fashion game long before the runway was invented.
Most global fashions aren’t fads. They arise from centuries of tradition and don’t go out of vogue when the seasons change: the bold beadwork of the Maasai in the Serengeti, the endless folds of a bright blue Tuareg head wrap in the Sahara, a Scottish tartan. Here are some of the world’s most notable fashions and the people who wear them—plus tips on borrowing the styles when you get back home.
The Maasai, a semi-nomadic people who breed predominantly cattle, roam the Serengeti grasslands. As a result of moving from place to place in search of better grazing, the Maasai travel light—but fashionably. They adorn themselves daily with elaborate beadwork, with a more-is-more approach: necklaces stacked high and wide, earrings that drip like waterfalls, bracelets inching up arms. The design and size of each indicates age, identity, and status within the community.
Lightweight, vibrant, and distinctive, Maasai beadwork has entranced designers for ages, so much so that in the last decade, the Maasai have trademarked their bead artistry to protect their cultural identity, fighting fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton for appropriating their designs without permission. So if you can’t resist trying the look for yourself, buy from local artisans.
Before you wear, take note: Color is key. White beads symbolize milk; red, blood; black, skin; and orange, generosity. Blue symbolizes God, because it shares the color of the sky, and green beads are said to represent vegetation after rainfall, a symbol of peace for the Maasai.
Today more than 20 million strong, the Yoruba—a people said to be the world’s first practitioners of voodoo—have a beadwork tradition that dates from the sixth century. Towering beaded crowns, most often featuring birds that seem to take flight, are a touchstone for the culture. But it is during annual Egungun masquerades when the beadwork really comes to the fore, with performers cloaking their entire form in fabrics, often extensively beaded, so they are unrecognizable as humans.
For the Yoruba, most of whom live in Nigeria, beadwork is sacred in both its wearing (researcher Patricia Jacobs notes that the beads “act as an ambassador of heaven”) and creation (artisans can enter a trancelike state that imbues the beadwork with special power). As such, the best way to experience the opulent style is to time your visit to an Egungun masquerade, which represents the visitation of dead ancestors and spirits come to guide and advise the living. They can stretch weeks long and feature insistent drums accompanied by bead-drenched performers stomping and swooping, arms stretched wide as if they might return to the heavens without a moment’s notice.
In North America, where the oldest bead ever found dates to 11,000 B.C., beading history runs deep with the nomadic Native American tribes that peopled the plains west of the Mississippi River. Needing to be able to move quickly across the vast swath of the American West—driven by drought, lack of bison, or war with other tribes—Native Americans concentrated artistic effort on items easily carried.
In the East, some tribes used marine shells to create beads called wampum, which were valued as currency, served as a historical record, and worn as jewelry. When strung together as belts, wampum served as a symbol of agreement—in effect, a signed document.
Your best bet for buying authentic Native American beadwork is at an official powwow, which serves as both social glue and tribal spectacle. Such gatherings generally involve multiple tribes and performers in energetic feats of spinning and twirling: arms pumping, knees lifting, and beads mightily rattling.
Prince rocked a head wrap on Saturday Night Live; Elizabeth Taylor was wont to wear turbans back in the day, too. Turbans are a bold adornment in the West—not for fashion’s fainthearted. Similarly, against the relentlessly sandy stretch of the Sahara, a Tuareg man approaching on camelback in his distinctive blue head wrap can seem to a visitor something that rises above place and time—a mirage perhaps.
Outsiders often call the Tuareg “blue men,” a reference to how the indigo dye of their veils and turbans rubs off on their skin, merging man and veil into one. A young man’s first veiling is accompanied by verses from the Koran, so the veil is thus both spiritual—covering the face is believed to ward off evil—and practical, as it filters out blowing desert sands.
Since it is a religious accessory and worn only by men, you can’t buy a traditional Tuareg blue veil at market. When you encounter a Tuareg male, know that he considers exposing the mouth and nose to strangers shameful, so he will remove his turban only in front of very close family.
The hip women wending their way through Brooklyn’s streets in colorful head wraps owe a style debt to cultures like the Xhosa, who have inhabited the wild and windswept Eastern Cape of South Africa for more than 400 years. Alisa LaGamma of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute—the department that throws the annual Met Gala, May’s annual parade of avant-garde fashion—says of the women’s head wrap tradition in Africa, “It’s part of an ensemble. Nothing particularly symbolic. It's an elegant little accent, a finishing touch.”
As a Xhosa woman’s age increases, so does the size of her head wrap, to acknowledge her status. But for special occasions the wraps are taken to truly teetering levels—a glimpse across the crowd of attendees at a Xhosa wedding offers a sea of colors and shapes.
To take home a piece of Xhosa high style, visit the village market at Mgwali in the Eastern Cape and choose the fabric created by local artisans that captures your fancy. There’s no right way to wrap, so be sure to keep your eyes open at the market for Xhosa shoppers with innovative wrapping shapes that you can try yourself.
For absolute monumentality in head wraps, look to the Nihang. The largest recorded Nihang turban belonged to one Major Singh and was wound of 1,312 feet (400 meters) of material, required more than a hundred hairpins, and contained 51 metal religious symbols.
Four hundred years ago, the Moguls were invaders of what is now India. Enter the Nihang—which translates to “crocodile,” indicating fierceness and lack of fear of death—a Sikh sect who were known for their martial arts and skill with swords. Wrapped around long, uncut hair, their massive, bright blue turban (dastaar boonga, literally ‘“towering fortress”) was originally intended to provide protection against a Mogul sword blow to the head. It also housed weapons, including daggers, swords, and throwing discs.
Though in modernity the sect has gone from martial to spiritual, each spring these toweringly turbaned warriors descend on Anandpur in India’s Punjab region for Hola Mohalla, a celebration dating from the 18th century that extols martial prowess. On the third and final day of the festival, the Nihang ride galloping horses while standing up and hold mock battles and sword fights, sometimes pitting a single Nihang against a circling crowd of 10 opponents. Swords swirl, men leap, and turban armaments glint in the Punjab sun.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Scots put plaid on the fashion map. Today, a visitor to the verdant hills of Scotland might be disappointed not to spy patterned kilts aplenty. But calling the kilt pattern plaid is a misnomer in the British Isles. In Scotland, the pattern is officially known as tartan.
The Scottish Register of Tartans can help if you’re looking for a particular family tartan, and the Scottish Tartans Authority can help you find where to buy it. But for a rousing plaid-filled experience, there’s arguably no better way to see a tartan in its full glory than at the Highland Games, held every weekend in the summer in Scotland. The official rules state that all competitors must don a kilt to be eligible to compete in such events as tossing a caber (think a tree trunk half the size of a telephone pole). There are also hordes of tartan-clad bagpipers, as well as tartan-wearing young ladies performing the Highland fling, a rousing dance that looks a bit as if a ballet were being performed on a pogo stick.
Tartan began its journey into counterculture in the 18th century, when it became a military uniform for the Black Watch battalion during James Francis Edward Stuart’s 1715 attempt to take over the British throne. After the regiment’s defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, tartans were banned in Great Britain for nearly a century. Wearing a tartan thereafter had the effect of making a political statement. Tellingly, punk culture, born in the 1970s and spotted most often in London’s streets, chose Queen Elizabeth II’s personal tartan, the Royal Stewart, as its favored pattern.
Today designer Vivienne Westwood, credited with ushering punk into mainstream fashion, continues to have a penchant for plaid. For throwback punk street cred, pair a tartan with spikes and leather and rip at will.
Though plaid originally crossed the pond with colonists—accounts tell that buffalo plaid’s origins lie with a Scottish trader named Jock McCluskey, who traded his tartan with Native Americans for their, well, buffalo pelts—Americans concocted a brave new plaid, born of the American West, reflecting its colors and becoming a favorite of lumberjacks and cowboys. One of this plaid’s most famous adherents was the stuff of legend: Paul Bunyan wore it in a 1914 lumber company advertising pamphlet.
Today, plaid is arguably the United States’ touchstone fabric choice, outfitting grunge rockers, skaters, Brawny paper towel spokesmen, neoartisanal enthusiasts, and hipsters. (It even went to the moon with astronaut Alan Bean in Apollo 12.) Famed U.S. companies such as Pendleton have been selling plaid for nearly a century. But for a quintessentially American display of plaid? Just check out a rodeo.