Editorial Feature

Skirts Around the World

A look at the different variations of the skirt from cultures all over the world

The skirt is the second-oldest type of clothing in the history of the world, beaten to the top spot by its skimpier older sibling, the loin cloth. Nowadays, it's predominantly regarded as a wardrobe staple of the Western woman, but it was actually a unisex garment for the majority of history and has its roots in cultures all around the world.

Skirts came into fruition not because they were a sassy way to show off one’s legs, but because they were the simplest and cheapest way to cover the body in prehistoric times. Making a skirt took minimal time and material and didn’t require specialist equipment; you just had to tie a rectangle of cloth around your waist.

We take a look at some different ways that the skirt has been worn around the world.

The shendyt, Egypt

In Ancient Egypt the skirt was known as the shendyt and comprised simply of a piece of linen wrapped around the lower body. Egypt is also where distinctions in skirt fashions began to form. You could tell the difference between the upper and lower classes by the quality of the covering they wore: the wealthy had well woven and intricately pleated skirts while the poor wore more basic versions. The length of the skirt also demonstrated how rich the wearer was; the longer the skirt, the more fabric they could afford.

Egyptian Warrior Figure, -2360/-2100 (Colección de Arte Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat)
Funerary Statue, Egypt, Middle Kingdom, 11th dynasty (c. 2000 BC) (From the collection of Calouste Gulbenkian Museum)

The kaunakes, Mesopotamia

The below statue from 2500BCE was found in a Mesopotamian temple and shows a man wearing a type of skirt known as a kaunakes. The Sumerians, a civilization that existed before 4000BCE, wore kaunakes extending down to the knees that were made by weaving together tufts of petals, feathers or fur. The garment was worn by both men and women, and like the shendyt was worn long by those with a higher status, with shorter versions worn by servants and soldiers.

Gypsum statue of a man, -2500/-2500 (From the collection of British Museum)

The Lhoba skirt, Tibet

The women of the Mili and Genhe tribes of the Lhoba people in Tibet traditionally wore skirts made from the straw of the finger millet, found in the Kizhua canyon and known locally as "chicken claw millet" for the way the grain splits into three claw-like strands. Nowadays the tribespeople wear skirts made from sheeps wool and narrow-sleeved blouses, but often wear a straw skirt on top of this to protect the cloth skirt inside.

Skirt Made of Finger Millet Straw (From the collection of Museum of Ethnic Cultures, Minzu University of China)

The kanga, East Africa

The kanga is a colorful fabric used a skirt, as well as a head-wrap, apron, pot-holder, towel, and much more. It originated in East Africa in the 19th century, and is a 1x1.5m rectangle of fabric with a pindo (border) along all four sides and a mji (central design). The name comes from the Swahili word for the guinea hen, as the earliest pattern of the kanga was made up of small dots or speckles, which resembled the bird’s plumage. The kanga is often given as a gift on special occasions, or in Tanzania, to mourning families after the loss of a family member.

Printed cloth (kanga) (mid 20th century) (From the collection of British Museum)
Swahili Woman in Flamboyant Kanga and Turban, by A.C. Gomes and Co., 1900 (Smithsonian National Museum of African Art)

The sarong, Indonesia

Worn predominantly by Indonesian men—and once famously by David Beckham—the sarong is a yard-length of fabric that is stitched together to form a tube. In the centre of the sheet there is a panel of color that contrasts with the rest of the fabric, which is known as the kepala or head of the sarong. It is worn by stepping into the tube with the kepala at the back, folding the excess fabric from both sides to the front centre, and then rolling the hem down to secure it.

Kebaya, kain panjang pagi sore and sarong, by Oey Soe Tjoen, 1930 - 1940 (From the collection of National Heritage Board, Singapore)

The kilt, Scotland

The kilt originated as the traditional dress of Gaelic men in the Scottish highlands. It is still worn today, traditionally at formal occasions such as weddings, ceilidhs (Scottish dances) and at Highland Games. The kilt is made with a woollen cloth in a tartan pattern, with the tartan representing certain regions or districts of Scotland.

Laird of Grant's Piper, by Richard Waitt, 1714 (From the collection of National Museums Scotland)

The rahad, Sudan

This apron-style skirt comes from Sudan, and is tied around the waist with a fringe hanging down at a length of 23cm. It can be made from materials such as goat leather, or straw and was traditionally worn by the Bari women of south Sudan. This skirt is from 1862 and is painted with red oiled ochre to give it a reddish color.

Girl's skirt-plachet "rahad", 1862 (From the collection of Complexul National Muzeal ASTRA)

The Dong skirt, China

This skirt was worn by women from the Dong ethnic group in China, with a similar design worn by men. It has a black waistband and green strips embroidered with fish, dragon and sun motifs. The tassels at the end are made with chicken feathers. Clothing is a key part of Dong culture; the craftsmanship has been passed down for thousands of years, and as they have no written language, they record their culture in traditional clothing.

Woman's Skirt Decorated with Colored Ribbons and Chicken Feathers (From the collection of Museum of Ethnic Cultures, Minzu University of China)
Man's hundred-bird dress, (From the collection of Museum of Ethnic Cultures, Minzu University of China)
Share this story with a friend
Translate with Google
Home
Explore
Nearby
Profile