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A cultural community
Home to thousands of students, West High contains a variety of different cultures with their own unique styles of traditional clothing.
November 20, 2018
A little girl stands in front of the mirror, grabs the hem of her ruffled skirt and twirls the bright fabric with flower patterns around her body. Across the Atlantic Ocean, another child ties her hair into a bun and uses a headwrap to make intricate shapes. Thousands of miles northeast of her, a third child fastens the button of her qipao and smooths out the silky material while a fourth child wraps a fan-like skirt around her waist. Despite being halfway across the world, the four children share at least one commonality; they are all proudly wearing traditional clothing from their respective cultures: Latin America, Africa, East Asia and South Asia.
According to a 2018 enrollment summary, over 45 percent of the student population at West identifies as belonging to a racial minority. This means that West is home to a multitude of different cultures and backgrounds, with each student bringing in a new cultural experience and design of clothing.
Sarah Bigaba '21 & Dasia Taylor '21
Dashikis are one of the most common traditional outfits in Africa. This article of clothing is a long, almost dress-length shirt with traditional African patterns along the collar. According to Dasia Taylor ’21, what makes dashikis and African dress as a whole so unique is their personalization, since the colors and patterns used can vary based on what the wearer prefers.
“With African clothing, you see [a] blob of color here and then there’s another blob there, and it’s separated by a line,” Taylor said. “It’s always very vibrant. Most of traditional African clothing is vibrant … and they’re just beautiful.”
Due to the flexibility of the design for dashikis, they are able to be worn for a variety of events such as festivals and funerals to name a few. However, one of the most common occasions to wear a dashiki is for weddings where the bride’s grandmother may choose the design of the dashiki.
“You wear [dashikis] when you want to, but there’s one specific one that sometimes they make for women at a wedding,” said Sarah Bigaba ’21, who is Congolese. “It’s kind of like a uniform and is part of the bride’s family. You get to wear a special type and it just symbolizes their background, and they determine that with the bride’s mother.”
Because of the light fabric and loose form, dashikis are popular to wear in the heat and climate of West Africa. During the 1960s, they became a symbol for African-American struggles in the United States and gained popularity in mainstream culture.
“Now, people … look into [African] history, and they want to make it into a trend, but you got to think about how Africans really did get treated [poorly] in the past,” Bigaba said. “Our clothes were ‘weird,’ but if a celebrity wears it, [everybody] thinks it’s a trend. Don’t make it seem like it’s a trend. This is something that we actually value, and this is our life. Don’t fetishisize it.”
However, Bigaba believes this does not apply to those who truly appreciate the cultures they are representing. While Taylor was not born in Africa and does not have immediate relatives living there, she feels a connection with her ancestors whenever she wears traditional clothing.
“I feel honored because the places where these articles of clothing were made are where my people came from,” she said. “[My ancestors] made these beautiful articles of clothing, so it’s like I get to live what they did.”
In addition to dashikis, boubous are another popular article of traditional clothing. According to Bigaba, boubous are similar to flowy dresses or robes, with wide arms and African prints. One of the differences between boubous and dashikis are that boubous are typically more than one piece. For example, men’s boubous are usually composed of a long-sleeved shirt, a pair of trousers that are narrow around the ankles and a wide gown worn over the top. Women’s boubous are traditionally two pieces with wrappers around the bottom and a long gown as well. Women often wear them with a matching head wrap known as kitambalas, as they are called in the Congo, according to African Heritage.
“You can wear [kitambalas] everyday,” Bigaba said. “Recently, women have been wearing it at church. They [wear the] dress up kind. They dress up there, but there’s always the boubou they wear at home when they’re just doing chores. The ones they wear at church [are] sometimes two pieces with the blouse, and you can just wrap [the bottom], or maybe they just make it into a skirt.”
Headwraps are not only worn with boubous but can also be seen with a variety of traditional and non-traditional African dress as well. While there are many historical reasons for this, one of the most influential has to do with the oppression of African women during times of slavery.
“During slavery, the masters would make [slaves] wear head wraps so that they would know that they are slaves,” Taylor said. “Now, it’s something that we’ve embraced and we’ve turned it into something positive.”
Traditional clothing is only one way of many in which those of common descent are able to share a sense of unity. For Bigaba, having this connection to her ancestry is very meaningful and gives her a sense of pride.
“[Wearing traditional clothes] does make me happy because … I’m showing off my culture,” she said. “I’m not like everybody else in America or at school … You feel like you’re special, and where you come from is something you can be proud of.”
Rachel Ding '19
Traditional Chinese dresses were shaped through the varying time periods and dynasties of Chinese history. According to Culture Trip, during the Qing Dynasty, changpaos—known as qipaos for females—emerged and eventually modernized to become sleeveless, high-necked, embroidered, form-fitting dresses with slits on one or both sides and flower patterns. This style of outfit is typically made from silk as well. While qipaos come in a variety of colors, red is the most traditional, as it represents happiness and good fortune in Chinese culture.
“I think [qipaos] are pretty simple compared to other cultures, but that’s what makes them stand out, just how simple and elegant they are,” said Rachel Ding ’19.
Ding first wore a qipao when she was a little girl and her mother’s friend brought one from China for Chinese New Year. She has worn one ever since for the celebration of that same event, sometimes referred to as the Spring Festival. This celebration takes place at the beginning of the Chinese calendar and runs for several days until the Lantern Festival which celebrates reunion and family, according to the network Chinese New Year.
“[Chinese New Year is sometimes] in February and it’s the start of the lunar new year … and you just celebrate, and we make dumplings and hang up [red] signs [with messages of good fortune] and lanterns and stuff like that,” Ding said.
Besides Chinese New Year, one of the other times Ding wore a qipao was during Walk It Out, West High’s multicultural fashion show, last school year. This not only gave her an opportunity to wear a qipao again, but also exposed her to the multitude of cultures present at West High and their traditional clothing.
“I learned a lot from Walk It Out last year just from other cultures, so I think that was really good for people to see because you’re not the only ones here, and there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know about [other cultures].”
However, this also revealed the difficulty of getting authentic traditional clothing in a small town that may not always prioritize the purchasing and selling of different clothing from around the world.
“I feel like we always have to go to China to get [traditional clothing],” Ding said. “I don’t think I’ve seen any here … I guess it’s just not really important here, and they’re not worn that often. Even if you were to get them here, they probably wouldn’t be super traditional or [authentic], so even if they were sold, people would probably still bring them from China.”
This lack of opportunities to purchase authentic traditional clothing may stem from the fact that there are common misconceptions regarding traditional Chinese outfits and what they symbolize.
“If I were putting myself into American shoes, I might think of a monk or of Chinese operas with the huge robes and the masks,” Ding said.
However, there is more to traditional clothing than what is seen at face value. Qipaos are not only beautiful, but have a rich history as well. According to Culture Trip, during the Chinese Republican era following the Qing Dynasty, qipaos became a symbol for women’s liberation, as only men were allowed to wear changpaos. As feminist ideals spread, wearing changpaos became a silent protest for gender equality, and over time, shifted from political expression to an aesthetic piece of clothing that represents one’s heritage.
“[Traditional dresses] are really beautiful and there’s nothing like that in [America],” Ding said. “It’s cool to have traditions that you can be proud of and that you can share with other people, [and they’ll say] ‘Wow, that’s really beautiful.’”
Miriam Aguirre '21 & Dean of Students Maria Martin
When one thinks of traditional Latin American clothing, folklorico dresses with frilly skirts probably come to mind. However, different regions in Latin America have different styles of clothing. This is attributed with the history and the influences of colonization on indigenous people which affected each region’s cultural heritage.
“Each region within [the] different countries is going to have different outfits, different cultural dress because of the different historical heritage, both indigenous and colonizing,” said Dean of Students Maria Martin. “Mexico, for example, had Mayans, Aztecs and a whole lot of other indigenous nations, [such as] the French … and the Spaniards … Their cultural dress is all different … You see dresses from the indigenous culture, as well as the colonizing culture, … so it’s really neat.”
Not only has exposure to other cultures shaped traditional Mexican clothing, but geography has as well. Miriam Aguirre ’21 said that the northern side of Mexico where her mother is from is cold most of the time, and as a result, clothing is traditionally white with vibrant colors to compliment. However, in the southern part that her father is from, traditional clothing is more colorful because of the warmer climate.
Traditional dresses are also influenced by the occasion for which they will be worn. For example, while folklorico dresses are a common type of traditional outfit in Mexico, they are typically only worn by performers for a specific type of dance. This dance, known as folkloric dance, is a time where everyone in the community will gather and interact with one another.
“A lot of times, the events that showcase folkloric dance will be the ones where you see the different styles … [Audience members] aren’t really walking around town [in traditional dress] because they tend to be historical dress,” Martin said. “It was a community event, and everybody would gather versus it’s a family event and only [family members are] always invited.”
Another special event where traditional dress is worn are quinceañeras. Quinceañeras symbolize the transition from a girl to a woman when females turn 15 in Latin American culture and is often considered to be a life-changing event in a young woman’s life.
“A lot of people like to compare a quinceañera to a Sweet 16, [but] I don’t because I feel like there’s so much more in the history of quinceañeras,” Aguirre said. “In the history, it marks the official transition from a girl into becoming a woman. It’s when you’re celebrated and taken in and embraced by your family, so it’s marking this huge step in your life that I don’t think a lot of other cultures have … It’s something [that’s very] beautiful.”
Quinceañera dresses play a significant role in the planning process of the event and many consider them to be one of the most important aspects of the celebration. According to Aguirre, they are often big, ball gown-like dresses made with a hoop skirt underneath to make the dress more poofy. Historically, they have been either white or pink, but nowadays come in a variety of colors and are often made with tulle or satin.
“A lot of what goes on in the party planning [of a quinceañera] is based on the dress,” Aguirre said. “The dress sort of picks a theme, so for me, my dress signified something really personal … That dress means something really meaningful to you … The dress defines the rest of the party, which is really cool.”
Vibrant colors are also an important aspect of traditional Latino clothing, as they pay homage to their ancestors’ efforts to create dye from earth’s natural resources. Yet, Aguirre believes that what makes traditional Latin clothing stand out is its history.
“[There is] a really deep and rich history behind a lot of what Mexican clothes [look like],” Aguirre said. “There are some commonalities between all of these countries, … because it is Latin America and they’re all connected, … but there are really cool things where you can see how [regions] branched out and built on [different styles].”
However, Aguirre also believes that not many people are aware of this because they do not know enough about Latin American history to be very informed on its traditional clothing. She emphasizes that traditional Latino dress does not only encompass folkloricos and that Latino clothing is not as one-dimensional as people may assume.
“I think, in just a broad term, people don’t really know a lot,” Aguirre said. “I think a lot of people don’t know that different regions have different styles and how that can change and how temperature, culture and everything else plays in with all of the changes … because they’re not educating themselves enough.”
For Aguirre, understanding the root of this diversity within one continent’s style of traditional dress is one of the most intriguing things that one can learn about clothing not only from Latin America, but from around the world as well.
“It’s really interesting to read up on it and understand what changes, why they’ve changed and how [they] reflected what was going on in that era,” she said. “That’s what I enjoyed, because there are many different aspects [that make up] traditional styles, and seeing all of that and seeing how they differ from each other, or how they are similar, is actually really, really cool.”
Shreya Khullar '22
In addition to lehengas, which are embroidered, full ankle-length skirts worn with a blouse, another style of traditional Indian dress for females is the bharatanatyam costume worn during a traditional dance of the same name. For the dance, bharatanatyam costumes are worn with a pleated cloth adorned with designs in the front that opens like a fan. The costume is tightly wrapped around the dancer’s body and held by a jeweled belt.
“I just think the [traditional dress] accents the dance really well,” said Shreya Khullar ’22, who was born in Delhi. “I feel like with both the culture and dress, they just really compliment each other.”
Khullar has had much experience wearing the bharatanatyam costume as her mother teaches the bharatanatyam dance.
“My mom, she actually teaches an Indian dance class at my house, so I wear the costume for that when we do performances,” Khullar said. “In bharatanatyam, we usually sit lower, kind of in a squat position, and there’s a fan connecting both of your legs, so when you sit down, it opens and has designs on it.”
According to Khullar, this fan can be a double or triple fan, meaning the pleated skirt opens to resemble two or three fans stacked on top of one another. These fans are usually a solid color with a border along the edge. However, the style of the border may vary.
Jewelry is imperative to bharatanatyam and traditional outfits as well. Many people adorn themselves with numerous pieces of jewelry. This is especially true for bharatanatyam where there is typically a headpiece with symbols tied around dancers’ heads.
“The jewelry, you go all out. It’s really big necklaces and huge earrings,” Khullar said. “Especially for bharatanatyam, there’s headpieces that you put on too. There’s a sun and a moon symbol, and you would tie that around your head. There’s also the flowers that you wrap around your hair too.”
While bharatanatyam costumes are worn for the bharatanatyam dance, lehengas are able to be worn on a more day-to-day basis. However, they are usually worn to special events such as weddings and the diwali festival, also known as the Hindu festival of lights which signifies the beginning of the Hindu new year, according to BBC.
“Earlier times, they used to wear [lehengas] more often, but now, it’s really only for special occasions, like parties and stuff like that,” Khullar said. “I wear lehengas to the University of Iowa. They host a diwali performance … so you would wear lehengas to something like that.”
At events such as these, lehengas are usually meant to be worn by younger people, according to Khullar, while saris are worn by older women. Saris are a long layer of cloth that can be draped around oneself to create a blouse. As opposed to bharatanatyam outfits, there are more options for accessorization when wearing a lehenga or sari. However, many wear them with a dupatta, a rectangular-shaped piece of fabric or long scarf worn over the shoulder.
“A lehenga is usually worn by younger people, and it’s like a long skirt with a blouse,” Khullar said. “A sari is a long layer of cloth that you keep wrapping around yourself with a blouse too. For bharatanatyam, [there are specific accessories], but for lehengas, you can wear whatever you want.”
Yet, Khullar believes one of the most unique aspects of traditional Indian clothing is the embroidery and detail of the outfits.
“There’s a lot of little beadwork and everything,” Khullar said. “A lot of it is made by hand … so you can go a different [route] every time [since] everyone has different styles of stitching.”