Tibetan costume reflects the environment and lifestyle of Tibet’s people and plays an important role in regional, familial, and individual expression. Tibetan traditional clothing is characterized by the dual purpose of being aesthetically pleasing as well as functional.
Tibetan costume reflects the environment and nomadic lifestyle of Tibet’s people. Within the regions of Tibet, costume shows distinct differences, instantly recognizable between ethnic and social groups. Tibetan dress also plays an important role in familial and individual expression, communicating position, status, wealth, and ancestry. An important feature of Tibetan clothing is the dual purpose of the garments, for Tibetan clothing must be aesthetically pleasing as well as functional.
Influences from Abroad
Traditional Tibetan costume was influenced by the custom of exchanging tribute gifts between Chinese and Tibetan nobility. Chinese silks are believed to have been given to the Tibetan emperor Songtsan Gampo by the Tang emperor in 649 CE. Other Chinese costume characteristics, such as color symbolism and the right-over-left closure method, are also reflected in Tibetan costume. Tibetan and Mongolian traditional costumes also share characteristics; in particular, lamas of both countries share similar costumes, among them the zi xia (crested helmets).
Fabric and Color Choices
Fabrics used for Tibetan clothing include hemp, Chinese cottons and silks, rayon, satins from India, indigenous animal furs, felted fabric derived from the hair of the yak, and pulu, a traditional woolen cloth. Pulu was a popular tribute cloth given to China.
The weight and type of materials used for clothing varies with the climatic regions of Tibet. Daily temperatures fluctuate greatly, and Tibetan garments are worn layered, which allows adjustments for comfort. Although there are regional stylistic variations in Tibetan garments in embellishment, materials, and colors, the basic pieces are similar and worn by both men and women.
Tibetan costume is characterized by the use of strong, unrestrained, dramatic color combinations. Strong contrasts in color combinations are made harmonious through the use of white and black bindings at clothing edges and elaborate gold and silver embroidery across the surface of the garments. Common color contrasts used in Tibetan clothing are white and black, red and green, orange and blue, and yellow and purple, colors that also reflect the influence of Buddhism.
The most distinctive Tibetan outer garment is the chuba, a loose-fitting robe made of sheepskin or pulu. The pocketless chuba closes to the right and is tied at the waist with sashes or belts. The sleeves on the chuba are long, often reaching to the knee. The chuba may be as long as seven feet, and the upper part is bloused over the waist ties to adjust the length to knee level for men and ankle level for women and priests. The extreme length of the chuba allows the robe to be used as a blanket or sleeping bag. One or two leather belts or sashes are used to keep the chuba in place. When the upper part of the robe is pulled over the waist ties, a pocket is created that is used to hold objects or form a child carrier. Waist ties also keep the robe in place to allow the wearer to pull out his or her arms for cooling. Typically, the right arm is worn uncovered by the robe. This has become known as the Tibetan style and is one of the most culturally distinctive style characteristics of Tibetan costume.
Many styles of chuba are specific to occasion or region. Styles include the guxiu, a sleeveless, broad-shouldered robe made of black pulu or animal skins, and the giubjialo, a lined pulu robe with a floral design on the collar. The cha is a fur-lined robe worn by men and is made either from jacquard silk fabric (for special occasions) or plain-colored leather (for everyday wear).
Women’s garments include the anju, a long-sleeved top made of plain or printed silk, cotton, or rayon. This is often worn with a skirt and an apron (bangdian). Another garment worn over the anju is the anduh, a full-length, sleeveless dress usually made of black pulu and lined with blue fabric.
Various styles of vests and jackets constructed from a variety of materials are worn by both men and women. Men and women also wear leggings tied to a waist girdle.
Costume indicates a woman’s marriage status. Married women wear the bangdian, an apron that varies in style from region to region. Usually rectangular, bangdian are constructed from three widths of fabric sewn together vertically. Each narrow fabric width is hand-woven wool or silk fabric, horizontally striped in shades of primary and secondary color combinations. Another style is a plain-colored bangdian made from blue, black, or gray cotton or pulu cloth. In some areas plain cloth and striped fabrics are used together.
Different hairstyles and hair ornaments are also important marital indicators and vary by region and tribe. An important style characteristic is the symmetry of the hairstyles and ornaments in the hair. One very distinctive regional hairstyle for married women is the peyrak, a Y-shaped style, in which the hair is curved into two ram-shaped horns encircling the head. Women’s hair is also embellished with many hair ornaments of precious metals and materials.
Accessories are important in Tibetan costume, serving decorative and practical purposes. Silver belt buckles and belts are common for both sexes. Many accessories hang from the waist ties. Males typically hang swords, Buddhist boxes, cartridge clips and belts, and bagu (metal wallets) from their waist ties or belts. Women often hang needle cases and small household implements from their waist ties.
Both men and women wear jewelry such as earrings, bracelets, and necklaces. Men might wear only one large dangling earring. Turquoise, agate, coral, jade, amber, silver, and gold are highly prized jewelry materials. Women wear more jewelry than men do. Part of the wealth of the family is kept in women’s jewelry, and women often wear large amounts of very large and heavy jewelry pieces.
One of the most important accessories worn by women is the kou, or gau, a square metal box with a diamond shape on it. The kou contains a Buddhist religious artifact and is worn around the neck on a chain so that it rests on the woman’s.
Square-toed boots (sunpa) are a popular type of footwear. Sunpa have soles of thick yak hide with leather or fabric foot and leg sections. They may be embellished with embroidery. Sunpa lace or tie up the back.
Headwear is also an important part of Tibetan costume, and the shape and quality of the hat indicate rank, status, and regional and tribal affiliation. The xiamou jiasi (golden flower) hat is worn in winter by men, women, and children. The xianmou jiasi has a tall crown of fabric, felt, or leather, and four fur flaps. It is often trimmed with gold rickrack imported from India or China.
The kata, or khata, is an important Tibetan textile material artifact. It is a white scarf symbolizing purity that is offered as a gift when greeting people. Kata is also used as an offering when visiting shrines and during other rituals such as wedding and funeral rites. This tradition is believe
d to have evolved from an ancient custom of clothing statues of deities.
Changes in Fashions
Changes are occurring to Tibetan costume, probably because of exposure to Western clothing styles. Although strong colors are still preferred, some of the traditional dramatic contrasts have been replaced in some areas with strong matching colors, often in single-color schemes. Another change is in the fit of Tibetan robes. Robes are being fit closer to the shape of the body. This silhouette modification is particularly evident in women’s clothing. Still another change is in the wearing of bangdian. Originally worn only by married women, unmarried girls and women have started to wear the bangdian for special days and celebrations.
Exposure to Western clothing has also resulted in some Tibetans wearing Western clothing exclusively. Other Tibetans wear a combination of Western and traditional styles; for example, men wear the chuba with Western style shoes. Traditional clothing is still worn exclusively in less populated regions.
Traditional clothing is recognized as important to the culture and unique to the people and the region. Local tailors promote the use of traditional clothing for women, believing that traditional styles best showcase the beauty of Tibetan women. Traditional clothing worn by local people is an important tourist attraction, and many visitors to Tibet purchase traditional clothing items as souvenirs. Tibetan traditional clothing has also been recognized as a source of design inspiration. In recent years modern designers, such as Wu Haiyan from China, have created high-end fashion lines inspired by the distinctive clothing styles from the “roof of the world.”
An Hsu. (1988). Tsang tsu fu shih i shu [The Art of Tibetan Costume and Ornaments]. Tianjin, China: Nan kai ta hsueh ch’u pan she.
TibetCulture.net website. Retrieved October 3, 2008 from http://en.tibetculture.net/custom/costume/index.htm
Conjure up clouds with one turn of one’s hand and rain with another.
Fān yún fù yǔ
Source: Klosterman Kidd, Laura. (2009). Clothing, Traditional—Tibet. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 449–451. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Clothing, Traditional—Tibet (Xīzàng de chuántǒng fúzhuāng 西藏的传统服装)|Xīzàng de chuántǒng fúzhuāng 西藏的传统服装 (Clothing, Traditional—Tibet)