There was a time when you could often tell where a person was from by looking at their outfits, but with modernisation, traditional attires are slowly becoming something of the past and people are wearing easier outfits often inspired by trends. In Bhutan however, the traditional dress of Gho for the men and Kira for the women is not something of the past. Every country in the world has an identity of its own and traditional dress definitely makes one of them. There are as many traditional attires in the world as there are countries, some are colourful and eye-catching while others are immersed and dubbed with significant historical value and status. Bhutanese traditional attire is uniquely different in the sense that it is not only colourful and eye-catching but also holds immense cultural value. What Bhutanese wear is not just pieces of fabrics sewn together. They are the expression of the unique identity and culture of Bhutan.
Driglam Namzha the official guideline for etiquette and dress code in Bhutan was introduced by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in the 17th century. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel is revered by every Bhutanese as the unifier of the country. It is this guideline that directs the norms with regard to how Bhutanese should be dressed and also sets the standard of dressing up during formal events and everyday work. That being said, Driglam Namzha is not imposed on individuals. In fact, it is the people who embrace it and prefer to wear it on an everyday basis. Bhutanese traditional attire is steeped in deep cultural value and the Bhutanese respect and embrace it as so.
On any ordinary day, you will see Bhutanese people walking down the street or entering into workplaces with colourful Ghos and Kiras draped around gracefully. It might come off as shocking to know that people in Bhutan wear their traditional attire every day but for Bhutanese, it is something to be proud of and something that gives a sense of unity, connection, and belonging. It instigates a sense of a harmonious community.
Let’s dive more into Bhutanese traditional attire by looking more specifically into each one of its components.
The Bhutanese traditional dress for men
The men in Bhutan wear a knee-length robe wrapped around their bodies and tied securely with a belt. It forms a pouch that is dubbed as ‘the largest pocket in the world’ by foreigners. Men wear it every day when they go to work and during formal occasions and gatherings. It is a requirement that men wear gho especially if they work in government sectors. It is also a requirement in schools and colleges alike across the country.
Kera for men is a woven belt that tightens the gho. Apart from being a bonus accessory, it basically functions to secure the gho. It enhances the overall attire and gives a more settled look. There are a lot of designs and patterns of kera to choose from and men choose them according to which compliments their ghos best. It is a small but an important part of Bhutanese traditional attire.
Apart from the aforementioned pieces of clothing, men in Bhutan wear Kabney which are basically scarves of different colours. They are not worn every day like the gho but worn only informal settings, events of national importance while visiting important administrative offices, and also while visiting officials of higher authorities.
His Majesty the King being the highest authority of the country adorns a yellow Kabney. The Je Khenpo who is the religious head of the country adorns an orange Kabney. Likewise, different colours are assigned to different officials of different ranks. All laypeople in the country wear white kabney.
Bhutanese traditional attire for men is not complete without tsholam. These are traditional knee-length boots the idea of which was brought by Zhabdrung, the unifier of Bhutan, in 1616. Traditionally, they were only worn by noblemen especially during festive events but now laypeople also wear them.
Bhutanese traditional dress for women:
The women in Bhutan dress elegantly in an ankle-length dress known as Kira. They are firmly fastened at the shoulders with either simple pins or complicated silver brooches also known as Koma. This is one way of wearing it. The other way is to wear it like a skirt down the waist, we refer to it as half Kira.
Traditionally they were handwoven with intricated designs and patterns made of raw silk. Nowadays they can be machine-made with cotton and other fibres. On special occasions, women wear bright coloured, complex-designed Kiras whereas, on ordinary days, they wear light weighted and simple patterned Kiras. Keeping in line with fashion, women in Bhutan these days match their Kiras with accessories, blouses, and even footwear.
Toego is a jacket-like garment that adds to the overall style of Bhutanese traditional attire for women. They come in a variety of colours and styles and compliment the Kira worn completely. It’s a game-changer. Toegos usually come in different patterns and fabrics than Kira but women tend to match and play with the colours to put the whole dressing game a notch-up.
Similar to Toego, Wonju is a blouse with a long sleeve wrapped around Kira and worn under the Toego. It can be found in a variety of colours and a wide range of fabrics. Just like Toego, Wonju also comes in a lot of different patterns.
Kera for women unlike Kera for men is much more complicated, of more variety and different in styles and colours. It is more floral compared to Kera for men which is plainer and simpler.
Just as men in Bhutan wear kabney during formal gatherings and important national events, women wear Rachu. As is the case with Kera, even Rachu for women is more floral, complicated, and more elaborate than the kabney for men. Wearing Rachu shows a sign of respect. It blends and goes well with the overall outfit. Unlike kabney for men whose colour depends on the kind of rank a person holds, rachu is all the same for every woman. It can either be hand-woven or machine-made.
Bhutan lays a strong emphasis on preserving and conserving its culture and tradition and to this day, it has been successful. The success is credited not just to the efforts made by the government but more so on how readily the people have embraced it. Bhutanese traditional attire is one of the most important elements of the Bhutanese tradition which has been passed down for generations and this is something that makes it just as unique as the people who wear them.