Tribal Haute Couture


Across the world, in indigenous communities, the act of clothing the body had a strong socio-political meaning. Clothes made of all materials were the demonstration of someone's identity and status, often differentiating leaders from commoners, and nudity wasn't much of a problem. Tribal textile art is one of the most prominent indigenous artistic elements. Usually, the creation of intricate designs on traditional dresses is to depict someone's social status within the community, or they can be just ornamental.

After the arrival of the Europeans and other populations, most traditional religions and beliefs were replaced, and some tribal clothing started being considered inappropriate and condemned by puritans for their peculiarities, and unfortunately, some disappeared.

Depending on the tribe, designs can represent legends, stories, have protective powers against evil spirits, and communicate something important visually. Today, many communities are trying to preserve strong traditional manufacturing, keeping alive the practice despite the rising globalization and the westernization of fashion.

Let's explore some of the fascinating textile art around the globe, the meaning behind the designs, and some exciting curiosities!

OCEANIA - Nature’s gifts for fashion style.

Traditional Pacific Island Tapa cloth

Traditional Pacific Island Tapa cloth


The warm weather in oceanic countries dictates that clothes are more of a burden than useful; this also contributes that some cultures have a strong body decoration tradition. It is not unusual to see tattoos or natural dyes applied on the skin, either to cover the skin or to protect from insects.

Now, it is possible to see some traditional clothes, often worn during special occasions; This is the case of some of the Pacific Ocean island communities using the Tapa, incredible bark cloth used in everyday life, however pretty fragile if wet.

In Polynesia the production of Tapa is widespread, most specifically the islands of Samoa, Tonga, Hawaii, and Tahiti. Tapa manufacturing has many different designs and methods of production based on their country of origin.

Natural vegetable dyes are usually light brown, red, and black and the decorations are printed on the cloth by stamping, rubbing, or even by smoking the fabric. Each pattern has different meanings and symbolism, depending on the Island. The process of fabrication is very intricate and lengthy. The main material is extracted by the paper mulberry tree, a common plant on the islands. After stripping long and large pieces of the tree's bark, the inner bark is scraped off and let dry in the sun, then soaked in water and lastly beaten to make it thinner.

This process is often a work reserved for the village's women, who are also the artists behind the cloths intricate decorations. If you want to learn more about the process of making Tapa, and hear the characteristic sound of the women tapping the fabric, watch this video!

SOUTH AMERICA and CENTRAL AMERICA - Fashion to express emotions and symbology.

Colorful skull from Mexican traditional Huichol bead art

Colorful skull from Mexican traditional Huichol bead art


Vibrant colours of the indigenous populations living in Southern and Central America are known all over the world and admired by many. They are very popular that today many indigenous communities are suing some famous multinational clothing retailers for stealing indigenous designs and mass-producing their patterns, some of which are now protected by intellectual property rights.

With a millennial tradition of wool and cotton weaving, Andean indigenous populations are leaders of indigenous textiles keeping alive Quechua and Aymara designs. Alpacas, Vicunas, and llamas are the precious providers of the main material, woven using techniques that include dyeing, knotting, and plaiting. The history of Andean textiles is very ancient, and most stretches date thousands of years ago, carrying with themselves ancestral beliefs, traditions, myths, and giving us a hint of the pre-Columbian cultures.

The colourful designs are the silent representatives of the indigenous communities' history, and to this day textiles are the predominant art form of some villages. Clothing features geometric humans, felines, reptiles figures, and hybrid animals in bold colours.

In Mexico, the Huichol indigenous community is well known for its incredible holistic connection with the arts, a principal way to express their emotions. The complicated designs of their famous embroideries represent their gods and the sacredness of nature. Many peyote visions are translated into these designs which can be found on the clothes and everyday objects as well.

Mola, crafted by Kuna Indians from San Blas Archipelago

Mola, crafted by Kuna Indians from San Blas Archipelago


The Kuna (or Guna) people in Panama are renowned for the traditional "molas", cloth panels with intricate depictions often used to make the blouses of the traditional dress. These are colourful fabrics made with the techniques of appliqué and reverse appliqué.

Guatemalan mayan woman weaving on loom

Guatemalan mayan woman weaving on loom


Mayan women in Guatemala are so proud of their traditional embroideries that gained international attention in the past couple of years when they founded a popular movement against gender inequality and asked the Constitutional Court to protect indigenous fabrics under the Constitution against industrial mass production.

AFRICA - Raffia palm leaves and mud used to create unique fabrics.

Old Kasai velvet tapestry, hand-woven by the Kuba tribe

Old Kasai velvet tapestry, hand-woven by the Kuba tribe


An entire encyclopedia could be spent talking about African tribal fabrics! In this short presentation, we will focus on two: the Kuba and the Bogolan.

Kuba textiles are unique in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the complexity of the design and surface decoration. Kuba people are agriculturalists and a cluster of the larger Bantu. Kuba cloth is handwoven using the strands from raffia palm leaves dyed in a variety of earth tones using vegetable dyes, particularly distinctive and evocative of central Africa. In Kuba culture, men are responsible for both raffia palm cultivation and weaving of raffia cloth, while women are in charge of the application of surface decoration at the end of the entire process. Men produce the fabric on inclined, single-heddle looms. The cloth is coarse when it is first cut from the loom, then pounded in a mortar, which softens it and prepares it for the application of decoration. Kuba cloths display a variety of interesting features: patchwork, embroidery, appliqué and embellishments.

Historically, the Kuba people have used their clothes as skirts, wrappers or sleeping mats. Suggestion for amateurs: Kuba cloths make wonderful wallhangings and soft furnishing. See this exciting exhibition.

The Bogolan, meaning mud cloth, is one of Africa's most unusual and unique textiles. The technique is associated with several ethnic groups from Mali, for example Dogon. Still, the Bambaran version is the one that has become better known internationally. In the Bambara language, the word "bògòlanfini" is a compound of bɔgɔ, which means "earth" or "mud"; lan, means "with" or "through"; and Fini, which means "cloth". The whole cloth is composed by narrow strips of handwoven cotton stitched together and then painted with patterns and symbols using several natural dyes, including river mud aged up to one year. These clothes are entirely handwoven, so that the thickness and weight are variable and imprecise: this makes each fabric unique. Want to see more about this fabric and technique? Take a look here!

ASIA - Colorful fabrics from the mountains and hills.

Colorful clothes of the H'mong People 

Colorful clothes of the H'mong People 


A jump in Asia leads us to discover the colourful fabrics of some mountainous territories.

The first one is the Hmong fabric from Hmong community. Traditionally, Hmong embroidery is used as decoration on clothing, to make it bright and beautiful. It includes particular bright colours such as pinks, greens, reds as well as blues, sometimes used in contrast with the colours of yellow and brown overlaid with white. Starting from a young age, Hmong girls learn how to draw and design motifs from their mothers and grandmothers. Most traditional forms of Hmong textiles were made with hand-spun hemp (a species of cannabis) fabric. Hemp would be grown in small family or community farming plots until the plants were ready to be harvested and processed by Hmong women. The plants would be first dried in the sun, and the fibrous outermost layer of the plant stalk would be stripped and separated into short lengths of fibre to create an appropriate material for weaving. The coarse hemp fabric is produced by hand using a large wooden loom. See traditional techniques, decorations, symbols and superstitions here!

Ifugao woman weaving

Ifugao woman weaving


The second fabric that we want to present is related to the Ifugao tribe, part of the Igorot leading group. At Kiangan, the birthplace of Ifugao, weaving has always been a part of the community's daily activities because of commercial purposes, cultural preservation or personal use. The Ifugaos of Kiangan either practices traditional weaving which follows traditional techniques passed on through generations, or the ikat, where bundles of yarn are tightly wrapped together and dyed as many times to create a specific pattern or design. The patterns used are mostly traditional ones, mostly inspired by nature and beliefs. The bayawak pattern, for example, is based on an eponymous giant lizard said to be one of the gods who came down to earth to teach natives water irrigation. At the same time, the star symbol represents abundance, multitude, and fertility. Quezon City is another well-known centre of weaving and the core of Kalinga Province. Kalinga people are, as well, part of the leading Igorot group. Learn something about how to mix past and future to preserve weaving tradition and translate it in contemporary art, starting from the suggestions of an incredible Kalinga woman.


Cover photo Inca woman weaving alpaca wool iStock.com/FG Trade