Around the world in style: Russia, the Philippines, and India

Writers from different cultural backgrounds delve into the history of their heritage, and share how traditional attire can, over time, make its way into mainstream fashion.

multiple writers
1st December 2020

Margo, Lily and Aastha share how culture can influence fashion.


There is a Russian proverb, новое — это хорошо забытое старое (novoye eto khorosho zabyroye staroye), which, when translated directly, you might recognise as everything new is well forgotten old. It is a saying that can be applied to the ways in which fashion operates today: taking old trends, and making them fashionable again. But just as flared trousers, slip dresses and oversized silhouettes have been given a second life, so have the Russian Valenki and Pavlovo Posad shawls the staples of eastern Slavic culture. 

Valenki, made of wool felting, are Russia’s traditional form of winter footwear, which has been around for over 1500 years. The boots were never intended to be a fashionable choice of shoe at least not until 1963, when Russian fashion designer, Slava Zaitsev, incorporated them into his experimental collection. Valenki then went on to become a trend from the mid-2000s onwards, but you’re more likely to be familiar with their Australian counterpart: the UGG boot.

The shawl of today is not about what lies beyond the surface meaning: it is about serving a decorative function that of a stylish accessory like any other

The shawl, likewise, is still very popular in Russia, and today can be worn both as a headcovering and as a scarf. However, most modern women have forgotten about its sacred purpose. The shawl was once a reflection of social class, and a marker of marital status. The way in which the shawl was wrapped around a woman's head also used to hold an important meaning; as did the floral design, though the message carried by each symbolic flower is now lost to Russia's contemporary society.

Many colours adorn the Pavlovo Posad shawl, but red, in particular, is noteworthy, for it is the dominant, most conspicuous, colour. The adjective red, or красный (krasny) is derived from the same root as красивый (krasivy), meaning beautiful in fact, red, in the past, was synonymous with beautiful. It is for this reason that красная девица (krasnaya devitsa) still means beautiful maiden not red maiden, as it might at first appear before one is familiarised with the etymological origins of the word.

And yet, the shawl of today is not about what lies beyond the surface meaning: it is about serving a decorative function that of a stylish accessory like any other. The Pavlovo Posad print was famously used in Zaitsev’s collection Expectation of Changes, and it continues to be printed onto coats, skirts, dresses and more. Thus, although the shawl’s true significance is now ancient history, the vibrant colours (with red retaining its place in the spotlight) and intricate floral patterns ensure that, in the world of fashion, at least, the shawl will always be remembered as a timeless classic that can brighten any look. 

The Philippines

The traditional Filipiniana dress comes in many forms. Although this attire varies in different regions of the Philippines, the top and dress ensemble can be dated back to the pre-colonial era with the baro’t saya consisting of a blouse (baro) and a long skirt (saya). Since the Spanish rule, the dress has taken a Hispanic influence with the creation of the Maria Clara gown. The baro’t saya was adapted and named after the character, Maria Clara, from Dr. Jose Rizal’s, Noli Me Tangere. The gown was also used to differentiate the people’s races, identifying Filipinas by their Maria Clara gowns. The revisiting of the dress saw sleeves made of pineapple fibres (piña), the Spanish pañuelo scarf, and the overskirt (tapis).  

Once seen as a “costume” for theatrical performances, political events, and bridal attire, the terno has been updated

The dress has since been renamed the terno, which has fluctuated in popularity throughout the years, namely due to the lack of dressmaking during World War II and the growing influence of American fashion within the Philippines. However, it continued to be adapted to fashion trends: for instance, the dress was altered to match the flapper dress style in the 1920s. But the greatest hesitance among Filipina women to wear the terno was seen after the Marcos rule (1968 – 86) as they associated the first lady, Immelda Marcos, with her elegant ternos and the consequent suffering of the Filipino population under their reign as the couple lived excessively lavish lives while the lower class became even more deprived.

However, young Filipinas are now reclaiming the dress as well as modernising it with even bigger butterfly style sleeves, and with more of a focus on the shirt and blouse. What was once seen as a “costume” for theatrical performances, political events, and bridal attire, the terno has been updated. The dresses now are made of modern materials such as silk, polyester, and organza.

Western fashion has now seen Filipina influence as Kate Middleton wore a Maria Clara type gown in 2012 designed by Alexander McQueen, during her South-East Asian tour. Additionally, one only needs to look at any of the high street retailers to see endless amounts of puffy-sleeved dresses and organza-sleeved crop tops to notice the mark of the fashionable Filipina.


India is talked about throughout the world for its rich culture, delicious food and memorable sites. While the West has been quick to borrow from the country's cultural traditions of yoga, henna and ‘chai tea’, another one of India’s contributions is often overlooked – the international scene of fashion.

Take the saree for example. With traces of its origins dating back to 1500 BC, the saree is considered to be the quintessential Indian attire. This traditional outfit consists of one long garment, often nine yards long, wrapped around and draped on a woman’s body. It is often considered to be the epitomizing symbol of ‘Indian femininity’. While fashion through the country differs through regions, the saree is worn by most Indian women albeit with their own subcultural reflections.

Worn as the uniform of women freedom fighters and as the staple outfit of the country’s first prime minister, the garment also became known as a strong political force for Indian women through history. Today, it remains a symbol of Indian heritage, worn by some women on special occasions of celebration and by others on a daily basis.

This form of draping and style has often inspired a similar form on international runways. Looking at the instance of the Marchesa Spring/Summer 2013 show , the borrowings from Indian culture through its detailed work, one shoulder drapes, bare midriffs and colours are striking. As influences from the East become more common, the likes of supermodels like Gigi Hadid have now walked down the ramp with Indian culture influenced attires.

Fashion can be a great tool if used correctly - one that has the power to bridge understanding and connect us across cultures

While these inspired ‘borrowings’ can both acknowledge and teach about culture, they can also be done inappropriately. The use of a different garment from Indian culture, the turban, presents this perfectly. This garment is an article of faith for Sikhs, people who practice the religion of Sikhism that originated in Punjab, India. It carries stories of centuries passed traditions and lies as a symbol of great pride to Sikhs.

Yet, the piece is often stripped of great cultural significance and meaning when used on fashion runways by the likes of Gucci on white models to signify ethnicity without acknowledging cultural value. This presents ways in which cultural inspirations may not be borrowings at all, but rather stand as forms of appropriation that can hurt the community.
Despite this, we see how fashion can be a great tool if used correctly - one that has the power to bridge understanding and connect us across cultures.

Featured Image: @brown.girl.illustrations on Instagram

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