National costume

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Faroese folk dance club with some members in national costumes

National costume, also known as national dress, regional costume or folk dress, expresses an identity through costume which usually relates to a geographic area, but can also indicate social, marital and/or religious status. Such costumes often come in two forms: one for everyday occasions, the other for festivals and formal wear.

National costumes in Europe

Following the outbreak of romantic nationalism, the peasantry of Europe came to serve as models for all that appeared genuine and desirable. Their dress crystallised into so-called "typical" forms, and enthusiasts adopted it as part of their symbolism.

Thus one might now expect a patriotic Scot to wear a Highland kilt and a Lowland Tam o'shanter, an Irish Nationalist to sport green knee-breeches, all true Frenchmen should wear a beret etc. German-speaking lands, long disunited politically, feature many regional variations of traditional dress. In this nostalgically idealised world, all South Sea islanders wear grass skirts, and all Africans appear topless or naked.

During the French Revolution, the notion of a national costume was ideologized, and so the artist Jacques-Louis David was given the project of devising a costume for Frenchmen and Frenchwomen throughout the country so as to eliminate provincial distinctions (notably the Bretons). It did not catch on.

United States residents have choices. They can look back to European traditions, donning (for example) Puritan garb, slip into pioneer fringed leather with coonskin, cowboy or "Western" clothing, or even adopt Amerindian gear (as at the Boston Tea Party).

In England, on the other hand, early industrialisation preceded the full flowering of nationalism. There the middle-class uniform of the suit predominated over the peasant's embroidered smock, and that suit spread throughout the world as a fashionable and prestige mode of dress, only to become re-nationalised in forms like the Nehru jacket and the Mao suit.

Examples of national costumes

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