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Fashion students should study national costumes

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Elizabeth Koprowski :
Fashion Week in Paris finished just days ago, and soon stores, magazines, and stars will be flaunting all the latest styles inspired by the world's top designers. Fashion designers turn to many things for inspiration, and national costumes and traditional dress are a major source of ideas. But fashion students should pay attention to traditional clothing styles as well. Here's why you should pack your bags and explore the world of clothing culture.
1. They're beautiful
It's easy to see why designers turn to national costumes for inspiration. They're beautiful. And many display impressive examples of folk art, handiwork, and innovation. For instance, Japanese kimonos are traditionally hand-sewn and require more than eleven meters of silk fabric. The Norwegian bunad can be bought ready-made, but many women make and embroider the heavy wool dresses themselves, and the silver jewelry used to clasp and decorate the bunad are often passed from generation to generation. Henna tattoos, which often accompany traditional forms of dress in many Middle Eastern and Asian countries, require skill and patience and talented henna artists are in high demand. And while France is a center for modern fashion design, the country's various traditional dress forms are often stunning examples of lacework and embroidery. Most national costumes are reserved for special occasions like weddings, festivals, or national days, but budding fashion designers can take inspiration from the detailed designs, decorative jewelry, and bold colors that are often represented.
2. You'll learn history
National costumes generally preserve traditional arts and crafts that are an important part of a country, region, or culture's heritage. This makes them a great way to learn about history. A fun example comes from Sweden where, according to some sources, the Swedish nationella dräkten was designed to deter Swedes from emulating the extravagant eighteenth-century European fashions. National dress can also display, either overtly or subtly, the colonial history of countries around the world. Some traditional dress styles in the Philippines, for instance, have a distinctly Spanish flare that echoes the styles worn when the islands were a Spanish colony. The tradition of family Tartans for Scottish kilts is a nineteenth-century invention, but the heavy wool skirts and shawls worn by the men of Scotland are part of the country's long and complicated relationship with the United Kingdom. In South America, the various and vibrant national and regional costumes frequently demonstrate the combined histories of Spanish and Portuguese colonization, African slavery, indigenous cultures, and Western European settlements.
3. And anthropology
But national costumes aren't just about history. They're also a living, evolving art form that can give you a glimpse into the culture of a country or group. While many national costumes are reserved for special occasions, they often communicate messages about the person wearing the clothing. In early modern Russia, the traditional headdress called a kokoshnik was only worn by married women while unmarried women wore a povyazka. In some Chinese cultures, the color white is associated with mourning whereas red is a symbol of prosperity and celebration, so many Chinese brides wear red gowns for their weddings. Many of the traditional clothing forms from nomadic or formerly nomadic cultures incorporate a lot of jewelry because wealth had to be portable.
4. You'll need it
Traditional clothing styles and national costumes aren't just a great source of inspiration or a way to learn about the world. A thorough knowledge of clothing culture could be your key to a fashion future. While many fashion students aim for jobs in ready-to-wear or haute couture industries, there are lots of exciting opportunities in costume design. Theater, dance, and film designers are highly skilled professionals who have experience with contemporary and historical fashion, and they need to be creative, innovative, and flexible. Costume designers for film and television are always working with new ideas. They might need to create a wardrobe that represents a certain character trait. Sometimes they'll be called to replicate the clothing of a historical period. Other times, they might find themselves imagining how to dress characters in the future, or in a fantasy land. Costume designers who work in ballet or opera also need to understand the complexities of movement, as the costumes will need to accommodate the performances of the dancers or singers. A fashion student who knows the whos, whats, wheres, whys, and hows of national costumes will have an advantage when it comes to the challenges and excitement of costume design.

(Elizabeth Koprowski is an American writer and travel historian. She has worked in the higher education system with international students both in Europe and in the USA).

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