Clothing: Clothing and Religion in the East

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Clothing in the East communicates a wide range of personal and collective information about religious practice. A Buddhist monk's tonsure and saffron robes or a Hindu guru 's choice not to wear any clothing are religiously sanctioned costumes that reinforce the distinctiveness of an observant community as separate from the larger, secular society. Other kinds of clothing also speak to religious affiliation.


A Jewish male's yarmulke and tallith, a Muslim woman's hajib, or a Parsi's white cotton shirt and white lamb's wool cord may be sanctioned for worship, but in daily life they signify a personal covenant with the divine, empowering the individual and at times serving political and cultural ends. By the same token, the traditional use of colored turbans by Islamic societieswhite for believers, yellow for Jews, and blue for Christianshave in effect discriminated against ethnic and religious minorities.

The unbleached hemp garments worn by the eldest Chinese son signify his withdrawal from society in order to attend to the duties prescribed for mourning. As chief mourner he leads the ceremonies honoring the memory of the departed and conducts the rites associated with the ancestor cult. As the mourning period passes, the gradual reentry into the world is marked by changing the sack cloth to undyed or white garments of varying degrees of refinement, then to blue-trimmed white garments and eventually blue clothing.

Coiffure and headgear are particularly important symbols. In East Asia, from at least the second millennium bce, hair dressed in knots on the top or at the back of the head distinguished populations of the urbanized south from the shaved heads or plaited tresses of northern nomads. Letting one's hair hang free or go undressed was a sign of disengagement from Chinese civilized society. For this reason the tonsure and queue that Manchu rulers enforced upon all populations of the Chinese Empire during the seventeenth century through the early twentieth century was an overwhelming symbol of political and cultural domination. Tonsure could also demonstrate commitment to Buddhist monastic practices. In other instances hair styles reflect folk beliefs. Binding hair at the "four corners" of the head into tufts was thought to ward off the danger of Chinese children falling into the hands of demons, as the tufts provided a convenient grip for Buddhist deities or good spirits to retrieve the child.

In western Asia, shaving the head or letting certain parts of the hair grow helped distinguish Muslim and Jewish populations.


In many Eastern religions, clothing addresses issues of gender. For Buddhist and Muslim societies, clothing de-emphasizes or obscures feminine identity by altering or completely negating notions of beauty or sexuality. In most Muslim cultures some form of head covering or veil is prescribed for women. In Pakistan, for example, a large scarf or shawl called a dupatta is worn over the head to cover the hair and affords proper modesty. In contrast, the Afghan veil, called a burka, is an all-enveloping garment that a woman is required to wear in public, reducing all women to an anonymous, generic, nonmale presence.


Within Buddhist practice, nuns and members of female lay groups undergo tonsure and wear plain garments based on those worn by male members of monastic orders. In appearance they become male, yet the transformation also underscores their secondary place as women within the karmic cycle of rebirth through which sentient beings evolve from lower to higher forms on the path to nirvāa. The message of such cross-gender attire is conspicuously ambiguous, reflecting some of the larger cosmological principles at the core of Indian esoteric beliefs, in which the avatars of deities appear in many forms: some bestial, some feminine, some masculine, some theologically neuter. The artistic transformation of Bodhisattva Avalokitésvara in East Asia during the late eighth century and the ninth century from a neuter but essential masculine form into a female deity initially had less to do with costume than with the emphasis on female physical attributessweet face, elaborate hairdo, and female body typebut over time the deity's attire also changed. Such developments affected the appeal of this deity among female Buddhist devotees.

Cross-gender dressing among the hijras, a community of male-to-female transgenders in India and among related groups throughout South and Southeast Asia, sets them apart and contributes to their own identity as a third gender, neither female nor male. Traditionally, they conduct ceremonies within the larger community associated with birth.


Cross-gender dressing is also conspicuous among some Tunguz-speaking tribal culture groups of eastern Siberia, where male shamans wear feminine garments. In North Asian cultures shamanic practitioners may be either male or female. Yet for both genders clothing is intended to transform the wearer into an intermediary capable of bridging the gap between the physical world and the world of the spirits. Masks and garments tend to be highly personal, crafted by the shaman after a vision or intervention of the spirit world. In eastern Siberia they often take the form of a bird, bear, or stag. The cut of these garments, whether of animal skin or cloth, is significantly different from normal clothing, in part demonstrating the otherworldliness of shamanic practice. For example, coats may incorporate construction features, such as fringes or gussets, to simulate the animal they represent. Symbols for the sun, moon, and earth may be painted, appliquéd, or made of iron and attached to the upper body garment. Other decorative devices may evoke the sky gate, the goal of the spirit journey of the shaman. In addition, snakes, birds, horses, and other auspicious beasts are often part of the decorative program. A second common shaman garment type is decorated with bonelike forms that create an X-ray impression of the wearer's body.

Dance and performance

Among the dance costumes worn at Chinese folk festivals one can also find garments marked with bone diagrams and garments that imitate the animal protectors of shamanist power. The Cham dances of Tibet arose in pre-Buddhist times and were later incorporated into Tibetan Buddhist ritual. They employ forms of ecstatic dancing that evoke shamanistic practice. Cham costumes include masks, headgear, and garments that evoke birds, stags, horses, and other beasts familiar to the Siberian pantheon. The bone diagram garments were also used in Tibetan Buddhist ceremonial dancing. Although the surviving examples of these costumes are made of imported Chinese and Indian silks, the fluttering scarves and pendant sleeves as well as other construction features differentiate these coats from lay or clerical attire. Similar garments were in use among Mongol populations that converted to Tibetan Buddhism in the fourteenth century.

In contrast, in the secular Hindu world throughout South Asia, dance dramas are the focus of public ceremonies and celebrations associated with religious events, although the dramas themselves are not forms of worship. The colorful costumes, headdresses, and masks used in these performances constitute highly specialized costumes that suggest links between religion and political culture. Many are consciously archaic, evoking the mythic times, which are often the settings for these dramas. Similarly the garments and accessories worn by court dancers in Thailand and Indonesia evoke the bejeweled costumes seen on representations of Buddhist deities.

Ritual Clothing

In those communities where a clergy acts as intermediary between the human and the divine there are often prescribed public rituals or displays. Here special clothes are used to transform the priest into a ritual celebrant.

Throughout Asia, clothing used within religious contexts is often among the most primitive garment types preserved by a culture. At one extreme are the palm-fiber garments worn by medicine men on the island of Buru in eastern Indonesia. The material is used as it comes from the source without further processing. The capes and mantles of green leaves, or their embroidered imitations worn by images of some of the Daoist immortals, reflect similar primitivism. Although made of luxury silk and greatly embellished, the highest-ranking Daoist priests' robes described below are among the most basic East Asian garment constructions. From the point of view of structure, these garments that are simply made of two lengths of fabric folded over the shoulder, seamed up the back and at the sides leaving space for the wearer's hands, contrast sharply with the more complex constructions having sleeves that are worn by second-ranking priests.

At another level this conservativism is reflected in the preservation of ancient textile forms within religious contexts. The tendency is particularly marked in Southeast Asia. Among the Batak tribes in Sumatra the most prestigious fabrics are those called ragidup. These large rectangular cloths are composed of three loom lengths joined along their selvages. Often the center panel is wider and is made of lighter-colored fiber. The cloth is produced on a simple loom, despite the presence of more sophisticated weaving equipment within the culture. These cloths are used in ritual gift giving and within religious ceremonies. A similar three-panel cloth with a light-colored central panel called a khamar is preserved in Bhutan. It is used by Tibetan Buddhists as a mark of esteem. It parallels the use of the chaksay pankhep reserved for royalty that is placed over the lap when the owner sits in audience and that is used as a napkin for wiping the hands.


When a priesthood interacts with the larger society, its authority is often tied to issues of status and rank. As is often the case, when clerical authority is set up in opposition to political culture, the attributes of patriarchal power and control are similar. The value system ascribed to secular powerluxury, magnificence, and conspicous consumptionare co-opted to serve the divine.


Vestments worn by Shintō clergywhite kimono and white or red trousers (hakama ) as well as the outer coats (kariginu ) and black lacquered silk hatsare based on tenth-century Japanese court attire. While color signifies purity, the style of these garments and their political identification coincide with the period of centralization of priestly power in the hands of clan heads and the more structured form of worship that evolved in reaction to Buddhism and Confucianism from China. Shintō worship began to incorporate public ceremonies in which priests and priestesses conducted ritual observances. Other public gatherings were marked by events such as kagura dances that utilized specialized costumes and masks.


Although it was also transformed into a much more sophisticated state religion as a result of the influence of Buddhism, Daoism as practiced in late imperial China used vestments linked to Siberian shamanism. When officiating at public celebrations, the highest-ranking Daoist priests wear a mantle called jiang-i (robe of descent), bearing cosmological symbols similar to those found in Siberian contexts.

This Daoist vestment is a full-length garment formed of two lengths of cloth seamed up the back and the sides and left open at the front. The back of the garment is decorated with astral symbols, ranked by registers from top to bottom and from center to edge. Symbols for the principle luminaries are arranged across the top of the garment. At the right shoulder the sun is represented by a red disk with a three-legged cock symbol; the moon at the left shoulder is depicted as a white disk in which a rabbit pounds the elixir of immortality; and a constellation, conventionally depicted as three balls joined by lines, is placed between. Explanation for these astral symbols can be documented to the first century bce. Through these symbols, daily, monthly, and annual time could be calculated, and a calendarone of the prime requirements for agrarian societiescould be fixed.

The decoration of the rest of the garment conveys notions of an unseen heaven. Prominent in this celestial diagram is a central image of paradise, often depicted as a multistoried tower within an ovoid frame of circular disks representing stars. This refers to the Three Isles of the Immortals located in the Eastern Sea. Five abstract forms arranged in a semicircle beneath the tower represent the five mythical peaks of the world. They guard the five principal directions: East, South, West, North, and Center. Below these, four mountain or pavilion structures symbolize the physical directions of the earth gates. Such association with paradise is often enhanced by figural imagery depicting various deities within complex pantheons. The hem may display the universal ocean with dragons, horses, tortoises, serpents, and other mythical beasts. The front of the coat is generally plain except for a dragon symbolizing the East and a tiger symbolizing the West. These figures flank the front opening and act as protective devices. Unlike shamanic garments, which assist the spirit journey of the individual, Daoist vestments function symbolically, transforming the wearer into an animator of political and religious systems that promoted control and stability.


Buddhism appropriated existing secular costume. Like Hinduism, from which it developed, it was initially a religion isolated from the population at large. Buddhist devotees lived within monastic communities and adopted clothing that stressed the rejection of worldly society. Over time the three-part costume based on the common attire of the Indian subcontinent became ritual attire. The lower body was covered with a sarong (antaravasaka ). A shawl (uttarasanga ), utilizing a length of loom-woven fabric, was draped in various manners around the upper body. A third garment called sanghati, literally "a twelve-fold cloth," was worn over the left shoulder.

The shawl became the most significant garment for Buddhism. It evolved into a rectangle constructed of smaller pieces, thus symbolizing the tattered and patched garments of the mendicant Buddha. The patchwork mantle, also called kasaya, was formalized to differentiate and identify its wearer as a member of a religious community and became the subject of monastic regulation.

Originally the name kasaya referred to a color distinction, which set the "impure" colored mantles of monks apart from the normal bleached white clothing of Indian laity. In time the "impure" colored clothing of monks of the Hīnayāna sect was enhanced by yellow dye, which still distinguishes the clothing of the Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

The specialized patchwork form of the garment spread north and east across Asia, accompanying proselytizing Buddhist missionaries. As the faith moved north and east, public worship evolved. In the less temperate regions of Central Asia, China, Korea, and eventually Japan, the simple three-part Buddhist costume was abandoned. The mantle was retained as symbolic apparel and worn over the normal dress typical of each region. The monastic clothing used in Tibet among Buddhist communities is a notable exception. There the sarong and mantle made of red-dyed wool was used. In all the Mahāyāna sects in East Asia a hood offered the tonsured heads of monks protection and conveyed public status. In Tibet the color of the hood distinguished the sect within the larger Buddhist community.

In East Asia, monastic costume continued to be regulated by prescription according to function and rank of the wearer. Most regulations focused on the mantle. In Japan, for example, the meanings of the original names of Buddhist garments were appropriated to describe variations of the pieced mantle. The antaravasaka became a five-paneled working outer mantle; the uttarasanga (the original shawl) defined a seven-paneled mantle worn at assembly. The sanghati was a large mantle used for travel composed of nine panels; two more panels were added for each advance in grade, reserving the twenty-five-panel kasaya for the highest-ranking clergy.

In Central Asia, China, and Japan the patchwork mantle acquired a significant secondary feature. Additional patches at the corners and along the longer side worn closest to the head added symbolic protection. The corner patches, usually in contrasting fabric, were associated with the deva kings who serve as guardians of the Buddhist law at each of the cardinal points of the compass. The large patches on the long side, a characteristic of the uttarasanga type, in China and Japan are named after the bodhisattvas Samantabhadra and Mañjuśrī, the principal attendants of Śākyamuni, the historical Buddha. These garments, often made of sumptuous secular silks donated to temples by pious devotees, created colorful focus for public ceremonies and demonstrated the power and authority of the Buddhist church. The magnificence of the fabrics used for making these vestments are seemingly in conflict with the principles of renunciation and poverty. However, through the destruction of secular goods by cutting them into pieces and reconstructing them as vestments, the goods metaphorically shed their worldly asso-ciations.

Private Worship

Eastern religious traditions include sects that place a major emphasis on communal ritual and those for which religious practice is of a more private, individual nature. This division affects the manner in which clothing promotes notions of religious belief. Where religious practice is largely self-determined and reclusive, a clergy, if it exists, is less involved with public demonstration; hence clothing plays a less conspicuous role, and the notion of vestment is largely absent.


Islam has produced no vestments. The central religious leaders, whether mullahs, mujtahids, or ayatollahs, are in effect jurists who interpret Islamic law and serve as teachers. Clothing types used by these groups, regardless of ethnic origin, reflect the basic attire of the Arab founders of the faith: a cotton or wool caftan, a wool mantle (ʾabaʿ ), and a cotton turban. Worship is an obligation of the faith, and when possible worship is practiced communally, but the prayer leader or imām does not function as intermediary between God and man. His clothing remains undifferentiated from that of the congregation. Individuals are expected to practice their religion while remaining active participants of society. Those who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca are entitled to wear special clothing, although it plays no liturgical role.


Within the Hindu tradition of India, public worship, although extremely complex, also occurs without the intervention of priests. Hinduism is without founder or prophets. It has no ecclesiastical or institutional structures. As a result there are virtually no specialized Hindu religious garments. Traditionally, the Brahman class was the source of the priesthood, but individual adherents practiced priestly vocation outside society based largely on the study of scriptural sources. For them, ritual was largely private, such as the placing of a sacred cord across the shoulder, both binding the devotee to religion and cutting the individual off from society. The central religious figure for Hinduism is the guru, or teacher, who follows a self-determined, often reclusive way of life that aims at purification and extinction from the cycle of rebirth. Clothing worn by brahmans, minimal and plain, reflects this distancing.

Secular Attire

Until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the attire of political elites often retained vestiges of ritual obligations that had been associated with rulers of antiquity.

South Asia

Court attire within the Hindu-Muslim courts of Java utilized a set of restricted batiked patterns on the sarongs and shawls to distinguish royalty and the higher ranks of the aristocracy. Many of these designs symbolized cosmic principles and underscored the significance of court ceremony and its relationship to religious belief.


The link between religion and politics is particularly evident in the court attire of imperial China and in the Chinese-influenced court attire in Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and various Central Asian kingdoms. Motifs symbolizing water, land, and sky were placed on these garments to represent the physical world over which the ruler held sway. In addition, fabulous mythical beasts, of which the dragon was the most common, represented the supernatural power and moral authority of imperial rule. The arrangement of these motifs conveyed a sense of universal order by reflecting notions of geopolitical control with reference to the points of the compass. Wearing the garment also demonstrated cosmic control and underscored the balance of forces in the universe. The wearer's body symbolized the world axis, while the neck of the garment symbolized the gate of heaven, separating the physical world represented by the coat from the spiritual represented by the wearer's head. In effect, the garment was only animate when worn, making each courtier an active participant in imperial rule.

The emperor's sacrificial obligations on behalf of the state were confirmed through clothes decorated with a special set of twelve symbols. These included the sun, moon, stars, earth, elements of the natural world, and symbols of political authority. Their use was reserved exclusively for the emperor.

These official garments had impacts throughout society. Chinese wedding attire in particular imitated court costume and prerogatives. Other types of quasi-official attire were used in conjunction with Buddhist and Daoist festivals and for the special garments made for religious images.

See Also

Calendars; Hair; Masks; Textiles.


Data about clothing used as vestment or as religious dress within Eastern traditions are scattered and diverse, varying considerably from culture to culture. In those religions with extensive scriptures, such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Judaism, descriptions as well as specific proscriptions affect clothing choices. Issues of ritual and clothing are discussed in Catherine M. Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (New York, 1997); and Linda B. Arthur, ed., Undressing Religion: Commitment and Conversion from a Cross-Cultural Perspective (Oxford and New York, 2000). Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher, eds., Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts (New York, 1992), discusses the ramifications of gender when considering clothing and religion.

One of the best discussions of dress in Islam is Fadwa El Guindi, Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance (New York, 1999). A good source on shamanic practice is Mircea Eliade's Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, rev. and enl. ed. (New York, 1964), which has exhaustive bibliographic references. Particular references and illustrations of Mongolian shamanic and Lamaist dress are in Henny Harald Hansen's Mongol Costumes (Copenhagen, 1950). Additional information on Tibetan Buddhist practice is in Newark Museum, Catalogue of the Tibetan Collection and Other Lamaist Articles in the Newark Museum, 5 vols. (Newark, N.J., 19501971).

A comprehensive reference to East Asian religious practices in English is J. J. M. de Groot's The Religious System of China: Its Ancient Forms, Evolution, History, and Present Aspect, Manners, Customs, and Social Institutions Connected Therewith, 6 vols. (Leiden, 18921910). This massive study remains one of the best standard references to traditional religious practices in China. Data on Daoist practices are summarized in Stephen Little with Shawn Eichman, Taoism and the Arts of China (Chicago, 2000). An interesting account of some Buddhist practices is P. Steven Sangren, "Female Gender in Chinese Religious Symbols: Kuan Yin, Ma Tsu, and the 'Eternal Mother'," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 9, no.1, pp. 425 (Chicago, 1983).

Political and religious functions of Chinese court attire are discussed in Schuyler V. R. Cammann's China's Dragon Robes (New York, 1952), and in John E. Vollmer's Ruling from the Dragon Throne: Costume of the Qing Dynasty, 16441911 (Berkeley, Calif., 2002). A discussion of Japanese Shintō practices and vestments is in International Congress for the History of Religions Shintō Committee, Basic Terms of Shinto, rev. ed. (Tokyo, 1985).

For discussions of South Asian garments and religions see Emma Tarlo, Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India (Chicago, 1996); and Serena Nanda, Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India (Belmont, Calif., 1998). Henk Schulte Nordholt, Outward Appearances: Dressing, State, and Society in Indonesia (Leiden, 1997), and Penny Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand (Oxford and New York, 2000) include discussions of religious clothing in Southeast Asia. Articles by international scholars documenting clothing and textiles throughout the Indonesian Archipelago, including descriptions of religious usages, are in Mattibelle Gittinger, ed., Indonesian Textiles: Irene Emery Roundtable on Museum Textiles, 1979 Proceedings (Washington, D.C., 1980). This volume contains a bibliography and extensive citations to a considerable literature in Dutch, German, French, and English.

John E. Vollmer (2005)

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