What most first-time visitors immediately notice in Bhutan is that the men are wearing skirts. These “skirts” are in fact the bottom half of a gho, the Bhutanese man’s national costume. It’s a kimono-like robe secured at the waist and worn short like a Scottish kilt. Even in an age of globalized fashion trends, young and old Bhutanese continue to wear their national dress. Women wear the ankle length kira, a cloth wrapped around the body, fastened at the shoulders with silver clasps and tied at the waist with a belt. We Bhutanese see our costume as the form of the essence of our national identity and we wear it with pride.
Civil servants must wear the national dress on the job. Visitors to government and religious institutions are also expected to wear the national costume, which doubles as a mandatory uniform at all educational institutions: from pre-primary school right up to university.
But don’t make the mistake of assuming that the gho and kira are dowdy, colorless uniforms, or anything like the monochrome Mao suits of China’s Communist politburo days in China. In fact, national costumes are so colorful that one visitor from Switzerland described them as “too gaudy for our taste”. Costumes come in a variety of patterns and colors, from pale pastel to brilliant neon, sometimes in the same fabric.
Today, although we often buy the cheaper and easier to care for factory-manufactured fabrics, hand-woven fabrics continue to be highly valued and dearly priced. Weavers, who are nearly always women, are not only appreciated for their creative artistry but also for the financial benefits that their talents can bring to a family.
Bhutanese shoppers of means will pay up to Nu.150,000 (U$ 3000) for an elaborately patterned silk garment that may take up to a year to weave! Such clothes are investments and passed on as heirlooms. For the king’s recent royal wedding, I wore a kira that has been with my family for three generations. Now the fourth generation, my two jean-clad daughters, vie for it.
When I studied in India, I was deprived of wearing the kira as my school uniform. But now I choose to wear it nearly all the time, except when I travel outside the country. As an older woman, I appreciate its warmth during the cold weather, but it is also the most flattering dress because it compliments all body types. Under a kira, many “problem areas” just disappear.
Happily, there is harmony between the Bhutanese sentiments for the hand-woven gho and kira, and the country’s ubiquitous guiding policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH). Preserving our culture is one of the four main pillars of GNH, and the tradition of textile production is a well-established aspect of Bhutanese culture. So, while many Bhutanese take to the latest style of brand-name clothes, most youth have also learned to value the traditional costume for all that it stands for. In fact, it is not uncommon to see fashion-forward young women wearing the latest Converse sneakers under their kira.