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Culture Equals Costume

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"We then pan up to get a clear shot of the big shots on the catwalk, and here's what we find: 1) a guy wearing an American army general's uniform, 2) an obviously Russian woman wearing a big Cossack hat, 3) a Yasser Arafat-type with a kaffiyeh on his head, 4) a dead ringer for Fidel Castro, 5) a black guy in a dashiki, and finally, 6) a Japanese guy in a business suit. Nope, not one single stereotype in the whole bunch."

A Sub-Trope of Stock Costume Traits which applies to ethnic and cultural backgrounds, occurring when works of fiction choose to put characters in the traditional (or stereotypical) costumes of their culture even when it would be rather unusual in Real Life. In some countries, people do indeed wear traditional clothes on a day-to-day basis, and in others, they may wear traditional clothes in certain circumstances, but some characters regularly show up wearing traditional clothes in situations where this is not applicable.

Reasons can vary. Sometimes, it's simply that the character in question is unorthodox, and it fits their personality or beliefs to wear it. Other times, it's more likely to be a case of ignorance on the part of the author, or maybe pandering to the Small Reference Pools. It is also a convenient way to invoke stereotypes, especially in days gone past. When you have lots of people from different cultures, it can be a quick way of pointing out that they're a diverse group — for example, Cosmopolitan Council members often dress in their stereotypical regional/national costumes. And sometimes, it's just the Rule of Cool coming into play (see Costume Porn).

Note that not all of the costumes featured in this trope are actually traditional costumes of the respective countries/peoples. Many costumes are stereotypical, but not actually traditional.

(As noted, there are actually places where traditional clothes are plausible — for example, India and parts of the Middle East. This shouldn't just be a list of characters in traditional costume — just cases where use of the traditional costume is noticeably unusual, whether it's justified or not.)

See Analysis.Culture Equals Costume for specific variations. This trope is an important part in the portrayal of most countries featured in the Hollywood Atlas. Compare Overly Stereotypical Disguise. Subtropes include Gratuitous Use of the Tallit, Americans Are Cowboys, and Sombrero Equals Mexican.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Ranma shows that it crops up in Japan as well.
    • The assorted Chinese characters are normally seen wearing some variation of stereotypically Chinese clothing. Ranma him/herself, despite being Japanese, also wears nothing but Chinese clothing (as well as a thin, tightly-braided pigtail) to emphasize the parallel to traditional Wuxia heroes.
    • Some of the Japanese characters get the same treatment. Soun and Genma (when he's human anyway) are normally seen wearing martial arts gi, and Nodoka is normally seen wearing a kimono to show how traditional she is.
  • No matter where in the world he is, Goemon Ishikawa XIII of Lupin III wears a kimono and hakama. Lupin once commented on how unusual it was for a modern Japanese man to be dressed in such an old-fashioned manner. Goemon calmly responded he was normal and the rest of the country had gone odd.
  • Dragon Ball:
    • The setting doesn't exactly correspond to any real-world country or culture, but with so many elements lifted from the Chinese story Journey to the West, many of the mainstay characters dress with a decidedly Chinese "feel": Tien, Gohan, Goten, Mercenary Tao, King Kai, Krillin, and Yamcha all sport different variations of changshan (in Tao and Kai's case, all the time), Mai and Oolong don Mao suits, and Chi Chi has an entire assortment of qipao. Prior to Z, most background characters also dressed in similar fashion.
    • Though not everything is Chinese-influenced. As an alternative, Majin Buu's character was inspired by Middle Eastern jinn and Arabian Nights, and was given clothes with a more vaguely Arabic aesthetic. The same applies to fusion characters (Gotenks and Gogeta) who have matching Arabic-styled outfits. The Destroyer Dieties even invoke the popular look of ancient Egyptian monarchs, which coincidentally fits twins Beerus and Champa, being actual cat gods.
  • In Hetalia: Axis Powers, most of the countries wear a standard military uniform that reflects their background, such as America wearing a bomber jacket, Russia with a long tan overcoat (based off an Imperial Army overcoat) or Japan in a Japanese Navy uniform.
  • Samurai Harem: Asu no Yoichi:
    • Angela Takatsukasa wears a qipao constantly, contrasted by Tsubasa, who just wants to be normal and refuses to wear anything that doesn't let her pretend to be so.
    • Yoichi wears something other than his samurai uniform for all of one chapter while on a 'practice date' where they get him a normal set of clothes. He switches back to his uniform afterwords.
  • In Hayate the Combat Butler, Isumi wears a kimono, even disdaining the school uniform to do so, depicting her use of 'hand soap'. In one chapter, she even tells another character she needs to go home and change (into another kimono) before meeting the new kitten. The depiction tosses a lampshade on such an event.

  • The Norman Rockwell painting The Golden Rule with all the people from all over the world. It seems to be a quick visual way of portraying diversity...through stereotypes. Poor guy just can't win these days.

    Comic Books 
  • Tintin: Thompson and Thomson's idea of "incognito" is the traditional costume of wherever they go. Which looks ridiculous in day-to-day life. They sometimes don't even get the country right: they show up in Syldavia (a Central European country) in traditional Greek clothes. Into a space base no less.
    Thomson: Greek costumes? But we specifically ordered the tailor to make us Syldavian ones...
    Thompson: I told you he didn't seem very bright.
    • An earlier comic showed them in Shanghai wearing traditional Chinese costume, with a crowd of local citizens following them laughing.
  • A token Islamic member of the X-Men, Sooraya Qadir, code name Dust, wore a full-body black abaya with the niqab. Her "burqa" (as it was often incorrectly referred to) was often drawn as very form-fitting, which is not how it's supposed to be worn, and unfortunately her characterization under most writers starts and ends with her religion, though some at least had the sense to have her say that she wore it by choice and not because anyone was forcing her.
  • On a similar note, in Ms. Marvel (2014), Kamala's friend Nakia chooses to observe hijab of her own free will, despite her Turkish family being relatively liberal with regards to customs. Similarly, Kamala's brother Aamir almost always dresses in traditional apparel due to being very devout of his faith - the only time he wears something else is for a job interview when he puts on a three-piece suit. Kamala herself is more liberal with her choice of clothing, such as keeping her head uncovered most of the time (she does wear headscarves when required, such as at the mosque) and wearing urban styles, but she does observe hijab in that she dresses modestly, even as a superheroine. Of course, one of the ideas of the comic is that there are all kinds of walks of life within Islam, and some are more observant than others, in such a way that the point isn't as on-the-nose as one would expect.
  • In Sunnyville Stories, the Tanuki family, operators of the town's restaurant, is Japanese; the mother and daughter both wear kimonos while the father wears a happi coat.
  • In Watchmen, the mysterious Hooded Justice is a closeted-gay mass of muscle who openly supports the Klu Klux Klan and the Nazi party and is theorized to be a circus strongman in his "day job" (that last part is never confirmed). His costume a Klan-like hood, tight ropes reminiscent of bondage, and a circus-like cape.
  • The retired Astro City hero El Hombre wore a costume modeled after a very streamlined matador.
  • W.I.T.C.H.:
    • In the comic and its animated adaptation Yan Lin commonly wears the hanfu. Justified because she's an old lady (in her fifties in the animated adaptation, unspecified but older in the comic books) and noted to be quite eccentric, and she likely does it to stand out among the other inhabitants of Heatherfield's Chinatown (who wear western clothing).
    • Done subtly at Yan Lin's funeral: as the defunct and most of the attendants are Chinese, they wear white clothes (as white is the color associated with death in Chinese and many other East Asian cultures). Even Hay Lin's friends, who are not of Chinese descent, are seen wearing white out of respect.
    • Both of Hay Lin's Guardian outfits and the one worn by Yan Lin are based on Chinese clothing: the traditional Qipao for Hay Lin (with the second being as close as possible to one while still making it a two-piece) and the tangzhuang for her grandmother (who was actually born in China and lived there for a while).

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Armageddon (1998) had the Russian astronaut wear an ushanka hat and Born in USSR t-shirt. On a space station. To be honest, he was called a little weird.
  • In the Harry Potter films:
    • Kingsley Shacklebolt, who wears robes patterns after the traditional West African Dashiki, which makes him stand out considerably from the other adult characters dressed in Victorian-esque fashion.
    • In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Parvati and Padma wear Lehenga cholis to the Yule Ball.
    • Also, Cho Chang wore a silver formal qipao to the Yule Ball. This and the above example are justified in that they were dressing for the Ball. Though in the book they just wore regular dresses.
    • The male students from Durmstrang wore thick fur coats and capes. Karkaroff and Viktor Krum even wore ushanka fur hats (though the latter are technically not Bulgarian. Also, Bulgaria is quite hot in comparison to Russia).
  • In the Czech movie Adele Hasn't Had Her Dinner Yet, a loving parody of early 20th-century pulp detective fiction, American detective Nick Carter is called to solve a case in Prague in the first decade of the 20th century. For this, he puts on a traditional Bohemian peasant's costume patterned after the color plate in an encyclopedia. This of course makes him look comically out of place in what was a very modern European metropolis at the time.
  • The "United World" council in the original Batman: The Movie (1966) is a bit more subtle with this trope than you'd expect, but even if the delegates didn't talk (all in their native languages, too, which makes it impossible for them to understand one another!), you could still tell who was who in a few cases: the Englishman wears a bow tie and has a handlebar moustache, the Russian is in a Red Army uniform, and the delegate from Nigeria is wearing a dashiki. (The American, meanwhile, wears Nerd Glasses and talks like a character from an old B-movie.)
  • The first Austin Powers movie has a similar UN scene, which includes a delegate from Spain dressed as a bullfighter.

  • Discworld parodies this trope:
    • In Jingo, a group of ambassadors to Ankh-Morpork are described thusly:
      They wore their national costumes, but since by and large their national costumes were what the peasants wore they looked slightly out of place in them. Their bodies wore feathers and silks, but their minds persistently wore suits.
    • In Pyramids, a group of diplomats from Tsort attempt to wear "traditional" Djelibeybian attire. The problem is that Djelibeybian tradition goes back millennia:
      if a foreign ambassador to the Court of St. James wore (out of a genuine desire to flatter) a bowler hat, a claymore, a civil war breastplate, Saxon trousers and a Jacobean haircut, he'd create pretty much the same impression.
    • In Hogfather, the Hogswatch display at Crumley's department store includes clockwork Dolls of All Nations. Specific mention is made of a Klatchian boy with a ceremonial spear and a Llamadosian in druidic robes.
  • Exploited by the Scottish regiment in McAuslan, on the grounds that it makes the Arabs sit up and pay attention. Truth in Television, actually.
  • Irene in the Belisarius Series attended an Indian monarch's court as ambassador dressed in the absurdly hot robes of a Byzantine noblewoman. Her reasoning is that making a good diplomatic impression is worth a little sweat.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Charmed (1998) has a variant. Phoebe moves to Hong Kong with her boyfriend in Season 6, and the first episode with her visiting home shows her wearing a qipao.
  • Played with in the Doctor Who story "Terror of the Zygons", when the only people who dress in stereotypically Scottish clothing to fit in are the Doctor and the Brigadier. The Brigadier has some Scottish blood ("I am Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart! Of the clan 'Stewart'!") but is very much not Scottish otherwise, and the Doctor is... the Doctor.
  • Costumes play a big part of The Amazing Race; locals hired to run tasks and pit stop greeters will usually be in traditional costumes, and often racers will be put in costume as part of a task. Averted for everyone else the racers encounter.
  • The Singaporean talk show Its A Small World, done entirely in Mandarin, involves several foreigners now living in Singapore, going from honing their Mandarin in the first season to discussing their culture after that. All the 'students' dress in outfits unique to their culture in order to distinguish them (the season 3 finale has the Israeli Amit Gilboa complain that he's been mistaken for the Romanian Adrian Rusu), which works out okay in some cases (the Japanese Yasui Akemi in a kimono and both Korean ladies in hanboks), but some overly stereotypical ones include the American Michael Blanding as a cowboy, even though he's actually a New Yorker, and Pretty Fly for a White Guy.
    • Of special note, the third season adds the English Innes Bridges (a mixed-parentage young lady who also goes by her Chinese Name Qiao Yi Ming as recording artiste), who started out in a very generic Morris-dancer-ish dress, which in later eps has been replaced with a dress straight out of the Prince William wedding. Complete with funny little hat. There's a Call-Back later on as Innes mentions that England is so old that they have no record of their own Independence Day, and they wind up treating major events such as the Charles and Diana wedding or — you guessed it — the William and Kate wedding with the same magnitude as a national event.
  • Tyr in Andromeda regularly wears a chainmail tank-top, presumably to announce that he is a Nietzschean. Nietzschean dress in general tends towards militaristic and minimal, though few take in quite to Tyr's extremes.
  • Sabrina the Teenage Witch: Mr Pool shows up for school one day dressed in a kilt because it's 'Scottish Pride Day', and he then performs the Highland Fling for his biology class.
  • In The Twilight Zone episode "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" one of the people trapped in the featureless prison is a Scotsman in full tartan regalia and carrying a bagpipe. Justified in that all the characters are dolls, and that's probably how he would have been represented in the early 60s.

    Print Media 
  • Spoofed in a MAD Magazine installment of "100 Worst Things About...", with this one being "100 Worst Things About Sports." They complain about how stereotypical regional mascots can be, usually to the point of depicting some unusual native animal that wouldn't ever be seen otherwise, and joke that if Paraguay ever hosted the Olympics, they'd probably have a character named "Sammy the Sloth" in the international parade.

    Pro Wrestling 
  • Alex Koslov dons an ushanka before performing a Cossack dance (kick you in the head, double stomp to the face, now you dead).
  • Hiroko, the wife of Japanese wrestler Kenzo Suzuki, always wore white face-powder and a kimono.
  • Averted by most Mexican wrestlers in non-Latin American promotions nowadays, but in ages past, they did appear wearing sombreros and sarapes. More recently, Super Crazy did wear costumes with Mexican national colors and symbols on them.
  • Back when he was pretending to be from France (he's actually Canadian), Rene Dupree sported what was probably the most obnoxiously "French" facial hair in the history of mankind (thankfully, he eventually shaved). He also starting bringing Fifi, a French poodle in full lion clip, to the ring with him.
  • Muhammad Hassan wore a kaffiyeh during his short run in WWE (despite being from Detroit, Michigan and of Italian descent).
  • A strange subversion was Mr. Fuji, who during his managing days dressed like a stereotypical Englishman (probably as a nod to Oddjob). However, he reverted to playing this trope straight towards the end of his career, when he managed Yokozuna.
  • Aliyah initially wore a Belly Dancer inspired attire with a bejewelled headband and coins dangling from her belt, but later switched to more standard wrestling gear.

    Theme Parks 
  • The "It's A Small World" ride at Disneyland does this.
  • So does "Carnival Festival" at Efteling.

    Video Games 
  • The Sheikah in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are explicitly described as all wearing the exact same type of outfit consisting of dark blue undergarments and white coats and pants with red outlines, sometimes with pointed straw hats. This becomes an issue when Pikango is asking around Kakariko Village about the nearby Fairy Fountain and accidentally talks to the same Sheikah twice without initially realizing it was the same person.
  • In Saints Row IV, one of the Boss' new allies is Asha Odekar, a snarky MI6 agent of Indian descent. As part of the game, you can carry out a loyalty mission for Asha, which, if completed, sees you unlock superpowers for her in the computer simulation that most of the game takes place in. Once Asha gains superpowers, she also replaces her MI6 jumpsuit with a nice purple midriff-baring sari.

    Web Comics 
  • Collar 6 had Sixx tell Laura about the major global powers of their world. Each nation was represented by a woman in a fetishized version of some type of clothing stereotypically seen as characteristic of the region.
  • In Mahou Shounen Fight!, all of the main character's transformed selves are modeled from their culture's stereotypical associations: Mike the American being a Cowboy, Oliver the Brit being a knight, Yuki the Japanese being a Samurai etc.

    Western Animation 
  • Played with in a King of the Hill where Hank has to entertain a prospective propane client from Boston. The client expects Hank to look more like a stereotypical cowboy and has it in his head that all "real" Texans dress like that all the time, so Hank has to wear cowboy boots and a hat, much to his chagrin and extreme discomfort, as he has chubby toes that make wearing boots rather painful. In the end, Hank had enough, since the client doesn't even care about the deal.
  • Averted with Rolf from Ed, Edd n Eddy, who only wears traditional costumes when some festival or ritual demands it. Of course, this is Rolf, so "Once per Episode" isn't that much of an exaggeration.
  • Totally Spies! had an auditorium full of Russians in which every single person was wearing the same fur hat.
  • An episode of The Simpsons shows a televised national beauty pageant in which all of the girls are costumed in a way that stereotypically references their home state (so that Miss Indiana, for instance, is wearing a Hot Wheels race track as a belt).
  • Helga's nanny Inga on Hey Arnold! had a Scandinavian traditional-looking costume the entire time and even made Helga wear it.
  • Turned up to ridiculous levels on Kick Buttowski with Gunther's family and his home-country, considering they're Vikings. When we finally do see his home-country in a half-hour episode, every single person is dressed in a Viking get-up, which proves that Gunther's parents weren't just doing it for the theme of their restaurant (even though they have been seen with normal get-ups outside of work).
  • Miraculous Ladybug has several examples, primarily with its Chinese or Japanese characters living in France:
    • Sabine, Marinette's mother, is Chinese, and wears a (inaccurately designed) cheongsam over pants, yet despite this she apparently taught her daughter nothing of Chinese culture. Her akumatized form is also based on the Chinese qilin chimera.
    • Both times she gets akumatized, Kagami ends up with a form that references her Japanese heritage — as Riposte, she's dressed in samurai armor and a kabuto helmet, and as Oni-Chan, she's dressed up as...well, an Oni. In addition, as a civilian, she's dressed in a pleated skirt, tie, and blazer, reminiscent of a schoolgirl outfit, with her family crest in place of a school crest.
      • In regards to her mother, Tsurugi Tomoe, her go-to outfit is a kendoka uniform and she uses a kendo sword as a walking cane.
  • My Adventures with Superman: Lois Lane wears a jeogori as part of her formal attire in episode four, and according to Word of God this reflects her Korean heritage.
  • Work It Out Wombats!: The maroon shirt Amado's wearing is called a Barong Tagalog, which clues in viewers to his Filipino heritage.

    Real Life 
  • As noted, there are countries and cultures in which traditional clothes are still commonly worn. The best-known example would have to be the Japanese, where the kimono and all those other variants mistaken for kimonos have been pretty much integrated into contemporary culture.
  • See also the Miss Universe pageant.
  • The Miss France pageant has an obligatory section where every regional Miss has to wear a traditional costume from the région she's from.
  • The Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam almost always wore Western suits, but when receiving his Nobel Prize wore a traditional achkan, shalwar, and turban — especially significant as he was the first Pakistani and the first Muslim laureate (although some Muslims view Ahmadiyyas (of which Salam was one) as heretics).
  • An interesting trend with Muslims is that they tend to dress up far more traditionally when they move to a Western country than they did back home. This has got to do with the culture shock and certain ethnic pride, as faced with discrimination they want to show that they are not intimidated by it. As such Western tourists visiting the Middle-East can find that many places look remarkably Westernized compared to the exotic-looking immigrants back at home.
  • Iranian former President Mohammad Khatami, who, as a Muslim cleric, usually wore a mullah's uniform (black robe and black turban) during public appearances, when interviewed by Italian TV station donned a completely black Western-style suit including the shirt, necktie, and shoes... plus turban.
  • Imperial Japan switched quickly away from Western-style uniforms and trappings during the pre-war buildup, as it can be seen in the portraits of Admiral Yamamoto in 1919 and 1941.
  • A lot of Russians really do wear ushankas. Russian climate leaves few other choices.
  • Many people wear cultural garb on formal occasions. You see plenty of brightly colored robes on visiting African dignitaries at embassy receptions, for example.
  • Although most South Pacific islands have it bad, the media portrayal of the island of Papua New Guinea is just... Bad. Documentaries and the like have a tendency to show the people in loincloths, face paint, and headdresses, often conducting tribal rituals. In reality, western clothes are universally worn, and since almost the entire country is Christian, people mostly wear traditional dress to perform at province festivals. Though a delegate did visit the UN in traditional dress, presumably to make a statement.
  • We're a Culture Not a Costume. The purpose of the poster-ad campaign was to discourage people from wearing culturally insensitive Halloween costumes. The internet has had a bit of fun with this. Other people found it to be not as much "fun".. They were in turn mocked for this.
  • A number of British officers in the nineteenth century thought old-style red coats had advantages over khaki in making a psychological impression on their enemies in colonial warfare.
  • Each one of China's 55 officially recognized minorities has its own official costume, and they are so well characterized that they are not so much costumes and more uniforms (it is common for a member of a minority to show up to state functions in their ethnic costume, like how a Scotsman generally goes to Buckingham Palace in a kilt).
  • In Texas and other parts of the west, cowhands do still dress like movie cowboys. Even in the cities, some people integrate cowboy flare into either their everyday clothes or more commonly dress outfits.
  • Jews have their own subtrope: Gratuitous Use of the Tallit. As noted there, it's generally not worn except during prayer, but Haredi or Ultra-Orthodox Jews do have a distinctive way of dressing, in black coats and hats (of several different styles) with beards and sidelocks.


Video Example(s):


Sir Mac Martin

Martin wakes up as Sir Mac Martin, a Scotsboy with a kilt.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (1 votes)

Example of:

Main / ManInAKilt

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