National Identity and Dress: Thinking about Brazil

I’ve been thinking recently about the ways in which dress and fashion connect to ideas about national identity. It all began when I started to question what ‘Brazilian dress’ might be. Is there any such thing as a national form of dress within Brazil? Simplistic outsider reactions might suggest the bikini or Havaiana flip-flops, possibly even carnival costume, but this probably tells us a lot more about foreign perceptions of Brazil – which tend to treat Rio de Janeiro as a synecdoche for the entire country – than of the lived experience of dress for most Brazilians. Nevertheless, in a country as enormous as Brazil, there is perhaps a greater need to construct a coherent national identity and embodied sense of belonging through the body surface.

Maybe ‘Brazilian dress’ could refer to indigenous forms of clothing? Such as the handmade jewellery and body tattoos, in combination with Western-style shorts and T-shirts, that are worn by the Kayapo, who live alongside the Xingu river in the eastern Amazon. Or perhaps it is the white lace ensembles worn by Afro-Brazilian women in Salvador? Baianas, as they are called, adhere to the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomble, and wear a hybrid fusion of sartorial elements that originate from Europe (the full-length gathered skirt with crinoline and petticoat) and West Africa (the headwrap, called an ôja, and beaded necklaces)? But these two examples seem to suggest that different clothing cultures within Brazil are geographically tied to region and ethnic identity, when even the vicarious armchair traveller knows that it is far more messy and complicated than that.

A baiana dress, displayed on a white model, at the Mercardo do Madureira in Rio de Janeiro. (Author’s own)

My difficulty in coming to a conclusive answer ultimately reflected the incredible flexibility of dress styles within Brazil. In all its variety, Brazilian dress tells multiple stories about its wearers – personal, local, national and transnational – as well as revealing the global flows of ideas, objects and people that characterize the interconnected world we live in. Cross-cultural exchange and influence is far from exclusive to Brazil. But it does come into much sharper focus within this heterogeneous world culture region, which sits so ambiguously (and not just in geographical terms) between the Western and the non-Western. The development of Brazilian dress and fashion reveals a long and chequered history of cross-cultural contact, slavery and immigration. It is a complex and fluid process by which Brazil, since it was first colonized by the Portuguese in 1500, has absorbed but also re-interpreted diverse influences that stem from its indigenous populations, as well as from Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States. From North to South, huge variables in culture and climate necessarily impact directly upon the clothing choices made by Brazilians.

Any attempt to define ‘Brazilian dress’ is a tangible reminder that national identity, like clothing itself, is not an intangible essence, but a material construct – an ongoing process of articulation and negotiation that depends upon where we are, and who we are with. As such, using geographical borders to analyse dress in national frameworks will always burst out of the standardized shapes delineated on the world map.