Friday, June 28, 2013

Collecting Kiras

My love affair with the kira, Bhutan's national dress for women began even before I arrived in the country. I remember googling images of the dress and feeling excited at the thought that I would be able to wear this colourful and elegant outfit to work everyday. I shared photos of Bhutanese women with my sister-in-law Alison who I knew would appreciate the handmade fabric passed down through generations of women.

I learned a lot about the history and tradition of weaving in this country by reading ‘Circle of Karma’, by Kunzang Choden. The main character in the story lived a hard life and suffered many personal setbacks, but through it all she was able to fall back on her skills as a weaver and make an income for herself, even when the men in her life were not able or willing to provide.

Similarly women in Bhutan are now able to weave, not only fabric for kiras and ghos, but also yathra (woollen fabric) for homewares and provide an independent means of sustaining themselves and their families.

Traditionally a kira was a large rectangular piece of fabric folded in an ingenious way to create a dress tied around the waist with a kera (belt – also handwoven and embroidered) and fixed at the shoulders with fancy metal clasps. Now days, although some women still wear a full kira, many opt for a half-kira which ties around the waist either with a kera, straps, clips or Velcro. It has taken 6 months of daily wear for me to get the hang of wearing my various kiras, and only last week I went to school wearing mine back-to-front (apparently good-luck!).

In modern day Bhutan, it may seem a bit strange to foreigners that wearing national dress is an obligation for Bhutanese who work in government jobs or visit a government office or building, or when visiting a temple or festival. To our western mind it might seem like a violation of human rights to be told what to wear, but in my experience I see Bhutanese feeling very proud of wearing their national dress and far from feeling oppressed by the requirements, feel strong and empowered by their culture and traditions.  

In the face of rapid changes coming about from influences of the modern world outside Bhutan, the simple act of wearing national dress is a way for Bhutanese to  maintain their culture. And within the confines of wearing a kira, there is still ample opportunity for personal expression – in the colours, patterns and style of kira chosen, the artful matching of wonju and taego (blouses and jackets) and the beautiful brooches that are worn to secure the blouse. Teenagers take it all a step further of course, and although they come to school immaculately dressed in uniform, I was amused when we attended a recent movie night at school and saw girls mixing it up wearing trendy hoodies over their kiras, fancy heels and all sorts of pretty things in their hair, the boys meanwhile had jeans under their ghos as a way of expressing their individuality and trendiness!

And so I may fast be becoming the Imelda Marcos of kiras in Bhutan! My collection started with the cheap machine woven kiras I bought in Thimphu when we arrived. I bought three kiras and about five blouses, and probably that would have been quite sufficient to get me through a year of wearing them to school each day, in fact some of the other teachers are perfectly happy with less.

My first time wearing a kira for our Australia Day celebrations in Thimphu - wearing green and gold!
But I love colour, fabric, patterns so it is natural that I would need to expand my kira wardrobe to include all my favourite colours. And so that is why it didn’t take long once I’d arrived in Bumthang to say hello to a red and a blue kira!

Ms Gaki and I exit the school grounds on the ladder (not so easy wearing a kira!)

Then I was offered a beautiful handwoven kira to buy at school. One of the teacher’s sister’s had made it and it was a gorgeous royal blue colour with stripes of pink, white, yellow and purple. I had to have it and also a special kera belt that is needed to tie it as it is just a large rectangle without buttons, zips or straps to fasten.

 I was more than happy to stop there until one of my students gave me some lovely fabric for Teacher’s Day to have a blouse made – and it is a mushroom colour – not necessarily one of my favourites, but that makes it all the more appealing – to try out a new colour. I was on the lookout to find a kira to match and found a simple handwoven one in a store in Trongsa. It is dusty pink with mushroom and mint green stripes – a perfect match for the blouse (and Alison this one will be coming home for you - the green is your colour!).

And surely that would be enough kiras for someone staying one year in Bhutan!

That was until I read an article recently about the new style of kiras worn by women in the south of Bhutan – that suit the climate more and reflect the proximity to India in the colours and patterns available on the cotton/blended fabrics.

Although I love the traditional stripes and checkered patterns of kiras in Bumthang, I had wondered why no one had branched out and made kiras from different patterned fabric, and it turns out they had! We’ll probably not get the chance to travel to southern Bhutan, so I was wondering how I was going to see these interesting skirts!

In the past week it has been very hot and a couple of teachers have started wearing these different patterned kiras – they are worn in the same manner but hang in a looser, more comfortable and flowing way, and as they are made from lighter fabrics are cooler to wear. When I asked they told me they bought them from the south.

And so when we went to Nimalung Tshechu I was in luck! While Tshechus are religious festivals they have a fair-like atmosphere with stalls set up selling toys, junk-food, household items and clothes. The sellers travel all over Bhutan and set up their stalls at each Tsechu to appeal to villagers who often don’t have many shops locally. A row of lovely summer kiras was on offer in the first stall I looked in. I felt the fabric: lovely and soft and lightweight, and then my only dilemma was to decide which colour to choose – in the end I chose a purple print – safety in my favourite colour. Now I am home with it on it is so comfortable, and also I feel that it is just like a wrap-around skirt I could wear once I get home to Australia. It doesn’t have the look of being ‘national dress’ which might feel a bit strange walking around the Gold Coast wearing.

Modelling my new fashioned kira.

I think I am a woman satisfied now with my varied and colourful wardrobe. The main question in my mind is what will I do with them all when we leave – a couple are favourites I’ll keep as souvenirs and for special occasions within the Bhutanese community in Australia that I hope to find, the rest I thought might make nice gifts for friends at home. They could make a nice tablecloth. Who’d like to put in a request?

Below are some style snaps from recent festivals:




And a postscript to the story: this week at school a teacher brought in some kiras for sale - handwoven by a mother of a student. They were beautiful and tempting, but for the moment I have resisted buying another...

Which would you choose?


  1. oh my goodness - how could you resist not buying more???! I loved this post, Andrea - so envious!! I am pawing at my screen wishing I could feel the beautiful fabrics ... and the colours!! So lovely!!! Thank you, thank you for sharing - I'm so excited for you being able to play 'dress-ups'.... weeeeeee! (yes, well, I think you've just made my day - big smile on my face now!! ;) xx

    1. You would love to go to a tsechu and see all the women dressed up. Thank you for giving me all the encouragement I need to buy more!

  2. Love your blog. We are inspired to travel to Bhutan to experience the unique culture one day. Also interested in purchasing Kira. Are they available in Australia? Thanks.