Mongolia is the 19th largest and one of the most sparsely populated independent countries in the world, with a population of around 3 million people. There are more than 20 tribes of Mongol or Turkic origin living in Mongolia. The largest group, the Khalkha, lives in Central and Eastern Mongolia; the Altai-Uriankhai, the Bayad, the Durvud, the Khoton, the Myangad, the Torguud, the Uuld and the Zakhchin live in the West; in Eastern Mongolia live the Barga, the Buryat, the Dariganga, the Khamnigan and the Uzemchin; and in the North, the Darkhad, the Khakhar, the Khotgoid, the Khuvsgul-Uriankhai and the Tsaatan. In addition, the Kazakhs, who are Muslims, live in the Altai.
Approximately 30% of the population is nomadic or semi-nomadic; horse culture is still an integral part of their culture. The majority of its population are Buddhists. The non-religious population is the second largest group. Islam is the dominant religion among the ethnic Kazakhs.
The area of what is now Mongolia has been ruled by various nomadic empires. In 1206, Genghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire, and his grandson Kublai Khan conquered China to establish the Yuan dynasty. After the collapse of the Yuan, the Mongols retreated back to Mongolia. In the 16th century, Tibetan Buddhism began to spread in Mongolia. The Manchu-founded Qing dynasty in China absorbed the country in the 17th century. By the early 1900s, almost one-third of the adult male population were Buddhist monks.
During the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Mongolia declared independence, though it was not until the Revolution of 1921 that de facto independence from the Republic of China was firmly established. Shortly thereafter, the country came under the control of the Soviet Union, which had aided its independence from China. In 1924, the Mongolian People’s Republic was declared a Soviet satellite state. After the anti-Communist revolutions of 1989, Mongolia conducted its own peaceful democratic revolution in early 1990. This led to a multi-party system, a new constitution of 1992, and transition to a market economy.
The traditional dress of the Mongols has a rich history spanning many centuries. It is closely connected with the Mongolian way of life and the country. The design of the garments, the combination of colours as well as the decorative ornaments are all related to its old traditions. Each piece of clothing has a special significance. For example, the hats have a peaked crown to represent the Sumber Mountain sacred in Mongolian Shamanism. Their form also symbolise the honesty and magnificence of Mongolians.
The Mongolian national costume is a long-sleeved robe-like garment (similar to a caftan or an old European folded tunic) called a deel, worn not only by the Mongols but also other nomadic tribes of Central Asia, including various Turkic peoples. Deels typically reach to below the wearer’s knees and fan out at the bottom. They can be made from leather, wool, and fur produced by the people themselves or from cotton, silk or brocade. In addition, the costumes were often richly decorated with jewellery and ornaments of gold, silver, coral, pearls and precious stones. The national costumes were mostly brown and dark blue. Nowadays, deels are commonly blue, olive or burgundy, though there are deels in a variety of other colours.
The deel looks like a large overcoat when not worn. Instead of buttoning together in the middle, the sides are pulled against the wearer’s body: the right flap close to the body with the left covering it. On the right side of the wearer are typically 5 or 6 clasps to hold the top flap in place. There is one clasp below the armpit, three on the shoulder, and either one or two on the neckline. The deel buttons are made of narrow strips of cloth tied into intricate knots, if they have not been commercially produced from decorative stones or silver. There is evidence that the Turkic peoples before the rise of Mongols fastened their deels on the left.
The wide, cup-shaped sleeves of a deel are nicknamed “hooves”. There is a legend that the Manchus introduced this to make the Mongols the same as their horses.
A deel is traditionally worn with a thin sash several yards long tightly wound around the waist. The sash is usually made of silk but leather belts with large, ornate buckles have become more common in the modern era. The sash is not simply adornment. It also serves as a soft corset facilitating long rides on horseback.
Attached to the sash are essential objects such as the eating set, tinder pouch, snuff bottle, and tobacco and pipe pouches. Mongols, like the nomadic Tibetans and Manchurians, use an ingeniously designed eating set incorporating a sharp knife and a pair of chopsticks, and sometimes also includes a toothpick, ear scratcher, and a pair of tweezers. They are made of precious metals and embellished with semi-precious stones.
The deel has no pockets as such but the area between the flaps and above the belt creates a large pocket in which Mongolians keep many things, Mongolian men will occasionally even carry a silver bowl cup, or snuff box in their deel. Though there is no major difference in material or outline between male and female deels, women tend to wear the “pocket” closer (that is, women often prefer a more snug-fitting deel), while men may have larger pockets, a looser fit, and wider sleeves.
Although the deel is a unisex garment, its design varies among cultures, ethnic groups and time periods to a certain degree. Each ethnic group living in Mongolia has its own individual deel, distinguished by its cut, colour and trimming. These distinctions often go unnoticed by foreigners but are obvious to Mongolians. There are even distinct variations among different Mongol tribes mostly on the design of the edges of the upper chest opening; for instance, the Khalkha Mongol deel opening edges are round, while a Buryat deel is square. The Mongols wear a coat with the oblique border, the Tashuu Engertei Deel, and a coat with the rectangular border, the Durvuljin Engertei Deel.
There are basically three types of deels, each worn during a particular season. The Dan Deel is made of light, bright materials and is worn by women during the late spring and summer. The Terleg Deel is a slightly more padded version and is worn by both men and women. The winter deel, the Khovontei Deel, is a heavy, padded tunic lined with sheep skin, or layers of row cotton.
The deel is still commonly worn by both men and women living outside the major towns, especially by herders. In urban areas, deels are mostly only worn by elderly people or on festive occasions. The design of a deel varies due to function. There are deels for ceremonies like weddings and holidays and deels for daily wear. The dress reflects the age of the wearer. The costumes of elderly people are, as a rule, modest and plain. Deels for special occasions have their outer layer made of silk while the common deels are usually made of wool, cotton and other relatively inexpensive materials.
Mongols also wear other types of coat, e.g. a lambskin coat, the Khurgan Dotortoi Deel, or in winter a sheepskin dress similar to a fur coat, the Tsagaan Nekhii Deel.
The khantaaz is a shorter traditional jacket, often made of silk, which is also buttoned to the side, and is usually worn over the deel.
Trousers appear to have been invented by nomads as they make riding horses easier and more comfortable as well as protect the legs from chafing, thorns and branches.
Apparently, there were 400 different styles of headdress in this region as every tribe has its own (e.g. the Toortsog, Yuden, and Zharantai) and these differed in shape, trimmings, colours and purpose: there were hats for the young and old, summer and winter, men and women, holidays and ceremonies, different social positions as well as fashionable and everyday hats.
One interesting feature is that the cone-shaped top of the standard Mongolian hat (blue or red) had 32 stitches symbolising the unification of 32 Mongolian tribes. The hat was crowned with a fanciful knot. In ancient times, this knot symbolized Mongolia’s unity and power – its capability of frightening enemies. Red ribbons used to be attached to the top to represent the rays of the sun.
In summer, Mongols wore either a hat or flat-topped Toortsog hat consisting of six gores. The Toortsog had an upper and a lower part. The upper part was not one piece but was sewn from six separate pieces. Married women were not permitted to wear this hat, only girls and men.
Mongols wear tall boots made from thick unbending leather (buligar) and the tops are decorated with leather appliqués. The right and left boots are the same shape. They do not have laces or zippers, making them easy and quick to slip on or off in a hurry. Mongolian boots can be worn in all seasons, with thick felt socks being worn in winter. The toes of Mongolian boots are upturned, and several explanations have been offered for this unconventional style. One explanation is that the upturned tip prevents a rider’s feet from slipping out of the stirrups. However it is also true that the boots are so thick and rigid that if they were flat, they would be almost impossible to walk in. These hefty boots are still worn in Ulan Bator (the capital) and are particularly popular in the countryside.
The female dress shows differences between the attire of the girls and that of married women. The latter is decorated and adorned more splendidly with ornaments and jewellery.
Women’s holiday headwear was noted for its originality and richness of adornment. It consisted of a silk and velvet hat and decorations for the hair. The lower part of the hat was made from velvet and the upper part from red silk. The hair holder was covered with coral, pearl and mother of pearl. The shanaavch the temporal adornment with little silver bells was fixed to the hair holder. The tall hats worn by the Mongol female elite gave rise to the conical princess hat of the European high medieval period.
For noble women another traditional headdress is the tolgoin bolt, usually made of silver and studded with a precious stone and semi-precious stones. The ribbons on them were decorated with turquoise. Some tolgoin bolt were made of an elaborate frame and hair extensions and it is this style of Mongolian women’s headdress which has become better known since 1999, as it was used for the costumes of Padmé, the Queen of Naboo in the Star Wars Series.
Condra Jill (2013) Encyclopedia of National dress. Traditional clothing around the world. Volume 2. ISBN 978-0313-37635-8
Mongolian National Costumes with Paintings by Urjingiin Yadamsuren (1957), republished 2005 by Admon.
1) Mongolian costumes with various deels and headdresses – http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/DEELTEI_MONGOL.jpg
2) Light-weight deels showing the ties – http://mongolianshop.com/includes/templates/magnus/images/slideshow/slideshow-mongoldeel960x440.jpg
4) Mongolian wrestlers showing different types of trousers – https://tripchinaguide.wordpress.com/tag/mongolian-people-%EF%BB%BFwrestling/
5) Woman’s Toortsog – http://uksura.web.fc2.com/headdress/headdress_picture/toortsog_rear.JPG