The Dominican Republic has a rich and complex history, from its early discovery in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, to its struggle for democracy in modern times. Traditional Dominican fashion takes its style cues from a diverse social and cultural mixing pot of French, Spanish, African, and native peoples’ customs. Despite being comprised of many different cultural elements, there are few ensembles as recognizable and distinct as the traditional Creole dress; it is truly a symbol of the island of Dominica.

Women perform a traditional dance as they greet visitors at Cayo Levantado

Women perform a traditional dance as they greet visitors at Cayo Levantado, Dominican Republic. Photo: Bumihills

Shortly after Columbus discovered the island, the new city of Santo Domingo became the Spanish capital of the world, quickly prospering as the “gateway to the Caribbean” for its unique location within the trade wind islands. The entire western end of the island would eventually be ceded to the French, who had helped it to prosper. However, black African slaves in this area, which is now modern Haiti, rebelled against the French and claimed the entire island. It was this liberation from slavery that would help define and unite the island’s widely diverse peoples and set this striking island apart from the other Caribbean islands.

Freed slaves in Dominica quickly developed a statement-making sense of fashion to help draw attention to their independent status. A unique heritage of Arawak, Tiano, Spanish, African, and French traditions became the foundation of a distinctive Creole style, best exemplified in the traditional Dominican floor length garment still worn by women of the island. These colourful dresses often feature bright plaid or batik patterns and were originally meant to be worn on special occasions, such as Sundays, feast days, baptisms, Carnival, and other public holidays. The island has a long standing Catholic tradition and religious events are widely celebrated, providing plenty of opportunity for women to don these cherished statement dresses. The stylish ensemble consists of a floor length skirt in a bright colour or pattern, known as the jupe, layered over a flattering white cotton chemise or broderie anglaise blouse. The neck, sleeves, and hem of the chemise are often trimmed in lace and singular bands of coloured ribbon for added detail. A handkerchief of white was originally wrapped around the woman’s head or styled into a bonnet to be worn over her hair. This white handkerchief would eventually be replaced with more colourful versions, such as madras or batik. A foulard, or scarf, of cotton resembling French provincial dresses was originally worn over the chest to provide a degree of modesty, and is now more often constructed of a plaid or patterned material matching the skirt.

Performers at the Ancient village of Altos de Chavon.

Performers at the Ancient village of Altos de Chavon. Photo: Dikoz

White, lace-edged petticoats have become more fashionable, and the jupe is sometimes fashioned to be slung over a woman’s arm to reveal more of the petticoat as in the West African tradition. Petticoats can be seen with coloured ribbons interwoven through the lace, just as in the blouse. The complete modern Dominican dress ensemble consists of the jupe, chemise, foulard (scarf), mouchoir (handkerchief), and a jupon a dantell (petticoat), as well as a substantial amount of gold jewellery. Some women opt to wear a long-sleeved velvet jacket over the chemise or more dull colours to avoid calling attention to themselves.

Bright colours are the norm, however, thanks to the Creole Bird of Paradise and its thick pelage of rainbow coloured feathers. People of the island proudly display their heritage in colours and patterns unique to their racial mixtures, matching colours and taking care not to wear the colours of another social class. An entire system of dress was developed as fashion took centre stage in the Dominican culture, helping define and distinguish these social classes. Dominica’s traditional dress endures as the Creole standard of fashion and custom throughout the island, as well as the world.