From Ancient Threads to Modern Elegance: Mongolia’s Deel Unveiled
Situated in the vast Mongolian steppes, the Mongolian deel is a garment that has endured time. Recognized by UNESCO as an intangible heritage, this traditional Mongolian attire symbolizes cultural identity and practicality. Serving as a design marvel, the deel has been a staple in the wardrobe of Mongolian nomads for centuries, dating back to the Hunnu Empire in the 3rd century and continuing as everyday wear. While it maintains its significance for special occasions, it remains a practical choice for daily life, adapting to the nomadic lifestyle and the changing seasons while undergoing subtle changes over the years.
History of the Deel:
The origins of the deel trace back to the 3rd century Hunnu Empire, with evidence of its existence enduring through the centuries. From the 3rd century until the 13th century, there were no prescribed rules governing the types of deels worn by different individuals. However, in 1275, during Khublai Khaan's reign, a law was enacted specifying the appropriate deel for festive occasions, though the fundamental structure remained consistent.
Records from the 15th to the 17th century offer limited insights into the deel's appearance. It is suggested that during this period, the garment featured narrow sleeves, fur lining, and an outer layer crafted from golden silk adorned with various patterns.
In the 17th to the 19th century, the deel underwent influences from Manchurian and Chinese clothing. However, after Mongolia gained independence from the Manchurians in 1911, a law was implemented to revive traditional Mongolian deel. During the period of Mongolia's status as a Soviet satellite state from 1924 to 1990, the deel became primarily associated with nomads and elders. Notably, certain prominent Mongolians defiantly continued to wear the deel daily, resisting Soviet influence.
Since the 2000s, the deel has experienced a resurgence as a national symbol, proudly worn by people of all ages and backgrounds, reflecting a renewed sense of cultural pride and identity.
Occasions and Usage:
In contemporary Mongolia, nomads embrace the deel as part of their daily attire, opting for a simpler version without elaborate designs. These everyday deels are crafted from cotton, wool, or other cost-effective materials, featuring neutral colors. The material composition varies with the seasons – lightweight options like linen and cotton are favored during summers for breathability, while winter deels are often padded with cotton or lambskin to combat the harsh cold.
The deel, well-suited for the nomadic lifestyle, offers comfort for horseback riding and protection against the elements on the vast steppes. Its versatile nature extends beyond clothing, serving as a blanket, pillow, tent, and more for nomads.
While nomads incorporate deels into their daily routines, urban Mongolians reserve these traditional garments for special celebrations. Events like weddings, graduation ceremonies, the Naadam festival, and the White Moon (Lunar New Year) witness the donning of deels made from luxurious silks adorned with intricate designs and vibrant colors. These ceremonial deels, meticulously crafted by artisans, emphasize attention to detail.
The White Moon festival, particularly during Tsagaan Sar, holds a special place in Mongolian traditions. Family members gather in their new and beautiful deels to visit the eldest family member, symbolizing new beginnings, familial connections, and the welcome of a new season. Originating in 1206, this sacred tradition remains a cornerstone of Mongolian culture.
On July 10th each year, the Deeltei Mongol Festival transforms Sukhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar into a vibrant showcase of custom-made deels. Mongolians proudly exhibit their artisanal creations, promoting the diverse ethnic groups, rich culture, and extensive history associated with the deel. The festival serves as a testament to the enduring significance of this traditional attire.
Notably, Mongolian Ambassadors add a touch of cultural pride by wearing deels when presenting their credentials to the head of state in the countries to which they are appointed, showcasing the deel's role as a symbol of national identity on the global stage.
In the vast landscapes of Mongolia, the deel stands as more than a garment; it is a living testament to the enduring spirit of a nomadic people and the rich tapestry of their cultural heritage. From its humble origins in the 3rd century to its place in modern-day Mongolia, the deel has weathered the sands of time, adapting to changing seasons, historical influences, and the ebb and flow of societal shifts.
For the nomads traversing the steppes, the deel is not merely clothing; it is a companion, offering comfort on horseback, protection against the elements, and a versatile tool for daily life. Its simplicity in design echoes the nomadic lifestyle, blending seamlessly with the rhythm of the land.
In urban settings, the deel transforms into a symbol of celebration, donned with pride during significant life events and cultural festivals. The intricate designs and vibrant colors of ceremonial deels reflect not only the artistry of skilled craftsmen but also the collective identity and shared history of the Mongolian people.
As we explore the occasions and usage of the deel, from everyday wear to special celebrations and festivals, we witness the threads that connect Mongolians across time and space. The White Moon festival, the Deeltei Mongol Festival, and the diplomatic presentations by Mongolian Ambassadors all underscore the enduring relevance and cultural significance of the deel.
In every stitch, every button, and every thread of the deel, there echoes a story – a story of resilience, tradition, and the unyielding spirit of a people tethered to the land they call home. In celebrating the deel, we celebrate more than a garment; we honor a living heritage that continues to thrive and evolve, encapsulating the very essence of Mongolia's cultural identity.
Design and Features:
The traditional Mongolian deel comprises four essential components: the hat, deel (gown), long sash, and boots. Among these, the traditional Mongolian headwear holds a distinctive place as a crucial element of the national dress. The style of the headdress varies based on factors such as gender, age, ethnicity, season, and celebratory occasions, offering over 100 unique designs, each laden with symbolic meanings. Notably, Mongolian nomads often avoid being bareheaded, safeguarding their heads against the elements, whether it be the scorching sun or the biting winter cold.
The deel itself is a loose calf-length gown featuring long sleeves, a high collar, and buttons fastening on the right shoulder. Secured with a vibrant, several-meter-long sash, the deel is reminiscent of a robe, wrapped to the left side and buttoned on the right at the collar, shoulders, and hip. This design effectively shields against wind, ensuring warmth, particularly advantageous for those on horseback. The belting serves a dual purpose, minimizing impact and vibrations on internal organs during horse riding.
Sleeve length varies, with longer sleeves providing protection against harsh weather and serving as a shield for hands during daily tasks. The significance of the buttons goes beyond mere fastening; they are hand-knotted by the maker with careful considerations. A fully knotted button symbolizes prosperity and wealth, while a hollow one represents emptiness or poverty.
Delving into finer details, the underarm part of the chest pocket is constructed with three layers, symbolizing impenetrable doors of a vault, with the button serving as the lock. Button placement is meticulous, considering the wearer's height, neck length, and overall body features for aesthetic appeal.
The deel's belt, ranging from 2 to 5 meters in length based on gender, adds a splash of color. Men's belts, often yellow or orange, are longer, while women's belts, typically yellow or green, are slightly shorter. Modern variations may see diverse colors and alternatives to the traditional long cloth belt.
As for the boots, an integral part of Mongolian attire, they are crafted for riders, constructed from leather with a curled-up toe. Winter boots, lined with felt, ensure warmth and prevent slipping on icy terrains. While designs may vary among ethnic tribes, the deel's overall silhouette remains a constant. In the following sections, we'll explore three distinct variations of the deel based on different ethnic backgrounds.
- The Khalkh Deel:
The Khalkh people, constituting over 80% of Mongolia's population, hold a pivotal place in the country's ethnic landscape. Rooted along the Kherlen, Onon, and Tuul Rivers, ancestral lands where the Mongolian Empire emerged in the 13th century, the Khalkh Mongolians trace their lineage to Batmunkh Dayan Khaan, a descendant of Chinggis Khaan. Drawn together in the 1500s by Batmunkh Dayan Khaan, the Khalkha Tumen people gathered Mongols from central Mongolia and the northern part of Inner Mongolia, shaping a distinct ethnic identity.
The Khalkh men's hat emerges as a notable cultural emblem, its symbolism deeply rooted. Featuring a tall, sharp cone reminiscent of Sumber Mountain, the hat serves practicality by breaking the wind during spirited horseback rides. The 32 vertical stripes hold symbolic significance, representing the 32 Mongolian individuals residing around a sacred mountain. The red button atop signifies the radiant sun shining upon them, while the black flap represents potential adversaries surrounding Mongolia. The red veil cutting through the back symbolizes triumph over these adversaries, embodying the strength and joy of the Mongolian people. This hat, laden with profound symbolism, commands utmost respect among the Khalkh. Variations like the "Loovuuz" for winter and the "Toorstog" for women in summer showcase diversity in design, incorporating earmuffs, pointy tops, and materials ranging from lambskin to fox fur, mink, and goat kid's skin.
Khalkh men's deel, in contrast, follows a simpler design, consisting of two parts - an inner deel and an outer one.
For married Khalkh women, the deel takes on an elaborate form with long, colorful sleeves crafted from silk and featuring high, pointy shoulders traditionally filled with materials like camel wool, felt, and feather grass. The outer deel, known as "Uuj," boasts slits on both sides, available in two variations - one with sleeves and another without. Both are adorned with beautifully embroidered, colorful borders. In winter, both men and women opt for fur and animal skin deels.
A distinctive feature among Khalkh women is the head ornament, bedecked with precious stones and silver, weighing an impressive 5 to 6 kilograms, adding a touch of grandeur to their cultural attire.
- The Torguud Deel:
The Torguud, a tightly-knit ethnic community of around 15,000 individuals, predominantly resides in Bulgan town within Khovd, the westernmost region of Mongolia. Tracing their roots to the 14th century, the Torguud clan originated as a specialized group responsible for the internal security of the Mongolian Empire, established by King Van of the Khereid clan. Over the centuries, the Torguud have evolved, cultivating a distinct identity and culture, now recognized as a unique ethnic group in Mongolia.
The traditional attire of Torguud men has withstood the test of time, remaining largely unchanged. In winter, Torguud men don a winter deel featuring a reversible collar with black corners and delicate embroidery known as "Tojoo." The deel showcases a square frame on the hip with black threads and a couple of horizontal lines, each two fingers wide. Lambskin deels with long sleeves provide warmth in colder months, while lighter deels with similar decorations in blue, white, and beige hues are favored during the summer.
Torguud men's hats, known as "Khalvan," boast distinctive characteristics. Winter hats include a nubbin on the top with threads, straps for tying under their chins, and a long red strip reaching down to their waists. For children and young individuals, lambskin hats called "Jatag" are preferred during winter, featuring a blue square top, a four-cornered red nubbin, earmuffs, and unique decorative elements symbolizing the four Oirad tribes. Historical adornments include a silver earring in the left ear and a sizable decorative ring on their fingers.
On special occasions, Torguud women don a ceremonial outer jacket called "Tsegdeg," paired with a lighter inner deel known as "Lavshig," often crafted from silk in shades of blue, navy, black, and green. The inner collar, originally a full cape, has transformed into a smaller decoration symbolizing protection from father sky. The color white, revered as "Gylaan," holds significance for the Torguud people.
Completing the ensemble is the woman's round hat, "Toortsog," adorned with pearls, corals, and intricate patterns. A round pattern with a moon-shaped coin, known as Zendmen, decorates the front, crafted from silver for good fortune. The hat's top features a coral button, red tassels, a black silk body, and a golden wrap with a red rim, with the quantity of coral reflecting the owner's richness. Married Torguud women also wear special hair ornaments with silver decorations, colorful patterns, and corals, reminiscent of times when silver chokers adorned their necks.
- The Buryat Deel:
The Buryat, the largest subgroup in northern Mongolia, comprises around 46,000 individuals in present-day Mongolia. Referred to as forest people in the Mongolian Secret History, the Buryat have a rich history intertwined with Mongolians, engaging in activities like hunting and herding livestock in the Siberian forests. Originating from ancient clans – the Horid, Tumed, and Barguud – along the southern shore of Baikal Lake, they predominantly reside in houses and sustain themselves through hunting, cattle-raising, and cultivating basic crops.
A Buryat man's deel exhibits intricate details resonating with spiritual significance. The front flap, adorned with a sharp corner, features three brightly colored stripes symbolizing the highest, lowest, and middle sky spirits. The two fundamental colors, red and black, are essential, representing the historical struggles and pain endured by the Buryat people. The third stripe's color varies based on the owner's gender and age.
The Buryat hat is a canvas of cultural richness, with 11 vertical, quilted stripes representing the 11 clans of the Buriat tribe, including Tsagaan khul, Hargana, and Bodonguud. Each clan has its own god and unique religious practices, weaving a tapestry of diversity within the tribe. The hat, longer at the front than the back, features extendable flaps for colder weather. Some Buryat hats showcase embroidered patterns resembling mountains, suns, and flames, with a distinctive button and red tassels adorning the top. Variations include fur hats with ear-muffs and a unique high-top hat.
Distinctive elements grace the Buriat women's deel, notably the wide elbow detail crafted from colorful silk. The outer deel, known as Uuj, boasts a back slit starting where the fold concludes, complemented by a rear fold of fabric made from different-colored silk.
For married women, the deel consists of several pre-cut pieces, including sections for the front, back, chest, midriff, and skirt. While the top flap borders remain thin, the inner and outer edges of the skirt are crafted from thick, dark material. The back of the shoulders features three folds, with a single button sewn onto the collar, another under the arm, and two on the front for secure fastening. Cotton typically forms the back of the skirt and the chest of the deel, while the front of the skirt boasts the luxurious touch of silk.