Saris, Kimonos, Togas & Smocks: Exploring Clothing Across Cultures

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, September 11, 2006

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Fashion Design

Subject Area

  • Arts
  • Language Arts
  • Social Studies

Lesson Time

One or two fifty-minute class periods


The way that people dress is an important means of expressing identity, status and cultural values. In this activity, students will conduct collaborative Internet research on the social purposes of clothing. They will learn about ancient Roman clothing, Japanese kimonos, Indian saris and Elizabethan garments. They will create a presentation to share what they learned with classmates.

National Standards

Standard 1. Level III. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process 5. Uses content, style, and structure (e.g., formal or informal language, genre, organization) appropriate for specific audiences (e.g., public, private) and purposes (e.g., to entertain, to influence, to inform) 
Standard 7. Level III. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts 1.  Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of informational texts (e.g., electronic texts; textbooks; biographical sketches; directions; essays; primary source historical documents, including letters and diaries; print media, including editorials, news stories, periodicals, and magazines; consumer, workplace, and public documents, including catalogs, technical directions, procedures, and bus routes) 3. Summarizes and paraphrases information in texts (e.g., arranges information in chronological, logical, or sequential order; conveys main ideas, critical details, and underlying meaning; uses own words or quoted materials; preserves author's perspective and voice) 4. Uses new information to adjust and extend personal knowledge base
Listening & Speaking
Standard 8. Level III. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes 6. Makes oral presentations to the class (e.g., uses notes and outlines; uses organizational pattern that includes preview, introduction, body, transitions, conclusion; uses a clear point of view; uses evidence and arguments to support opinions; uses visual media)


Students will do the following:
  • conduct Internet research
  • brainstorm ideas
  • complete a group survey
  • analyze and evaluate information
  • create a presentation highlighting what they have learned
  • respond to writing prompts


  • "Clothes: What Do They Mean?" handout
  • Internet websites


  • computer with Internet access


Building Background Observations & Speculation

The purpose of this activity is to help students begin to think about the social and cultural meaning of clothes. 1. Read the following paragraph aloud to your class: "Many people believe clothing is not only a necessity; their clothing represents their cultures and beliefs. Many factors affect the clothing worn by different civilizations. Some factors include region, beliefs, climate, and gender. Time also serves as a constant in which the fashion of clothing evolves. Though fashion changes at a constant speed, some pieces of clothing are more than just warmth and protection, some pieces of clothing remain almost synonymous with the cultures which crafted them. For instance, a billowing white toga is usually associated with the Roman Empire. A brilliantly colored, ornate kimono is most often associated with Japan. Altogether, fashion is a symbol for certain time periods and regions." Source: 2. Divide the class into small groups and provide each group with a copy of the handout entitled "Clothes: What Do They Mean?" Ask the students to brainstorm answers to the questions on the handout. When the class is finished, encourage each group to share its thoughts with the entire class.

Steps for Learning Culture, Identity, Status & Clothes

The purpose of this activity is to provide students with an opportunity to explore different cultural expressions of identity through clothing. 1. Tell the students that they are going to research clothing from varied cultures. Divide the class into small groups and tell the students to use the websites provided to complete their assignment. Group One: Elizabethan Clothing Images: us&q=elizabethan+clothing&btnG=Search Group Two: Ancient Rome Images: Group Three: Kimonos (Scroll to Japanese Clothing) Images: Group Four: Saris Images: Give the students the following assignment: Create a class presentation containing the following elements based on what you have learned in your research:
  • a description of the clothing
  • how the clothing relates to the culture
  • how the clothing is related to social status, wealth, or rank
  • two examples of the clothing, these can be photographs, drawings from your sources or drawings that you create based on your research
  • five interesting facts about the clothing
2. Provide time for each small group to present its work to the class. 3. Ask students to respond to the following reflective journal prompts:
  • What connections can you make about clothing across varied cultures?
  • Do you see evidence of social class distinctions in the way that people dress today? If so, provide examples.
  • Have you changed your opinion on the meaning of clothing?
  • Do you think that there is a typical "American" style of clothing?
  • What do the clothes you wear suggest about your identity?
Lead a class discussion based on students' responses to the writing prompts.


You may use the following two elements to assess students' learning in this activity: Group Presentations

Rate the quality of each element of your presentation on a scale of 1-4 with 4 being excellent and 1 being poor:
  • Describe the clothing.
  • Describe how the clothing relates to the culture.
  • Describe how the clothing is related to social status, wealth, or rank.
  • Present two examples of the clothing. These can be photographs, drawings from your sources, or drawings that you create based on your research.
  • Include five interesting facts about the clothing.

Journal Prompts

  The goal of this activity is to help students understand how clothing reflects culture, identity, and social class. Review individual students' written responses and their participation in group discussion to assess their understanding of these concepts.

Enrichment Extension Activities

Activity One: Fashion & Media

Ask your students to compile a collection of photographs and images that highlight how saris and kimonos are portrayed in current fashion media.

Activity Two: Virtual Kimono

Have your students visit the following website to design a virtual kimono at

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