National Dress of Saint Lucia

The national or creole dress has it origins in pre-emancipation days when on feast days and holidays African women would depart from donning the dreary uniform or livre that slaves were provided, and would adorn themselves in bright finery purchased from the proceeds of their small garden allotments.  The Jip (sometimes called the madras after the fabric used to make it) is derived from the Wob Dwiyet, a grand robe which was a variation of the European dress of the French settlers, but which has fallen out of use.  Typically when we talk of traditional wear, we talk about women’s wear.  Men would wear black trousers, white long-sleeved shirt with a bow tie and a sash or either coloured satin or madras with black shoes and socks. You may find varied reasons to include traditional dresses into your wardrobe collection. Though it may take some creativity and consideration, they are great fashion statements. It also gives an insight of global experience and individuality. You can see here that traditional clothes  of majority of the cultures hold a historic value. It goes back to introduce us to the way how people lived and adorned themselves.

How to Wear the Jip

The Madras is a traditional Saint Lucian costume comprising five pieces.  Also known as the national dress, it is worn by women and girls and is almost identical to the traditional costumes worn in other Caribbean countries, which were colonised by the French. It consists of a white cotton blouse (chimiz decolté) and an ankle length skirt (jip) trimmed with lace (bodwi angléz) and red ribbon.  The skirt’s design includes two gathers to the lower half of the skirt.  The most characteristic feature of this costume however, is the material used to make the short outer skirt and the accompanying headpiece.  The material, known as the madras, is named after its place of origin, Madras, India and is believed to have been used daily in earlier times.

The madras headpiece (tèt anlè) is designed out of a square or rectangular piece cut for this purpose.  Worn over the forehead it is creatively folded with a peak(s) extending from the base.

The head piece may be tied with up to four peaks, with the number of peaks signifying the availability of the woman for courtship.

  • one peak –   I am single
  • two peaks –  I am married
  • three peaks- I am widowed or divorced
  • four peaks – I accept everyone who tries

To complete the costume, a triangular satin scarf is pinned on the left shoulder with the apex over the elbow and the two ends tucked beneath the skirt’s waistline.

This elegant madras costume, or national dress is mostly worn during national activities such as Independence Day, National Day and Creole Day (Jounen Kwèyòl).  It is also used for dancing the Quadrille (kwadril) a European inherited dance.

While there is little documentation about the emergence of creole dress, some information has filtered down through our rich oral tradition.  Below are excerpts from an article in the FRC archives entitled From Livre to Douillette by Cissie Caudeiron (VF/FOLK/DRESS):

“The first non-African dress was the uniform or ‘livre’ of the estate.  The uniform was approximately three yards of grey, blue or brown chambray. The custom began in the late 17th century.  Worn initially as a wrap-around or sarong, the dress became a ‘trious trous’, a tunic whith three holes, one for the head and the other two for the arms. A length of rope was worn around the waist to complete the outfit.  Hair was woven into rows of ‘congo’ or allowed to hang in small plaits around the head.  While in the fields, plantation slaves wore wide-brimmed ‘bakoua’ straw hats, while house slaves tied a piece of cloth around their heads.”

On Sundays and holidays, slaves wore what they wished, though no alternative was provided by the estate.  With money obtained from the sale of produce from small plots allotted them, most slaves purchased clothing.  On feast days free women and slaves brought out the bright colourful wear the legacy of which has come to be known as Creole dress:

A floor length skirt of bright colour over a white cotton chemise, trimmed at the neck, sleeves and hem with lace.  A white kerchief was wrapped around the head or sometimes shaped into a bonnet, while a white or coloured cotton triangle or ‘foulard’ was draped over the bosom in the style of the French provincial woman.

At the end of the 18th Century, the square of Indian cotton known as ‘muchoir madras’ became popular with Creole women.  This special type of head kerchief is still only made in one place in India in the little village of Paliaka, two miles northwest of Madras city.

When the madras replaced the white head kerchief, Creole women began to use this pliable material for their pleated ‘foulards’ and even for their ‘jupes’.  Just about this time too ribbons came into vogue and were threaded through the lace of the sleeves and neck of the chemise.  The latter once used to reach halfway down the calves with a lace edge to the hem.  It has been shortened and is more like a blouse, and women began to used heavily starched lace, ribboned petticoats instead.  At about this time, the West African custom of lifting the skirt and flinging it over one arm became fashionable and allowed a partial view of the petticoat. 

Gold jewellery among those who could afford took the place of beads and costume ornaments.

It was from the holiday ‘jupe’ and ‘chemise’ pre-emancipation that the now national dress emerged with the ‘muchoir foulard’, ‘jupe’, ‘chemise’ and ‘jupon a dentelle’ with gold jewellery to accessorise.

Vocabulary of Creole dresses

Wob Dwiyet:

zepeng twanblanc – brooch on head piece

zanno chinil- earrings

kolye chou – neck collar

gwan wob – grand dress

jupon akodyon – accordion skirt

latje jwanwob – hem/ overlap over arm

foula – scarf

tet anle or tet kase – head dress

Jip Dwiyet

madwas – kerchief

foula – scarf

chimiz – blouse

jipon/kotylon – petticoat

jip – skirt

pot bonne –

chimiz dekolte –

mouch vanil-

gad zowey