Traditional Estonian clothing was largely dependent on what local nature provided as well as on some influence from other ethnic groups. Estonia's northern climate was conducive to natural fabrics like homespun wool, linen fabric and sheepskin, keeping Estonians warm during the damp and cold winter months. Colours for the clothing came from plants which were a source of dye for the weaving wool and embroidery thread. Patterns, styles, designs as well as methods of sewing, weaving and knitting have influenced, and have been influenced by neighbouring cultures. Culture always seeps through the political boundaries and the boundaries of ethnic Estonians have shifted a lot over the centuries.
Styles varied by region, reflecting well-established native traditions and customs. Moreover, folk costumes denoted national belonging and social status and both everyday and festive clothing directly referred to the wearer's social status, age, marital status, and region. Even though folk costumes change over time, many of these traditional aspects have passed down the generations and are seen today in Estonia and elsewhere in the world where Estonians live and gather for small and large festivities.
Traditionally, linen garments were bleached white while woolen outer garments ranged from natural grey to black. There was no marked difference between the clothes of a bachelor and those of a married man, but a strict difference was maintained between the clothes of an adolescent female and those of a married woman. In most parts of Estonia, girls did not wear aprons. Part of the marriage ceremony consisted of tying the apron on the bride which designated her married status. At the same time a married woman’s cap or headgear was placed on her head. Girls braided their hair or left it loose for festivities and wore narrow or wider headbands according to the local custom, occasionally floral wreaths. Such hair covering fashions served the same purpose as wedding rings do today to indicate a woman’s marital status.
Generally, traditional Estonian clothes were divided into three parts:
- Festive clothes worn only on special occasions and often handed down from generation to generation;
- Visiting clothes for errands, business, and visits of a less festive nature and
- Working clothes worn every day and made of poorer material and without decorations.
The belt has remained an integral part of traditional Estonian clothing for centuries. Even the Estonian word for belt, “vöö”, is one of the oldest words in the language, dating back 7000 years. Tightly woven when made, then tightly wrapped many times around the waist, the belt gave the women back support when doing heavy field work. Later the patterned belts served to hold up a skirt style consisting of an unsewn rectangular fabric piece. To this day, most of the women’s national costumes include the belt worn that way.
Stylized flower patterns derived from the water lily or tulip are among the most common found on women's blouses and head gear, mostly embroidered in coordinated hues of the skirt in understated brightness. Silver brooches function as fasteners on most blouses. Brooches, necklaces, earrings and bracelets based on traditional designs continue to be common among some Estonian women as the jewelry they wear frequently.
Formerly a prestige item, wool socks with elaborate designs form an integral part coastal area national dress. As a result, a few folk dances include a step where the man momentarily bends down to admire his partner’s socks. The designs and their knitting are sufficiently unique, that several books have been published recently in North America about Estonian socks.
In spite of Estonia's small size, there are numerous local differences in folk costume, as worn today on special occasions. Northern Estonian men wear breeches (a type of pant reaching down to the knee) accompanied by a short-coat, mostly blue. Women wear a distinctive short, loose, long-sleeved midriff blouse embroidered in floral patterns over a sleeveless shirt. The skirt stripes may be vertical or horizontal. These are the most popular styles among Estonians in Canada, United States and elsewhere beyond Estonia.
Central Estonian women’s outfits are characterized by headgear with ample embroidery on wide fabric swaths. Southern Estonian folk costumes are characterized by the survival of several very old garments. These patterns are always geometric. Western Estonian folk costume is primarily characterized by sheep-brown and black outer garments for men. Women wear a long-sleeved blouse with a jacket over it, complemented by a bodice and a floral patterned scarf folded into a triangle. These are also characteristic of the Estonian islands. It should be noted that on the tiny western island of Kihnu, girls and women continue to wear their regional skirt as part of their daily activities. At folk dance performances, the male dancers often wear the distinctly patterned orange and black knitted vest of Muhu Island as a kind of generic national costume for a unifying effect on the stage.
As urbanization increased in the later half of the 19th century and particularly during the 20th century, traditional folk costume diminished somewhat in popularity. However, in direct contrast, the rise of Estonian nationalist sentiment directly encouraged the wearing of such garments at festivals and various public events. Proudly displaying traditional Estonian clothing was an effective means of preserving and promoting Estonian heritage both at home and abroad.
Estonian pioneers settling in Alberta brought some national costumes with them along with their weaving skills. In their spare time, women wove traditional costumes if the necessary materials were in supply. Today, Albertans can see traditional Estonian costumes at special occasions such as the Stettler Centennial celebration in 1999 and other like events. The largest event featuring Estonian national costumes is the Song and Dance Festival which takes place in Tallinn once every five years. Some choirs wear national dress as their uniform making for a splendid display of the 20,000 singers. The 7000 folk dancers weave many interesting patterns punctuated by the traditional costumes from various regions of Estonia.