Minnesota Immigrants: Preserving Culture


Clothing doesn’t just keep us warm. It can represent specific traditions and beliefs. It also helps identify us as belonging to a certain culture or religion.

Immigrants brought their traditional clothing to their new homes in Minnesota. Some of this clothing was worn every day, while other pieces were only brought out on special occasions. However it was worn, traditional clothing helped these immigrants honor the memories of their original homes and celebrate their new communities here.

Women's Clothing

The traditional clothing of immigrant women was often highly decorated, using the customs of the home country. When these women gathered on social occasions, they brought out the special dresses, aprons, accessories, and head coverings they had painstakingly stored on their family's journeys to Minnesota.


Immigrants handed down their traditional cultural clothing to their children. Many second- or third-generation descendants of immigrants dressed in traditional garb on holidays or anniversaries to honor their ancestors and their heritage.

Special Occasions

Often the traditional ethnic clothing was only brought out for special occasions like festivals, ceremonies, and performances. Sometimes these would be culturally specific while others would bring many cultural traditions—including clothing—together at one event.

Duluth Folk Festival, Duluth, Minnesota
Folk Festival, Duluth, Minnesota
Duluth Folk Festival, Duluth, Minnesota
Four female student musicians in Scandinavian folk dress for Bethel's Festival of Christmas, Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota
Hmong Cultural Center, dance troupe, St. Paul, Minnesota

Marker of Identity

Traditional clothing also serves as a visual clue to the identity of the person wearing it. People of certain cultures and religions continued wearing their traditional clothing every day, not just for special events. The clothing was both a marker of identity as well as a source of pride.

Geeta McGibbon recalled how easy it would be to identify a group of Indian women having picnics in the park, because they would be wearing saris or other traditional Indian outfits. It was such a striking sight that her non-Indian husband remembered seeing such a group when he was a child.

They would, during the summer months, always have picnics at one of these parks, like Keller Park or Como Park, definitely, and we would go. All the Indian ladies would have all the Indian food packed up and ready to go. They usually had saris or another traditional outfit, which is a silver camis, just kind of a pants and a longer tunic-type top. My husband was remembering that he had, maybe sometime in his past, in his childhood, gone and seen all these Indian people. I'm sure it was kind of a different sight with all these colorful saris and all the Indian food…

– Geeta McGibbon

Interview with Geeta S. McGibbon, 1998

Some traditional clothing also has religious meaning that transcends national culture. This includes the hijab worn by Minnesota's Muslim women. Sumaya Yusuf and Bibi Abdalla discussed how there are many kinds of Muslims in the world, so wearing a hijab is not unique to the Somali community here. But it does identify them as Muslims to anyone they meet.

Interview with Sumaya Yusuf and Bibi Abdalla, 2004. Inset photograph from Minnesota Historical Society.

To see how immigrants preserved their culture in traditional music, dancing, language, and other arts, use the page links below.