I just love the traditional Portuguese National clothing, and like most National costumes, they aren’t worn every day, nor are any two the same as they vary from region to region. At the many fiestas Portugal has to offer, you will see women, girls, men and strapping lads dressing up and dancing traditional Portuguese dances to music played on traditional instruments. How wonderful that these skills are brought down through the ages, remembered and proudly displayed. They are a twirling flash of colour, men smart and upright, women fluid and delicate.

The ladies’ skirts are made of thick fabric in stripes or checks in bright, vivid colours, in a full ‘bouffant’ style that are shown at their best in their energetic twirling dances. The skirt itself has a deep band at the hem, and the embroidery is very often traditional to a particular village. More often than not, red is the predominant colour, the ‘happy’ costume worn by the younger women, while a blue/green version is sometimes seen, worn in times of mourning or other sadness.

The first layer of the ladies’ costume is a cotton or linen chemise, with full sleeves, beautifully embroidered in traditional styles, and white ‘pantaloons’, with lace at the knee, long white socks and even embroidered slippers or dancing shoes. The bodice is separate, which is always sewn in two parts - the upper part is of the major colour of the outfit, red, blue, or green, the lower part black. The seam between the two is said to follow the line of the diaphragm! The front is cut low, again heavy with traditional embroidery, a full embroidered apron, and some wear scarves at the neck or on the head. The addition of many heavy gold necklaces can give the outfit a glorious finish. Some even have a separate heart-shaped pocket in which can be carried a handkerchief, but today is more likely to hold keys and a phone!

The men look equally stunning, standing proud usually in black trousers, white shirts, often traditionally embroidered, waistcoats or short-bodied jackets in black, with a wide red scarf tied broadly at the waist with the tasselled edge hanging to the left. A black, broad-rimmed bolero hat finishes the outfit or, depending on where the wearer is from, a traditional fisherman’s hat could be worn.

The dancers will often dance the ‘vira’, a traditional folk dance from Portugal, which comes from the Minho region in the north but is performed everywhere, making it almost a national dance. It has a three-step rhythm which is very similar to a waltz, but faster, and the couples dance front-to-front without holding hands. Each region has its own traditional dance – and each one has a different technique, whether made up of two or three steps, and danced in long lines or small circles. A few of the more popular techniques include the vira, fandango, and corridinho. The most traditional folk dances stem from the north of the country, but some, like the corridinho, are also part of the south’s history, and will be seen in the Algarve during festivals.

I don’t know how they all manage to do such energetic dances in their heavy skirts, aprons, and scarves, with the men in trousers, shirts, waistcoats and hats, in temperatures that will melt everyone else clapping, watching and foot-tapping!

The music itself is also played on traditional instruments, in particular the Portuguese guitar. It has a distinctive shape, and has two types, the Coimbra Guitar and the Lisboa Guitar, both being descendants of the mediaeval citole. Both have 12 steel strings strung in 6 courses of 2 strings, which are plucked, and are two of the few musical instruments that still use watch keys or Preston tuners. Another guitar is the cavaquinho, a small Portuguese string instrument with four wire or gut strings. Popular also is a concertina, a bellows instrument with buttons at both ends (unlike an accordion which will have keys at one end), and together with flutes and drums, they play well-remembered tunes – all helping to keep this country’s traditions alive and kicking!


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan