Serbian traditional costumes
Within the rich creative work of the Serbian population related to textiles — due to their role in everyday life and in providing ethnic identity as well as to their visual and aesthetic values — ethnic dress is one of the most valuable and beautiful creations of its cultural heritage. It is mostly known on the basis of preserved collections of clothing items from the 19th and the first decades of the 20th centuries, characterized by a great variety of forms, trimmings, ornaments and colors. The wealth is obvious in men’s clothes, but especially so in women’s clothes, both of which were created as a result of the collective understanding of belonging to the community accompanied by a demonstration of individual leanings and skills based on heritage and tradition. A distinct diversity of clothing items spread as a mosaic from one area to another, with each region being characterized by its different clothes, with a manifold role and meaning. Apart from its primary function of protecting the body in different climatic conditions and its role of adorning the persons wearing it, the dress was not only a telltale sign of a person’s origin, but also, especially in ethnically mixed communities, of the ethnic group they belonged to. From earliest times clothes were used to indicate class, social and professional status, with some elements also having ritual and magical meanings.
The knowledge of the characteristics of the traditional dress is based on material evidence from the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. As for the earlier periods in the history of the peasant dress in Serbia, they are much less known due to scarcity of material evidence and other data, the same as in most countries of South East Europe, i.e. the Balkans. However, fragmentary evidence from some of the earlier centuries (archaeological findings, written and visual sources) and the known course of historical, social and cultural events make it possible to shed some light on the origins of some of the items of clothing worn in the 19th and 20th centuries but they rarely allow for a reconstruction of individual wholes from past epochs.
In the process of getting an insight into the development of ethnic dress and of interpreting and acquiring comprehensive knowledge of the characteristics of garments of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries it is impossible not take note of the ancient Balkan, Byzantine, medieval Serbian, Turkish-Oriental and relatively recent European layers along with the basic old Slavonic, i.e. old Serbian, tradition. To a greater or lesser extent, all these cultural influences, whose penetration and expansion were linked to historical events — which in some periods resulted in smaller or greater-scale migrations of the population — affected clothes as well. Thus, beside the marks of the time at which they were created and worn, there are also traces from previous times. Apart from the cultural-historical factors at work through time and space, the creation of dress features was greatly affected by the nature of the terrain and climatic conditions favorable to the development of one or several types of economic activities, whose products made up the basis of life and all other accompanying elements.
The culture of the people living in the mountains, who were mostly cattle-breeders, the culture of the people living in the lowlands, who were farmers, and the culture of the people living in the areas with both hills and lowlands, where they embraced both cattle-breeding and farming, led to the creation of distinct forms of clothing. All this was transposed in original ways by generations of anonymous creators, who demonstrated creativity, knowledge and experience in fashioning style of dress patterns well adapted to the living conditions and the environment. In line with the obtaining division of labor in family communes, clothes for household members, except a few items of clothing and jewellery made by artisans, were almost totally made by women. Their job included growing the needed plants and processing them, dyeing, weaving linen and woolen cloth, knitting, sewing, decorating clothing with embroidery, lace and other trimmings. Experience, tradition and skill were passed on from generation to generation. An analysis of the variety of clothes shows certain peculiarities concerning the combination of functional, visual and aesthetic characteristics present in several areas. The same economic activities, or very similar ones, which were determined by geographic features and the same or similar historical, social and cultural development, led to the creation of similar items of clothing within larger cultural-geographical areas, such as the Central Balkan, Dinaric and Pannonian ones. Given the availability of materials for making and adorning clothes, the cuts, manner of adornment and the tradition of dress styles and cultural layers, each area saw the emergence of many variants, which, on the one hand, bore the basic characteristics of the dress type to which they belonged and, on the other, showed greater or lesser regional and local differences both among the majority Serbian population and among the ethnic minority communities. It is important to note that the spread of the basic types of dress was not strictly limited but that there were transitional belts between them, where the features from the neighboring areas were intermingled. Also, the cultural-geographical areas spread not just throughout Serbia but also throughout the neighboring states of the Balkan, Pannonian, Dinaric and Mediterranean regions, where Serbs lived together with other peoples and wore the dress of the said typological groups.
The Central Balkan area
The ethnic dress of the Central Balkan area in Serbia is found in its eastern and southern parts and the regions of Kosovo, Metohija and Rascia. This large territory comprises lowlands, hills and mountains, and the dress is a combination of elements typical of both farmers and cattle-breeders, with traits of the old Slavonic, old Balkan, medieval Serbian culture of the Byzantine layer and Turkish-Oriental culture. It is characterized by an elongated visual form of clothes items, a profusion of subtle and luxurious adornments of perfect workmanship and a fine harmony of colors. In all the parts, apart from the common content and visual features, the dress has a number of regional and local differences, with some of these serving to show ethnic origins. The common features up to the first decades of the 20th century were almost identical kinds of homemade materials — mostly hemp, flax and cotton fabrics, white and dark brown sukno (rolled woolen cloth), woolen and flax cloths, often with stripes and finely arranged tiny geometrical ornaments woven into them, as well as processed and non-processed skins. Some factory-made fabrics were also used along with products of Oriental origins. Despite great differences in their appearance, the cut of the Serbian linen and various woolen and rolled woolen cloth chemises is mostly the same or very similar. In all regions, a straight-lined tunic with sleeves is the basic outer and inner chemise. Almost everywhere the long women’s tunic is the same width, with one or two wedge-shaped inlets at the sides, except in Kosovo, Metohija and Rascia (the centres of Serbia’s statehood in the Middle Ages), where the tunic was transformed into a wide bell-shaped dress with ten or more wedge-shaped inlets. This transformed item of clothing, with excessively lush embroidery, which is also found in other parts and on other objects, and the harmony of ornaments, shows traits of the medieval textiles of the Serbian nobility’s attire.
Embroidery of perfect workmanship, showing a refined knack for combining various shapes of geometrical as well as stylized floral ornaments, is applied to the visible parts of the tunic — the sleeves, the collared front and the edges. The embroidered motifs are usually free, but there are also some instances of counted-thread embroidery. Embroidery was done in wool yarn, very often dyed various hues of red. In some regions, the red dye is the only one used, whereas in others it is combined with other colors or silver and gold threads, with an addition of beads, spangles and tassels. Unlike this predominantly red and silver thread ornament, which covers the bodice and the sleeves of the tunic and is mostly characteristic of southern parts, poly-chrome embroidery of light and dark hues and applied more discreetly was used to adorn tunics in other areas. Another item of garment which significantly defines women’s clothes in the Central Balkan area in terms of typology is the skirt, formed from two halves joined together horizontally, creased and open along the whole length. Girls, brides and married women equally wore it. It has two basic variants. Bojce, zaprega (a short women’s skirt, open along the whole length), which only covers the thighs and reaches down to the knees, adorned with embroidery or patterns of many colors woven into it, is found in Kosovo, Metohija and Rascia. Another type, futa, vutara (a much longer skirt), which reaches almost to the edge of the tunic, open along the whole length, with striped ornaments, was widespread in most other parts of the Central Balkan area. At the same time, sukman, litak, manovil (a sleeveless dress), made from black dyed woolen cloth or, in its summer variety, from hemp cloth, and richly decorated, gave a distinct look to the South East Serbian dress. This dress, which is also known among other Slavonic peoples, is believed to be of old Slavonic origin. The essential parts of the apparel are a woven sash and a woolen apron, adorned with geometric patterns woven or, less frequently, embroidered, into the items as they were being made. The apron was attached only at the front, except in some parts of North East Serbia, where Walachian women, following an old tradition, also wore a back apron, decorated with long woolen tassels. Wearing two aprons over the tunic is also characteristic of the Albanian women’s apparel, whose general look is dominated by woven geometric ornaments and dark colors. Of the outerwear clothes worn in summer, and some only in winter, highly widespread were a short jelek (waistcoat), a longer zubun (women’s sleeveless dress open at the front), a long rolled woolen cloth dress with sleeves and gunj (a women’s and men’s chemise with long sleeves, a kind of jacket made from rolled woolen cloth), white or brown, waist-long, all of them edged with braids. Of all these kinds of upper body clothes items, all of which comprised certain local visual and decorative peculiarities, the most beautifully decorated one was the zubun, made from white rolled woolen cloth, reaching to the knees and open at the front. Along with geometric ornaments, there is an abundance of embroidered stylized floral motifs, dyed cloth appliqués, sometimes with tassels and fringes added. Zubuns with rich floral motifs embroidered using red woolen yarn and including a tree of life motif, as well as zubuns found in other places with similar floral shapes made from black or dark brown woolen thread with circular red cloth patches sewn on, or zubuns with embroidery in relief of subtly composed geometric patterns in different hues of red, and zubuns with discreet polychrome embroidered or cloth appliqués, all demonstrate the high achievements of the local artisan-ship rooted in the tradition of medieval values.
One of the prominent features of the Central Balkan region is the head wear, most commonly the trvelji (two plaits made by weaving woolen strands together), which married women weave into their hair and fold by the ears. In some parts natural hair was used in a similar way. Hair done in this way was then covered with towels and hats with a shorter or longer flap at the back. Girls, with their hair sporting one, two or three plaits, wore a small red hat or scarf. Brides wore plaits of a different kind, richly adorned with flowers, pearl strings, silver coins and other trimmings, which, apart from being decorative, also had an apotropaic role. Beside the jewellery for adorning the hair and the head wear (earrings, hairpins, frontlets, diadems) and various types of necklaces, breast ornaments, bracelets and rings used with festive clothes, also highly widespread were pafte (bigger or smaller ornamental clasps for a woman’s sash), made of silver or gilded. Unlike women’s clothes, which display a large variety of forms and ornaments, men’s garments worn by peasants in the Central Balkan area show more unified features. Apart from a linen tunic and pants worn in summer in flatter areas, the typical dress comprised a chemise, with several chemises being worn in winter in layers. The chemise of the 19th century was made from white rolled woolen cloth. This was retained in some parts of Eastern Serbia as well as among the Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo and Metohija until the first quarter of the 20th century, which was not the case in most other areas, where, in the second half of the 19th century, brown and black rolled woolen cloth was increasingly used. Apart from the tunic, which had a cut and adornments similar to those of the women’s tunic, the most widespread items of clothing were the rolled woolen cloth dzamadan (a sleeveless waistcoat, with overlapping fronts), waistcoats of different lengths, open at the front, and, of the winter chemises, a gunj with sleeves, also of varying lengths and variously called in different areas. Along with the woven woolen sash, mostly striped, the other indispensable item of woolen cloth garments, adorned with black woolen braids, was caksire (breeches), with a relatively tight seat and legs. Scholars believe this type of rolled woolen cloth trousers, along with the braids, to be of old Balkan origins. Also worn were items of Oriental origin: caksire with creases and a looser seat, a trabolos (a men’s silk sash of many colors), and a silav (a men’s leather belt with pockets). The dress worn on special occasions and made of homemade rolled woolen cloth (sukno) or brown sajak (factory-made cloth) and dark blue factory-made heavy-duty cloth (coha) was mostly adorned with a custek (a men’s piece of jewellery of stringed pearls or made of silver and shaped by an artisan). The headgear included a black woolen hat, a lamb fleece hat, a cilav or custah (a shallow white rolled woolen cloth hat) and, in some areas, a fez (a red men’s hat). It was usual to wrap a cotton towel around the hat or, in winter, a woven woolen scarf. At the end of the 19th century, Serbs started wearing a sajkaca (a stout cloth military hat), which, like a kece (a men’s white rolled woolen cloth cap) of the Albanians, is still being worn as a sign of ethnic identity at the beginning of the 21st century. Both men’s and women’s clothes are characterized by richly decorated knitted woolen socks and shallow opanci, either made at home or by a craftsman. In almost all areas, a rolled woolen cloth cloak with sleeves or a wide, semicircular hooded cape was worn over the other garments.
The Dinaric area
The Dinaric cultural and geographic area includes several locations in South West Serbia. In keeping with the natural mountain conditions, sheep breeding was the main economic activity, to which the whole style of life was adapted. The traditional dress was mostly made from wool. After being woven, homemade woolen cloth was taken to special presses, of which there were many at mountain streams. This processed woolen cloth (sukno) was naturally white or brown and was also dyed red. Strict rules were observed when combining different items of woolen cloth, fabrics and knitwear. Ornaments are geometric and floral. The use of three basic colors — white, dark Grey and dark red — gives a special character to both the women’s dress in its variants and the more uniform men’s dress. The basic item of both men’s and women’s dress is the tunic made from homemade hemp, flax and, from the end of the 19th century, cotton fabrics. Made from a single piece of thin cloth folded over the shoulders, the tunic has wedged inlets and flat, broad sleeves. A women’s long tunic is richly ornamented with finely spun wool or, sometimes, cotton. Men’s tunics, which are shorter than women’s, are decorated in a more discreet manner and, apart from red and black embroidery, they have white, hollow appliqués of flax or cotton thread.
Along with the indispensable woven woolen sash, both girls and women attach to the tunic a narrow, elongated and rectangular apron, striped or sometimes with horizontal rows of plant motifs. These three items of clothing, with the addition of a short rolled woolen cloth (sukno), heavy-duty cloth (coha) or corduroy waistcoat, with discreet braids and silver thread embroidery, were the basic parts of summer wardrobe. The outfit is supplemented with a long zubun jacket of white or dark red rolled woolen cloth and, in winter, a gunj of dark grey woolen cloth and a long white dress with sleeves and made from one piece of cloth. The visually rich adornment makes the white zubun stand out. The upper half of the back is completely covered with black woolen thread embroidery in the form of snail-like curves and spirals, stylistically akin to medieval tombstone ornaments. The ornaments on the skirts of the zubun, unlike the geometric pattern on the back, are stylised black woolen or silver thread flowers. It is a well-known fact that no girl in the past could get married until she had embroidered a zubun for herself to prove she had mastered handicraft.
An expressive embroidered ornament of dark red and black woolen thread appears on the bridal hat, which had a long flap at the back. Girls, with their hair divided into two plaits making a wreath around the head, wear a shallow red cap, while married women wrap a scarf around it. Of the jewellery made by silversmiths, most used were a flower-shaped hatpin, necklaces and sash clasps (pafte). Men’s outfit, apart from a linen tunic and pants and an outer black or dark grey rolled woolen cloth chemise, was marked by white or dark grey pelengiri (a kind of wider men’s pants made of unrolled woolen cloth). They are without ornaments, unlike a gunjic (a short waistcoat), which is open at the front, and the dzamadan, whose halves overlap, both of which, like the gunj with sleeves, have braids along the edges. This white-dark grey outfit is supplemented with a woolen sash of many colors, a red shallow hat, with a red woolen shawl wrapped around it in winter like the Oriental headband, then, on festive occasions, with a jelek with toke (silver buttons and platelets sewn in rows on the men’s waistcoat bodice as ornaments), a leather belt called silav, and, on top of all this, a red rolled woolen cloth hooded cloak. There were changes, beginning from the end of the 19th century, under the influence of urban and military dress. Factory-made fabrics increasingly replaced homemade rolled woolen cloth (sukno), women start wearing long skirts of modern cuts and men start wearing the sajkaca and military style trousers, both to become representative of the men’s ethnic dress throughout Serbia in the first half of the 20th century.
The Pannonian area
The ethnic dress of the Pannonian cultural-geographic area is found in the northern part of Serbia. In the southern belt with several regions, with Sumadija and Kolubara in the centre, the dress is permeated with Central Balkan and Dinaric elements, with the Serbian 19th century urban and military dress showing its influence as well. In the rest of the Pannonian area — in Vojvodina — the dress was exposed to Central European influences and styles, especially during the Baroque period, and, from the end of the 19th century, to the civilian fashions within the European framework. Also significant are old Slavonic elements, which have been best preserved in the Pannonian region.
In this predominantly lowland area, showing complex cultural intermingling, the fertility of the soil, with an abundance of corn and other crops, provided economic well-being for the population, which was reflected in all areas of life and contributed to a flamboyant variety of dress forms, decoration and colors. Heavily creased linen garments, worn both in summer and winter, give an impression of lightness and liveliness. Rolled woolen cloth and leather items of clothing are of a broad cut, which perfectly fits the manner in which work is done in the lowlands. Plant motifs are rife, and so are geometric forms of the multicolored, white and golden appearance of woven and embroidered items, mostly light in color. Several kinds of fabric were used to make clothes, with a cotton fabric of airy lightness and a half-silk or fine cotton fabric with vertical stripes standing out because of the excellence of the weaving process. From the second half of the 19th century, apart from homemade fabrics, white, dark brown and black rolled woolen cloth (sukno), sheepskins with the fleece, woollen and cotton yarns, gold and silver thread for weaving and decoration, also used were factory-made cloths, which promoted the cuts of the European urban fashions. The women’s dress of the older 19th century layer, which is found in several variants, is characterized by a long, heavily creased tunic, made from two rectangular halves of material, with wide sleeves starting from the neckline. Embroidered plant motifs enriched with lace are arranged along the sleeves, the joints of the halves and the hems of the tunic. In the southern, border belt, girls wear only the front apron over the tunic decorated with silver or gilded pafte, while married women also wear the back apron. The front apron is characterized by having been thickly woven and by geometric ornaments arranged all over it, unlike the airy and almost monochromatic back aprons, which have an unostentatious woven or embroidered ornament.
Apart from a short jelek with a narrow waist made from rolled woolen cloth (sukno), heavy-duty cloth (coha) or corduroy with braided or gold embroidery of floral motifs and a zubun with patches made from colored coha sewn on, also commonly worn, especially in winter, were items of clothing made from coha or sukno and of varying length and with long sleeves, akin to chemises worn for similar reasons in the Central Balkan and Dinaric areas. From the second half of the 19th century, along with the deeply rooted traditional forms of warm items of clothing for both women and men, a long skirt, borrowed from the urban women’s fashion and visually adapted to each area, was worn. Especially prominent is the Sumadija bell-shaped skirt with fine poly chromatic vertical and horizontal stripes, which — like the Serbian military uniform models adopted for men’s clothes — became not only a feature of the new outfit layer in the first half of the 20th century but also a synonym for and representative of the Serbian ethnic dress in a wider cultural and national sense.
The ethnic dress in the Vojvodina lowlands, unlike the composite garment content of the southern transitional belt, belongs to the culture of expressly Pannonian features. Among women’s clothes, which were earlier dominated by a long, heavily creased tunic, as early as the beginning of the 19th century, under the influence of European outfits, two-piece linen clothes emerged — a short tunic and skirt, fashioned from several halves of the material. The short skirt for festive occasions, with some transformation of details over time, was made from light cotton fabrics and decorated, especially on the rather wide sleeves, with white and golden woven and embroidered ornaments, often with lace inlets. The bottom part of the outfit is a very wide skirt, decorated with light color embroidery and white lace, and worn in several layers. The silhouette, marked by the narrow waist, is supplemented by a woolen apron with geometric ornaments, or a pinafore made from corduroy, brocade or silk, often with gold embroidery in relief (flowers, vines), such as is also found on the waistcoat. Necklaces, made from strung gold or silver coins, glass beads and pearls well complemented the gold or silver embroidery. As the most common headgear for the hair fashioned into pleats that were folded as a wreath around the head or gathered into a bun on the back of the head were the old Slavonic kondja (a fillet with a towel), a scarf formed into a hat, whose crown was placed over the bun and its lower end was let loose down the nape and back, with prominent gold embroidery, which in its most luxurious variant of a Baroque floral pattern is found on a zlatara (a women’s hat covered with gold embroidery), which had two long wimples running down the back. A scarf was worn every day, while brides wore lush floral garlands, hats and crowns. The men’s dress comprised a tunic and pants, worn in the Pannonian manner, meaning that the tunic was always worn over the pants and mostly fastened with a woven sash. Both the tunic and the pants are rather wide, the width being achieved by combining several halves of linen. As in the case of women’s tunics, decoration was plentiful. Among floral ornaments found on men’s tunics, especially prominent, as a fertility symbol, was the motif of ripe ears of corn. Summer clothes were supplemented by a waistcoat made from heavy-duty cloth (coha), silk or brocade, often with oval silver buttons. In winter, apart from a white rolled woolen cloth gunj and breeches (caksire), always worn together, and a big black gunj, also common was a white cloak with a square collar that could be turned into a hood. Some had their sleeves sewn closed to serve as pouches for keeping different small objects needed on the road or when tending animals. The typical men’s and women’s item of clothing in the Pannonian area is the fur coat made from lamb or sheep skin. Adornments on both cloth and fur items of clothing were diverse and lively. Plant motifs were done using woollen embroidery of different colors with appliqués of heavy-duty cloth (coha) on the rolled woolen cloth (sukno) or floral leather appliques on the leather. The headdress is characterized by a black, conical fur hat made from lamb fleece, a hat made from black felt (a straw hat in summer), and, in the southern border belt, the military sajkaca hat. In earlier times, pieces of woolen cloth were wrapped around feet, while later on woolen and cotton socks were worn. The footwear includes wide opanci, exquisitely fashioned opanci with finely interlaced leather strips, knee-high boots, shoes and wooden clogs for doing work around the house.
It is important to stress that, as early as the end of the 19th century, the cloth dress — which, in the southern border belt, along with chemises made from factory-made fabrics, retained its traditional features for a long time — was being replaced by heavy woolen cloth dress in imitation of the urban European dress, but often decorated with embroidery. The same was true of the women’s dress, where heavy woolen, cotton and silk two-piece dresses (a waistcoat or a blouse and a long skirt) were worn together with a short tunic and golden hats of the traditional kind. The dress of ethnic minorities — the same as the dress of the majority Serbian population — shows the basic Pannonian characteristics, although it does have some content and visual features characteristic of the wearer’s home country.
All the various kinds of ethnic dress in Serbia, which were developed in altogether different or slightly similar circumstances prevailing in their respective cultural-geographic areas, with their longstanding adherence to traditional values and adaptations to conditions obtaining at the time they were created and worn, will totally disappear from everyday life. This process of change, implying a substitution of the urban European fashions for the traditional style of clothes, triggered by the emergence of new economic and social conditions, the expansion of traffic and trade links and closer relations between rural and urban populations, began as early as the end of the 19th century, and was increasingly obvious after World War I and especially after World War II. Thus ethnic dress became a cultural-historic value as early as the second half of the 20th century, being reduced to its ceremonial uses on certain festive or solemn occasions.
Courtesy of Mirjana Menkovic, Mnemosyne, from the constant exhibition of the Ethnographic Museum Belgrade – ” Narodna kultura Srba u XIX i XX veku,” 2003. Author : Jasna Bjeladinović-Jergić, Serbian traditional costumes
EMBROIDERY AND THE FOLK COSTUME
In folk embroidery, beside archaic heritage, especially in the mountain regions, much of the style was taken from the art of higher social layers and later eastern and middle European influence was incorporated.
In Vojvodina white and golden embroidery are predominant but there are multicolored embroideries with bright colors also. For the women vests in the Moravian cultural region stylization of the big flowers of peony predominantly of the red and sometimes of the black color are characteristic, while in the Dinaric regions there are more poly-chromes embroideries on the vests in which dark shades are predominant. In the regions where cattle breeding is the major economy the women’s vests are decorated on the bosoms and on the skirts by multicolored wool embroideries. In Serbian Kosovo embroidery especially on the women’s vests it is easy to see Byzantine and Serbian medieval items styled in folk forms.
The decoration of the clothing was widely spread, especially of the upper vests by the silk, wool or cotton ribbons and stripes. The pattern of the clothing items is a constructive element and at the same time it has an art dimension as well. The ornaments, embroidery and different applications are on the prominent places: bosoms, sleeves, skirts, scarves and caps. Men’s folk dresses in the past were very simple, made of more rough cloth. From the 19th century onward they are more and more decorated by stripes especially the waistcoats. The shoes get different leather stripe crossings and on the socks apart from the different patterns the multicolored embroideries are added.