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Project RastkoHistory of Serb culture
TIA Janus

Jasna Bjeladinovic-Jergic

Traditional attire

Chapter from the book
"The history of Serbian Culture"
The history of Serbian culture  


Courtesy of


Among the creative aspects of the culture of the Serbian nation, traditional costumes occupy one of the most important places because of their role in everyday life, their significance for ethnic identity, and their value artistically and aesthetically. They are known mostly because of the costumes which have been saved from the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, characterised by a great diversity in form and decoration. This variety and richness is present in both men's and women's costumes. Each region had its own special form of dress. According to the way a person was dressed, one could distinguish not only where they were from, but also of which nationality they were in multi-ethnic milieus. Various national costumes with manifold significance among the people were exposed to a wide range of influences in the history of their development. Thus, they incorporated a variety of elements from preceding periods, together with the features of the period when they were made and worn.

Serbian urban dress, Belgrade, mid-nineteenth century.
Ethnographic Museum, Belgrade.

In the wide variety of costumes, apart from the special traits of costumes which varied from village to village, there were also other differences between villagers and urban dwellers in terms of the way they dressed. Urban clothing in most of the Serbian ethnic territories developed under Turkish and oriental influences. Later, as in Pannonia and along the Adriatic, that influence was largely European. Urban costumes in the Balkan-Oriental style, made of expensive cloths and bearing gold and silver embroidery, were of high artisan craftsmanship. Up to the twentieth century, on the other hand, peasant dress was mostly the product of home and other village handwork. They were fashioned by women, though certain parts of the costumes were done by village artisans. Experience and tradition were passed from elder to younger, from generation to generation.

The very first glance at the diversity of village dress reveals certain specificities in the combination of the functional, artistic and aesthetic characteristics of the clothes worn in an entire region. Identical or similar economic circumstances, brought on by the geographical setting, by historical, social and cultural development, all influenced the generation of certain elements of clothing in the framework of larger cultural and geographic regions, such as those in the Dinaric, Adriatic, central Balkan and Pannonian regions. In each region a basic type of dress is characteristic, appearing in many different costuming and decorative forms. The differences originated in the variety of materials for making and decorating which the particular region offered, the pattern-forms and decorative means, and the costuming tradition and level of cultural development.

Women's village dress, viewed from the back, Imljani, western Bosnia, second half of the nineteenth century.
Ethnographic Museum, Belgrade.

The dress of the Dinaric mountain region includes the territories of Serbian Krajina - Kordun, Lika and northern Dalmatia, along with a large part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the continental part of Montenegro, and the southwestern regions of Serbia. In that vast mountainous region, cattle and sheep breeding was the main source of income, and the entire lifestyle of the people was adapted to that end. Folk dress was mostly made of wool. After weaving, the woollen homespun cloth was taken to special mills (valjavica) which were once in abundance along the smaller rivers. The processed cloth, a rough fabric, was a natural white or brown colour in some areas, while in other regions it was dyed black, dark blue or red. Many items of clothing where made of homespun wool and heavy cloth, in whose strictest forms one can see old Balkan and Turkish-Oriental elements. The basic element of both women's and men's dress was a hemp or linen shirt in the form of a tunic with sleeves, abundantly decorated with embroidery done in yarn.

Zubun, a sleeveless dress for women, Janj, western Bosnia, second half of the nineteenth century.
Ethnographic Museum, Belgrade.

Indispensable parts in the woman's outfit were a woven woollen belt and apron, harmonious in motif and colour, worn over a long shirt. The most common forms of heavy cloth articles of clothing were the "zubun", "sadak" or "koret" - kinds of long bodices. They were joined by dresses with sleeves, decorated with embroidery and coloured appliqués done in fabric. Girls' heads were adorned with red caps, and married women covered these caps with scarfs folded in various ways. In men's clothing, narrow trousers were common, and in some areas roomy "pelengirs" with flared legs were characteristic - they are very ancient forms of clothing. They were accompanied by vests with straight and overlapping halves (gunjic, zubun, jecerma, dzemadan) and short overcoats with sleeves (known as gunj, gunja, koporan, aljina). A multi-coloured woven belt was indispensable, as was a red cap, which was wrapped with a woollen scarf in the winter in many areas.

Decorations, richly applied to men's and especially women's dress, were characterised by harmony in their ornamentation and colour schemes. The delicate colours of the yarns in weaving, achieved through the traditional process of dying with herbal dyes, contributed greatly to the highly refined harmony in colour. In the ornamentation of the rich multi-coloured embroidery and in the appliques of homespun and other decorations, which cover practically all visible surfaces on articles of clothing, and equally so in woven fabrics, geometric and geometrized vegetative motifs prevailed. In creating decorative and aesthetic elements, various kinds of silver embellishments played an important role in woollen Dinaric clothing. These embellishments amplified the heavy monumental form of the clothing. One of the most significant forms were men's "toke" for the chest, made up of several silver plates or studs, which were often gilded. They were a symbol of heroism, and weapons were worn along with them. The weapons were of high quality craftsmanship, tucked into a special pocket of a wide leather belt.

A belt - "cemer", an essential part of women's festive attire, Montenegro, end of the nineteenth century.
Ethnographic Museum, Belgrade.

Traditional costumes of the Adriatic regions covered a significantly smaller area when compared to the expanses of the Dinaric massif. The narrow strip along the Montenegrin coastline and Bay of Boka Kotorska developed under the conditions of Mediterranean commerce and culture, while maintaining constant contact with the mountain hinterlands. Thus, Mediterranean and urban European elements in clothing are encountered, mixed together with the Dinaric elements of the mountain hinterlands.

Home-made linen fabric was used for making the costumes, along with hemp and cotton. Likewise, woollen fabrics such as homespun and coarse wool were used. Apart from home-made materials, factory made materials were also used (especially for festive attire), including fabrics, velour, brocade and silk. Along with expensive materials, sailors brought various kinds of valuables and fashionable items (parasols, fans, and so on) to their families during the height of maritime activities, especially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Apart from coloured embroidery and braids, white embroidery and fine lace were also common. Gold and silver jewelry, items of fine workmanship, complemented the refined simplicity of coastal costumes. The visual specificity of those costumes was the colour scheme, set in two or three colours, at times in combinations of several colours.

In women's attire, an outer dress in the form of a long faulted skirt with a bodice sewn on was common. Individual variants differed in the kind and colour of the fabric, accompanied by differing names. Over-shirts with lace inserts and skirts ("sarca", "raca", "kamicot"), a woollen or silken belt were worn, and an apron was added. Sleeveless dresses and light overcoats were also worn. The head was wrapped in a scarf, and in some areas flat caps were worn. In men's attire, caps also had thin brims; the caps were made of waterproof cloth and covered with silk. The remaining parts of the costumes were shirts with decorative inserts, wide faulted pants, a belt, a vest ("jecerma"), and overcoats with long sleeves. Some of the most important decorations were braided appliques, and a leather girder (cemer) around the belt, into which two pistols were slipped, made in domestic gunsmith shops.

The chest adornment of men's village attire, Kninska krajina, nineteenth century.
Ethnographic Museum, Belgrade.

In the coastal oases, the Dinaric touch was seen in the adaptation of traits of hinterland clothing, tamed for the coastal areas.

The attire of the central Balkans was found in the southern and central regions of Serbia, with the communications hub in the Morava Valley, and in part of Kosovo and Metohia, as well as in parts of Raska. In this region, the mountains and flatlands alternate, and the costumes are a combination of elements of attire worn by farmers and herdsmen, with traces of the Greek, ancient Balkan, Byzantine and medieval Serbian and Turkish-Oriental elements of dress.

Women's village dress, parts of the blouse sleeves, bodice, belt and short "bojce" skirt - Kosovo polje, region of Kosovo-Metohia, nineteenth century.
Ethnographic Museum, Belgrade.

In many variants of the basic costume style, especially varied in women's attire, men characteristically wore homespun white and brown jackets. A specific form of decoration were appliqués of black and dark blue woollen yarn. In women's attire, with numerous characteristics of an elongated visual form, one notices a remarkable wealth of forms, materials, embroideries, appliques with a variety of decorations, and harmoniously composed geometric and vegetational motifs and colours. The frequent usage of red in combinations with other colours, as well as with gold and silver threads, contributed to the great liveliness of these materials. The basic element of attire was the straight cut blouse, with richly embroidered sleeves, breast and bottom hem. The embroidery was done with wool, cotton and sterling silver thread on a hemp, linen or cotton base. The other characteristic piece of clothing was the wool or cotton skirt, open full-length, which had different lengths, decorations, colours and names from region to region. The elegant, single-coloured "bojca" from Kosovo with its dainty embroidery, as well as the fine, multi-coloured "futa", "bokca" and "zaprega" of other regions, with stripes and fine woven geometric designs, all fit in harmoniously with the whiteness of certain kinds of long linen blouses. Likewise, the other pieces, and especially the "zubun" (a long hemp waistcoat with a floral design), represent the accomplishments of folk handicrafts and their high artistic value.

Women's village attire, view from the back, Sava river basin near Belgrade,
turn of the twentieth century.
Ethnographic Museum, Belgrade

The special head-wear of women should be added to these elements. Various kinds of pins were put in the hair, which was then covered with cloths and covers in the form of caps and veils. The embroidery, ornaments and some of the tailoring, along with a variety of fixings - earrings, hairpins, necklaces and rings - are reminiscent of the costumes and jewelry of the Serbian Middle Ages.

Embroidery on the sleeve of a woman's blouse, Kosovo polje, Kosovo-Metohia region, nineteenth century.
Ethnographic Museum, Belgrade

The attire of Pannonia, a predominantly lowland region, was found over the central parts of Serbia, in Vojvodina, Baranja, Slavonia, and along the Sava in Bosnia, where a significant portion of the population was Serbian. Along the southern border, elements of central Balkan and Dinaric attire are intermixed, and in the remaining regions one finds central European influences and styles, especially the Baroque. Likewise, from the mid-nineteenth century onward, the urban fashion of western and central Europe was also quite influential. Old Slavonic elements were also quite significant, and they were best preserved in these regions.

The Pannonian plain, with its complex cultural interactions, its fertile soil and its abundance of grain and other produce, ensured the inhabitants economic security which was expressed in all areas of life. In attire, that security contributed to the boisterous variety and vividness of the forms, decorations and colours. Finely faulted rough woven attire, worn both summer and winter, is both light and lively. Vegetational motifs are frequent, as is gold embroidery, and the colours are generally bright.

A golden cap, part of women's festive attire, Banat, Vojvodina, second half of the nineteenth century.
Ethnographic Museum, Belgrade

The long one-piece roughly woven faulted blouse is prominent in women's attire. It bears woven decoration or embroidery in one or more colours. The two-piece blouse is decorated in a similar way, although the lower part is worn in several layers. Along with linen cloth skirts, woollen skirts were common as well, with wide or narrow faults. A belt and apron were worn over the linen clothing, and in some regions two aprons were worn -- one in front and one in back. Beside the wide use of floral motifs and woven geometric ornamentation, the head-wear was also specific in nature -- specially woven cloths, scarfs folded into caps, and brides and young women wore crowns of flowers and gold embroidered caps. Menswear of linen consisted of "rubine" (shirts and trousers), worn in the Pannonian way (the shirt was not tucked into the trousers). Decoration of the menswear was as prominent as that of the women's attire. Among the various floral designs, the motif of the shock of wheat done in gold embroidery was distinctive as a symbol of fertility.

In winter, both women's and men's attire was complemented by articles of clothing made of heavy cloth and fur. On white, dark and brown cloth, motifs took the form of cut shapes of cloth and homespun sewn in, and leather motifs were sewn onto leather. These stitched-in forms in combination with bright-coloured embroidery contributed to the liveliness of vests, peasant jackets, cloaks and sheepskin coats.

As a whole, all these types of traditional costume are characterised by uniqueness in creativity and appearance, considering the wide variety of styles in mountainous, coastal, hilly and plains regions, each with its specific conditions for folk life and folk culture. Based on the age-old experience of the people and on their needs and know-how, this tradition was manifested in the visual harmony of basic constructive elements which were created by the harmonious uniformity and placement of the ornamental compositions. In their artistic character and aesthetic value, the traditional costumes of the Serbs in the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century are at the very pinnacle of traditional forms of the collective folk spirit, not only in this milieu but even far beyond it.

Kabanica, an outer garment with short, closed sleeves in which shepherds carried food and other things instead of in a bag; Srem, Vojvodina, nineteenth century.
Ethnographic Museum, Belgrade

From the end of the nineteenth century onward, when the traditional means of dress gave up their place to the urban attire of Europe, traditional costumes essentially became a thing of cultural-historical value. Thereafter, they were worn in daily life only on special occasions, in certain closed milieus or on certain festive occasions.

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