All Dressed Up
The Female Folk Costume Tradition in Belarus
Belarusian folk costumes are a significant feature of Belarus’s national identity. They are shown in books on Belarus for tourists, by folk groups and occasionally worn at officially sponsored events to underscore Belarusian credentials.
Outside these occasions, Belarusian folk costumes are embedded in the national consciousness, though Belarusians themselves may only have a vague idea of what their regional costumes look like.
An important part of Belarusian costume – the rushnik patterns are more ubiquitous. The pattern appears on the national flag, as it did on the old Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic flag, consumer goods packaging, on advertising, sides of some taxis, on political communications and, in fact, wherever national credentials need to support the branding.
Despite regional variations, certain aspects are almost common throughout. For head wear, It was traditional for girls and unmarried women to plait their hair and wear headbands. The more special the occasion, the more ornate the head wear.
Married women covered their heads, either with caps or with a linen cloth, folded intricately (nametka) in styles that varied from region to region and even from village to village. In some regions, headdresses were styled with ‘horns’ which symbolised fertility, security and and prosperity in eastern Slavonic folklore.
Headdresses were gradually replaced by headscarves over the 20th century.
Colours had great significance. White, which was the natural colour of linen, symbolised heaven and purity; red represented life and was the colour of sun and earth. The red rhomboids on the sleeves protected the arms and hands.
Shoes were made of rope, birch bark. and leather boots were worn on special occasions. Coats on the summer were from different types of cloth: coats in the winter were made from sheepskin.
Folk costumes can be divided up into six regions: the south West (Western Palessie); South East (Eastern Palessie); Eastern Belarus (Dniapro area); North Eastern (the Dzvina area); the north-West (Nioman area) and Central Belarus (Minsk area). Within all these areas, styles varied from sub region to sub region and even from village to village.
Much of Western Palessie (Zakhodniaye Palesse) was covered in swampland and its isolated villages meant that the hand-made folk costume tradition remained strong well into the 20th century. Here white tended to dominate the costumes with red stripe and rhombic form compositions.
As you go westwards across Palessie towards the Polish border, around the town town of Brest, the costumes become influenced by Eastern Polish styles.
In Eastern Palessie (Uskhodniaye Palesse) during the 19th century, there was a transformation in folk costume traditions from, semantic-laden designs to of home woven material to factory- made cloth along with varying techniques of clothing with innovative decorative elements.
The costumes of The Dnipro areas (Padniaprowe) has elements from its Russian neighbours to its east with floral designs and black colours adding to the existing red colours. In the south there is a Ukrainian influence with wide-sleeved blouses, and ornamented hemlines.
Less is known about the folk costumes of the Dzvina area (Padzvinne). This is because industrialisation around the city of Vitsebsk in the 19th century tended to encourage the standardisation of clothing within the region. Factory manufactured cloth and a uniformity of functional clothing spelt the early demise of folk costumes. Thus, evidence of the style is based mainly on written records.
The Nioman area (Panaiamonne) borders on Poland and Lithuania and the folk costume style is heavily influenced by their neighbours. Local costume traditions also started to disappear in the mid to late 19th century because of industrialisation and urbanisation and eroded local styles in folklore dress. Here, women wore hats and headscarves rather than intricately folded linen cloth.
The costumes of Central Belarus, centred on Minsk, are perhaps the most diverse, drawing styles from the adjacent regions. Minsk itself, as in most industrialised cities, has little recent folk costume tradition. Thus, the further away from Minsk you get, the more distinctive and recognisable the folk costumes are.
Of course, the Belarusian folk costume tradition is much richer than can be explained in this short piece. Suffice to say that much of what Belarus is today, arises from its history, arts and heritage. In that respect, the folk costume tradition is one of its unique features and deserves to be preserved.
Maryia is a graduate in modern languages and is currently a teacher of English in a school in Western Belarus.
She has a passion for all things Belarusian.
Our many thanks to:
for their information and kind permission to reproduce their photographs.
Authors: Belarusian Traditional Costumes ; Publ. Afarmlenie 2016