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Polish Folk Costumes

Folk Costumes in Poland

Folk costumes are part of peasants' culture and tradition. Today we see them as objects of the highest artistic value. Apart from the exquisite craftsmanship, we also admire their aesthetic value, as well as the sense of taste and colour which their creators had been endowed with.

The costumes are exceptional, worn only on special family and national occasions, during religious holidays, church services, plenary indulgences, weddings and harvest festivals. They have never been worn on everyday basis for work in the field or around the household. Folk costumes have always been perceived as a festive garment, worn with dignity, serving as the proverbial “fine feathers” which “make fine birds”.

The outfit would not only reflect the owner's wealth, but also their marital status, e.g. one could say just by looking at someone's headpiece whether they were single or married. Some features of a costume would account for its owner's social status or their function within the rural community. In the region of Kurpie, for example, the local community's head, called Wójt, would wear a russet coat with sixty folds, while the Soltys, a village leader, would only have twelve of these. Besides, the outfit would also define one’s affiliation with a particular regional group, territorial community or parish. In Upper Silesia or the region of Lubuskie, under Prussian occupation, the costume was used to accentuate its wearer’s Polish identity.

However, the Polish folk costume had not really bloomed until the second half of the 19th century, after the affranchisement of peasants and abolition of serfdom in the countryside, which resulted in changes of the peasants’ legal status and helped improve the general living conditions of rural communities. Villagers demonstrated these changes by making their costumes richer, using better quality, beautiful embellishments, such as priceless embroideries, laces and jewellery.

During the inter-war period, after Poland had regained independence, the costumes of some regions, such as Podhale or Łowickie, thrived in an unprecedented way, while in some other parts of the country they were slowly diminishing, replaced by ready-made, urban clothes.

After the II World War, folk costume as a common rural outfit eventually disappeared and could only be found on some rare occasions in the regions of Kurpie, Łowickie, Opoczyńskie, Silesia or Podhale. However, it became an inevitable element of the scenic look of regional folklore performance groups across Poland.

This exhibition includes 40 original peasants' costumes from 27 regions of Poland. They come from the period of the end of the 19th century to the outbreak of the II World War in 1939.

The costumes of regions such as Silesia, Lubuskie, Wielkopolska, Kujawy or Warmia are classified as western type, as they stemmed from the West European bourgeois style. They are made of very high quality fabrics: wool, damask, silk and velvet. They have many common features: men’s costumes consisted of black, tall hats, long, black russet coats, knee-long vests, red waistcoats, white trousers, high boots with bootlegs etc. Women's costumes included: black vests with cloak-like hoods, several smooth skirts worn all at the same time and dresses consisting of a tight-fitting bodice and a wide skirt, shoulder scarves, tulle ruffs and tulle bonnets, worn both by married and single women in the whole of Wielkopolska.

Warmia clothes are represented by a women’s costume based on the urban fashion of the late 19th century, but made of homespun fabric with a beautiful, gold-embroidered bonnet, called twarda mycka (a hard cap).

A Żywiec costume is an example of a bourgeois fashion, with over 200 years of tradition. Its characteristic feature is the złotogłowie (gold-embroidered) bonnet and tulle elements; a ruff, a shawl called łoktusza and an apron, all embroidered with floral motifs. Similarly, a Cieszyn costume was worn not only by the local bourgeois, but also by rich peasants from the surrounding villages. Quite extraordinarily, women used to wear silver, gilded, filigree jewellery.

Costumes worn by the people of Cracow, Łańcut and Rzeszów and by the Sądeccy Lendians (Lachowie) represent the Małopolskie style. They are all made of fabric. Men's garments are characterised by brown, oblong, poncho-like russet coats embroidered with colourful strings, leather belts and special caps called rogatywka (a peaked cap) and magierka (a Hungarian cap). Women wore embroidered, tight-fitting corsets, white and flower-patterned wide aprons and skirts embroidered with drawn thread work, shoulder scarves and scarves tied around their heads and worn instead of a bonnet. Traditional bonnets were never worn in this area.

A Cracow costume is the only peasants' attire which was promoted to the rank of a Polish national costume. This decision was made on patriotic grounds, with the Cracow's peasants’ participation in the Kościuszko Uprising as a main factor. Even the Uprising's leader, Tadeusz Kościuszko, used to wear the Cracow costume (so he dressed "like a peasant") just so that he would not be recognised by Russian spies. Kościuszko's popularity contributed to the popularisation of the Cracow costume among the Poles in general. Some of the costume's elements were applied to the uniforms worn by participants of the 19th century national uprisings. This popularity of the Cracowian costume, especially in its female version, was then reinforced by the Cracow’s intelligence of the Young Poland (Młoda Polska) movement, who promoted it as a new fashion.

Biłgoraj costume is classified as archaic. All its elements are made of linen. The original women's headpiece consisted of a chamełka (a type of a supportive bonnet) with a rańtuch (a scarf worn loosely around the head), common across the South-West Poland. The S-like and helix-like embroidery patterns used were also of archaic nature. Male płótnianka (a linen coat) was also made of linen and it had an oblong, poncho-like shape. One cannot help but notice the unique, identical leather boots, so called tyszowiaki, identical for both right and left foot.

The Krzczonów costume, which represents the region of Lubelszczyzna, is very impressive due to numerous colourful ribbons and ornaments sewn onto the corset, as well as two skirts of different lengths.

The highlands are represented by Podlahale and Silesia costumes. A common feature of both Balkan and Carpathian highlanders is the fact that the men’s outfit elements, such as gunie, cuchy (types of coats) and portki (trousers), are all made of thick, fulled cloth in the natural colour of sheeps fleece. Rich ornaments, colourful applications and woollen embroideries were all made by men. The colourful compositions, woven on the thigh sections of portki, called parzenica deserve particular interest. Each highlander's parzenica had a different pattern. The costume would not be complete without kierpce (leather moccasins), same ones for men and for women, made of one piece of leather each.

The costume worn by Lachowie Sądeccy is considered to be one of the most beautiful Polish folk costumes. It pleases the eye with colourful, embroidered, chain-stitched applications (made by men) on jackets and trousers, colourfully embroidered shirts and delicate, linear, bead embroidery on female corsets. Men’s costume is traditionally believed to have stemmed from Swedish uniforms, as – during the 17th century Swedish Deluge – local Lachowie Sądeccy conquered the Swedish soldiers in the battle of Kopaliny and, as a reward, they were allowed by the king, Jan Kazimierz, to wear the seized Swedish uniforms.

Costumes of Mazowsze were worn in the following regions: Kurpiowski (Green and White Primeval Forests), Wilanowski, Łowicki, Sannicki, Opoczyński and Sieradzki. The clothes are made of homespun, striped fabric, apart from the Wilanowski costume, which belongs to the bourgeois attire only worn in the areas closest to Warsaw. Unique features of the Mazowieckie costumes for women include: tulle bonnets for married women, striped aprons worn over shoulders in a cloak-like fashion, waste-tied aprons and wide skirts, dresses consisting of a tight-fitting bodice and a wide, pleated skirt.

The bodices also had wide flaps around the waist. The shirts with material inserts were ornamented with colourful embroidery.

Men's outfits included: round caps called maciejówki, white russet coats with black ribbon edges, wool belts – plain or with colourful stripes, striped portki with a flap fastened around the waist, with wide legs let inside the black boots.

Łowickie costumes are the most representative ones in central Poland. They have undergone many changes with regard to both colour of fabric. Towards the end of the 19th century and until around 1914, the background of the striped fabrics was red, then it became orange and did not change until the end of the 1920's, but in the 1930's, with the arrival of aniline dyes, it took on some cooler colours; green, blue, violet and grey. During the above periods the embroidery of shirts was changing too. The oldest embroidery patterns, so called polskie szycie (Polish sewing) included tiny, geometric motifs, done with cross stitches, then there was ruskie szycie (Russian sewing) – cross stitches of minute, flowery motives, while in the last period the flat, shaded stitches became popular and were used for creating large, floral motifs.

The Kurpiowski costume of the Green Primeval Forest includes a very characteristic element – a girls' headpiece called czółko (a “little forehead”). The White Forest's costume attracts attention with its shirts’ red-embroidery, which forms rhythmical strings of circles, fans, triangles and semicircles, a green dress with rich ornaments and silver, beaded gallons, as well as with a black, padded, winter gowns, so called angiery.

The region of Podlasie was populated mainly by yeomenry. Therefore, a regional peasants' costume have never really emerged there. Only in one part of Podlasie Nabużańskie one could observe an Eastern-style folk costume, in some ways similar to these of Poleskie and Wołyńskie regions, made of homespun linen and wool fabric. One can see the similarities by looking at the embroidery made by using stitching machines, with two types of needlework called peretyka and perebora, and also at the characteristic female headpieces called zawijki (folded caps).

Original folk costumes are now a thing of the past and can only by admired in museums. New costumes, sometimes faithful replicas, sometimes changed and vaguely resembling the original ones can be seen during folk bands performances. They still evoke our interest, fascinate us with their beauty and decorativeness, they bring on the memories of the past generations who left us this cultural heritage, through which we can discover our own roots and national identity.
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