Authentic things are a treasury of people’s memory and a prelude to national cultural development. That is why they are kept in museums, private collections, and not used in everyday life. However, do people always mean to honour old things under the guise of the renewal of Ukrainian traditions? Or may the trend for vyshyvanka (national Ukrainian shirt) be destroyable? We discussed these issues with ethnologist Oksana Kosmina. Ms. Kosmina travels across Ukraine studying traditional Ukrainian clothes of the late XIX – early XX centuries. She arranges workshops on ochipki (women’s hat), gives lectures, and protects the value of authentic items.
What Ukrainian regions can be called the biggest treasury of traditional Ukrainian clothes?
I am interested in the collections’ exposition. The most engaging are thematic collections, especially with pre-war or war-times clothes which can’t be found in museums. There are virtually no old clothes left in villages, they have been sold, given away, or destroyed.
Ukrainian regions are different in the way of keeping traditions. Thus, western Ukraine has many villages where people still create traditional clothes. Some regions haven’t managed to keep the clothes traditions. People are now trying to renew it basing on museums’ and private collections. I have discovered many findings in the Poltava, Cherkasy, Polissia regions. The most problematic regions are south of Ukraine and Donbas. No traditions have been preserved there.
Oksana Kosmina. Modern Hutsul tobivka (bag). Design by Iryna Stoliar. Photo credits: Olha Streltsova
What materials were used for clothes in the late XIX- early XX centuries?
What fabric to use depended on how wealthy the host was and how old they were. The older a person was, the more traditions they adhered to. Such people preferred homespun materials as they were more solid, reliable, coarse. Such fabric could be worn by several generations. Young people followed new trends, they wanted something new, more interesting, something lighter so they chose other materials.
Clothes were made of both homespun and factory-made materials. Cloth, threads, coarse milled fabric were made at home. Factory-made materials were mainly imported, so only wealthy people could afford them.
A modern blouse with hand-made embroidering, with a preserved technique of sewing and ornamentals of traditional Zhytomyr region’s shirts. Designed and created by Yuliia Mozhaiiska. Photo credits: Iryna Kudria
Do traditional Ukrainian clothes have more pagan or Christian symbols?
It is very relatively. Is a cross a pagan or Christian symbol? Let’s find out. A cross became a symbol of the Christian tradition only in the V century A.D. Before that, it was just a sign, nobody worshipped it. We can consider it neither a pagan nor a Christian symbol. It is the same when people associate swastika with the Nazis Germany. Basically, the swastika is an old symbol which is present almost at every culture as a vice versa, blessing, and life-asserting sign.
However, what about a traditional hat – namitka, it came from Christianity. With the adoption of Christianity, women started to cover their hair as it was common in the Byzantine Empire.
Claiming traditional Ukrainian clothes to have pagan or Christian symbols is only a supposition which isn’t scientifically proved.
Do you mean that Ukrainian traditional clothes have no symbols? Do you think we shouldn’t look for the sense in these symbols?
We can’t find the sense in symbols of traditional Ukrainian clothes as the state of museum artifacts and sources don’t allow us to. The main symbols are a cross, circle, square, rhombus. Are they Cristian or pagan symbols? These are symbols which can be found all over the world, and different people interpret them in their own way.
Besides symbols, we should take into account the influence of fashion on clothes of ordinary people, villagers. In the last century, higher classes were spreading new trends which began to be followed by villagers after a while, it became a part of the culture. This is why these elements of clothes are taken as Ukrainian ones. However, they have European or oriental roots.
Has a magical, ritual content of clothes also failed to be preserved?
Each ritual has its own attributes and sets of clothes. A life cycle of a person consists of birth, marriage, and death. These events were marked with certain signs. For example, reflective rituals of wedding and burial. The burial custom is older – it is a transition into another world. The wedding ritual always includes a hat, the best, the nicest shirt, accessories. A bride wore a sheepskin coat, no matter what season it was – a symbol of wealth. Women kept their wedding shirts until they died. So, a ritual content of clothes hasn’t totally been lost in modern conditions yet.
A wedding crown made of wool pom-poms and artificial flowers. Exhibited in the National Historical Ethnographical Conservancy Area “Pereiaslav”. The town of Pereiaslav-Khmelnytsky. Photo credits: Viktor Khmara
Today, a flower crown is a fashionable accessorise. How should we wear it properly according to traditions?
A wreath is a symbol of a transition ritual. Wreaths are used at funerals and are almost not used at weddings. The wedding crown though used to be kept. It had to be looked after so it didn’t fade to make a bride’s life long and prospering, and all fresh flowers fade immediately. That’s why wedding crowns were made of artificial materials. The only fresh flower in the wreath was periwinkle because it could keep its form and colour for long. Even now, we can see many flower crowns with periwinkle in museums.
Girls collected flowers, made crowns and wore them for a half a day since flowers fade quickly. Today, all girls wear such crowns. You shouldn’t wear a crown all the time.
A flower crown as an attribute of male and female wedding clothes from eastern Podillia and Zakarpattia regions. The reconstruction is designed by Tamara Kosmina. Artist: Zinaiida Vasina
In a traditional sense, embroidering is…?
Vyshyvanka is a soviet word, a proper name is an embroidered (vyshyta) shirt. This is an element of the Ukrainian traditional rural clothes which became trendy in cities, and got popular beyond Ukraine. Many people mistakenly think that any embroidered piece of clothes can be called a vyshyvanka. It is absolutely wrong. The pinnacle of this wrong attitude took place at a fashion show of designer Yuliia Mahdych in Kyiv In May 2019. The whole collection, except for some pieces, had nothing in common with the vyshyvanka.
There are other examples of designers honouring Ukrainian culture. Designer Vita Kin stylised and modernised one of the models of a shirt, and interpreted embroidering in her own way combining modern and traditional approaches. The designer contributed significantly to making people learn about Ukraine. Her works don’t cause discontent. Today, many manufacturers produce dresses similar to Vita Kin’s dresses. It is now fashionable to wear a vyshyvanka, that’s why everybody wants to buy it.
How should we wear a vyshyvanka?
The main thing is that a vyshyvanka should suit a person. Everything depends on taste, many people wear unaesthetic clothes. You can combine the shirt with jeans, skirts, cord dresses, whatever.
A modern stylisation of the Poltava national clothes made of cotton chintz. Design by Oksana Kosmina.
Photo credits: Yuri Romanov
What stereotypes and myths about traditional Ukrainian clothes are spread by media? Have you got your own rating of such mistakes?
I can’t remember all the myths but will name only the most popular ones.
The first myth is about the vyshyvanka’s origin. Some people claim it existed in ancient times. At early periods, there were no vyshyvankas, only embroidered clothes. A Ukrainian village shirt and vyshyvanka are different pieces of clothes. The shirt appeared much time later, and we should remember that not to repeat the myth.
Another myth tells about the foundation of an embroidering school by a prince’s wife in the Kyiv Rus. It is not true. Unfortunately, some art experts spread this myth. People should read historical resources. The first resource is a chronicle which can be easily accessed on the Internet. You can check the data there. The cornicle says nothing about the school and embroidering. It tells about the prince’s wife life as a nun in a monastery. People use modern categories in their thinking. They believe that if there are schools, interest clubs today, they also existed then. Facts checking and knowledge in history can help people to avoid getting affected by myths which are spread by media.
A modern variation of a female Mari shirt known as Polubotok’s shirt. This artefact has no relation to Hetman Polubotok’s personal objects.
The third myth is about Polubotok’s shirt. This story was first described by Stefan Taranushenko in the XX century. He told that Hetman Polubotok had a collection containing the shirt, but it is not proved. In fact, this shirt is neither for women nor for men. It is not Ukrainian. It belongs to the Mari. There are clothes which look like these shirts. For example, a man’s shirt with this pattern is kept in the Poltava Local History Museum where it is said, “Polubotok’s Shirt XVIII Century”. All the museum’s visitors believe that this shirt existed. Also, many sellers sell, as they say, a Polubotok’s shirt. This is how the myth is being spread.
You’ve invented hashtags #idontcutauthenticclothes #idontwearauthenticclothes. What is your message?
I want to invite the attention of at least the Facebook community to the attitude toward authentic clothes. People should understand that they can’t wear clothes which should be kept in museums or private collections. Today, such clothes are sold at markets, people buy them, collect, sell. This is a business. A true collector not only buys but also forms a collection, describes them and keeps. For example, no collector who collects XVIII century dresses will ever wear them! It is nonsense! In Ukraine, many people think that they can wear authentic clothes. It all began since the term of president Viktor Yushchenko who has a big collection of such clothes. He and his wife often wore them in public.
Why can’t we wear authentic clothes, why does it look barbarian to the civilizational world? Because old fabrics wear down, unlike silver and gold. Just remember how little time it takes for a new piece of clothes to wear down when you constantly wash them. Fabrics of pieces which are more than 100 years old get rotten. They are damaged then. Thus, they get destroyed for culture.
What is your attitude toward some designers using old clothes for their new collections?
There are many examples of designers using old clothes to create new collections. For example, Oksana Karavanska, Victoria Hres do it. It is a business.
The worst thing is that designers cut authentic clothes. A cut piece of clothes is lost for culture. Many trendy designers say, “I give the second life to clothes.” And I say, “No, you just kill them!” We should preserve authentic clothes, and these cut, remade clothes are worn only for one or two seasons. Then people just throw them away, nobody keeps them. They lose their value.
Cut and dyed authentic shirts from the Bukovyna region. Design by Victoria Hres. Photo credits: Internet
Do people support your ideas?
People constantly tell me not to spend so much effort to protect authentic clothes. I don’t agree. I can see the result. Many people I know who had shirt collections used to wear them. Now, they don’t. People are grateful to me, they say, “We have realised we shouldn’t do it. We will keep them.” I also have some old shirts. I bring them to workshops so people can see how they were sewed, embroidered, they see that these are artifacts.
Cut authentic shirts of different ethnographical regions (Pokuttia, western Podillia and Bukovyna). Designed by Oksana Karavanska. Photo credits: Internet
What can be done for a culture of respect toward authentic clothes to appear?
The state should contribute to it. It sounds snobbish but it is really so. The state policy starts from all state establishments. I wish the respect for authentic clothes was brought up in families. But many modern families don’t know what authentic clothes are. I wish the media didn’t promote authentic clothes to wear.
The popularisation of the idea should be conducted via exhibitions, publications, catalogues, books or leaflets, any way will give results. I believe that if more people think as I do, it will be easier to promote the idea of preserving and respect to authentic clothes.
Text by Olena Skalatska