Ukrainian National Costume As a Withness of the Past
In the Ukrainian town of Pereyaslav-Khmel’nytsky there is a museum of Ukrainian traditional, national dress. It is housed in an eighteenth-century building and has in its collection about 1500 shirts, blouses and other embroidered items, about 200 woman’s adornments, over 200 belts, aprons, head-dresses and other pieces of traditional Ukrainian costume plus a lot more. The layman comes to the museum to gaze at the exhibits in wonder and admiration, and the historian comes to study the changing styles, types of dress, and through them better understand Ukrainian culture and everyday life of the past.


In the whirl of changes Ukraine finds itself in now, one feels a sort of nostalgia for things that seem to have gone forever never to come back, and yet it turns out they linger on in dress, customs, songs and dancers. There are still a lot of people living who remember the way the traditional religious holidays and festivals were celebrated in the rural Ukraine. Some of these people even would say: «Oh, I’ve seen the real celebrations of Christmas, the real wedding reception» and so on, meaning that these occasions were celebrated differently from the way they are celebrated now.
«Real» in this sense is tantamount to traditional, time-honoured. One of the integral parts of «traditional» life is dress, woman’s dress in particular. A great care was taken to have every item of the dress in full correspondence with the requirements of custom and tradition. The occasion and the season determined what kind of dress was to be worn. The wedding dress epitomised the beauty and expectation of the youth; it was resplendent with decorations and adorned lavishly with embroidery. In winter, when the quiet of Christmas Eve was gaily broken by Ukrainian merry kolyadka’s (sort of Christmas carols), young women and girls, who were singing them, were supposed to be wearing white sheepskin coats and multicoloured bright headkerchiefs.
One can’t help feeling nostalgic but one dons her grandmother’s dress and as if in a time machine one is taken back to the time which seems to be so distant and yet poignantly recent. This dress from the grandma’s trunk helps one find the link between now and then. Cinema and theatre occasionally remind us —not so frequently though as one wishes they would — of the splendour of the Ukrainian traditional national costume.


National dress of any nation, of a big one in particular, the one with a history and culture that span more than a thousand years, reflects the geographical situation of the country this nation occupies, the climate, mentality, levels of economic and social development and a lot more. The Ukrainian national costume is not an exception in this respect. An historian of costume remarked that the traditional woman’s dress alone — in all of its varieties of course — would be sufficient to give one a comprehensive picture of historical and cultural features of life in the Ukrainian village of the past.


If one can apply the word «classic» to the national dress one can say that the Ukrainian Midland in the basin of the Dnipro river is the area where the Ukrainian national dress acquired features which can be regarded as «classical», that is very typical of Ukrainian traditional costume in general.

It is there that the ancient Rus-Ukraine dress had gradually become specifically Ukrainian as it is known now. The national dress throughout Ukraine shows the same «classical» features, though each distinguishable geographical and cultural part of Ukraine has some differences in dress, particularly in embroidery patterns. In some cases slight variations can be observed even in the dress worn by people living in the neighbouring villages.


In addition to being just an article of clothing the shirt (or, probably, more properly «blouse» if applied to a woman’s garment) had a special, sometimes symbolical meaning for those who wore it. It was not too long ago that some village girls who wanted to put an amorous spell on a lad they fancied, would wear a «magic» shirt when they went through an «enchanting ceremony», and this shirt had to be the one they had started making on the Ivan Kupala’s night — an ancient heathen holiday celebrated in summer which in Christian times was incorporated into the calendar of Christian holidays.
The woman’s shirt — or a blouse, if you want — worn in the area of Poltava was a long one, with embroidered sleeves; the one from the Chernihiv land was the longest among others. The shirt to be worn on weekdays differed, naturally, from the one that was worn on Sunday. Every woman was supposed to know how to make a shirt, and teenage girls at the age of about 12 were taught how to do the needlework and whatever else that was required for being a good housewife. A woman of some means had about 15-20 shirts, and a bride from a well-to-do family was expected to have no fewer than 50-60 shirts in her dowry. The number of shirts, their quality, type of embroidery were good indicators of what the girl was as a potential housewife.


The thread used in adorning shirts with needlework was dyed with natural dyes and the actual technique of needlework varied from place to place, and from century to century. The stitches used also varied — from very intricate to rather simplified. In the early twentieth century cross-stitch gained predominance over other types of stitches. Even if the colour scheme was limited to two contrasting colours, the patterns themselves in combination with the colours never failed to produce a powerful visual effect.


Girls and women, bent over their needlework during the long winter nights in the snow-bound houses, lit inside only by a small oil-lamp or a candle, adorned their shirts with all kinds of embroidery patterns: stylized floral, animal and purely ornamental designs. By far the most popular one was that of a broken tree which happens to be one of the modifications of the universal symbol the tree of life, a symbol found virtually all around the world in art and on household items. Solar symbols and purely geometrical patterns are also widely used in embroidery.


Each article of clothing had a special name and as there were quite a few of these articles in woman’s costume it would be unreasonable to list all of them here. A couple will suffice. Plakhta and zapaska were two kinds of skirts; the usually chequered plakhta was the more cheerful looking of the two and consequently was worn on festive occasions, and zapaska of subdued colours, made of durable cloth, was an everyday garment.
Belts had to keep the skirts in place but besides this purely technical function they had a role to play in the general arrangement of the dress. Some of the belts were long strips of fabric, wound several times around the waist (thus they served also as a support for the spine and protection against injury). Belts, usually red in colour, were, like the rest of the costume, adorned with floral and geometrical embroidered patterns.
All kinds of vests were of varying length, modestly or lavishly adorned with needlework and other decorations; elder women, naturally, preferred quieter ones in tone and decoration, and young women and girls chose to wear the brighter ones and more richly adorned.
In summer girls and unmarried women did not wear hats or bonnets and walked about bare-headed, with their hair usually braided. The hair was taken good care of, as it was a matter of pride for every girl to display long braids, adorned with bright ribbons or wreaths made of dry or freshly-picked flowers. Married women did not braid their hair and never displayed it in public. They tucked their hair under an ochipok, a sort of close-fitting scull-cap made of silk, brocade or chintz. It was considered indecent for a married woman to be seen bare-headed. The ochipok was to be worn all life long with the hair hidden under it, and there was hardly a greater shame for a woman to have her ochipok pulled off her hair by someone in public (probably it had something to do with the belief in magic qualities of hair).
Headkerhiefs and shawls came to be used widely only at the end of the nineteenth century, and the occasion and means available determined what kind of headkerchief or shawl was to be worn.


It’s hard to imagine a woman indifferent to earrings, necklaces, rings and other decorations and to be sure Ukrainian women wore all kinds of ornaments. Coral necklace was an especially highly prized item but they cost a lot and only relatively few could afford them. As recently as about 70-80 years ago for a price of a coral necklace one could buy a cow. The poorer had to be content with glass beads, the richer sported necklaces made of gold and silver coins.
The costume would not be complete without a good pair of boots which were red, black, yellow and green in colour and worn mostly to church or on some special occasions as the footwear was expensive. Boots were put on bare feet; girls could have high heels and married women had to do with low heels. As soon as the weather was warm enough, heavy winter boots were stowed away and the female folk walked about mostly barefoot.
Winter coats for the most part were made from sheepskin and were of various lengths and degrees of adornment. Some of the ornamental patterns definitely had symbolic meaning.
A dress can be not only beautiful — it can tell an exciting story, if you know what to ask.

Reported by Natalya POKLAD
Materials supplied by Larysa HODLYNA, Chief Curator of Pereyslav-Hmelnytsky Historical and Cultural Preserve
Tel.: 380 (4467) 54-103

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