Unia Europejska
Orawa Highlanders

Orawa Highlanders

​​​​​​​Upper Orawa Costume

An outfit is an aesthetic reflection of man’s inner life, soul and heart. It also presents various (social, historical, ethnographic and sociological) changes that took place in our society. Thus, in a way it serves as tradition of our fathers, their outlooks, thinking, perception of the world, aesthetic and artistic treatment of their surroundings. Everyday clothes were different from festive costume, thus separating sacrum from profanum. Everyday attire was worn for work, while on holidays it was customary to put on different clothes. Last but not least, it was one of the methods for identifying, defining or classifying individuals into particular ethnic groups. It carried a lot of information, e.g. maidenhood or bachelorhood, being a young man, a young or married woman, but it also highlighted the wearer’s social standing, distinguished between us and them, enhanced the group’s identity. Ancient outfits are like visual works of art with a colourful and spatial composition created by manual work of the very owners and creativity of rural specialists, small-town tailors, embroiderers, shoemakers, sheepskin clothing makers. Until the mid-19th century, the crucial features of folk costume were above all about archaism, considerable resource self-sufficiency and slow development of ornamentation.[1]

The enfranchisement of the peasantry in the second half of the 19th century resulted in an untrammelled growth of folk costume, in respect of both fabrics, patterns and ornamentation. The general rise in the wealth of the peasantry was accompanied by the development of the production of factory-made fabrics, aniline dyes, haberdashery items and cheap ornaments. This gave rise to increasingly sophisticated ornamentation of the costume and attempts at keeping abreast of the current fashion, which in turn led to deepening differences between outfits worn in particular regions. Some clothes remained homespun and were entirely made within the household, while others gave in to considerable change - in respect of the cut and ornamentation - under the strong influence of the urban culture.

The costume worn by the Upper Orawa inhabitants is different from the neighbouring groups, but it features some similarities to the Podhale, Żywiec, Spiš, Slovakian as well as Hungarian costumes.[2] A feature common to all Carpathian costumes are Wallachian elements, which particularly on a men’s outfit are most characteristic and visible both in the Carpathian and Balkan highland groups. The Orawa costume belongs to the group of the most varied and lavish costumes, with particular village, age, standing and affluence variants. The diversity of the costume varieties and variants is a clear indication of the imaginativeness of the peasantry, their invention in adopting patterns and creativity. On the whole, the attire was adjusted to the lifestyle in the mountains and herding-related occupations. Unfortunately, today only few realise this, because they have no other option but to see the outfits presented by members of folk ensembles (which are but a tiny fragment of the rich heritage of the Orawa costumes).

In the 17th and 18th centuries, clothing was made of homemade fabrics.[3] The main branch of economy was here cattle and sheep farming, which provided wool for cloth, hide for sheepskins and coats, belts and kierpce. Also, flax was grown to produce homespun linen. As of the mid-17th century, along with the development of the dyeing industry in Europe, the Orawa costume, and especially the women's version, became substantially enriched. It was at that time that in Orawa the first dyeworks were established, one of them being founded in Jabłonka in 1728.[4] In the same year, two dyeworks were founded in the nearby village of Slanica. Until the end of the 19th century, throughout Orawa there were already more than fifty dyeworks. In Upper Orawa, dyeworks were to be found in: Jabłonka (two, established in 1728 and 1784), Lipnica Mała[5] and Lipnica Wielka (founded in 1847)[6] as well as one in Orawka, which was founded by Jan Bernolak in 1815. In all probability, in 1845 this dyeworks was taken over by Ignac Harbich, who also owned a horse-drawn mangle.[7] Today, of the Orawa dyeworks only a building next to the 17th-century, wooden church remains. The development of weaving and dyeing in Orawa entailed a rise in trade in cloth. Clothiers began to appear all over Orawa, but their greatest numbers were to be found in Lipnica Wielka - Murowanica, Bobrów, Slanica and Klin. The wanderings undertaken by the clothiers were unusually far and dangerous, but brought in considerable profits. They would engage in trade all over the Kingdom of Hungary, reaching even Turkey and Egypt. The Lipnica inhabitants would “... take linen to Stolneh Belehrad (Stuhlweissenburg = Szekesfehervár), Duna – Földvár and Miskolc...”[8] The clothes offered by these merchants slowly began to differ from the ones worn by the other inhabitants of Orawa. Rich farmsteaders would wear formal (“paradne”) outfits, waistcoats with silver buttons (“gombiki”); their style of dress was almost urban. With their outfits, they wished to show their wealth and social standing, but they also created a certain style in the Orawa fashion.

Even though the costume traditionally worn by the Orawa Highlanders belongs to the group of rather modest highland costumes used in the Carpathian Mountain Arc, it still attracted ethnography researchers’ attention because of its preserved archaic features, which had long been abandoned and forgotten in the other regions of this vast territory. The uncommonly challenging terrain and economic conditions, as well as political vicissitudes afflicting this borderland region stood in the way of quicker changes of developmental character, which took place in the neighbouring regions, which until the end of the 19th century enjoyed much greater tourist and spa popularity.

The oldest iconographic sources concerned with the local folk costume can be found in the murals in the little, wooden church in Orawka On the church loft sill, in a Biblia Pauperum fashion, they depict some well-known scenes from the Ten Commandments, which date back to the beginning of the 18th century.[9] The doors of an antique wardrobe, which is dated the same year, are covered with paintings portraying Orawa people in ancient dress. The wardrobe is included in the collection of the Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Kraków. A Juliusz Kossak picture of two ornately-dressed Orawa men assuming a proud stance and glorifying their land was included in a 1867 issue of “Kalendarz Ilustrowany.” Some time later, iconography again depicted the costume worn by the inhabitants of this land, this time the author was Józef Pieniążek, a pupil of Józef Mehoffer.

The archived collection of photographs dating back to the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century have proved to be a very important source testifying to the Orawa Highlanders’ costume. The most famous among these include Izydor Kopernicki’s photo album dating from the end of the 19th century, as well as the one belonging to the Zawiliński brothers, but the most valuable one is the one authored by an Orawa man named Eugeniusz Stercuła.[10]

The volume of the source literature on the phenomenon in question is impressive: beginning with Edyta Starek’s 1966 research paper, which was included in a bulletin - An Atlas of Folk Costumes published in PTL in Wrocław, through papers by Prof. Ryszard Kantor published in “Etnografia Polska” and “Roczniki Muzeum Etnograficznego” in Cracow, and ending with numerous research papers by Dr. Urszula Janicka-Krzywda, the most recent one being “Kultura Górali Orawskich.”

Museum collections and field research conducted earlier, at the time when the regions still evinced features of a traditional culture, obviously provide a very important bedrock on which to base research into folk costumes, including the Orawa one. Collections of the Orawa costume have been preserved in several museums in Poland. The most extensive collection is to be found in the Museum - Orawa Ethnographic Park in Zubrzyca Górna.[11] The oldest collections can be found at the Tatra Museum in Zakopane, the Ethnographic Museum in Cracow, as well as the Ethnographic Museums in Warsaw and Toruń. While going over the collections and analysing the source literature, one can ascertain considerable conservatism of men's outfits, colour variability of women’s outfits, as well as several development stages. The disappearance of the outfits from everyday life over the last fifty years, a comeback of the traditional clothing for the purposes of representing the region's identity. Ensemble performances, domestic and foreign tours, regional, public and religious holidays. 

Women’s attire

The oldest types of women's attire were - in respect of fabric, cut and colours - very similar to the costumes worn in the neighbouring regions: the Old Witches’ Mountain, Żywiec, Podhale, as well as the southern neighbours. Densely pleated, long, linen skirts which reached almost the ground were predominant everywhere. In Orawa they used to be called suknie (dresses). More ancient ones were undyed, while the more recent ones were dark-coloured, imprinted with very dainty, white patterns. Underneath the skirt worn was a spodnik (a kind of petticoat) made of homespun linen finished at the bottom with serration or factory-made lace. A woman’s figure was thoroughly clothed from top to toe. The upper part of the figure would contrast, in its close-fitting line of the clothes - kabatletac, with the bottom part - szerzyna (the wide of the skirt). This contrast would be eliminated by flinging over the head and the shoulders the so-called łoktusa - it was quite a long, linen shawl sometimes finished with strząpki (little tassels). The whole of such an outfit would give a woman a uniform, flowing and cone-shaped look without enhancing the waistline. In the richer, neighbouring regions the shawls used to be made of even silk, in which case they were called rańtuchy; individual cases of silk rańtuchy could also be found in Orawa. However, the name łoktusa was more common; apart from its festive aspect, a łoktusa also served a practical purpose. It protected the whole figure from sudden weather changes - mainly rain, if it was made of thick linen. The well-known, white łoktusa shawls[12], which used to be known throughout the Subcarpathian belt, including Orawa, completely disappeared at the end of the 19th century. Burial customs were also instrumental in this. The second half of the 19th century witnessed a sharp rise in rural dyeing in southern Galicia, as well as the neighbouring Slovakia, which resulted in a change to the colour schemes of rural outfits. Batik prints became very popular and fashionable; together with indigo dyeing, it enabled creation of cornflower-blue fabrics with dainty, white flowers or geometrical patterns. Thus, lots of fashionable women in Orawa began bringing their homespun fabrics to the famous dyeworks operating throughout Upper and Lower Orawa, that is to Orawka, Bobrowa, Slanica, as well as to Chochołów in Podhale. It was also possible to buy ready-made tłoczeliny[13], or farbanice - these were the names used. Girls and young women used to wear bodices made of woollen fabrics (szafot or delin), at first - monochromatic, later on - also featuring dainty, floral patterns. Around the waist, bodices had a set-in flounce decorated with black binding sewn on at the front, around the neck, on the shoulders and at the bottom.  In Orawa, they were called prucniki, and the more ancient cut was different from the more recent one. They were fastened with silver, metal buttons, and later on - white, conical ones made of some substance[14].

Called letace or kabaty[15], the blouses, which are made of thicker fabrics, are decorated with fancifully-cut fronts, often fastened asymmetrically, which is emphasised by two rows of decorative buttons, gussets of factory-made lace, or subdued and multicoloured haberdashery binding. The bottom section is slightly elongated below the waist, covering the dense pleats of the skirt, which gives rise to the effect of dignified elegance. Young girls wear white ruffs, the co-called rojty[16], sewn onto the low, standing collars. There are often two strings of genuine coral or glass beads with a religious medallion. For long skirts to fall right, underneath worn were white, quite wide spodniki, at the bottom finished with multicoloured embroidery or lace. These ornaments would sometimes visibly stick out from beneath the skirt; in older women’s outfit they were reinforced with podłużniki, or stiff trimmings called szczotki. On top, they were sometimes decorated with ribbons sewn on in several rows, or ordinary tucks of the same material. There was also a time when printed farbanice were finished at the bottom with a band of larger, floral pattern, but this fashion soon disappeared, because neither in the area, nor in the museum collections were they to be encountered or collected. Girls would wear their hair in one or two plaits, tying them with snurki, that is narrow, most often red ribbons. In summer, they walked bareheaded, and in winter, just like older gaździny (housewives), they wore bright-coloured, shop kerchiefs called smatki. They played a significant role, especially in the wedding rites. Once the cepiec has been removed during the wedding rite of oczepiny, its place on the head was taken by a smatka [singular of smatki], which meant that the bride has been welcomed into the group of sedate housewives. Women used to own several dozen headscarves, which was a way of caring about their social standing. Smatki, which were in various colours, with a predominance of pastels, were kept neatly arranged, first in painted chests, and later on in ample drawers called kaśnie, that is chests of drawers. It is no wonder then that out of so many elements of the traditional Orawa costume, only those smatki have been preserved in both everyday and festive use. It is still common to encounter middle-aged women in Orawa who wear light- or dark-coloured smatki, depending on the liturgical year and family occasions. As for footwear, in warm months, kierpce were worn, in colder months - topanki or felt kapce. At fairs and from local shoemakers, well-off housewives used to buy calf-length boots with heels nailed with little, iron horseshoes. Young girls would wear their hair in one or two plaits, while married women would wear mob caps tied up with kerchiefs.

The early 1920s witnessed a complete change to the colour scheme of the festive outfit. Long, dark-coloured garments went out of fashion, their place being taken by colourful, floral tybety - thin, factory-made woollen fabrics. It was in such new costumes that the first Orawa Folk Ensemble, founded in Lipnica Wielka by Józefina and Emil Mika performed with great success. Now, skirts were only of mid-calf length, made of fewer szerzyny (widths of fabric) and so were less ample. As for the upper body part, worn was a jerkin called prucnik, made of the same floral fabric fastened in the middle with white buttons calledgombiki.[17]

Men’s attire

At the end of the 19th century, the outfit typically worn by the inhabitants of Upper Orawa was composed of a shirt made of homespun linen, on top of which a prucnik, also called pruclik (a jerkin) was worn; it was fastened with white, sectioned or silver buttons. The oldest shirts, in the shape of an oblong poncho, were short and of waist-length. The newer ones were longer, had collars, were decorated at the front, on the collar and sleeve borders with dainty embroidery; they were worn tucked in the trousers. These shirts were of a complex, przyramkowy (made of square pieces of material) cut. At first trousers were made of homespun cloth, later on - of high-grade, factory-made cloth - the so-called bystrzycki cloth[18], as it was manufactured in the Slovakian town of Bystrica. The trouser cut was different from the one of the Podhale trousers; it was tapered and the legs were slit at the bottom to make it easier to put them on. At the front, the trousers had two slits covered with flaps called zawory or zakładki. The ornamentation differed depending on the place the wearer came from. The Orawa-style parzenice (heart-shaped patterns) - modelled on the ones featuring on the Hungarian army uniforms - had the shape of loops and were made of black, woollen binding. Each one of the villages, and even hamlets, created their own parzenica shapes; for instance, in Lipnica Wielka, little, red, ring-shaped appliqués were sewn on. The trousers were girded around with a belt with three or four buckles; it was decorated with geometrical embossment. Also, narrow, bachelor-style belts were worn, which were wrapped around the waist in a manner that allowed them to hang loosely. Leather became an important element of the costume (e.g. belts, kierpce, a festive horse harness). It was additionally adorned with metal studs and buckles as well as embossment. Prucniki of black, high-grade, factory-made cloth were manufactured in Bystrica. The cut of the waistcoat was composed of three pieces of material - the back and two front pieces. They were fastened with large, cone-shaped, sometimes silver buttons. Later on, waistcoats of a different cut began to be worn; they were only of waist-length. They were shorter, fastened not in the middle, but on the side, and had lapels at the top. The other front section also had sewn-on buttons, thus making up a second row; the first one was used to fasten the waistcoat, the other one was purely ornamental. In Orawa, kierpce were a common type of footwear; they were laced up with thongs called nowłoki. They were made of pigskin. Calf-length boots called madziarki with characteristic corrugation were also worn; they used to be brought over from the Hungarian army or bought at fairs, in towns. At the beginning of the 20th century, medium-length, lace-up boots were very popular.

In winter, jacket-like cuchy were worn; they were made of thick cloth, decorated with sewn-on black strap. Cuchy were very popular at the end of the 19th century. Also gunie (jackets) were worn, which belonged to the group of the richly embroidered and appliquéd gunie in the Carpathians; originally, the word gunia [singular of gunie] described a piece of woollen cloth or hide flung over the shoulders in the rain (hence, the Slovakian gunna - “sheepskin”). Gunie were more expensive than cuchy, and were worn only on major festive occasions. Severe winters in Orawa contributed to production of a vast array of sheepskins; the most original of these are the so-called kożuchy orawczańskie (Orawa-style sheepskins)[19], which are dyed light-brown and embellished with thin, white skins. Serdaki (jerkins) were commonly worn too; they were brought over from Liptov. In winter, a popular type of headwear was a baranica cap of sheepskin. Also, worn were hats, which depending on the fashion had large or small, slightly turned-up brims. Well-off men would decorate their hats with silver chain. The beginning of the 20th century witnessed the advent of factory-made hats, which the Orawa inhabitants would buy at fairs and in towns of the former Kingdom of Hungary.

This short description of the traditional Orawa costume is obviously not enough to do justice to its beauty, originality and lavishness. However, on the basis of this short text, one can easily notice that the outfits worn by our ancestors were uncommonly harmonious, moderately toned-down and unassuming, with a predominance of the contrasting white and black. One might be tempted to call this kind of outfit sad, as in a way it reflected the ruggedness of highland life, but it also shows a great sense of aesthetics among the Orawa people.

Owing to its history and border location, Upper Orawa is an unusually interesting region. It is a place where various cultures intersect. The process consisted in mutual interaction between four, ethnically diverse cultures: Wallachian, Polish, Slovakian and Hungarian. The effect of this peculiar infiltration was the emergence of the Orawa culture, which creatively assimilated the cultural heritage of these national groups, leading to the rise of its own, original culture so different from the neighbouring ones. 


Marcin Kowalczyk



E. KowalczykOd orawskiej strony [From the Orawa Perspective], „Światy Babiej Góry” Zawoja 2002. p.169; 
W. Jostowa, Pasterstwo na polskiej Orawie [Herding in Polish Orawa], Wrocław 1972; 
W. Semkowicz, Materiały źródłowe do dziejów osadnictwa Górnej Orawy [Source Materials on the History of Settlement in Upper Orawa], vol.2, Zakopane 1932; 
W. Semkowicz, Kiedy i skąd przyszli Polacy na Orawę [When and Wherefrom Came the Poles into Orawa], „Ziemia”, vol. 16, 1931, 
T.M. Trajdos, Dzieje i kultura Orawy [The History and Culture of Orawa], Kraków 1993; 
R. Kantor, Ubiór, strój, kostium: funkcje odzienia w tradycyjnej społeczności wiejskiej w XIX i w początkach XX wieku na obszarze Polski [An Outfit, Attire, Costume: the Functions of Clothing in a Traditional Rural Community on the Territory of Poland in the 19th Century and at the Beginning of the 20th Century], Kraków 1982, Habilitation Dissertations - Jagiellonian University, no. 62; 
E. Starek, Strój orawski [The Orawa Costume], Wrocław 1966; Atlas Polskich Strojów Ludowych [An Atlas of the Polish Folk Costumes], Part V, Małopolska, Bulletin 11, 
Z. Rak, Ludowe druki na płótnie z Podtatrza [Folk Prints on Linen in the Subtatra District], Zakopane 2008; 
P. Horváth, K dejinám Oravskeho Platenictva Sukennictva, Zbornik Oravskeho muzea I, B. Bystrica, 1968; 
R. Reinfuss, Polskie druki ludowe na płótnie [Polish Folk Linen Prints], Warszawa 1953; 
R. Kantor, Farbiarnia Jana Kleina w Orawce [Jan Klein's Dyeworks in Orawka], „Orawa”, Year X, 1998, no. 36; 
M. Gotkiewicz, O płóciennikach na Górnej Orawie [On Linendrapers in Upper Orawa], „Lud”, vol. XLI, Wrocław 1954; 
H. PieńkowskaT. Trajdos, Kościół w Orawce [The Church in Orawka], Kraków 1999; 
K. Balázs, Starania Eugeniusza Sterculi u władz węgierskich o uznanie odrębności etnicznej polskich górali na Orawie i Spiszu [Eugeniusz Stercuła’s Attempts at Making the Hungarian Authorities Recognise the Ethnic Distinctness of the Polish Highlanders in Orawa and Spiš], Rocznik Orawski VI-VII, Zubrzyca Górna 2007; 
E. Moniak, J, Pilchowa, Sprawozdanie z prac i czynności Muzeum – Orawskiego Parku Etnograficznego w Zubrzycy Górnej [A Report on the Work and Activities of the Museum - Orawa Ethnographic Park in Zubrzyca Górna], Rocznik Orawski I, Zubrzyca Górna 1997, p. 105; 
U. Janicka- Krzywda, Strój ludowy na Polskiej Orawie w świetle kolekcji Fotograficznej z Muzeum Etnograficznego w Krakowie [The Folk Costume in Polish Orawa in the Light of the Photographic Collection at the Ethnographic Museum in Cracow], Rocznik Orawski IV, Zubrzyca Górna 2003.


[1] R. Kantor, Ubiór, strój, kostium: funkcje odzienia w tradycyjnej społeczności wiejskiej w XIX i w początkach XX wieku na obszarze Polski [An Outfit, Attire, Costume: the Functions of Clothing in a Traditional Rural Community on the Territory of Poland in the 19th Century and at the Beginning of the 20th century], Cracow 1982, Habilitation Dissertations - Jagiellonian University, no. 62 p. 83.

[2] E. Starek, Strój orawski [The Orawa Costume], Wrocław 1966. Atlas Polskich Strojów Ludowych [An Atlas of the Polish Folk Costumes], Part V, Małopolska, bull. 11, pp. 8-9.

[3] Z. Rak, Ludowe druki na płótnie z Podtatrza [Folk Prints on Linen in the Subtatra District], Zakopane 2008, p. 1

[4] P. Horváth, K dejinám Oravskeho Platenictva Sukennictva, Zbornik Oravskeho muzea I, B. Bystrica, 1968, p. 68.

[5] R. Reinfuss, Polskie druki ludowe na płótnie [Polish Folk Linen Prints], Warszawa 1953, p. map.

[6] Ibidem, p. 67.

[7] R. Kantor, Farbiarnia Jana Kleina w Orawce [Jan Klein's Dyeworks in Orawka], “Orawa,” year X, 1998, no. 36, pp. 155-159.

[8] M. Gotkiewicz, O płóciennikach na Górnaj Orawie [On Linendrapers in Upper Orawa], “Lud,” vol. XLI, Wrocław 1954, p. 633.

[9]H. Pieńkowska, T. Trajdos, Kościół w Orawce [The Church in Orawka], Kraków 1999, pp. 66-67

[10] K. Balázs, Starania Eugeniusza Sterculi u władz węgierskich o uznanie odrębności etnicznej polskich górali na Orawie i Spiszu [Eugeniusz Stercuła’s Attempts at Making the Hungarian Authorities Recognise the Ethnic Distinctness of the Polish Highlanders in Orawa and Spiš],   Rocznik Orawski VI-VII, Zubrzyca Górna 2007, p. 53.

[11] E. Moniak, J, Pilchowa, Sprawozdanie z prac i czynności Muzeum – Orawskiego Parku Etnograficznego w Zubrzycy Górnej [A Report on the Work and Activities of the Museum - Orawa Ethnographic Park in Zubrzyca Górna], Rocznik Orawski I, Zubrzyca Górna 1997, p. 105.

[12] E. Starek, Strój orawski… [The Orawa Costume], op. cit., p. 10.

[13] Ibidem, p. 30.

[14] Ibidem, p. 33.

[15] Ibidem, p. 34.

[16] Ibidem, p. 29.

[17] Ibidem, p. 20.

[18] Ibidem, p. 18.

[19] E. Starek, Strój orawski… [The Orawa Costume...],op. cit. , pp. 34-35.