Unia Europejska
Podhale Highlanders

Podhale Highlanders

The costume of Podhale Highlanders

The costume of Podhale Highlanders, referred to as “highland dress” by the highlanders themselves, has managed to preserve its standing as one of the few elements derived from the era of traditional folk culture. It still functions as festive attire, thereby being a distinctive element in the contemporary cultural landscape of the region. Many Podhale inhabitants still gladly don their festive costumes, thus gracing religious holidays, regional festivities, folk culture events and – which is arguably most significant – their momentous life occasions: a christening, the First Holy Communion, a wedding or a funeral. Obviously, in the contemporary reality many senses and social functions performed by the costume in the traditional community have disappeared. Their place has been taken by new, equally important and significant contents and references that have been revised by contemporaneity.

In its origins, the Podhale costume arose from the Wallachian herding tradition, common to many groups inhabiting the Carpathians, which is evidenced by, inter alia, leather kierpce, the so-called Wallachian shirt or cloth used to make many garments in men’s outfit. Until the end of the 19th century it was made of homespun materials: cloth from sheep’s wool, linen or hemp fabric and sheepskins. It did not have any elaborate ornamentation, appliqués or embroidery so characteristic of its contemporary variety. Over the past centuries both men’s and women’s outfits have changed and developed. Shaped by geographico-environmental and socio-political factors, as well as cultural fashions coming in from the neighbouring regions or the culture of elite strata, it was a peculiar barometer of changes taking place in the Podhale community. It was particularly in the second half of the 19th century that as a result of Podhale opening up to the “big wide world,” the traditional costume underwent considerable transformation. Of key importance for this process was the discovery of the therapeutic values of the mountain climate, as well as the influx in the sub-Tatra region of the Polish intellectual, artistic and political elite. In the times of national bondage, this peripheral nook at the foot of the Tatras became for them not only an attractive resort, but above all a place where they could pursue their artistic passions and make plans for national revival. Fascinated by the beauty of the Tatra mountains and the culture of the indigenous people, in their works they began to copiously draw on the Tatra-related heritage, glorifying and even mythologising it. The scope of interest shown by the Young Poland promoters of the Highland culture also came to encompass the highland costume, which was endowed with patriotic contents and elevated to the status of Polishness and folksiness. To some extent, this “enhancement” and “promotion” of the costume was both then and later on a response to the needs of tourism.

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the highlander costume came under the strong influence of the urban fashion, represented by the “lords from the valleys” coming to the Tatras, and the Krakowiak folk costume. It was also at that time that the development of the textile industry resulted in the expansion of the available range of machine-made fabrics, which began to be used for making new garments such as katanka or the famous wizytka (a cropped jacket). As decorative, factory-made haberdashery (e.g. coloured wool, spangles, beads, threads and binding) became available on the market, it contributed to the development of the Podhale art of embroidery, which came to determine the specificity of the Podhale costume. It was that period that saw the development of motifs typical of Podhale ornamentation, e.g. colourful parzenica patterns embroidered on trousers, bunches of roses embroidered on men’s white cucha jackets, and bog-stars used in the ornamentation of women’s bodices – representing stemless carline thistles (Carlina acaulis). At the beginning of the 20th century, the appearance of cheap urban clothing precipitated a process of quick disappearance of traditional, casual clothes. Given the situation, the specificity of the Podhale inhabitants’ clothing was shifted to festive attire. It became a typically formal and full-dress outfit donned on the occasion of major religious and public ceremonies. It was also then that the standard and model variety of the highland costume began to be established; till this day it is regarded by the highlanders as the most highland and traditional one.

What does this classical variety of the costume look like in the eyes of the contemporary Podhale inhabitants? The women’s outfit comprises the following elements: a white cotton or linen kosula (a blouse), decorated on the sleeves and around the neck with white broderie anglaise (cutwork); a cotton or linen fartuch – a type of half-slip worn underneath the skirt, decorated at the bottom with broderie anglaise; gorset (a bodice) of red or claret velvet decorated with a spangle and bead motif of a bog-star or other flowery patterns embroidered in coloured threads; a floral spodnica (a skirt), calflength and richly gathered at the waist, made of tybet fabric with a white, red or green background; serdok – a short jerkin of brown-tanned sheepskins, edged with black fur, and decorated with red saffian leather appliqué and modest floral embroidery; a tybet smatka – a floral or paisley kerchief bordered with mesh and tassels; kierpce – leather footwear laced up with thongs. Precious jewellery is an indispensable element in a women’s full-dress outfit: gold earrings and genuine coral rings, and at least three strings of genuine red coral beads. Instead of a bodice an older woman typically wears katanka. Katankas are tops of various cuts, fastened with buttons at the front, sometimes decorated with colourful embroidery. Apart from a scarf, a popularly worn garment is also a large, square (120x120cm) kerchief, the socalled sol (a shawl) with floral and paisley patterns, bordered with tassels. It is folded into a rectangle and flung over the shoulders. Sometimes, on cold days, some highland women wrap themselves up in woollen shawls, the so-called odziewacki.

The bare bones of men’s outfit include: a white linen or cotton kosula (a shirt) with a turndown or standing collar, wide sleeves with cuffs; portki (trousers) with tight-fitting legs, made of white cloth, with parzenica patterns embroidered underneath the slits; a short, brown serdok (a jerkin) decorated in a fashion similar to the woman’s variety, but without the floral motifs; a narrow, leather juhaski (young shepherd’s) opasek (a belt) used to support the trousers at the waist; a wide bacowski (senior shepher’s) belt with several buckles, worn over the trousers as a decorative accessory; leather kierpce or, more seldom, calf-length oficerki (officer’s boots). The basic outer garment is a cloth cucha (a jacket). The most popular variety is a short bioła cucha (a white cucha), worn mainly by single and young men. On the chest, close to the fastening cucha is decorated with colourful embroidery. There is also a longer, knee-length corna cucha made of dark cloth. Around the neck, along the front sheet and at the sleeve ends, it is decorated with ślak (a border) made of red cloth strips. Corne cuchy (plural of corna cucha) are usually worn at wedding ceremonies by the first best men, the so-called pytace, and during funerals by pallbearers. Some men also wear black or navyblue waistcoats. They put them on in summer, instead of jerkins. A popular garment often worn by mature and elderly highland men is a black bluzka, which is patterned on the Austrian military jacket. A typical men’s headwear is a black, felt, broad-brimmed hat decorated around the dome with a strap studded with little cowrie shells. Unmarried men additionally adorn it with an eagle’s feather symbolising bachelorhood. A metal, rhomboidal or oval spinka (a clasp) used to fasten the shirt on the chest is an indispensable element in man’s attire.

In the wintertime, both man’s and woman’s outfit is supplemented with a brown kozuch (a sheepskin coat) decorated with saffian leather and colourful embroidery. Currently, white outer garments are also fashionable; they are a throwback to the so-called białczyńskie sheepskins, which went out of fashion towards the end of the 19th century. Sheepskins are also used to make men’s headwear: brown, semicircular copki z uskami (caps with earflaps), which are also called fiokierki (cabman’s caps), and black, trapezoidal, karakul caps called perskie (Persian). In winter, instead of kierpce, both men and women wear kapce. They are a type of warm, cloth footwear with toes and heels reinforced with pieces of leather. Another type of accessories are woollen gloves, which used to be woven on wooden moulds and presently are knitted.

As was previously mentioned, the variety of the traditional costume under discussion serves as a model. In practice, however, there are manifold variants, forms and tailor’s solutions. These are mainly concerned with the art of decoration: motifs and ornamental techniques, the colour schemes and kinds of fabrics, as well as the cut of particular elements. For instance, in the period after the Second World War, large and lavish colour decorations were predominant. Women’s bodices were almost all over embroidered with glittering spangles and beads. Men’s trousers featured large, sprawling, knee-length parzenica patterns. Towards the end of the 1980s the elaborate ornamentation reached the surfeit point, and the so-called old-fashioned trends concerned with the modest patterns dating from the end of the 19th century began to reign supreme all over Podhale. Consequently, women’s bodices were decorated with linear appliqués of soutache and sateen binding, while men’s trousers came to feature modest, two-coloured parzenicas with distinctly traced outlines. Also, lavish ornamentation of jerkins and sheepskins was abandoned. The beginning of the 21st century brought back the trend towards richer adornment. Highland women began commissioning outfits decorated with colourful, floral embroidery, handor machine-made with the aid of CAD software. Men have reverted to colourful ornamentation, both in the decoration of trousers, cuchas and serdaks.

A period of more than three decades now have been the heyday of the Podhale costume, both in respect of the scale of social occurrence, and decorative and tailor’s solutions introduced. With the vast array of outfits varying in form and style, currently two folk tailoring trends can be distinguished: traditional and the so-called stylised. The latter one is a loose transposition of the traditional design that draws inspiration from folk motifs related to both Podhale and other cultures in their origins. Its characteristic elements include: half-bodices (bodices without shoulder straps), wide belts, blouses with necklines and frills, dresses varying in cuts and made of imitation tybet fabric. Stylised creations are popular with young- and middle-generation women. They find them elegant, practical and more unassuming. They keep abreast of the times. They are fashionable and comfortable. Of a different opinion about the stylised clothing are individuals representing the older generation and social activists, particularly those involved with the Podhale regional and folk movement. They consider that the fashion experiments distort the beauty of the traditional costume, and can even pose a threat to it. And so they take action aimed at preserving the traditional highland costume, which for them is a sui generis depositary of the indigenous heritage. It is worn during religious holidays, family occasions, as well as regional celebrations, thus imparting to them a special and solemn character, and making the attendees realise they belong to one and the same community. Thus, it plays an important role in strengthening social bonds. Interestingly enough, in its range of occurrence the highland costume exceeds its regional context. It is worn by highlanders living outside the country, mainly in the United States of America, Canada and Austria, where it has been elevated to the status of the symbol of regional identity, and even the carrier of the national values. Still, the most important thing seems to be the fact that despite its modifications, it is viewed by the Podhale inhabitants as the continuation of the ancient and traditional attire. To them it is a sign of the bond with the culture of the forefathers, a link holding the regional community together, but above all something dear intrinsic to their little highland world.

dr hab. Stanisława Trebunia-Staszel