The development of Estonian folk costume was, over the centuries, influenced by the fashions of the upper classes and the traditional costumes of neighbouring countries. Most of all, however, the dress of our village society was influenced by well-established native traditions and customs. At the same time, folk costume denoted national belonging and social status, and both everyday and festive clothing constituted a complicated system of signs, referring to the wearer’s social status, age and marital status.
Earlier data about clothes date from the 11th13th century archaeological material. The chief items of female clothong were a linen shirt with sleeves and a woollen shirt-like coat. A woollen wrap-skirt was wrapped round the hips and fastened with a belt. This type of clothing survived until the 19th century.
Clothes were generally divided into three parts:
- festive clothes which were worn only on festive occasions and were handed down from generation to generation;
- visiting clothes for errands, business and visits of less festive nature;
- working clothes which were worn every day and which were made of poorer material and without decorations; sometimes old visiting clothes were used.
Clothes were basically made of homespun woollen or linen fabric: shirts and married women’s head-wear were mostly made from linen, while various outer garments, gloves, stockings and socks, were made from wool. Most of the clothes remained undyed: linen garments were bleached white, woollen outer garments were mainly sheep-brown or black. The wool for making skirts was dyed with herbal dyes. The bedstraw root was particularly widely used to produce red colouring. Indigo was the first dye to be widely bought during the 18th century.
Young men and women received a complete set of festive clothes for confirmation, which marked their coming of age. There was no marked difference between the clothes of a bachelor and a married man; but a strict difference was maintained between the clothes of a girl and those of a married woman and also between the garments of a wife and of a widow. A girl did not cover her head in summer and partly even in winter, using only a ribbon or a garland to fix her hair and decorate it. A girl also did not wear an apron in most parts of Estonia. A married woman, on the other hand, had to cover her hair and wear an apron. It was believed that an apronless mistress of the farm would damage the fertility of the fields. A pregnant girl had to wear an apron as well.
Festive clothing comprised all sorts of finery, but some items were also worn with everyday clothes. Parents gave festive finery to their daughters on their attainment of maidenhood; for that purpose a wealthier farmer was even prepared to sell a cow or a young ox. Finery, as precious objects, was handed down from generation to generation. The mother's finery was usually inherited by an elder daughter, or in case of no daughters, it went to the wife of the eldest son.
Both the jewellery and ornaments on clothing did not have a purely decorative effect; they had to protect the wearer against all evil.
Beads were traditionally worn every day. White and colourful glass or stone beads were put round a little girl's neck when she cut her first tooth. A woman wore her beads day and night, at a party or at work, and took them to her grave with her. Beads were believed to bring good health, and those who did not wear them were considered unlucky.
The jewellery of Setu women is especially fancy and meaningful. A Setu bride had to have at least two kilos of silver around her neck at her wedding and if she did not possess that much silver, it had to be borrowed. Amongst items of clothing, belts and mittens were believed to have the most protective powers. Mittens were supposed to protect the wearer from hostile people or forces. While dealing with important matters, woollen mittens were worn also in summer or tucked in your belt.
Although Estonia is small, there were numerous local differences in folk costume. Four major groups can be mentioned here Southern, Northern, Western Estonia, and the Islands. The condition of serfdom in which the peasantry lived was largely responsible for the way in which local differences were formed and preserved. People moved around mostly within the borders of their home parish. The principal meeting point was the church. Local traditions of dress were strictly maintained. It is known, for example, that a woman in Saaremaa who married into another parish, wore her local clothes until her death, whereas her daughters clothed themselves in garments typical of their father's parish.
Southern Estonian folk costume was characterised by the survival of several very old types of garments. Old traditions in clothing were especially well preserved in Mulgimaa. Various influences were still noticeable: South-Võrumaa clothes had similarities with those of Latvians, features of Russian clothing spread in the entire South Estonia (red cotton thread in embroidery and woven patterns).
New fashions were most readily accepted in Northern parishes. In the 18th century, wide skirts, initially of a single colour, then striped, spread widely and became quite common in the 19th century. A long-sleeved blouse with geometrical decorations or hemstitch was a typical garment as well.
The dress of the setu, contained numeroud elements of Russian style. Men, for example, wore a belted caftan over their trousers, the women wore a garment resembling the Russian sarafan instead of skirts.
Northern Estonian clothes tended to be relatively homogeneous. At the same time this region was most susceptible to innovations. In coastal areas, Finnish influence was quite marked; the northern coasts of Lake Peipsi displayed Russian and Votian features. Various European fashionable items of clothing became popular in the Tallinna area and from there spread all over the country: breeches and short-coat for men, striped skirts and woollen garments dyed indigo.
The most characteristic feature of Northern Estonian folk costumes was the wearing by women of a short loose long-sleeved midriff blouse over a sleeveless shirt. North Estonia was characterised by floral design that was embroidered on sleeves and coifs. Pot-caps were worn by women.
West Estonian folk costumes had several features in common with those of Southern and Northern Estonia. The area was characterised by sheep-brown and black outer garments. Women wore a long-sleeved blouse with a jacket over it, a bodice and a scarf folded into a triangle. Striped skirts became common by the early 19th century, from the middle of the century onwards, checked skirts also came into use, especially in Western parts of the country. Headgear differed considerably by parishes: various coifs were worn in southern parts, pot-caps and stocking caps and hoof-shaped caps in the north.
Folk costume of the islands (Saare-, Muhu- and Hiiumaa) differed considerably; in Saaremaa even by parishes. They had many common features with the dress of Estonian Swedes, for example the pleated skirts. In the 19th century, the earlier single-colour skirts became striped. An apron was also worn by adolescent girls. In Hiiumaa, women wore long-sleeved midriff blouses, in Saaremaal shirts and bodices (sleeveless jackets). Shoes were generally worn, only on the Muhu island people walked round in peasant-shoes (soft heelless shoes of leather).
In order to carry necessary items with them at all times, women tied a cloth bag to their belts and decorated it lavishly with beads, galloons or appliqué. Hiiumaa women wore on ther belts a leather strap covered with copper plaques from which hung copper chains. A sheathed knife and a needle-case were carried in the copper belt.
Due to urbanisation in the second half of the 19th century, folk costumes became less used. At the same time, during the so-called national awakening, it became increasingly popular in Estonia to wear folk costume on festive occasions: at song festivals and various national events. A more widespread usage of folk costumes as national festive clothing started at the beginning of the 20th century. Folk costumes today basically mean the festive clothing dating from the first half of the 19th century.Details about this article
Created: 29.11.2000 10:38
Modified: 27.09.2012 15:06