A show of national Belarusian costume has become an integral part of the cultural programme of the Heart 2 Heart Festival. It is followed by a show of modern items made in the sewing workshops of St Elisabeth Convent.
A traditional folk costume reveals a lot about the life of its wearer: their ethnicity, age, marital status, and wealth. An expert can easily determine the place where a certain costume was made, based on its colour and ornament patterns.
White was the dominant colour in the Belarusian costume. It was the colour of bleached linen, which served as the base for men’s and women’s clothes.
Threads were made of linen and then dyed with natural substances extracted from bark, tree buds, field flowers, roots, and acorns. The threads were woven using a loom called “krosny”. The loom was quite spacious and could take up half of a room or even an entire room in a peasant’s house. Not every family could afford the luxury of having it.
A long linen shirt/blouse was the main component of a man’s and a woman’s costume. A woman’s blouse was different from a man’s shirt because it had more embroidery and a more ample look, while a man’s shirt was usually knee long.
A woman’s costume consisted of a blouse with a flat or standing collar, a striped or plaid skirt, an apron, and a vest. The shirt and the apron had embroidered sleeves and hems.
A belt was an essential part of the traditional everyday and holiday fashions in Belarus until the early 20th century. This detail carried a lot of symboliс meaning; that was why a belt was used during many rituals. It was forbidden to pray or to sleep without a belt. “It is a sin to go without a belt”, people said. Those who walked around without a belt were considered to be sorcerers, connected to evil powers.
Appearing in public without a belt was considered an affront to public morals. There was even a word for that raspoyasat’sya (lit. “to become beltless”), meaning a person who lost all modesty.
The Belarusian belts were woven on tablets. A weaver had to be able to “whisk” and tuck the threads, select the right threads, and a whole lot more. The belts were woven or sewn from fabric and decorated with embroidery or drawings. One could judge about one’s affluence by the length of his belt.
Sluck belts are the most famous examples of the Belarusian weaving. They are one of the historic symbols and cultural treasuries of Belarus.
A classic Sluck belt is an elaborate long (up to 11.5-13 ft long) piece of fabric 14-16 in wide, folded or twisted and then tied around a nobleman’s jacket. Only the elites could afford these expensive and exceptionally elegant objects, which indicated their wealth and high status in the society.
Initially, belts for the nobility were imported from the Orient. However, as early as in 18th century Belarusian weavers created their own unique design patterns and symbolic motifs, along with a unique technology. That was how this exceptional form of art, Sluck belt, came into existence on the territory of Belarus.
Nowadays the ancient Sluck belts are the national heritage of our country. Unfortunately, there are few of them left in Belarus. The majority remain in museums and private collections around the world.
Women wore skirts made of wool, wool blend, or linen, over the blouse. A pattern made with natural dyes was applied on the single-colour fabric. They invented a unique method of making pleats. They sewed the pleats together, coated them with clay, and baked the skirt in an oven.
An apron was an essential component of a woman’s dress. It was not just a decoration but also served to protect the blouse or the skirt from dirt.
Some variations of the Belarusian dress required two aprons, one over the other. Some fashionistas would raise the hem of their apron, demonstrating elegant embroidery on their blouses.
Sleeveless vests were used in summer. A jacket called “svitka” and a coat were worn in winter. These items were made of fabric and sheepskins. These kinds of clothes were decorated with lace and tassels.
Headwear had an important symbolic meaning. One could guess marital status and the age of a woman, along with her financial status, by looking at her headgear.
Young girls could go without any headgear or wear narrow textile ribbons with ornament called “skindochka”. However, they would always plait their hair so as not to appear shameless.
A bride would wear a garland made of paper flowers, decorated with silk ribbons and silk lace. During the wedding, she would solemnly change her headwear to a married woman’s one. A married woman would hide her hair under a bonnet, covered with a towel-like headscarf, such as “namitka”, which covered the entire head like a scarf.
Cap-shaped kerchiefs and “horned” hats were traditional for Belarus, too. Their frames were hard, made of straw, bark, linen fibre, or canvas, and came in various shapes.
It took some time to plait one’s hair and dress well. What does a young girl usually do in front of a mirror, while she weaves her hair before a date with her boyfriend? Of course, she sings a song. Belarusian folk music is original and is rooted in the ancient origins of the Eastern Slavic culture. There are Christmas songs, Maslenitsa songs, harvest-time songs, and wedding songs… A lyrical song recorded in the Paliesse region describes how a young girl gets ready for her marriage.
It must be noted that a Belarusian costume has remained true to its roots in the course of many centuries. Although it accumulated new trends, it has retained the general appearance. Seamlessly woven items were durable and people could wear them for a long time. They would give old textiles a new life by cutting them into small rectangles used for mending children’s dresses and shirts.
Belarusian folk embroidery, which was passed on from generation to generation, deserves special attention, too. Good or bad quality of embroidery and its pattern could signal skill and diligence of the future daughter-in-law. Embroidery ideas were limited only by the embroiderer’s imagination: birds with their faces turned to one another (a symbol of love between the newly-weds); cross-stitched complex diamond-shaped ornaments; geometrical shapes and objects; apples, spiders, and even human faces. These patterns signified hopes for a good harvest, wealth, warmth, and love.
Embroideries contained family symbols, too. Family emblems or coats of arms were included in the embroidery of towels, shirts, or belts.
Each Belarusian hamlet had its unique embroidery: they were located far from one another, roads were poorly maintained, especially during heavy rains, so people could not visit other hamlets often to exchange their experience. Nevertheless, traditional Belarusian dress does have general features. For instance, the ornaments were usually placed in the upper part of the costume, and embroideries were normally made with red threads on white fabric.
Masterpieces made by Belarusian craftspeople were popular throughout the world. They were sold even in the United States.
Belarusian dress has always been distinguished by its chastity, artistic meaningfulness, use of natural textiles, and exceptional quality. Contemporary tailors and fashion designers are inspired by the traditional outfits even now.
The designers who work in the sewing workshops of St Elisabeth Convent use traditional fashions and embroidery patterns aptly, making these clothes fit into the rhythm of modern life perfectly while remaining chaste and authentic. Every woman can find a dress made of natural textiles and based on Orthodox traditions out of the diversity of our fashions. We have everyday outfits and exquisite and fashionable clothes suitable for wearing on a solemn public occasion.