Bulgaria’s greatest scholar in Bulgarian social psychology Ivan Hadjiiski once said that Bulgarians were not very talkative. As compensation, however they opted for the language of visuals and depiction that tends to be more impressive and more easily – and emotionally, digested. In times of old when Bulgarians communicated on markets, fairs and during holidays, the male and female costumes would clearly suggest their family and general social status. Teenage boys and girls would wear the same costumes without any gender distinction. Various elements in female clothing would indicate whether the girl or woman was still in puberty, already engaged, a young bride or a widow. The female waist-belt had tassels. The maiden would attach the tassels on the left, while the married woman – on the right. If a teenage girl had a sweetheart, she would change the position of the posy that she wore – from the left to the right. So, if anybody happened to fancy her, he would become aware he had nothing to hope for. The Bulgarian folk costumes are excessively rich in ornaments and in color. The folk costume thus mirrors the crossroad East-West location of the Bulgarian lands. This place has hosted the encounter of various peoples and cultures – Thracians, Proto-Bulgarians and Slavs. Cumans, Avars, Tatars passed by and even settled here. This incredible ethnic wealth has found adequate expression in the wealth of the Bulgarian folk costume, ethnographer Prof. Ganka Mikhailova explains. One quite remarkable element of the folk costume is the embroidery:
“The embroidery always has rhythm – lining the skirts, sleeve edges, closing circularly, a reminder of the life cycle. It stuck to the cycles that a human being had to go through – without gaps and deviation”, Prof. Mikhailova explains. “Skipping any phase was tantamount to leaving the cycle – for instance, the failure to get married, getting seriously ill or being widowed. Looking at embroidery ornaments one would never come across sheep or chicken. On the contrary, they display roosters, the unambiguous symbol of male potency. One can come across small vipers that symbolize the world of demons where fertility comes from. So that is why they are found on female shirts and absent from men’s ones. The peacock is also present on embroideries. It is a bird that reproduces with amazing intensity and every time replaces its feathers. This explains why from the engagement to the end of the woman’s fertility age she uses peacock feathers for adornment. The peacock feathers however should stand erect and tremble because when laid horizontally at home they were perceived as death-bringers, meaning the peacock is not alive and cannot reproduce. As to human figures in embroideries they are arranged in a way that copies the family structure. A male figure, a female figure, then small rhombuses – the kids. And this repeats infinitely, making a life cycle, the genes and the family endless and eternal. It is quite impressive that on the earliest manuscripts in Church-Slavonic one unmistakably spots the same figures – the rooster, the peacock, the dragon, the rhombuses and polygons.”
In the past the embroidery patterns were strictly regulated. It was unthinkable to reproduce a piece of embroidery for the simple reason of its beauty. In every village there were special cloths on which the established masters of embroidery, usually old women who had inherited the ancient rules, would embroider all figures allowed for reproduction in the village. Each figure had its specific symbolism. Had they not been created under the canon, communication would go wrong. The same was valid for various parts of clothing – each had its meaning. For example, a married woman until a certain age should wear an upper woolen coat or a sleeveless jacket. Even if she felt too hot she couldn’t think of taking it off as this would mean she was not that age, was not married or had deviated from marriage, Prof. Mikhailova says further.
“The folk costumes deliver a wealth of color too. Everything was dyed with natural dyes following various methods and recipes. After being dyed with infusions from plants, the woolen yarn was kept in oxidizers such as cabbage juice, wild pear or apple juice or a lime solution. This resulted in the uneven coloring of the yarn. However this prevented colors from fading and also helped avoid the contrast that results from aniline dyes. The prevalent color was red – the symbol of life, wine, blood, as well as brown, yellow, ochre denoting the seed in the phallic connotation of the word as well as fertility in nature. You won’t find grassy green however, because it was perceived as a symbol of death. In spoken language we often say that a man is green-yellow when he is sick. Black was mostly used for outlining the contours.”
Traditional male costumes according to the classification of renowned ethnographer Prof. Hristo Vakarelski made in 1942 are two types – in either black or white as dominant colors. Earliest men’s clothing was made of white homespun, with many-colored woolen braiding – red, black, yellow for the younger guys and black for the older ones. However starting in the mid-18 c. In many regions of the Bulgarian ethnic territory men’s clothing started to darken and its cut began to change. The white clothes were typical of the Sofia, Trun and Graovo regions of Western Bulgaria. In mountain regions, and especially in the National Revival centers in Sredna Gora Mountain, the Balkan Range and the Rhodope Mountains, where sheep breeding developed to service the needs of the Ottoman army, the brown sheep imported from Anatolia today in Turkey, was often raised. The village people produced yellow cheese, feta cheese and mutton for the needs of the Turkish Empire that Bulgaria was part of until 1878. Women wove homespun, knitted woolen slippers and socks and made clothes following standard cuts for the Turkish army. They were too busy to make a different style of clothes for their families so they gradually adopted the darker colors for clothing that was also more practical to wear.”
Until her marriage the Bulgarian woman was expected to prepare three to four sets of clothes for her future husband, and further three-four sets for herself observing the canon for every age.
“Three days before the wedding, the whole trousseau, including the gifts that she had prepared for the in-laws was arranged in the walls, and bigger pieces were displayed on the fence”, Prof. Ganka Mikhailova goes on to say. “The whole village community came to have a glimpse at the trousseau, especially the master-women who turned clothes to look at their reverse side. And clothes were made in a way so as to make possible for the reverse side to be worn as the right side – there should be not a single knot or a sewing mistake. However, there was always an incomplete element – against evil eyes, because too good was no good news. And besides, perfection is impossible. And in the traditional philosophy the imperfection should be on the product rather than become part of the process of reproduction itself.
And given that everything in making clothes was strictly regulated, a woman who chose to marry outside her native village, was virtually mourned. As social psychologist Ivan Hadjiiski wrote, „life outside the village is life abroad”. The bride left with the trousseau, but it failed to fit in the new place as it had its original traditional clothes in terms of fabrics and embroidery patterns. She had no time to make new clothes busy to give birth once every two years and to work in the field. So such a woman remained outside the social context and pretty isolated in her new village.
The folk costume is a universe with its specific language. However due to that we do not know it well, we, present-day Bulgarians, are kind of lost in translation, ethnographer Prof. Ganka Mikhailova says in conclusion.
Translated by Daniela Konstantinova
Photos: Bulgarian Academy of Sciences