Polish Folk Fashion. Pure Joy!


Illustration from "Polskie stroje ludowe" / "Polish National Costumes", photo: Wydawnictwo Muza Illustration from "Polskie stroje ludowe" / "Polish National Costumes", photo: Wydawnictwo Muza 

The Polish national wardrobe is filled to the brim with embroidered dresses in all possible colours, typical Gorals* hard-soled leather moccasins called kierpce, and ornaments which include red beaded necklaces and fancy peacock feathers from Krakow. Hanging next to stripy woollen and felt attire we find the finest silk, cashmere and colourfully threaded ornamental lace.

The creators of the largest online encyclopedia documenting national Polish costumes (strojeludowe.net) want to show that folk dresses are more than just decorative garments used to adorn dancers staging traditional dances during harvest festivals,

We want to show national costumes not as a costume for the stage or a piece of fabric placed in a cabinet, but as a piece of clothing worn centuries ago by ordinary people in their everyday life.

Let's venture into the hundred year old wardrobe and unveil the most beautiful outfits.

Amaranth coats and black embroidery

The Wilanow costumes, photo: J. Święch. Image courtesy of Muza publishign house/strojeludowe.netThe Wilanow costumes, photo: J. Święch. Image courtesy of Muza publishign house/strojeludowe.net

Legend has it that the costume emulated the ornamental gate of Jan III Sobieski's Palace in the Warsaw district of Wilanow. A typical dress for this part of the Mazowsze region, the Wilanow costume boasts beautiful black embroidery that decorates the top part of the white sleeve of female shirts - an arrangement picked up by young ethno-designers. Ankle-length skirts were covered by slightly shorter aprons of white, blue, green or different shades of yellow. And as you might expect, pastel-coloured silk ribbons braided into the hair and beaded necklaces. Maidens would do their braided pony tails up in a crown while the married ladies would wear white, embroidered linen coif head scarves.

Men completed their look with tall top hats and felt hats. Last but not least, the traditional coat worn by peasants, called a sukmana: customarily coloured navy blue or dark green. Ethnographer, folklorist and composer Oskar Kolberg, who published thick collections of Polish folk songs classified by region wrote, "During holidays the peasants of Mazowsze wore the blue sukmana, which was knee length, with amaranth coloured facing and strings". Until the 19th century, on the left side of the Vistula river - from Wilanow to Powsin, Nadarzyn, Raszyn and Piaseczno, you could still encounter people dressed like this.

Also read about the history of the Polish mazurka

Peacock feathers and Tadeusz Kościuszko

The Western Krakowian costume from the collections of the National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw, photo: J. Sielski/strojeludowe.net
The Western Krakowian costume from the collections of the National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw, photo: J. Sielski/strojeludowe.net

The Krakow costume owes its fame and national status to the leader of the 1794 Uprising, national hero Tadeusz Kościuszko, who hid from Russian spies by dressing "like a peasant" in the Krakow costume. Wishing to underscore the role of the infantry charge of peasant volunteers (kosynierzy, scythemen) in the victory at Racławice, Kościuszko took an oath of loyalty to the nation on the Krakow market square wearing a white sukmana.

Kościuszko's popularity greatly contributed towards the diffusion of the Krakow costume in the whole of Poland. And, as Jadwiga Koszutska, an expert on national dresses, writes, some elements, especially the sukmana and the special caps called rogatywka (a peaked cap), were introduced into the uniforms of 19th century national insurgents. The female Krakow costume on the other hand spread thanks to the Krakow intelligentsia from the Młoda Polska / Young Poland circles. Peacock feathers pinned to hats, white aprons, stunningly embroidered silk corsets and red beaded necklaces simply became trendy.

Vermilion, white and violet: the Łowickie strips

Going to church, postcar, from a private collection/ strojeludowe.netGoing to church, postcard, from a private collection/ strojeludowe.net

One of the richest, most beautiful and glamorous traditional costumes of all Poland, the clothing of the Łowicz central regions continues to be taken out of the closet for festivities and national holidays today. It's main characteristic - stripes in all colours, shapes and sizes. Throughout the years it underwent many changes. The stripes adorn women's skirts, dresses, heavy woollen garments, aprons, corsets and caftans as well as men's trousers.

Strojeludowe.net reads,

In the second half of the 19th century, there was a preponderance of red fabrics with thin individual strips or in beams. The beginning of the 20th century marked the time of the transformation of the Łowicz costume. The strips were set against an orange background and the green coloured strips were diversified and enriched through the addition of vermilion, white and violet. The most important changes however, especially for the female costume, took place during the interwar period. The striped cloth colour palette was taken over by colder shades: greens, violets, emerald colours obtained with aniline dyes. The variety of the fabrics, their diverse colours and undoubted beauty encouraged the spread and imitation of the style , the so-called Łowicz fashion to other regions.

Kujawiak "enriched, covered amply and in pleats"

Costumes for work and for holidays from different parts of the Kujawy region, around 1880, Oskar Kolberg, Dzieła wszystkie / The Complete Works, Kaliskie, t. 23, cz. I, 1964/strojeludowe.netCostumes for work and for holidays from different parts of the Kujawy region, around 1880, Oskar Kolberg, Dzieła wszystkie / The Complete Works, Kaliskie, t. 23, cz. I, 1964/strojeludowe.net

Not all of the original elements of the costume of the Kujawy region survived. We can therefore be glad that different artists have represented it in their works. The most complete representations can be found in Wojciech Gerson's works from the mid 19th century. The landscape painter's art was used by Oskar Kolberg for the latter's illustrations to the volume "Kujawy" from 1867. For years, the famous folklore-loving interwar painter and fabric designer Zofia Stryjeńska shaped the image of the Kujawy costume with her art.

We can quickly recognise the Kujawy costume by looking at the original headpieces: a fur hat tied at the side, shepherd hats with wide brims, peaked caps and cheekily sideways worn caps with a distinctive visor. Add a linen shirt and a silk scarf tied at the neck for the gentlemen. The maidens' Sunday dress included scarves, while those of them who happened to be married would adorn their heads with headpieces called kopki decorated with scarves. Plus a corset, a sukmana, a skirt, an apron and  the obligatory jewellery.

Clogs and amber pipes

Modest and devoid of ornaments - that was the typical male costume of the Kurpie region of green and white primeval forests. Starting with the head: a peaked cap called rogatywka, hats from braided pine roots with patented visors. In the heat of the summer - a so-called maciejówka cap made of broadcloth like the ones worn by Józef Piłsudski. Clogs would be worn on wrapped up feet or boots with boot-tops (a symbol of status). The most expensive piece of the men's attire would be the brown sukmana and a sheepskin coat with a black sheep fleece collar in winter. Let's not skip over the gadgets -  the bee-keeper and farmer's Kurpie costume was completed with elegantly carved oak canes, birch or amber pipes, stylish snuff boxes made of horn and sacks made of badger skin.

Women from the Kurpie region of Pułtusk, Science Archive of the National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw/strojeludowe.netWomen from the Kurpie region of Pułtusk, Science Archive of the National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw/strojeludowe.net

If you had the chance to see dresses with a chequered pattern or horizontal stripes, laced white shirts, thick woollen shawls placed on the shoulders and a padded coat (the so-called angierka) you can be sure you have encountered a Kurpie lady during a festival. "The ensemble was even more chic thanks to necklaces made of real coin medals or crosses" strojeludowe.net informs us.

The golden caps of Warmia

Woman wearing the Warmia region costume, photo: J. Lamparski, courtesy of Muza SA/strojeludowe.netWoman wearing the Warmia region costume, photo: J. Lamparski, courtesy of Muza SA/strojeludowe.net

Simple yet stately, the Warmia region female costume was particularly apt at underlining female attributes. The wide, frilled, three-metre-long dress was made of velvet or silk and worn with a cap elaborately embroidered with real gold and silver. Real laced masterpieces tied at the chin - to say the least. They were usually sewn by nuns and could only be worn by married women. From the information on the Dom Warmiński website we discover that the headpieces differed in shape, embroidery and decoration. The complexity depended on the owner's age, wealth and the occasion for which the headdress was worn. Those with a particularly fondness for fashion would add splendour with a pair of earrings or by doing their hair up with hairpins (called harnatle). The Warmia region costume ceased to be widely worn already at the end of the 19th century. The female dress was used for longer while the it's male equivalent has passed into oblivion.

Cieszyn: red stockings, pins and a belt

Gorals from Śląsk wearing the Cieszyn costume, Istebna, 1905 r., from the collections of the Cieszyn Śląsk Museum in Cieszyn/strojeludowe.netGorals from Śląsk wearing the Cieszyn costume, Istebna, 1905 r., from the collections of the Cieszyn Śląsk Museum in Cieszyn/strojeludowe.net

The fashion of Cieszyn, a multicultural city where several important trade routes meet, is rooted in the Renaissance. The sophisticated female costume was chiefly made of high-quality and costly fabrics, replete with gilded embroidery and precious jewellery. Making the outfit even more "glam" were round or heart-shaped pins used to fasten the collar of the typical white shirt (called a kabotek) and the silver Cieszyn belts which had delicate chains (called trzepotki) attached to them. All the ornaments were cast and designed by goldsmiths from the Cieszyn region.

The oberek of Biłgoraj

Biłgoraj costumes, photo: B. Czarnecki, 1956 r., Science Archive of the National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw/strojeludowe.netBiłgoraj costumes, photo: B. Czarnecki, 1956 r., Science Archive of the National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw/strojeludowe.net

 Here is an example of a particularly modest costume: simple, made independently, usually using linen or wool. The style almost completely disappeared from the Biłgoraj landscape during the second World War. "The female costume was archaic and unique, it reminded of the literary and artistic image of the Slavic costume", strojeludowe.net discloses. And here is what it was composed of: a shirt, a skirt and a linen apron. As per usual, the most sophisticated elements were the headpieces: bonnets with ribbons flowing down till the waistline fastened on wooden rims for the married woman and so-called oberki under the headscarf as of the beginning of the 20th century. Not to forget the pink coloured beaded necklace to adorn their necks.

The most characteristic part of the male costume was a sack in the shape of a horseshoe called a "kalita" and worn mostly on holidays and always on the right shoulder.

*The Goral people (Polish: Górale, literally "highlanders") are a group of people indigenous to the mountains areas of Poland (Tatra Mountains and parts of the Beskids), Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. Return to top.


Author: Ania Legierska, translator: Mai Jones 14.02.2014

sources: strojeludowe.net,  Fundacja Braci Golec , Muzeum w Łowiczu, polskatradycja.pl, "Strój górali podhalańskich", Państwowe Muzeum Etnograficzne / National Ethnographic Museum, Muzeum Pałac w Wilanowie / Wilanow Palace Museum, Dom Warmiński, Muzeum Tatrzańskie, "Polskie stroje ludowe" published by Muza


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