Pagan Fashion Designs of the Pre-War Period
#photography & visual arts
small, Zofia Stryjeńska, photo: National Digital Archive NAC, stryjenska nac_7050536.jpg
We bring you a universe of pagan and Slavic imagery created by Zofia Stryjeńska, a fashion designer of interwar Poland.This multi-talented artist from the 1920s would surely be a pioneer of haute-couture fashion if she lived today.
Zofia Stryjeńska’s generation made its voice heard just as Poland regained its independence and was coming back to life. The joy of this resurrection coincided with enthusiastic and largely successful attempts at creating what could be considered a national style. The traditions of the Gorals (Highlanders), a people indigenous to the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland, were a popular source of inspiration. To this day, Gorals preserve their folkloric traditions, including their own dialect, their immediately recognisable polyphonic instrumental music, and their even more recognisable traditional costumes made from embroidery and sheepskin. Among the Goral population, there exist several groups like the Hutsuls, Boykos and Lemkos. Many kilims were made in the Hutsul style, which at times show striking similarities to the art of some native American peoples.
The style developed by Stryjeńska was imitated by others, and she was in fact more influential during her period than Witkacy, the famed proto-counter-culture figure.
Stryjeńska was born Zofia Lubańska on 13th May 1891 to a wealthy Kraków-based family. Her father was the president of the Trade Chamber, and he owned a few buildings in the city, as well as a glove store. Little Zofia’s talent quickly manifested itself and was cherished by her father – he would even indicate people for her to draw in his store or when they took walks in Kraków's famed market square.
While she was still a young girl, she collaborated with illustrated magazines, and in 1909 she began studying at Maria Niedzielska’ painting school for women. In 1910, she travelled to see the galleries and museums of Vienna and Venice, and it was then that she decided to devote her life to art. One of the best painting schools of the time was in Munich, and in 1911, Zofia Stryjeńska set off, dressed as a boy. The school didn’t accept women, so Zofia cut her hair and presented herself as Tadeusz Grzymała. After a year, some French colleagues recognised that she was a woman, and wanted to denounce her. Zofia fled her studies and Munich for fear of the consequences.
Nonetheless, she was a pioneer in her time and an accidental pioneer of the tomboy fashion style. This style would become popular in the 1920s.
Stryjeńska came from Kraków, the city of Wyspiański. As a result, imagery which blended Slavic legend with ancient Greek mythology while incorporating art nouveau and folk art was especially close to her.
While on walks with her father, she continually observed various types of faces, especially those of the peasants who came there to trade. She described how:
There, in the Kraków market square, the first sketches of figures of Slavic gods sprouted in my thoughts, as well as a vague feeling of a one day grand resurrection of Slavs, in which Poland would be the pioneer.
She created a series called Polish tales based on folk stories, which she painted on carton and which featured her own text. She was 21 when she presented them at the Society of the Friends of Fine Arts, and they were purchased immediately.
Stryjeńska also became a member of the Warszaty Krakowskie (Krakow Workshops) group, whose programme was based on folk tradition. She designed sets of wooden chess figures, with Slavic mythical figures and fantastic costumes of the King and Queen.
In 1917, she created a series entitled Pascha, in which she portrayed Jesus and his disciples as Poles surrounded by solidiers in Prussian Pikielhaube. This mode of imagery, wherein Jesus is symbolised by Poland, corresponds to a messianic mode of thinking born in the Romantic period, when Poland was imagined play the part of Saviour for the nations of Europe.
Stryjeńska had a tumultouous and difficult personal life. Her first marriage resulted in a divorce and much struggle as her former husband Karol Stryjeński became her enemy. Having divorced and then remarried and then divorced again, Stryjeńska was clearly not in very close ties with the Catholic church. But she had some very deeply founded beliefs of her own, propagating the Rodzima Wiara Przyrodzona Słowian (The Native Inherent Faith of Slavs) and claiming 'I always desired to have a son who would sing out the poetry of Slavs'. She was passionately intrigued by folklore and history. She was an expert in folk costumes, slavic mythology and she even studied some archaeological discoveries. Stryjeńska first painted the Bożki słowiańskie (Slavic Gods) series in 1918. Drawing inspiration once again from legends and scarce historic records, she let her imagination run wild – and this is how an almost surrealist and surely fantastic series was born, the aesthetic of which seems almost timeless:
Stryjeńska gave the powerful Boh a snail to hold in the hand, while the goddess of fertility Cyca (which could arguably be translated into English as Booba) is presented with a few rows of breasts. The heavenly Perkun, the tosser of lightning, looks as if he has just been struck himself.
And last but not least, we present you with the set of costumes that Zofia Stryjeńska designed for Karol Szymanowski’s ballet Harnasie in the 1930s.:
Author: Paulina Schlosser, 31/10/2014. Sources: Wyborcza, Podkowianskimagazyn.pl, Rodzimawiara.org.pl, own materials.