Latvian Folk Costumes
Latvian costumes are testimony to Latvian handicrafts and crafts – a full Latvian folk dress is a work of art because of the handiwork involved in creating it. The skills required to weave, embroider, sew, and create all the separate pieces that make up a folk costume are a unique and complex – requiring great patience and skill to create the intricate designs. The designs are varied, as the folk costumes, each from a different region of the country, are quite different.
In days gone by, when a young maiden made her own folk costume by hand, it could take her up to a whole year to complete. Nowadays, the separate pieces would be either store bought or ordered to be made by skilled artisans or handicrafts experts. These experts are also decreasing in numbers, as the younger generation has different interests and priorities.
The other feature worth highlighting are the ornaments or symbols woven, forged, sewn, and embroidered into the costumes. These are not merely aesthetic features, but many centuries ago they had a more personal significance – each symbol had a meaning, often to protect the wearer from evil spirits, death, illness. Wearing clothing was not only for warmth or practicality, protection from the elements or aesthetics but with a deeper, more powerful, mystical meaning. Symbols that can be found on the skirts, tunics, coats mittens, crowns, blouses, shawls all have an association with ancient Latvian gods worshipped by the Baltic tribes. Latvian gods such as Laima, Māra, Ūsiņš, Dievs, Jumis, Mēness and many other symbols were considered as guardians and therefore their power was invoked for protection and good fortune.
The regional variety in folk costumes is said to have come about because of the long centuries of feudalism where Baltic German nobility ruled the territory that is now Latvia. As part of this system, the Germans owned manorial estates all over countryside and the Latvians were the peasants who worked the land. They were bound to these estates and forbidden to move about and consequently, lived rather isolated from other nearby regions, leading to the development of unique patterns and styles in each costume.
It is also worth noting that the folk costumes worn today are from different historical periods. The single-toned, blue- and brown-hued costumes with bronze jewellery and leather footwear are archaeological costumes from the 7–13th centuries, the era when the ancient Baltic and Liv tribes inhabited Latvia. Remnants of these costumes have been discovered on archaeological digs in Latvia, pieced together, and recreated by craftsmen with an interest in learning these ancient crafts, as well as understanding the symbolism that decorated the clothing, weapons and other household goods. There is a whole movement in Latvia (and other parts of Europe), where the younger generation, inspired by patriotism, have taken a great interest in recreating the past and learning about their ancestors. Festivals, workshops and a rejuvenation of the beliefs and rituals of the ancients all form a part of this, and traditional costumes take pride of place and play a central role in this lifestyle.
Nowadays, Latvians have also taken to wearing a folk costume on special occasions such as on their wedding day, the christening of their children, during the Song and Dance Festival (even as spectators), and during Jāņi festivities in midsummer.
The more often-seen folk costumes worn by Latvians are the patterned, colourful ethnographic costumes – originating from the Middle Ages up to the 18th and 19th centuries. These were the clothes worn by peasants, or farmers, that evolved over many centuries, and took on a more elegant form when gentrification occurred and the wealthier peasants who had become landowners moved to larger towns. The elegance culminated in the mid-19th century, around the time of the First Song Celebration. More elaborate folk costumes included shawls, headscarves made of silk, intricate, sometimes large brooches, elegant overcoats, vests and top-hats for the men all were examples of this.
Nowadays there are also stylised folk costumes which are variations on the archaeological folk costume theme and are used by folk groups in stage performances that depict and re-enact – in a symbolic sense – the time of the ancient Baltic tribes. Here, linen shirts and dresses, trousers in white, grey and brown colours form the stylised costumes of the ancients. This was visible in the initial scenes at the Dance Celebration in 2018 at Daugava Stadium as well as dance group performances with modern choreography, depicting a mythical long-lost ancient past.
In a campaign which was part of Latvia’s Centenary celebrations, every Latvian was invited to make their own folk costume. The outcome of this campaign was the splendid variety of folk costumes that were worn by singers, dancers and spectators at the Centenary Song and Dance Celebration in 2018.
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