An ethnographic zone is a historical, geographical, social and cultural sphere with distinct political economy, societal behaviour and traditions, dialects and visual and material culture. Nonetheless, ethnographic regions are not carved in stone, nor do they stand as perfect isomorphic entities – they are rather constantly changing hybrids.
No matter how far we would zoom in on an ethnographic area, differences can amount from one neighbouring village to the other — and just as well, striking similarities in folk wear can come up in areas miles apart from each other, separated by mountains and rivers and endless hills. But all of this is part of the curiosity of exploring into the folk visual and material culture of rural Romania.
In very broad historical and geographical terms, the following major ethnographic areas can be considered as a start: Transilvania, (Banat, Crișana, Maramureș are often included as part of the Transylvanian region), Oltenia, Muntenia, Moldova, Bucovina, Dobrogea, Basarabia (northern Bucovina and all of Basarabia were lost after WWII to the Soviets, with Bucovina allotted to Ukraine).
In Transylvania, given the mountainous and hilly landscape, many Țări have formed, either at the crossings of rivers, or in the depressions created by the Carpathian mountains. Țară literally translates to country — Țara Amlașului, Țara Oltului, Ţara Bârsei, Ţara Oltului (or Ţara Făgăraşului), Ţara Zărandului, Ţara Moţilor, Ţara Lăpuşului, Ţara Oaşului, and they often limit ethnographic regions. The term is infrequent in Moldova (only Ţara Vrancei and Ţara Dornelor) — even more so in Muntenia, where the only one such medieval Ţara formed is Ţara Loviştei.
Muntenia, Moldova and Oltenia have less clearly defined boundaries as a result of the mainly flatland landscape — they take regional names such as Iași, Neamț, Câmpulung Moldovenesc, or Argeș, Gorj, Mehedinți, etc. The system of administrative counties is called județ - there’s a total of 41 judete in Romania, but they rarely perfectly overlap with the namesake historical ethnographic zones, which causes many conundrums along the way.
The first census held in Romania after its full unification was in 1930 — 71.9% claimed Romanian ethnicity, 7.9% Hungarian ethnicity, 4.1% German ethnicity and 1.5% Roma ethnicity. The most recent census in 2011 identified 88.9% Romanians, 6.5% Hungarians, 0.3% Ukrainians, 0.2 % Germans and 3.3% Roma.
Transylvania in itself is a melting pot of ethnicities and religious affiliations — in fact, some counties are preponderantly Hungarian, such as Harghita: 14.06% Romanian, 84.61% Hungarian.
For a starter we set on exploring three main ethnographic zones in Romania — Mărginimea Sibiului of southern Transylvania, Gorj of Oltenia and Muscel and Arges of northern Muntenia. Not only do all three together encompass a wide variety of types of Romanian folkwear — but they all organically communicate within one another, both northern Muntenia and northern Oltenia being the settling places of Transylvanian (mocani, ardeleni) shepherds crossing the mountains towards the lowlands as part of the transhumance process. Ungurean is the term that denotes those originally from Transylvania who set up new homes for themselves (establishing ungurenești villages) across the mountains. The continuous interactions between mocani and musceleni (a generic name for Muscel area) as well as between mocani and gorjeni resulted in the creation of interesting folk art hybrids.
Mărginimea Sibiului - Transilvania
The name "Mărginimea” (Mărginea, Marginenimea) translates to “the edge”, “the border” — reflecting the position of the land right between the mountains and the plains and the inhabitants of this area have been called mărgineni — famed for shepherding — especially transhumant shepherding. The practice of transhumance ensured a constant coming into contact with neighboring regions, culminating with the wide-spread familiarity with ardeleni shephards across most of the southern region of Romania, some of them even reaching the farthest south-eastern parts of Romania, such as Dobrogea.
The most prominent villages of transhumant shepherds were Sălişte, Răşinari and Poiana Sibiului (where the first Union of shepherds is put together, together with the first published magazines on shepherding — one can only imagine the headlines).
However, regardless of how far away they’d stray from their homes, Mărgineni would always stay true to their origin and would never become assimilated — they would keep their traditional clothing and their local tongues.
Historically, Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the very beginning of the 20th century. Mărginimea was regarded as a major advantageous military point by the Habsburg Empire, given its proximity with the principality of Wallachia, which was then under Ottoman sovereignty. The first Saxon colonies start settling around the 12th century, as mentioned in the first documents noting their appearance — in a sense this is the beginning of a characteristic opposition between local Romanian folk and Saxons that will characterize the interesting mix of Mărginimea Sibiului.
The Sibiu traditional peasant blouse is not structured with an altiță — the most common blouse structure in some of the major ethnographic areas of Romania (Moldova, Muntenia, Oltenia) yet very rarely seen in Transylvania. Ia Mărgineană or ia de Sălişte as it is traditionally referred to, displays, in lieu of an altiță, an umăr, umeraş (literally, “shoulder”) or pui peste umăr — a thin horizontal line across the shoulder area that acts like a thin altiță.
A specific aspect of the Sibiu folk blouses is the presence of long black fabric bands sewn onto the blouse, called ciocănele (literally translates to “little hammers”) — which is why Sibiu-specific ii are sometimes called to as ia cu ciocănele.
The embroidered motifs on the sides of the sewn black bands have distinct names —whilst they can still be referred to as râuri (literally translated to “rivers”, the traditional name given to the embroideries flowing down the sleeve) they are also called pui, rânduri pe braț (rows on the arm), şiroaie (flows), umbreji, lâncețuri, etc. The râuri flow from shoulder level all the way down the puffy sleeves to the ruffles called “fodori”.
The structure of the sleeve consists in two rectangular folds of fabric — twice as voluminous compared to the folk blouses of neighboring ethnographic zones. Traditionally, it is said that the puffiness of the sleeve would indicate the wealth of the family: the puffier, the wealthier.
The colour palette is usually entirely monochromatic, defined as “chromatic sobriety”: mostly black and brown with fine golden embroideries in the olden days. The embroidered symbols cover a wide area of representations — one can identify phytomorphic symbols (plants), skeuomorphic symbols (household tools, architecture, etc) and zoomorphic symbols (animals). The most embroidered symbols are bănicei, zălute, muste (flies), lănțuse, păhărele, cârcei, struguri (grapes), trifoiul (clover), vița si frunza de vie (grapevine), trandafirul (rose). Traditionally, young girls would wear the opening of the blouse in the middle of the shirt, whereas married women, on the side.
Lower body outfit
Back in the day, girls up to the age of 14 used to only wear only one șurț covering the front. Later on, in order to indicate that the girl is eligible to marry, which in Romanian is referred to as the moment of intrare in joc, “entering the game”, they would have to wear catrințe , covering the back as well as the front.
The șurț or the catrință are held in place with a dark navy blue waistband belt, brâu, which later on, after unification, became tricoloured with the colours of Romania: red, yellow, blue.
— Cârpă or pastură: a black or white head scarf, sometimes fringed, made of linen, tied in front, under the chin when not married — behind the neck after marriage.
— Velitură and pahiolul were types of headdresses worn only by married women:
— Pahiol (from hung. fatyol): often made out of borangic silk.
— Sovănelul: head scarf made out of cotton.
Gorj - Oltenia
Moreover, the inhabitants of Gorj were constantly on the move in the search for work – especially during the dry seasons of summer, Gorjenii would travel either southwards towards the Danube, or northwards towards momârlanii from Ţara Hațegului, southwestern Transylvania – all these movements would, of course, prompt the constant borrowing, renewal and adoption of different folk clothing styles.
Towards the end of the 19th century two main tendencies appear — a particular type of “fashion” worn by the wealthy peasants and the intellectual elite: portul schilăresc — this was referred to as the “baroque” period of Gorj folkwear. This was first embraced by men and later on by women and its main addition was that of introducing industrial thick white woolen fabric, embroidered with black tufted chenille. The origin of portul schilăresc is allegedly attributed to the wealthy and influential local politician Dincă Schileru. Moreover, portul ungurenesc came in strong with its sober esthetics — white blouses with minimal black embroidery and black or dark violet aprons (catrinte or șurte) and was adopted by Gorj women mainly after the wars, when many would have lost their husbands, and the brightly coloured Gorj-specific folk clothing seemed inadequate.
The blouse specific to ungureni folk clothing is “ia de Săliște”, with “umeraș” instead of altita and fine ciocănele flowing down the sleeve, displaying little stylized decorations (padoghială). In addition, the collar of the shirt is commonly sown with black and yellow and the main decorative motifs embroidered are the star, the bell and the rose.
Furthermore, portul ungurenesc started spreading amongst Gorj households as the fabric of the blouses and the aprons were readily available commercially. Villages that are preponderantly ungurenesti in the Gorj ethnoghraphic region are: Polovragi, Novaci, Baia de Fier, Alimpești, Bumbești-Pitic, Bengești, Sacelu, Crasna.
Muscel and Argeș - Muntenia
Argeș and Muscel were points of access and transition from Wallachia into Transylvania — at one point, travelers would have to pay customs duty when crossing over to Transylvania, where they would reach Sibiu county and Făgăraș county. As a result, strong ties developed between the two sides of mountainous chain — moreover, Argeș developed strong connections to its westbound neighbouring county, Vâlcea, part of Oltenia, interactions that can be noticed in the evolution of folk clothing in Argeș.
Similarly to Gorj in Oltenia, the nomadic pastoralism of Transylvanian shepherds resulted in ungurenești, ungureni settlements in both Argeș and Muscel. Different in composition, the ungurenesc folkwear is composed of the somber Ia de Săliștea, of handwoven catrinte (aprons) worn as a pair, usually with a surț in the front, and a catrința at the back. The interesting fact is that women’s traditional ungurenesc clothing was not assimilated in the rest of the Muscel area — like it would in northern Gorj — rather, the Muscel typical folkwear prevailed. The folk menswear of the Ungureni shephards, on the other hand, was embraced by Musceleni alike and became the norm. Nonetheless, the ongoing interaction between southern Transylvania and northwestern Muntenia is revealed by the similar terminology of folkwear and crafts, as well as the introduction of the ruffled sleeve.
The Muscel and Argeș folk outfit is made out of: the blouse (ie) with the underskirt, the wrap —around skirt (fotă) the waist belt (brâu), the headwear (maramă, cârpoi, broboadă), narrower belts (bete), thick wollen socks and opinci.
The composition (making) of the folk blouse keeps the traditional key ornamental registers of an ie: all the folds of the fabric, including those of the sleeves, are gathered at the neckline (bretară, biantă); the sleeve is divided between the altiță, the încreț, and thick randuri — and it generally ends with a cuff (obinzică, brețară) rather than a ruffle (fodor); thick rauri also flow down the front side (ciupag) of the blouse. Types of embroidering techniques and particular stitches such as ales in spetează, punctul bătranesc, in rumănescuri are popular in both regions — this technique results in tufted chenille-like 3D embroidery.
An established differentiation between the Muscel and Argeș folk blouses is that Muscel specific ii tend to display exclusively geometric motifs of embroidered decoration.
The most common decorative motifs are entitled the fuști, fuște — this decorative technique however takes different names according to the area — for instance, in Câmpulung it goes by brăduleți (fir tree), in a village called Nucsoara: colți (fangs).
Another motif, ciarba — the meandering spirals, serpeasca and melcu — the snail.
The aspect of the fotă — a rectangular handwoven woolen fabric acting as a wrap-around cover-up — started off as very sober, entirely black. With time, burgundy vertical stripes were gradually introduced it became more and more embellished with hand embroideries using metallic thread (golden or silver alike). Black was still the most common colour for the woolen fabric but burgundy and blue were also embraced with time — occasionally, brides would make white fote for the wedding.
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