Folk costume is a basic element of a country’s culture and craft, closely tied with its whole history. Vasyl Boiko, a fellow at the Institute of Art, Folklore and Ethnography of the Academy of Arts and Science of Ukraine, writes that folk costume “distinguishes itself through its originality and the wealth of regional variations… The Ukrainian costume is a genuine encyclopedia of the people’s creativity. In it are synthesized the folk arts of weaving, style, sewing, adornment (embroidery, applique, trimming, etc.).”
Traditional dress in Ukraine shows a high degree of sophistication, elegance, and artistry. For centuries scholars of ethnography (descriptive anthropology) and folklore have collected and studied Ukrainian folk costumes. Art historians have paid much attention to the highly artistic embroidery that is a fundamental element of folk costume.
The earliest-known dress worn in the territory of Ukraine dates back to the Scythian and Sarmatian tribes. Men wore cloth or fur trousers, jackets, pointed caps, and boots. Women wore wide shirts that dropped to the knees, a coat with armhole slits, and a cap like a man’s hat but covered with a wrap. Embroidery was a Scythian art as far back as the 5th century BCE, according to archaeological finds.
But it was during the Kyivan-Rus era, according to Kateryna Mateiko, a scholar with the Ukrainian State Museum of Ethnography and Crafts in Lviv, that the prototypes of the basic elements of the Ukrainian costume developed. The main elements of dress were the shirt, trousers, cloak, sheepskin vest, overcoat, cap, footcloths, stockings, and boots. Princes and boyars (the upper ruling class) wore clothes influenced by Byzantine fabrics and ornaments.
During the Kozak period, the nobility dressed in Renaissance styles prevalent in Europe, with the addition of long overcoats and sheepskin jackets to protect against the climate. Kozak officers adapted this dress to military needs, with short caftan or zhupan, wide trousers or sharovary, and cloak or kyreia. Townspeople imitated the fashions of the nobility to some extent, while the Kozak style influenced the dress of the peasants. The features of dress that evolved during the Kozak period among the townspeople and peasants were preserved with some changes, while the nobility adopted European baroque fashions.
The golden age of Ukrainian folk costume was the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century when regional variations reached their peak. Availability of factory-made fabrics in the second half of the 19th century changed the fabric used in the fashions, but the general features of folk dress persisted in small towns and villages until the First World War. After the First World War, folk dress began to disappear in the countryside because of the low price of urban clothing and the peasant’s desire to dress like townsfolk.
How many variations of Ukrainian costume are there?
Scholars of Ukrainian folk costume usually classify it by regional differences. The Encyclopedia of Ukraine recognizes five regional groups: that of the Middle Dnieper Region, originating in the Hetman period; Polisia; Podilia; central Galicia and Volhynia; and the Carpathian Mountains and Subcarpathia, including Pokutia, Bukovyna, Hutsul, Boiko, and Lemko.
The book Ukrainian Folk Costume divides the country into 17 ethnographic regions: Dnipro, Kyiv, Poltava, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Podilia, Northern Bukovyna, Polissia, Volyn, Hutsul, Boiko, Zakarpattia, Lemko, Yavoriv, Sokal, Pidliashia, and Kholm.
Classifying costumes by region is a broad tool, since variations occur from village to village. Costume differs according to sex, with woman’s dress more elaborate than men’s. Social, economic, and marital status influence dress and there are special ways of dressing according to the season and for festive occasions.