Traditional clothing is an important element of national representation as one of the recognizable visual markers carrying information about a nation's history, mentality, and social evolution. For Ukrainians, it also helped preserve their heritage and unity even during oppression and occupation. It was and remains a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, as nowadays, in the occupied territories, Ukrainians can be persecuted for possessing a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt.
The story of mislabelling, appropriating, mocking and vilifying traditional Ukrainian clothing is as old as the story of Russian colonialism. So, what do we mean exactly when we speak about Ukrainian national clothing? Let's discuss some key points.
What is traditional Ukrainian clothing made of?
As Ukraine was historically located at the crossing of various trade routes, Ukrainians had access to materials from both East and West. Merchants received expensive silk fabrics from Asia and the Middle East and precious materials and jewellery from Europe. Ukrainian clothing incorporated expensive materials and fabrics such as brocade from India and Pakistan, as well as corals and Venetian glass beads from Italy. These and many other materials were combined with locally fabricated ones. And thanks to developed agriculture, Ukrainian farmers produced many of their own fabrics.
One of the key elements in Ukrainian female national clothing was the necklace, "namysto". Girls got their first namysto at a young age, and over the years, their necklaces were getting more and more elaborate.
Namysto could include multiple elements: various glass beads, natural corals, mother of pearl, garnet, amber etc. The brightest and most expensive necklace was typically attributed to young women that were about to get married and certainly to the brides.
Often women said they felt naked without their necklaces on.
An essential element of necklace jewellery is dukach — a big valuable coin or ensemble of coins. Dukach was often decorated with a beautifully ornamented metal bow and colourful glass.
It is not simply a piece of jewellery but also an important cultural artefact originating in Cossack traditions. When cossacks received medals for their military service, they gave those to their daughters as a decorative element. With time this piece of jewellery became a strong marker of Ukrainian female national clothing.
The Ukrainian tradition of creating embroidery shirts, "vyshyta sorochka", known as "vyshyvanka", is very ancient, and it became one of the centrepieces of Ukrainian national clothing.
There are dozens of embroidery techniques used. While the ornaments are typically geometrical, they still incorporate nature-inspired elements, such as oak leaves or hops. Motives could differ between the regions, but all such shirts have common silhouettes and general features.
From left to right, embroidered shirts from Kyiv, Verbovets, and Pereyalsav regions. Source: Ivan Honchar Museum
Ukrainian women loved decorating their heads, considering nuances dictated by their social and marital status. Unmarried ones would wear long hair in braid or several braids with a voluminous ensemble of silk scarves and flowers (real or made of paper, fabric etc.). Sometimes headpieces would also include feathers, glass beads and foil flowers. Unmarried young women could complete this ensemble with ribbons falling on their shoulders. The ensemble could differ between regions, but bright colours were typical for headpieces from all over Ukraine.
Married women would often prefer voluminous headwear created with silk or wool scarves (khustka) or a special headwear — ochipok.
Bridal floral crowns were especially beautiful and impressive. They also could have been made of various materials, including even wax creating similar styles to popular in Europe — Fleur d'oranger.
Despite such distinct and unique features, Ukrainian national clothing was not very well known until recently or sometimes was even called Russian. How so? Let's find out.
Cultural appropriation of traditional Ukrainian clothing by Russia
Ukrainian culture formed throughout centuries, from Kyivian Rus to Cossack times and Hetmanshyna. The Russian occupation started in the 18th and peaked in the 19th century, and hence the suppression and appropriation of Ukrainian culture began. Russia launched numerous restrictive laws and policies, including bans on the Ukrainian language and confiscation of Ukrainian books. The national costume was one of the elements subjected to oppression and appropriation.
Thus, due to Russian mislabeling, for centuries, visuals of the Ukrainian costume were presented to the world through the lens of the colonizer, being associated with Russian culture and even called "Russian." Russian Empire ensured that, internationally, Ukrainians would be seen as just a variety or deviation of Russian culture. An example of such puzzlement is Degas's series of paintings, "Russian Dancers," which recently were reclaimed to their true origin and renamed as Ukrainian dancers:
La Petite Russie
Since Ukrainian national clothing has many distinctive features and the Ukrainian population was spread over a large territory, it was hard to hide the truth. Thus, the Russian Empire came up with the special propaganda term "La Petite Russie." Muscovy first appropriated the name "Rus", turning it into what the world would know as "Russia" (Russian Empire, Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, Russian Federation). All while the name "Rus" was originally attributed to Kyivan Rus, which emerged from the territory of modern Ukraine.
In the meantime, Ukraine was called by Russian colonizers "Little Russia" or "La Petite Russie." This propaganda term was circulated in the late 19th century and supported by visuals, thus connecting the name to images of Ukrainians in their national clothing. Such visual propaganda that used the then-new photography technique and captions in different languages had a considerable impact on the perception of Ukraine and Ukrainians by the international community and is a perfect example of the Russian Empire trying to appropriate Ukrainian national clothing and bring confusion regarding its true origin.
Main misleading narratives and approaches that Russia uses for traditional Ukrainian clothing
To undermine the significance and value of Ukrainian clothing as a part of Ukrainian culture, the Russian Empire and later Soviet authorities circulated numerous false narratives. One of the most popular dismissive narratives was that Ukrainians were too poor and uneducated to have their own culture.
The truth is, despite repressions and multiple restrictions, Ukrainian society maintained its cultural heritage and preserved both traditional clothes and other forms of artistic representation such as music, folklore, visual art, and literature. Ukraine is the homeland of numerous scholars and thinkers, and education was developing in Ukraine long before Russian colonization. For example, Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, the predecessor of the modern National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, was founded in 1615.
Another approach, especially in Soviet times, was to replace real images of Ukrainian national clothing with a simplified "costume-like" version of it. This was achieved by presenting such misleading visuals in books and other media of the time. Such a phenomenon is called "sharovarshchyna." Instead of authentic aesthetics, the incorrect and theatrical version of national clothing was promoted. This artificial version surely looked comic, unattractive, and outdated, thus simultaneously creating a caricature image of a Ukrainian for external observers and also disconnecting Ukrainians from their own culture by mocking it. This was well in line with the trope mentioned above of Ukrainians as "uneducated fools." This narrative became popular and, even today, often can be noticed in visual representations of Ukrainian national clothing:
Throughout history, Russia often claimed that Ukrainians and Russians are "brotherly nations" or even the "same people." This false narrative is so deeply rooted in people's consciousness that it lives until today and is often repeated even by some European politicians. The ethnographic studies can prove this narrative wrong, as there are distinctive differences between Ukrainian and Russian national clothing and traditions. Among other things, Russian attempts to appropriate elements of Ukrainian clothing significantly strengthened this narrative. Still, nowadays, Russian folk enthusiasts use elements of Ukrainian clothing together with Russian costumes to create confusion between the two:
While misnaming, mocking or appropriating Ukrainian national clothing, Russia also incites hatred towards Ukrainian identity by labelling it "nazist."
This is in line with the "de-Nazification" narrative and the idea of "dangerous Ukrainian nationalism." For example, on occupied territories, possession of a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt (known as "vyshyvanka") becomes the reason for threats, filtration or imprisonment. Ukrainians often had to hide their traditional clothing to save their lives. For example, in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Russian invaders demanded to destroy the children's traditional embroidered shirts in the kindergarten.
Clothing is an equally important part of national identity as rituals, traditions and language. Russians understand this, and this is why in the occupied territories, the destruction of Ukrainian national clothing in museums and private households is happening alongside the destruction of Ukrainian books, historical artefacts, and monuments of cultural significance.
Knowing how our ancestors dressed helps us feel connected to our roots and brings back memories of generations. Thus, reclaiming the visual of the Ukrainian national costume is vital because it unites people, debunks misconceptions and puts Ukrainians back into the international cultural and historical arena. Compilated by Julia Kyrylova-Fedorchenko and Anastasia Klimash