Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Costume of the 'Green' Kurpie Region, Mazowsze, Poland

Hello all,
Today I will talk about one of the few regions in northeast Poland that has a folk costume tradition. This corner of Poland  was originally inhabited by the Prussians, who were related to the Lithuanians and the Latvians. They were conquered by the German Teutonic Knights in the 13th cent., who invaded them under the pretext that they were pagans. Here is a map of the area at that time.

Here is a map of Poland at a slightly earlier date.

The Prussians were killed off or assimilated by the Lithuanians and other nearby peoples, and most especially by the German colonists, who even started calling themselves Prussians, even though the actual Prussian language became extinct in the 17th cent. Since then there have been political upheavals and population resettlements, with the result that today there is very little in the way of Folk culture to survive in this area. [One of the exceptions is Warmia.]

The Kurpie live in the northeast corner of the original Kingdom of Poland as shown in the map above. They managed to keep their indigenous culture alive because they specialized in living off the forests in which they lived, on land which other people viewed as undesirable. Thus they maintained a certain amount of isolation. 

In fact, there are two different groups which are called Kurpie, which inhabit nearby but non-contiguous tracts of forest. 

The southern area, which lies between the rivers Bug and Narew, is called the Puszcza Biała, and the northern area, which lies north of the Narew between the rivers Pisa on the east and Orzyc on the west, is called the Puszcza Zielona. These are often translated as 'White Forest', and 'Green Forest', respectively, but in fact the word Puszcza really means 'wasteland', or 'wilderness'. This shows the attitude of outsiders to this region.

The term 'Kurpie' comes from the name for footwear woven from the bark of linden trees, 'kurpsi', which were often worn by people in this area, as well as many other people in forested areas to the east, in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

This article will only cover the traditional attire of the northern group, the Kurpie of the Green Wilderness, as the costumes of the two groups are very different. 

There are some unusual features of this costume, which are explained by its being close to the edge of Polish ethnic territory. For comparison, here are a couple of costumes from over the border, one from Dzukija in Lithuania;

And one from Belarus:

The foundation garment for the women is a linen chemise, Koszula. It has shoulder insets and a fold down collar with a rounded corner.

 The collar, shoulder seam, and cuffs are ornamented with modest embroidery, usually in red. 
The edges of the collar and cuffs may have crocheted trim.


These last images show a newer, less traditional cut with a yoke which is sometimes used today. 

 As is the case in many places today, the chemise can be made in two pieces, the bottom being separated from the the top. This enables the shirt to be worn with short skirts or pants. Otherwise it makes more sense to me to keep it as one long garment, and avoid the extra bulk around the waist. 

The koszula may also be not embroidered, as in this example.

These images and some others below are taken from the online store Eastern European Art, or Slavart. These original garments are currently available, as are many other costumes, books, and other items. I encourage you to visit them.

According to Barbara Bazielich, in the past a home woven bodice was attached to a skirt to form a garment called the kittel, as is worn by the 'White' Kurpie. I have found no images of this garment apart from her schematic; it seems to have been completely superceded by the current form of the costume.

Over the chemise a fairly full skirt is worn. Originally it was home woven in stripes or plaids, with the background being a rusty red color.

This may or may not have edging in black. Later on, bought materials began to be used for the skirt. These tended to be in solid, darkish, quiet colors with ribbons sewn onto the lower part. They are made of rather stiff material and arranged into large folds.

Two types of aprons are worn; the first is home woven wool with narrow stripes on red. This has a crocheted edging with a ribbon covering the seam. The second is of linen or cotton with many tucks and open crochet work in bands along its length and possibly the hem as well.


The bodice, wystek, has a cut which is unique among Polish costumes. It  is made in four pieces, each of which has an extension which functions as a separate lappet. It is made of bought material, sometimes in damask or brocade, and is edged with a solid color ribbon and ornamented with buttons and topstitching. Similar bodices are also found across the border in both Lithuania and Belarus. 

I believe that the front opening should come to the waist. You will see photos of women wearing shorter ones, but that may just be that they have outgrown them but keep wearing them.

For older women or cooler weather, a jacket, kaftanik, is another option. This was made of bought cloth, which was sometimes very rich. Here is one possible cut. This varied to some extent. 

The common ornament worn is amber, which is found in this area, and also further north. Note that this girl has white openwork embroidery on her shirt.

Both  unmarried girls and women wear their hair in braids down the back, which is unusual.
Unmarried girls in festive costume wear a tall black cylindrical headpiece called Czółko, that is, forehead. It is decorated with trim and other items, artificial flowers on one side, and ribbons down the back. It has a peak over the forehead, and is open on top.

Married women wear a kerchief, chustka on the head. It may be tied at the nape of the neck, over the third point, never under. Often it is folded and tied at the back of the head in a specific manner, leaving part of the hair visible and the braids hanging down the back. 

The chustka may be plain white linen, as above, it may be bought in various patterns and colors, but it may also be of linen with embroidered floral spot designs and border. Being a practical people, the Kurpie only embroider the parts that will be visible once the kerchief is folded.

In older times, footwear was expensive, and people often went barefoot. If the weather called for it, they would wrap their feet in footcloths, onuce, then put on 'kurpi', moccasins woven of tree bark or made of leather. The men especially found these to be practical for working or hunting in the forest. Later on, typical Polish boots were adopted, first by the women, and later by the men.

The men's clothing is much simpler. The base of the outfit are a shirt and pants, both made of strong linen. the dress pants with a red stripe along the outside seam. More recently the shirt sometimes has a bit of embroidery similar to the womens' shirts.

 Over this is worn an overcoat, sukman. A similar garment was worn by men as part of their everyday costume over a very wide area, including Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, etc, and many old images show them in such overcoats.

The Kurpie men of the Green Wilderness wore two basic types of sukman. Farmers and Beekeepers wore brown sukmans with dark blue trim on the lapels, etc. These are quite full.

Riflemen and Foresters wore a sukman of  gray wool with black trim. They also tended to be shorter and less full.

 The former were more likely to wear red sashes, the latter tended towards leather belts over the sukmany. The men very commonly wore shoulder bags of coarse cloth, basketry, leather or animal skins as well.
For more festive occasions, men would wear a short jacket, jaka, of red cloth with black trim.

Formerly a gray rogatywka, the Polish four-sided cap was worn, of gray cloth with sheepskin band, but more recently a felt hat, Maciejówka is worn. This is rather short and kind of squashed looking, seeming wider on the top than around the brim. Take another look at the images in this article.

For the footwear see the end of the women's section above. 

Thank you for reading, I hope that you have found this to be interesting and informative. 

Roman K.

email: rkozakand@aol.com

This video is of a local performing group doing songs and dances of the region on stage, including the famous Powolniak.

This video is a more inclusive look at the culture of the region, including people singing and dancing in their houses. [in Polish]

 I will close with some more images of the Kurpie from the Green Wilderness



Source Material: 
Barbara Bazielich, 'Stroj Ludowy w Polsce, Opisy i Wykroje', Warsaw, 1997
Stanislaw Gadomski, 'Stroj Ludowe w Polsce', Warsaw, 1997
Kazimierz Pietkiewicz, 'Haft i Zdobienie Stroju Ludowego', Warsaw, 1955
Elzbieta Krolikowska, 'Polski Stroj Ludowy', Warsaw, 2000
Aleksander Jackowski, 'Sztuka Ludu Polskiego', Warsaw, 1967
Ewa Frys-Pietraszkowa, 'Folk Art in Poland', Warsaw, 1988
Aleksander Blachowski, 'Hafty Polskie Szycie', Lublin, 2004
Barbara Zagorna-Tezycka et al, 'Haft Ludowy', Torun', 1979
Mikhas' Ramaniuk. 'Belaruskaie Narodnaie Adzenne', MInsk, 1981
Teresė Jurkiuvenė, 'Lithuanian National Costume', Vilnius, 2006

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