Thursday, September 9, 2021

'Svashka' costume of Ratne - Kobryn area, West Polissia, Ukraine and Belarus


Hello all, 

I decided to take a break from Brittany, but I will return to it. Today I will talk about an unusual costume from West Polissia, found on both sides of the current Ukrainian-Belarusian border.  I have seen this mentioned in English as a "matchmaker" costume, but this is incorrect. It is what may be called a 'ritual costume', as it is only worn at wedding receptions by young women fulfilling the role of "svashka". While the word svashka is derived from "svakha", which may be more legitimately translated "matchmaker" [although the role is more of a go-between for negotiation and planning of the wedding between the two families], svashky are young women of the area who are related to the groom and sing and entertain at the wedding. I have not been able to come up with a suitable English translation of the term. 

Weddings in Ukraine, and indeed in all of Eastern Europe, are not private affairs, they include the entire community. Older members of the community make sure that the important rituals and symbols connected with weddings are observed, assuring that the proper blessings take place, and that all is auspiciously carried out. The young people are in charge of making it fun. Young men would often set up roadblocks in the path of the wedding procession, demanding a toll, which, after much loud and boisterous negotiation, was usually paid in food and alcohol. They also 'kidnap' the bride and ask for ransom, and carry out other pranks. The svashky would entertain at the wedding, singing songs, both traditional and made up, the lyrics often intended to tease and embarass the young couple, they would perform skits, conduct 'fortune-telling' sessions, and likely, make fun of all present. 

This costume was worn in the villages between the towns of Ratne and Kobryn, in the northeastern part of Ratnivskyj Raion, the southern part of Kobrynsky Raion, and the northwestern part of Liubeshivskyj Raion. I have only been able to confirm that it was worn in Samary, Volia Shchytyn'ska and Povitt'e [Pavitstse] villages, but I suspect that it was spread more widely. 

You will often see maps of the regions of Ukraine that stop at the Belarusian border, but this is misleading. Ukrainian and Belarusian dialects form a gradient that makes it difficult to definitively draw a line between them. This is especially true in West Polissia. Here is a map showing dialects of the Belarusian language. 

The area shown in yellow is home to the West Polissian dialects. Some linguists consider this to be a separate microlanguage, on a par with Silesian or Kaszub. .  Others consider it to be a dialect of Ukrainian. The red dotted line above shows the extent of the Belarusian language in 1905 according to one linguist, and the green dotted line shows the border between Ukrainian and Belarusian according to a different linguist in 1980. 

In any case, this costume, as worn in the early 20th century was found on both sides of the border. This is truly a 'costume' and not ethnic dress, it would not be worn for any other purpose. Modern people, unused to ornamenting clothes by hand, may marvel at the ornament, but in context, this costume would be seen as slap-dash, and unworthy for wear, except to clown and perform in front of the wedding guests. This drawing, by T. V. Kosmina and Z. O. Vasina, shows the bride wearing this costume. 

This is not the case. An outfit like this could be put together in a couple days, as the only ornament is applique, and a very minimal amount of embroidery. A true bridal outfit takes months to make, and has very detailed woven and embroidered designs. A bridal outfit is a testament to the textile skills of the bride and her family. Here is an example of a true bridal shirt from this region.

Compare this to the ornament on the svashka costume. 

The result is bright, colorful, and fun, but would impress no-one with weaving and embroidery skills. 

I believe that this is a relatively modern innovation, as it relies on cheap colored cloth and a sewing machine for its manufacture. I suspect that the tradition was started by some young woman who decided to put on  a skit at a wedding impersonating a svakha, which was the term sometimes used for the older woman in a village who had the most knowledge of local wedding traditions. Undoubtedly the skit would have been full of ribald advice for the young couple, their obligations to each other, and how best to please [or decieve] each other, as well as teasing comments about other members of the local community. One indication of such an origin is that while it is worn by young women, often unmarried, it invariably includes a namitka, which is normally worn only by married women. So I think that this might be a better drawing. 

The costume itself is cut like the usual attire in the region. A long shirt with ustawka cut, a skirt, apron, sash, colored glass beads, footwear, namitka and a particular headdress decorated with feathers. 

The ornament consists of appliqued stripes in red and black on white, red scalloped applique, and accents in blue and other colors. Here is another example with even simpler ornament. 

The cloth used here is clearly commercial cotton. 

Over this is worn a skirt, also embellished with applique, in this region called fartukh. 

Over this is worn an apron, similarly ornamented, called prytulka. 

Footwear consisted of either onuchi [footcloths], and postoly [shoes woven from tree bark],

or boots, if the young woman could afford them. 

This photo is from Belarus, note the colored streamers attached to the waist and headdress.

A wooden ring, kybalka, is placed on the head and the hair wrapped around it. This is standard for this region.

The namitka is wrapped around the head, and topped with a sort of open crown which is also called kybalka,  and which is ornamented with two bunches of feathers, and usually ruched ribbons. The outfit is completed with multiple strands of colored glass beads patsiorky.

And now she is ready to go to the wedding, sing, laugh, joke, tease, and help the wedding reception retain its high spirits and celebratory atmosphere. Just a few more images of this costume. 

These first two are from the village of Povit'e, or Павiцце, currently in Belarus

These two images are from the village of Shchytyns'ka Volya, Щитинська Воля.

These two images are from the village of Samary, Самари. Note that these ladies have switched up the headdress. 

Most of the rest of these I do not have a definitive point of origin for. 

This image is from Oksana Kosmina's book 'Tradycijne Vbrannia Ukrajintsiv', volume 1. The collection apparently did not have the correct apron, so they substituted a generic embroidered apron. Be aware of this in her photos, the various pieces do not necessarily go together. This is especially the case in her Lemko photos. 

Here is a video which is put out by Spadok, showing a woman putting on this costume. 

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

Roman K. 


  1. What a fun costume for a special event! I should think the girls would have a wonderful time planning the songs and skits, remembering funny things from the bride and groom's past - thank you for the post and the smile. Charlotte in California

  2. My eyebrows raised when I saw the first photo on this post as that is not the standard that I expect from Ukrainian folk dress... then I find out it's a funny costume, oh that makes sense! These weddings must be a lot of fun.

  3. I truly enjoyed discovering the story around this costume and tradition