MILITARY DRESS in the 16th -17th C.    costume

by ZOFIA STEFAŃSKA (b.1900- d,1983)

Including a section on the The Textile Industry Infrastructure required to support Military Uniform Needs

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The history of the evolution of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth military dress documents the use of uniforms in detail only from the beginning of the 18th C. (‘Uniforms’ meaning both any clothing worn by the military and also the clothing's uniformity or lack thereof.)  Some exceptions survive: we know, for example, that King Batory uniformed the newly organized ‘Select’ (wybraniecką) infantry in blue at the end of the 16th C. Nevertheless, the 16th-17th C is essentially a blank spot in the record. However it is clear that whether due to the usual wartime difficulties and eternal money shortages, or for other reasons, the end result was that infantry was frequently dressed insufficiently and even miserably. What are the implications of the failure to provide uniforms to Polish armies in the 1600s?

 Szymon Starowolski[i] wrote in 1640: ‘The Sarmatians[ii] of ancient times dressed their infantry as well as cavalry in a uniform color. The same practice was followed by mercenaries from Germany and Hungary , both infantry and light cavalry. As only Poles use the kopia[iii] lance, this distinguishes them from Asians as well as from all Europeans. Nevertheless, hussars attach distinctly colored pennants to the kopia, to differentiate between units. Now the miserly captains have dressed the infantry in inappropriate and inconsistently colored clothing, even though regulations state that in units organized according to German custom, the commander should take care that the entire unit be dressed in uniform-color coats, not only to distinguish themselves from enemies, but to help by the uniform appearance to intimidate opponents, not to mention protect against severe weather ".

 Starowolski captured the essence of requirements for a uniform in his final lines: 1) distinguish friendly from adversarial troops 2) suggest to the enemy the professionalism and solidity of your ranks  3) protect the soldier's body from the elements in a planned and consistent way.

 The absence of uniforms in Poland in the mid 17th C. is not accidental and may have reflected a respect for tradition and the ‘old ways’.   Poles thought this was the “ordinary" way and many believed that this state was not only not a shortcoming, but was even indispensable to military effectiveness. Starowolski outlined the ‘old ways’ allowing us to reconcile some aspects of dress over two generations from the 1570s, when, allegedly for the first time, Stephan Batory introduced a “uniform color for wybranie ‘select’ infantry. However, others had blazed this path before.  Ancient customs already existed for uniformity in dress and color. For example, the King entered Cracow in 1576 accompanied by the town Foote guard in uniform magenta colored coats[iv].

 As we can see from the military instructions prepared by Floriana Zebrzydowski[v] for the Lithuanian grand hetman Mikolay Radziwiłł 1559, it is possible to demonstrate the appearance of Commonwealth troops in uniform colors 20 years earlier, in the mid 16th C. Article 28 regulating ‘Pouczenia’ states: a soldier “must not dare to pawn his uniform, arquebus, sword, pike or other armor or weapon with which he serves to borrow money or when gambling."

 In “Porządku praw rycerskich wojennych”  (‘System of knightly combat’,  prepared for king Zygmunt Agustus in 1557) [vi] Article 44  declares: “armors, swords, harquebus, and barwy (uniform or at least uniform-colored clothing) and stuff (military gear) should be neither loaned nor borrowed". That is important because the word barwy indicates particular concern about uniforms and two of the five categories are issued non-weapon items. The sentiment expressed closely matches the regulation mentioned in the paragraph above. Therefore, can we conclude that at this moment in 1557, uniforms had already been introduced?  Probably so, because other military regulations from 1544 and other sources from this time do not allude to uniform colors prior to 1557.  They mention only “pieszego  we zbroi” (armed foote) or “pachołka jezdnego zbrojnego” (men with military kit).[vii]     

 That is the background of “barwy” or ‘uniforms’ among Commonwealth armies. Let us now examine dress more closely for each troop type.


It is difficult to use words with modern meaning to discuss Commonwealth cavalry uniforms from the 16th C. to the start of the 18th C.  We can describe their uniforms[viii], or more accurately, certain unifying aspects of external appearance within or among a set of units - rota or banners. Zamoyski complemented Batory’s reforms with regulations for arming the ‘comrades’ (towarzyszy or knights) and fighting-retainers (pocztowych)[ix]. The result is documented in the 1605[x] Stockholm Roll and also in a grand entrance into Rome by Sebastian Cefali[xi], Jerzy Lubomirski’s secretary of Polish troops in the second half of the 17th C. including the hussars and pancerni cossacks. “The Gentry (szlachta) are not dressed nor armed alike and everything depends on the difference.” Some march in ranks before and some behind the musicians.  The 17th C. Hussar armor, despite certain insignificant differences, are substantially of uniform type for any given period’s army. Numerous examples of such armors exist in museums in Poland , enough to demonstrate this fact. This armor type with its distinctive set of major pieces, lamina, decorative rivets, decorative edging, and even prominent emblems on the breast of the knight’s cross and of Mary and the Immaculate Conception exists throughout 17th to the start of the 18th C. The helmet (szyszak) was more individual but still followed uniform trends.

 Lynx, wolf, jaguar, even lion and bear pelts, and kilims (heavy woven decorative textile), were a few of the typical cloaks and caparisons shown on the 1605 Stockholm Roll. They represented a certain discrimination of military taste. Dyakowski[xii], courtier of King Sobieski, wrote that ‘while Colonels bore rough sheep-skin cloaks, Comrades wore skins of leopard.’ Comrades wore cloaks of exotic furs such as tiger, leopard, lion and lynx. Retainers wore wolf cloaks in the 18th C.[xiii] Starowolski indicates that pennants for the lance (kopia) were uniform for all riders in a hussar banner, but different for each individual banner. It is possible to quote many examples. The first illustrates the earliest hussars, when they served more as light cavalry; a banner of lancers is shown in a picture of the battle of Orszą[xiv] 1514.  The force of lancers with the Marshall of the Crown escorting cardinal Henry Gaetano (the papal Nuncio) flew red pennons on the lances in procession, described by Gaetano in 1595.[xv]

In 1628 Starowolski[xvi] wrote that ‘flags of various colors distinguished among the several regiments and banners. P. De Guebriant's described the entrance to Warsaw of Queen Mary Gonzaga and the ladies of her court in 1645. A hundred Pancerni “cossacks” (retinue of Prince Stanisława Albrecht, Chancellor of Lithuania) rode under red banners on which Albrecht’s coat of arms (herb) was embroidered in silk.[xvii] Cefali[xviii] tells us that in 1665 “banners of hussars are distinguished by the color of their pennants and wooden lances. Above all, these Commonwealth cavalry units were characterized by homogeneous color uniform żupans. This was noted not only by Starowolski.  Sufficient other references exist so that we can be sure that this is not a unique case, but was customary. For example in a poem by Stryjkowski describing a 1574[xix] scene about the travel of Henry Walezjusz to Krakow : “Pan Czechowski had three hundred men in scarlet, with pennants flying in golden brilliance”.

 Pennants flew from the lances carried by hussars, such as those escorting Zygmunt III in 1592, “a banner of 150 hussars in uniform navy blue with eagle wings, with lances, and white and blue crests....a further 150 hussars in crimson with tiger fur cloaks, and eagle wings.... The King’s banner of 50, with green and red velvet and silk satin dress, shining of gold and with decorative eagle wings.[xx]  In 1596 King Zygmunt III, who left Warsaw on 22 November to meet Cardinal Henry Gaetano[xxi], envoy of Pope Clemens VIII, was escorted in procession by a hussar unit of twelve riders who wore cloaks of black velvet with impressive wings fastened to the rear of the saddle. A second body of twelve hussar retainers rode in green velvet coats with edges embroidered in gold and silver; presenting their long kopia with “fluttering pennants in crimson and yellow china silk (kathy – a thin satin or a heavy organza). The rearguard royal banner included 50 knights dressed in black with black pennons, with appliqué golden snakes".[xxii] Black cloaks were worn as a sign of mourning for Anna Jagiello, who died 9 September of the same year.

This author writes, that “out of respect, their master ordered the new uniforms for the courtiers, Polish style, all on horses. Fifty lancers of the Marshall of the Crown flew red pennons on their kopia”. In 1605 at Cracow in a procession of Zygmunt III to his wedding, the Stockholm roll[xxiii] shows units of hussars dressed in homogeneous colored żupans; unfortunately, we can not now tell how widely this practice extended[xxiv]. Gustavus Adolphus boasted in 1626 in Prussia that his soldiers can be a match for “red kaftans (Rothróck) and Cossacks” (meaning elite noble Polish cavalry such as the winged hussars and Pancerni 'Cossacks') 23.

A type of men's apparel called ‘usarka’ was recorded in 1653 when Katarzyna Lipowca Dydyński willed to her brother Norbert Lipowski, her deceased husband’s “usarke of crimson velvet and golden buttons. [xxv]

 It is possible to ascertain from the available materials only what applies to royal or magnate’s units for parades. Homogeneously clothed hussars and other Polish cavalry units existed, but the extent is difficult to ascertain given today's factual knowledge. Fredry’s comment is characteristic, that “Lieutenants and Comrades do not give their lackeys fine Flanders cloth, only buckthorn and sheepskin coats in winter".  It would be very desirable for researchers to further study archives on the question of Commonwealth military clothes in the 17th C.[xxvi]

 Records mentioning clothes provide some insight on light and medium cavalry24, such as Pancerni 'cossacks'. For example in 1645 de Guebriant wrote about some magnate sponsored units. But memoirs written with great care for details regarding organization have little to say about the arming and outfitting of individual units.  In this regard certainly none can fault the ladies of the court of Queen Mary Gonzaga.  These ladies had a healthy interest in material goods and appearances. So, according to their letters, Prince Janusz Radziwiłł was accompanied by 501 Lithuanian Cossacks, dressed in hand-embroidered green silk, covered by the mail armor ‘shirt’. 100 others were in scarlet dress with the same armor.  Castelian Lanckoroński’s 50 Cossacks were dressed in dark-yellow (‘iza-belowo’) with crimson; armed with carbines (bandolety). 100 Cossacks of Marshall Opaliński, helmets, steel armor with coats covering them, “with sleeves of red”; probably, these were the żupans showing.

 During a embassy to Pope Urban VIII in 1633 Jerzy Ossoliński representing King Władysław IV sent “30 beautifully kitted out riders armed with carbines and muskets, they represented a distinguished guard for the envoy, dressed in rose-colored silk uniforms, set off with gold fastenings and toped with white feathers”. More is said about the unit of arquebusers.[xxvii]

 Light cavalry details are sparse. It is possible to assume that the greatest diversification occurred in this branch of the cavalry among various nationalities (Polish, Wallachian and Tatar ) and varying wealth of individual men.  Dębołęcki compared an assembly of cavalry's various colored clothing to flower petals.[xxviii]

 From the above quoted examples we conclude that red in different hues was the typical uniform color of Commonwealth cavalry at the end of the 16th C. and in first half 17th, with the appearance of other colors such as navy blue, green, light blue and even (during periods of court mourning) black.


 Contrary to the general view, quite a few official records survive concerning Commonwealth infantry. In general, information concentrates on organizational details, but does describe ‘Select’ infantry uniforms from 1581 to 1630. Certainly this is a very important and fundamental, but inconclusive, link in the chain of evidence for infantry uniform evolution.

Commonwealth King Stefan Batory played a key role organizing infantry and ordered the establishment of ‘Select’ infantry on July 10, 1578 (‘Select’ infantry were not elite troops as the name implies to modern ears, but rather conscripts from estates owned by the Crown).  These were to report ‘in coats of colors and details similar to that of other infantry’[xxix]. This detail is important, because two things are established: 1) that select infantry was in 1578 not the first infantry in the Commonwealth with "uniform colors", and 2 ) that general “uniform colors” (i.e. the usual uniform of Polish infantry) was the same as that of the Select infantry, i.e. – blue, or light-blue.

 There are two premises for our conclusion that the uniform established by Zygmunt Augustus for infantry in 1557 was blue...............


............. The basic uniform color for dragoons was green. Our sources mentioned only one unit of dragoons, that Weyher’s dragoons were dressed in 1645 on the model of infantry - in blue. And this is logical, if one treats dragons as mounted infantry. But in this case we are talking about a single unit of dragons in a magnate’s private army.  d'Avaux states that  Green served for dragoons as a general convention. We cited several sources already concerning 1703,  that dragoons wore green uniform coats  with collar, facing and lining in red.  The rankers were in dark green, non-commissioned officers and trumpeters and drummers were in lighter green. Trousers had suede seats reinforced for riding. By 1703 dragoons started to wear tricorn hats instead of the black colpak. So, at some point in the 17th C. uniform of green color became standard, as codified in the uniform reforms of August II. Perhaps, from this time lies the origin of the name of the color ‘vert de dragon’. The Stanisławowski Reforms of 1775 set the uniform color for dragons as dark green. c.........ostume..............

[i] Simonis Starovolsci, Institutorum Rei Milłtaris Libri VIII... Cracoviae, 1640, Liber III, Caput XXI. De Ornatu et Yestitu Militum, s. 148.

[ii] fabled eastern warrior ancestors of the Poles

[iii] Kopia: 18 foot long lance of the hussars

[iv] Niektóre okoliczności bezkrólewia po obraniu Henryka. Wybranie Stefana Ba torego. Z rękopisu   Orzelskiego,   J.  U.   Niemcewicz.   Zbiór  pamiętników o dawnej Polszcze, Lipsk 1839, t. II, s. 86.

[v] S. Kutrzeba, Polskie ustawy i artykuły wojskowe od XV do XVIII wieku, Kraków, 1937, s. 83L

[vi] K u t r z e b a, op. cii, s. TO.

[vii] Tamże, s. 51.

[viii] Uniform, uniformowy; używany tu w znaczeniu ścisłym jako jednolitość .w ubio rze i uzbrojeniu.

[ix] LOST!!!!

[x] Akwarela przypuszczalnie Baltazara     Gebbarda   z .r.  1605 przedstawiają ca  wjazd   orszaku   ślubnego  Zygmunta   III   do   Krakowa.   Stokholm,  Liyrustkam- maren.

[xi] Relacja ostanie politycznym i  wojskowym Polski  przez • Sebastiana  Gefali, sekretarza Jerzego Lubomirskiego. Relacje nuncjuszów apostolskich i innych osób' w Polsce. Berlin — Poznań, 1864, t. II, s. 32tf—334.

[xii] Mikołaj  Dyakowski,   Dyaryusz Wiedeńskiej Okazyi r. 1683, Kraków, 1861, s. 63.     .

[xiii] Regulamin z r. 1.IX.1746 dla wojsk W. Ks. Lit.   Kit o wieź,  Opis obyczajów, Kraków, 1925, s.

[xiv] Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie. Galeria malarstwa XVI w.

[xv] Giovanni Paolo> M u c a ń t e,  Diariusz z podróży... Kardynała Henryka Gaeta no w Polsce (tłum. J. U.  Niemcewicza).   J.  U.   Niemcewicz,   Zbiór pamiętni ków o dawnej Polszcze, Lipsk 1839, t. II, s. 112.

[xvi] Starowolski   Szymon,  Eąues  Polonus,  Venet.   1628,  Wyd.  Turowskiego, Kraków, 1858

[xvii] Wypis z podróży Pani de Guebriant, posłowej nadzwyczajnej do Polski za Władysława IV, s. 204.

[xviii] Sebastian   Cefali,   Relacja o stanie Polski,  1665, Czas  1859.

[xix] Przesławnego wjazdu do Krakowa  i...  koronaciej Henryka  Walezyusa...  wir- szem opisanie przez Mathysa Strykowius a..., Kraków, 1574, przedruk XIX w., s. 448—51.

[xx] Nowakowski F. K., Źródła do dziejów Polski zebrane i wydane, Berlin 1841, Sz. Morawski, Dod. do Czasu 1859, s. 244. Za nimi B. Gembarzewski, Husarze, 1939, s. 12.

[xxi] Diariusz z podróży i pobytu kardynała Henryka Gaetano w Polszcze, pisany przez sekretarza jego Giovanni Paulo   M u c a n t e   (tłumaczenie J. U. Niemcewi cza). J. U. Niemcewicz,  Zbiór  Pamiętników  o   dawnej   Polszcze.   Lipsk,   1939, tom II, s. 111.

[xxii] W Muzeum Wojska Polskiego znajduje się 7 proporców husarskich z jedwabiu karmazynowego z białymi wężami.

[xxiii] Jak ods. 8.

[xxiv] Z powodu niemożności obejrzenia oryginału, dokładnej kopii lub ścisłego opisu.

[xxv] Kurier Warszawski  nr 114 z 1827, za nim „Flora  pismo krakowskie, za nim Łukasz Gołębiowski,  Ubiory  w Polszcze...  Warszawa   1830,  s.  249.

[xxvi] 223 E. G. G e y e r, Geschichte Schwedens, Hamburg 1836, t. III, s. 121. Notatkę tę zawdzięczam uprzejmości mgr. Jerzego Teodorczyka.

[xxvii] Wypis z podróży p. de G u e b r i a n t, s. 173.

[xxviii] Wojciech  Dębołęcki,   Przewagi   elearów   polskich   co   ich   Lisowczykami zwano, Poznań 1623. Puławy 1830

[xxix] I. Polkowski. Sprawy wojenne króla Stefana Batorego... z lat 1576—1586. Kraków, 1887, s. 118.



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Article: Polski Ubior (Polish Dress)