Polish Costume of the XVII Century

By: Rick Orli

2001 rick orli

 

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To many Americans, historic Polish clothing is associated with the colorful costumes worn by folk dance troops and the like. Such familiar Polish 'folk costumes' were a 19th Century invention, associated historically with the emancipation of the serf and improved economic conditions. These are festival garments, developed based on models from the burgers, nobility and western styles, and are highly ornamented. By design, they bore little resemblance to the then current and historic daily folk attire. In the 18th and 19th Century, a style of clothing known as 'National Dress' based on the zupan and kontusz became a symbol of resistance to and independence from foreign domination. Although much modified by time, these costumes did indeed hearken back to the glory days of the 17th Century.

 

When I started research I thought that Polish fashion was much more stable than Western fashion, but I think I was wrong.  Pasek in his memoirs complains of the yearly fashion changes:

"How many continuously changing styles I remember in frocks, caps, boots, swords, harness, and in every other kind of military garment and household utensils, as well as in hair styles, gestures, walking and greeting habits!  Oh Almighty God! one could not manage to list them on ten ox skins!.  ....  The outfits which I bought abroad would have lasted me a whole lifetime - even my children would have profited by them - had they not gone out of fashion and become unstylish in a year or less.  These outfits had to be taken apart and restyled, or else had to be sold in a second hand market.  (If one did not purchase new ones) people would rush at you like sparrows at an owl:'look look!' they would point their fingers at you.  They would say that the outfit reminded them of the days of the Deluge ('Potop', 1650s).  About the ladies and their fancies I shall say nothing because I could fill an entire book."

Uniquely Polish fashion originated in the late 15th through 16th Century. Medieval garments worn throughout east Europe such as the jopula were influenced by Hungarian and Turkish costume. These were in turn influenced by the Byzantine court dress and by central Asian influences. The stereotypical caftan-like 'look' of long flowing robes was new to the early 16th Century. The Hungarian fashion had a particularly strong influence on Polish garments in the 16th Century, which was strongly reinforced by the election of the popular and effective King Stephan Bartory of Transylvania. The long Hungarian coat, the mente, was also adopted as Slovakian national dress. The Lithuanians, White Ruthuanins, Ukrainians, and most Cossacks wore Polish dress in the 17th Century. Some western areas, such as Pomorze and Silesia, wore mostly western attire, although the Cieszyn region of Silesia adopted Polish fashion.

Foreigners were not generally able to tell the various eastern fashions apart. While a Pole could spot a Hungarian in any crowd, westerners sometimes could not tell the Poles and Hungarians apart from the Turks. The Poles had to wear very conspicuous field signs of straw rope at the battle of Vienna to ensure the Austrian allies would not become confused. Poles could even easily spot the real westerner from the other Poles who affected western dress.

The court, under the rule of the Vasa kings, was typically attired in western 'Spanish' clothing - the doublet (wams) and hose; the ruff and farthingale. This has almost no influence on the dress of the nobles, who wished to stress their independence from the Crown. They often criticized the King for his non-Polish dress. An insurrection against Zymunt III had the handle of 'the rebellion of the cropped heads against the Pointed beards' (mockingly contrasting Polish and Western hairstyles). By the time of the last Vasa, Waldyslaw, the Court had learned to make a point of wearing Polish costume often. Perhaps the townsmen were influenced the most by courtly fashion, but they also often had business dealing with the West.

Commoner /peasant dress was a symbol of status, and laws forbade peasants from affecting the fashions of the nobility. This is not to say they never did this, and a serf interested in changing his status would do so, even by acquiring such clothing by theft, in desperate cases. For this reason, a peasant’s garment would generally not be called a ‘zupan’ even if it were a dead ringer for a zupan in cut and construction. Peasants generally wore older styles of a simple cut. Every peasant had a sheepskin or woolen coat, and a work and Sunday outfit. In the early 1600's times were good, and many peasants were fairly wealthy. Such men might have several to a dozen linen shirts, various work-clothing items, and a 'Sunday best' outfit complete with delia, and fur kolpak hat. The women would have letniks (one-piece pullover gowns) with ksztalts (decorative corsets) kitliks (jacket), mentliks (outer gowns/coats).

The word 'zupan' for an outer caftan-like garment started being used in the 1530s. Like the later kontuz, it was often lined with fur. By the 1570s the word started to mean an under-caftan, generally light in weight. The military version was, however, padded, since it was used under armor. The outer garment choices, which were often fur-lined except for summer-weight variations, include the delia, ferezeya, and later the kontuz. The delia was form fitting from the waste up and loose below and lacked a collar. It is often seen in illustrations being worn as a mantle (arms not through the sleeve). It was usually fastened with passementerie loops. It disappeared in the mid 17th century (in the 18th Century it came to mean a fur-lined mantle. The ferezeya in the 17th Century was a fancy indoor outer-coat, worn over the zupan. It was replaced in the 1640s by the kontuz.

The doloman was a long caftan similar in use to the zupan, but with a slightly different cut. The kopieniak was another, shorter, alternate garment to the zupan. Both of these, when fur-lined, usually functioned as complete outer garment as well.

The kontusz appeared in the 1630s, and quickly replaced most outer garments. According to Turnau, the hallmark of the kontusz is the one-piece back with a trailing long narrow rectangle of fabric, to which is attached a side skirt panel on each side. The slash in the inside arm, which allowed sleeves to be thrown back in the ‘wyloty’ style, came about in the 1650s, and then became universal in all but the heaviest of fur-lined winter-weight kontusz. The kontusz, which could be unlined soft wool for summer wear, or fur-lined for winter, might be supplemented in cold or bad weather by overcoats and mantles and capes, such as bekiesza, burka, and oponcza.

Breeches were tight during the 17th Century except for a brief period in the 1660s, when the trunkhose (choboty) came into wider use.  Turkish style full pants were occasionally in fashion in the middle third of the century.

The basic hat was the calpac/kolpak (pron. cowpack). Usually felt trimmed with fur, or made entirely from fur.

Boots were the 'Baczmagi' with high top fronts. Shoes were called 'boczkorki'.

Belts were narrow throughout the 16-17th Century and were supplemented with colorful silk sashes starting at the very end of the 17th Century

The letniks (one-piece pullover gowns) worn by the noble women were usually high-necked, but at times were quite low-cut and form fitting. The kitlik was a 'hard' (structured) fur-lined jacket, similar to the western doublet. The szotztokor was 'a tight-waisted caftan work with a long skirt, demonstrating some French influences'. The metlink was a long coat, worn indoors and out. The jubka overcoat was a simple pullover. The furmanka was a fur-lined buttoned overcoat. Women outside of Court in Great Poland and the eastern provinces did not wear Western fashion. In German-influenced Pomorze and Silesia a higher percentage wore western clothes. Some influences such as ruffs appeared in Warsaw the 1640s. Ribbons, popular and machine-made in the west, started to appear in women’s clothing and headdress in the late 1670s.

 

References:

I am particularly indebted for most of the information above to Irena Turnau and her excellent works, referenced below.

History of Dress in Central and Eastern Europe from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century, Irena Turnau, trans I. Szymanski. Warsaw, 1991.

Ubior Narodowy w Dawnej Rzeczypospolitej, Irena Turnau, Warsaw, 1991.

Memoirs of Jan Pasek

Zy..

Odziez I Wnetrza Domow Mieszczanskich w Polsce w Drugiej Polowie XVI I W XVII Wieku, by Magdalena Bartkiewicz

 

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