Folk dress in Latvia has played and still plays an important symbolic role in the preservation of national values and cultural heritage and in the creation of a common social awareness among people. Nowadays the traditional folk dress is worn for festive occasions both personal and national level. The garments not only display a social status but also origins and traditions of a particular region of Latvia.
It is possible to make out two historic periods of specific traditions that characterize Latvian folk dress. First is the period from 7th to 13th century, which is also known as the “ancient dress” period. The second one dates back to 18th and 19th century and is often referred as “ethnic” or “ethnographic dress”.
Ancient Latvian Dress (7th – 13th century)
The Ancient dress period is well known for its usage of bronze – rings, spirals, brooches. During this period both men and women had clothing made from locally grown flax and fleece, while shoes and caps were made mostly from furs and leather of domestic or wild animals. The cloth consisted from plain weave or twill. Most of the clothing was made locally while trading routes to Scandinavia, Russia and even the Middle East provided tribes with jewelry.
Did you know: The clothing of the time had no pockets, therefore, one of the most important accessories was the belt or a sash. It not only helped with keeping garments together, but also was used for attaching everyday items like purses, keys or even a knife or a water container.
Latvian Ethnic Dress (18th – 19th century)
German influence left a significant impact on Latvian traditional clothing up until early 20th century. Under German rule the tradition of decorating clothing with bronze disappeared. Also naalbinding items gradually disappeared and the tradition of knitted mittens, gloves and socks developed, reflecting regional differences in ornament and color.
Records from the 18th century (Johan Christoff Brotze 1742-1823) affirm that the most common color of Latvian peasant’s dress was the natural white and grey of linen and wool. Most Latvians’ clothes were natural grey, while for decoration they kept to the century old traditional four color scheme of blue, red, yellow, and green.
At the turn of the 19th century, men wore homespun coats, mostly of a natural grey color decorated with red, green or blue cord. In summer, linen overcoats were worn, while in winter long homespun woolen or fur coats. Men’s clothes of dark blue, brown or natural black appeared in the second half of the 19th century when industrially-made cloth was used for festive clothing. Men also wore vests, but only for special occasions.
Women still preferred linen shirts. The visible upper part was made of the finest linen cloth, but the hidden part under the skirt was made of crude linen. To cover the shirt women used long skirts, coats of different lengths and also woolen shawls. A favorite jewelry used by Latvian women was the silver brooches, decorated with thimble-like bubbles and/or red glass pebbles or beads. These were worn as fasteners for shawls on the chest.
Did you know: Mittens were commonly given as gifts, especially at weddings and also at funerals. Even in summer for some festive clothing the men used ornamented mittens as integral part of their appearance, usually stacked behind the belt.
You can find five larger regions in Latvia with their own specific traditions also in spoken dialect and dress culture. These regions are Vidzeme, Kurzeme, Zemgale, Sēlija and Latgale. Regional borders were never strictly marked and a certain cultural exchange always has existed. Main variations amongst the regions are better displayed in women’s’ dresses, for example, the colour schemes, different cuts, compositions and embroidery. Also decoration of shawls, mittens, socks and sashes differs in each region.
Vidzeme region dress
The skirt was the brightest garment of women’s dress in Vidzeme, which was multicoloured, and existed in many different variations. Stripes were characteristic for the first half of the 19th century, while tartan became popular in the second half. When stripes predominated, they even adorned men’s trousers and vests. Meanwhile the white woolen shawls were richly embroidered and reached halfway to the wearer’s calf. The white festive shawls were held in place with silver brooches while the capes and scarves were never pinned. Throughout Vidzeme, married women covered their heads with tower shape like caps, usually of white linen and sometimes tied with a silk scarf.
Kurzeme region dress
The dress of Kurzeme reflects not only the traditions of Latvians and Livs (the indigenous people) but also of closest neighbors – Lithuanians, Estonians and Poles.
It was the second part of 19th century when the dress of Kurzeme witnessed radical changes. Namely, the bright chemical dye clours came to be. It began with bright stripes appearing in the north and east of Kurzeme and colourful red in the southwest. A characteristic feature for the bright monochrome skirts was the ornamented lower edge, sometimes made form a band of a different colour. In the same way a widespread tradition in some parts of Kurzeme was for both men and women to wear bronze belts, while in the seaside districts, people adorned their clothes with small amber brooches and strings of beads made from pieces of amber. More than in other regions, the garments of Kurzeme contains industrially-produced textiles and clothing accessories like silk, velvet, brocade also glass and metal.
Zemgale region dress
Atypical for a border region, it does not show any resemblance to its neighboring Lithuanian clothing. Zemgale dress has traits of Finno-Ugric traditions, especially in the earliest examples of its garments. Nevertheless it has developed its own unique style whit vertical weft-patterned stripes. A very common is the rose motif which is followed by the zigzag, diamond and triangle motives. A wide woven sash can be found worn above the skirt, which stood out with patterned red suns and crosses alternating on a white background, finalized with a thin thread of blue or green along the center line.
Sēlija (Augšzeme) region dress
There are many similarities to that of Lithuanian dress. Nevertheless a stand out garment is the linen shirt, shaped like a tunic with sewed in shoulder-pieces. This trait demonstrates an ancient tradition unknown anywhere else in the Baltics. The most typical Sēlija skirt has vertical stripes with tiny patterns or batik yarn. Other patterns include herringbone motifs, zigzags or twisted bicoloured yarn. Among Sēlija region dresses one will also find brightly striped or tartan skirts and elaborate white woolen shawls, richly embroidered along the edges.
Latgale region dress
Latgale region has the most international (Estonians, Russians, Belarussians, Selonians, Lithuanians) influences in traditional dress. Skirts were usually white with a red-patterned lining on the lower edge. In the south, linen tunic shirts were of more traditional cut, sometimes with a very narrow red-decorated shoulder-piece. The skirt had vertical stripes of naturally dyed, but bright colours. The white woolen shawls of this area of Latvia can be distinguished by their size and their richly embroidered ornaments in dark blue, yellow, green and red.
Characteristic throughout Latgale was the intense use of linen in clothing, as garments such as shawls and skirts for summer festive dress were often made from linen. Latgale was the region where industrially-produced clothes were seldom used by peasants: all garments were usually home-made. In Latgale, bast footwear from linden bark or tow cord was more popular than in other regions.
The Latvian folk dress nowadays.
Today both the ethnographic and the ancient dress can be found in Latvia in a number of contexts. A large collection of ethnographic and ancient dress and their replicas can be found in the collection of the Latvian National History Museum. Meanwhile, the largest concentration of the traditional costumes per square meter can be observed in real-time during the nationwide Song and Dance Celebration. But if you are looking for a chance to see the folk dress in action today, try finding a local Latvian dance ensemble, choir or a folk group performance near you.
The national folk dress today is an expression of nation’s sense of beauty, ability to form an ornament and put together colours as well as knowledge of the craft. It symbolizes the historical values and centuries-old traditions of making and wearing the costume, which have been passed on from generation to generation.
© Ieva Pīgozne & Latvian Institute 2015; Photos: Latvian Institute; Evija Trifanova; Valters Poļakovs; AG; Latvian National Centre for Culture;