Costumes of Central and Eastern Europe before the Second World War

From: Saturday, 1 November 2014 to Monday, 25 May 2015

An exhibition curated by Deborah Whitford

Extraordinary skills can be seen in this exhibition. These skills are the reason I began collecting the costumes that are shown here. Unfortunately, however, the skills that have been involved in the costumes’ creation can be lost very quickly through social and political change, especially where hardship is involved. This exhibition makes a contribution toward their preservation.

I think the costumes exude joy and represent a celebration of nature and of life. Many of these items have been created during moments that were snatched from a busy day of hard toil, often at night (sometimes without electricity). It is thus not hard to imagine that steady enthusiasm would have been required for the work – a labour of love, as it surely must have been – to be completed. 

I have included in the exhibition costumes from Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. These regions are only part of Central and Eastern Europe, but  they are where I have travelled and been able to source the costumes – which, in the main, have been discarded as outdated under the influence of the Communist governments since the late 1940s and, more currently, in the pursuit of ‘modernisation’ (effectively, westernisation).

In some of the rural areas the costumes are still worn for certain festivities. You can see the numerous variants for wearers of various ages and sizes in the exhibits.  In Bulgaria, Romania and Moravia I found costumes are still made and worn for traditional occasions. The skills involved in their making are good but not exceptional, a term that can be applied more properly to the craft demonstrated in the older costumes.

The ideas or designs for the costumes are not confined within borders. Borders change over time, a relevant example being Bohemia and Moravia, which have long been incorporated in Czechoslovakia and presently are part of the Czech Republic. Perhaps more importantly, various cultures have dominated these regions over past centuries, each contributing their own aesthetic and taking ideas to use elsewhere.

The complicated history of these areas is reflected in the costumes. Different parts of a costume can be from different eras as they are passed down and put together to make a whole costume for a particular occasion. I have kept the descriptive labels simple. Where possible, I have gathered the information from local people, although with some costumes I have been left to wonder – which, no doubt, you will be, too.

Please note that some of the older bodices have been acquired from a German textile dealer who, being made aware of my interest, has purchased them from an American museum where some were marked in black ink denoting their country of origin.