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  • Writer's pictureAmber Rose Ostaszewski

Krakowianki Strój

There's been a huge interest in learning about Slavic culture, history, traditions, and folkcraft, which I adore seeing. I think people are really looking to connect with their heritage, and with the rise in awareness about ancestor work and healing ancestral trauma, I think this interest is only going to grow. One of the most frequent questions I've been asked is "where do I start?" especially when your family doesn't have "strong" traditions, or felt the need to abandon their heritage in order to assimilate to survive.

It is important to note that Slavic culture is HIGHLY regionalized. I can only speak on behalf of my Polish heritage, which is different from Belarusian heritage, which is different from Lithuanian heritage, etc...WHILE ALSO recognizing that all of these are intertwined.

We westerners struggle with this, and with one glance at the history of what is now modern day Poland, it's no reason why people get so easily confused.

Additionally, it can be terribly difficult to find accurate information unless you speak at least one of the MANY Slavic languages. There's very little written in or translated to English, let alone distributed as far west as the United States.

THEN add in the Cold War perspective that has continued to exist in America that is reductive, at best, and downright hateful, at its worst. In fact, many Americans refer to Poland as an Eastern European country, however, if you asked a handful of Poles, the majority of them would likely respond that they are Central Europeans. Look at a map and you'll see that Poland is very much centrally-located in Europe (which is probably one of the reasons why it has seen as many wars as it has, being strategically beneficial real estate for military operations). Why do Americans call Poland Eastern European? Because of the lasting impression of the Iron Curtain and its association with communist rhetoric.

So what does this have to do with Krakowianki Strój, or rather, the costume of Kraków? A lot, actually. We know that art, textiles, and clothing often reflect the broader themes happening in culture at the time including social, political, and economic trends, and the story of how the costume of Kraków became the National Costume of Poland exemplifies this.

As mentioned above, just like everything in Slavic culture, traditional folk attire is highly regionalized. The costume of Łowicz, one of the most beautiful in my opinion, with colorful rose embroideries on black velvet and a full, heavy wool skirt with vertical rainbow stripes can be immediately differentiated from the costumes of Cieszyn Silesia, with elegant, expensive fabrics and lots of silver jewelry. However, despite the existence of all these differing regional costumes, the costume of Kraków became identified as being the National costume of Poland. Why is this? This is partially due to role of Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko, but we'll just call him Kościuszko (pronounced Kosh-tyush-koh) for short.

Arguably one of the most fascinating characters in Polish history (although there are many!), Kościuszko was a military leader of [at the time] the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and was impassioned about leading Poland to freedom against Russia and Prussia, commanding an uprising against the forces in 1794. It is said that he wore the costume of Kraków in order to stay hidden amongst the peasants so as not to be recognized by Russian spies. While the uprising was unsuccessful, he became famous for his efforts not only in Poland and France, but in North America, where he served in the American Revolutionary War against the British crown, and was outspoken about his beliefs in universal human rights and freedom. Because of his popularity, Poles of all socioeconomic statuses took pride in the costume, and it served as a symbol of the people's continued resistance to gain an independent Polish nation, with pieces of it becoming a sort of uniform for those who participated in 19th century uprisings.

The basis of the woman's outfit includes:

  • Korale (pronounced kor-ael-lay): coral necklace

  • Koszula (pronounced koh-shu-lah): a white, long-sleeve blouse

  • Zapaska (pronounced zah-pah-ska): an apron, usually white to match the blouse

  • Spódnica (pronounced spood-nit-sah): a colorful skirt, usually floral print (but not always), sometimes with applique ribbon.

  • Gorset (pronounced gore-set): a tight fitting bodice/vet that closes at the front and peplum-like panels at the waist. It is often embellished with embroidery, applique, beads, tassels and other spangles.

  • Wianek (pronounced vee-ahn-neck): a floral wreath worn by young ladies, with long ribbons at the nape of the neck.

  • Tybet (tib-bet): a triangle-shaped headscarf worn by married women often made of white linen.

A recurring theme here: it is important to note that this is just the basis of the outfit, and that regionality plays a large part in the entire look. Varying types of fabric, embroideries, and embellishments differ from region to region. Even within Kraków there is what some call West Kraków and East Kraków styles. It can be so specifically regionalized, that within villages, things such as tying a tybet a certain way could identify someone by what church they attend.

For example, the Kraków costume that I am wearing above is of the Bronowice variety, featuring silk tassels called chwasty (pronounced chhuh-vah-steey) on the bodice of the gorset, and lots of patterned applique and large "coral" beads. While my babcia's gorset (below) still considered Kraków-style has what are called kaletki (pronounced kah-let-kee), small little flaps at the bottom of the bodice (instead of a peplum), is entirely decorated with sequined patterns of flowers and wheat, and laces up the front and shoulders, with no chwasty.

So what is it that I'm trying to get at? If you guessed "Slavic culture is highly regional," then congrats, you're correct! The best place to start is to resist this Americanized concept that Slavic culture is ONE thing, because it's not. Even when it tries to be (a la Krakowianki Strój as the "national" costume of Poland), there will still be unique, distinctive differences, and that's the joy in discovering your heritage. Start with your family if you can. Even if your family traditions don't seem that important, it's likely that they came from somewhere. Learn the history, the language, the folklore, and revel in its complexity, and try not to get disheartened when it seems confusing and difficult. These are the mysteries for you to explore. These are the truths for you to uncover. I believe in you, and if you ever have questions, you're always welcome to reach out!

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