Serbian folk costume abounds with many types of embroidery and ornamentation, some with ancient Slavic roots, others influenced by Central Europe, and very many of Levantine or Ottoman origin. In fact much of the terminology for costume parts is a Serbianized Turkish word, or Turkism (turcizam). These include some garments that have changed little in form from the original, such as mintan, dolama, džube, misiraba; others, adapted to slavic sensibilities of design, ornamentation and structure, as happened with jelek, anterija, silav, marama, čarape.
These garments were made by skilled craftsmen, called terzije (from the Turkish terzi, tailor; itself, derived from Farsi derzi, tailor) The terzije worked in fine and costly materials, such as velvet, brocades, and the heavy silk fabric known as atlas cloth. Many of these came from Turkey, or at least Ottoman-held cities, such as Thessaloniki (Slavic Solun). Venice was also a major source of fabrics and trims, especially for those terzije working in western regions such as the Dubrovnik littoral, Hercegovina, Montenegro. The trim used on these garments was generally made from gold or silver wire, called srma. With the advent of technologies that allowed industrial weaving of metallic trims, this enabled the terzija’s wares to be worn by a broader population.
What spurred the incursion of so many Turkish costume elements into Serbian folk costume? Part of it was the same thing that drives fashion changes today: a desire to wear things that are beautiful, new and even costly. As the Serbian urban population began growing in the late 18th century, as Ottoman power waned, there was a desire to keep up with these opulent styles. In response, the Turks actually banned Christians and Jews from wearing Ottoman-style clothing. Priests had to read proclamations from the sultan and from the local pasha after their Sunday Liturgies. One such proclamation, read in Sarajevo in the late 18th Century, stated:
“Žene se moraju pokrivati, ne smiju nagizdane stajati na kućnim vratima, a ako se koja i nagizda, neka sedi u kući svojoj. Neka ne kite svoju žensku djecu dukatima… Ne smeju tursku i janičarsku odeću nositi, jer Turci to ne mogu da trpe. Ko ne posluša, biće na muke udaren.”
“Women should cover themselves up, they may not stand ornately adorned in their doorways; who among them wishes to adorn themselves, should stay in their home. Do not adorn your daughters with ducats… No Christian may wear the clothing of Turks of Janissaries, as the Turks cannot tolerate this. Who does not obey will be sent to torture”
It’s as if, in all of those centuries, they’d never even met a Serb. What was the response to this? Inat. Spite. Serbs began wearing Turkish style clothing, in opulent colours and materials, to flaunt this unjust law. This is why you see portraits of urban Serbs, and of the audacious rebel leaders – the ustanici and hajduci – dressed exactly in this style. Vuk Karadžić, like so many others, wore a fez; Prince Miloš Obrenović, a turban! All Orthodox Serbs, all exercising their inat.
The village population adopted elements of ottoman design into their clothing, too. The vests (jeleci) of both men and women were worked with srma or with fine silk braid, gajtan, in a variety of colours. The craftsmen were not always terzije, though; if they worked with more common homespun textiles, such as the woolen cloths čoja, sukno or aba, they were called abadžije.
These craftsmen learned their trade as apprentices. It took years to learn the various techniques of embroidery and applique appropriate for various types of cloth, as well as the dictates of ornamentation for all the various types of garments for both men and women. The general placement of ornaments for vests, for example, would be both front panels, seams, and back. Sometimes the back ornamentation was sparse, especially in the case where another garment would be worn over that one. By ornamenting seams, the garment was strengthened; as the more opulent ones would be passed on through generations, durability was a practical concern. This was the reason for ornamentation along the edges as well. Each garment had its own pattern and rules of decoration, but generally srma came to be reserved for women, while gajtan continued to be used for both men and women.
Geometric patterns prevailed, although floral and other botanic elements appeared very frequently: loza (the vine), list (leaf), cvet (flower), grozd (grape cluster), klas (ear of wheat). Geometric elements prevailed in men’s costume especially, and many of these bear evidence of their Levantine roots, such as the ubiquitous paisley, termed uvojak. A measure of wealth and status was expressed by the level of decoration on a man’s vest, especially in central Serbia. In western regions, these were often augmented or even replaced by metal ornaments, the remnants of long-forgotten medieval armour.
As with other crafts and trades, the terzija trade was passed on from fathers to sons. This gives rise to the Serbian last names Terzić, Terzijić, and even just Terzija. In the Torlak dialect areas, Terzin, Terzov, Terzijev; among Bulgarians and Macedonians, Terziev, Terzovski, Terzoski; and even in Greek, Terzis. Where they settled, villages or mahale (neighbourhoods) called simply Terzije arose, too. And, they found their place in folk song and dance, as well. In eastern Hercegovina, the well-known folk dance Terzije begins with two lines, one of young men (terzije) and another of young women (vezilje – embroiderers) singing this dialogue:
“Mi smo momci terzije, terzije, terzije! A mi cure vezilje, vezilje, vezilje!
Imate li djevojak, djevojak, djevojak! Imamo ih napretek, napretek, napretek!
Dajte nama do jednu, do jednu, do jednu! Nedamo vam nijednu, nijednu, nijednu!
A mi ćemo na silu, na silu, na silu! Vrag vam silu salomi, salomi, salomi!”
(We are young men, terzije; We are maidens, vezilje; Do you have any girls over there? We are overflowing with them! Give us one, then. We shall give you none. Well, we will take one will ye, nill ye! May the devil break your force!) (Hercegovinians are made of pretty tough stuff, fyi.)
A more romantic, almost erotic tone appears in the Kosovo folk song, Magla padnala v dolina (A fog fell upon the valley). Through the fog a young woman sees a terzija working beneath a tree. She challenges him to make her a jelek vest, but without measuring or cutting cloth with scissors, without piercing it with a needle – just “so oči da go sakrojiš” – “sew it with your eyes” (i.e. imagine me wearing this). He counters that he will do it, if she bakes him a pogača bread, but to sift the flour with her slender lashes, to use her tears to form the dough, and “so duša da ja ispečeš” – bake it with your fiery soul. Why such an erotic image of a tailor? Well, the terzije that did not work in a shop of their own were often itinerant migrants, and would work in the houses of their patrons for weeks or months at a time, in close contact with the daughters and wives for whom they were creating garments…. stuff happened. A lot of stuff.