There is perhaps no costume element more elegant than the libade, a woman’s garment that became part of the urban costume. Its adoption into Serbian textile culture and spread throughout Serbian lands has some interesting historic roots.
During much of the Ottoman period, Serbs worked the land and were bound to their villages; they worked for a Turkish landowner (aga, or spahija) and paid tithes and taxes that only became more numerous over the centuries. Turkish law kept them out of most urban trades, and this meant cities were inhabited by Turks or islamicized Serbs (the origin of today’s “Bosniaks” who are in reality no more than Muslim Serbs). Jews, expelled from Spain in 1492, gravitated to Ottoman territories and became an urban population as well.
By the late 17th and early 18th century, due to migration and trade, Greeks and hellenized Aromani (known in Serbian as Cincari), an ethnic group hailing from Epirus but with ancient Thracian roots, joined the urban setting – the first Christian populations allowed to live in cities. Since they provided luxurious goods from Istanbul, Thessaloniki, Bitolj (Monastir), Jedrene (Edirne – Adrianopoulos) and Serres, and since they preferred to trade with and employ Orthodox Christian Serbs, this pressured Turkish authorities to slowly allow Serbs back to urban settings. They became apprentices, tradesmen, merchants – they re-established the Serbian character of the cities of their own land.
As the wealth of these urban Serbs began to grow, they began to reflect their new status in material ways, starting with clothing. In Vranje, Prizren, Niš, Peć, as well as in Sarajevo and Banja Luka, Serbian women wore the baggy and opulent dimije pants and elaborate outer garments of Levantine origin. Men adopted the fez in many cases, and materials such as silk crept into the elements of male costume. As Serbia struggled for and gained its independence, some items of clothing had become integral to the urban costume. For women, one of these was the libade.
The Libade is a short jacket, the front panels of which are open like a vest and taper toward the waist. In this sense, it is very similar to the Greek/Aromani kondogouni, or the Turkish yelek. The sleeves of a libade are long and flare out to a dramatic and elegant wide opening. Serbian libade was always styled in this way, while its Greek counterpart could have tapered or open sleeves. Ornamentation of the libade was limited to bodice corners and edges, back, and some decoration of the sleeves. The Greek kondogouni generally had much more opulent trimming. Stylized botanical motifs were the main decorative element, as well as gentle geometric elements.
Dragoslav Antonijević, in his comparative analysis of Serbian and Greek urban costume accounts for the emergence of the libade. He confirms the importance of the abolition of Turkish feudalism, and the ease of cultural contact between Serbian, Greek and Aromani populations. He documents the importation of materials: merchants in Zaječar began trading with Thessaloniki, while Greek merchants Koukoulides and Sakhelides of Beograd traded with Ioanina. Craft centres of terzije arose in Bitolj, Prizren, Skadar, Niš, Beograd, and Vranje; the lattermost enjoyed the reputation of being the best embroiderers of jelek, mintan, and libade garments. Antonijević writes of one Apostol Tomo Hristić, a Serbianized Aromani, having a workshop in which up to 40 master terzije worked with gold thread, or srma. He goes on to describe the following:
“From the account book kept by Petar Andrejević, a merchant from Peć [in the Metohija region – A.S.] we have learned what kind of textile fabrics were imported in the middle of the 18th century. Large quantities (measured by aršin [an old unit of measure, around 65 cm – A.S.]) of the finest cloth in red, blue, green and purple, velvet, silk, and especially gold and silk threads. He also imported a special type of felt of which feses were made. Andrejević sold his merchandise in Niš, Vranje, Pirot, Leskovac, Beograd and in other towns in Serbia”
It is important to keep in mind that both urban and folk costume constantly evolved. No one costume or element arose spontaneously, and they all built on traditions of the past. For example, documents and frescoes attest to the craft of weaving and embroidering in metallic thread was a skill already in place in Medieval Serbia. That village craftsmen, the abadžije, continued to produce vests and jackets with all of the same design elements, only in wool or cotton thread, attests to the continuity of the trade throughout the Ottoman centuries. It was not adopted from the Turks after liberation made urban life possible for Serbs; rather, that historic moment allowed the revival and expansion of an almost forgotten skill. Over time, the libade left the big cities and spread to smaller towns that were “on the rise” economically, such as Šabac in the West or Kragujevac in central Šumadija.
The libade became popular in these areas, and in some cases were as ornate and opulent as those worn by big city women. By the late nineteenth and even early 20th century, the libade was being worn in combination with elements of western european dress: hoop skirts, Georgian style blouses. A letter from Prince Miloš Obrenović to one of his advisors asks whether his daughter should get married in clothes of the “european or turkish style” – Serbia was definitely in a cultural transition by then. In fact, choice of garments was very often a political statment. Miloš’s wife, Princess Ljubica, as well as Princess Persida Karađorđević, wife of Prince Aleksandar, insisted on only wearing this Serbian urban costume, while Queen Natalija Obrenović favoured western dress.
In my collection, I am fortunate to have one libade. It originates from Niš, and it is unusual in that it is a child-sized one. This speaks to the wealth of its wearer and her family: to buy such a costly garment for a small child was a bold statement of your material standing. The libade itself is made of black velvet, with a well-preserve lining of floral stripe print industrial cotton cloth (being able to procure this was also a sign of wealth). The ornamentation is in gold thread srma, and consists of a heavy band along the bottom of the bodice and at the hems of each beautiful wide sleeve. There are four rows of srma, with a fifth at the edge consisting of chain loops of srma around green satin cloth – a very skillful terzija did this, certainly. The ornamentation is of stylized botanical elements: leaves, flower buds, clusters, the tendrils of vines. Each sleeve has a delicate triangular arrangement of these, and larger versions are on the two front vest panels.
On the back, the same type of ornament is repeated at the nape of the neck and the lower centre border. As in many vests of the time, it has ornamentation along the back seams: loops of srma continuous with the border, revealing more of the green satin at its centre (indicating that there is an entire layer of this expensive cloth between the velvet and the lining). It is these loops and their execution which date this libade to the late 19th century. Finally, the collar and the edges of the front panels bear needlemarks and some loose threads. The libade appears to have had at one point a fur trim, most likely fox, which has long since been removed for some reason.
To me, the libade is one of the most interesting elements of Serbian costume. It is unique in form from both the Turkish and Greek garments that it emulated, distinctly elegant in its cut and shape, an embodiment of elegance in its balance of opulence and reserve in ornamentation, and fascinating as an example of material culture crossing first cultural, then social, divides. As a product of the emergence of a modern Serbian state after centuries of Ottoman control, the Libade’s story parallels the story of its people.
Dragoslav Antonijević, Common Elements in the Town Costumes worn in Serbia and Greece in the 19th Century. 1983, Balkan Studies 24(2): 343 – 353