Five hundred years of Turkish presence in the Balkans left many indelible marks, tangible and spiritual, on our people. In material culture, there have been many garments that were influenced by, or borrowed from, Ottoman Turkish culture.
These garments can be found in all regions where Serbs lived, even outside of the boundaries of the old Ottoman Empire. Some adoptions were linguistic – for example, the words for socks or kercheif (čarape, marama) are turkisms but the garment has remained Slavic. Others were material, with some degree of modification (jelek, dolama, libade) or virtually no modification (mintan, misiraba, džube) from the Turkish versions of the garment. Modifications occurred over time, slowly and organically. Sometimes they ended up being significant – for example, there is no confusing the jelek of a Serbian woman in the Morava valley with a Turkish yelek – while others were much more subtle. An example of subtlety can be found in the dimije, the wide ‘harem pant’ garment worn by Turkish, Serbian, Roma, Bosnian Muslim and Albanian women in the southern regions of Serbia, in Bosnia, and in the past in urban costume, too. The dimije of an Orthodox Serbian woman were gathered at the ankle and decorated with an elaborate ankle band of gold or silver thread srma. They were without exception solid coloured; prints were the domain of Roma and Muslim women, while Serbian women of wealth would only allow themselves the luxury of damask designs or stripes woven into the solid-coloured fabric. The front panels of dimije worn by Serbian women were elaborately decorated in srma and passementerie trim, generally at the waist and along each thigh. The manner of tying and wearing the garment differed, with Serbian women using broad sashes of soft cloth as a drawstring (učkur – another turkism, by the way!)
When it came to upper garments, the distinctions were less obvious. Garments intended for Serbian women were made of both solid and patterned materials, sometimes opulent silks and velvets, other times sturdy cotton fabrics. These upper garments sometimes had parallels in Slavic costume elements. For example, the sleeveless long vest džube is the sophisticated urban cousin of the village zubun. Adoption of the džube into Serbian costume was not simply a question of fashion, but a necessity, it could be said. The urban Serbs of Prizren would have had not-so-distant connections to the villages of their predecessors, and simply put, married women wore a zubun. Urban women could not forego this, but at the same time could not wear village clothing, so… voila! Let’s wear a Džube.
Besides the well-known jelek, other upper garments included the mintan, the salta, and the misiraba.
The jeleci (pl) of Vranje, Prizren, Djakovica and other southern towns were generally short, not reaching to the waist. Often, they were never intended to be buttoned up, so the two panels remained open on the wearer. They had ornamentation of gold srma, with rows of srmajli dugmad – decorative buttons made of gold srma woven overtop a wool or cloth form. The jelek from Vranje that I have in my collection is, I believe, a textbook example of such a vest. It is small, clearly the jelek of a child, but opulent. It is so well ornamented in srma that the wine-coloured velvet is only seen in snippets, here and there. Another jelek, from Djakovica (shown here) is similarly resplendant in detail.
The mintan is an elegant upper garment, worn (in different forms) by both men and women. It endured in the women’s costume in the form of a short vest, in all respects very much like the jelek, with long slit sleeves. To me, the mintan conjures up images of Koštana, a play by Bora Stanković about a gypsy girl of the same name, living in Vranje, who has found herself the object of an infatuation by Mitke, a middle aged čorbadžija (wealthy merchant) and hadžija (hadži, pilgrim to the Holy Land or Mount Athos) who is fighting with the passing of his youth by revelling in his memories. In one of the most famous scenes, he recounts an encounter with a beautiful Turkish woman in Istanbul, whom he sees in the beautiful young Koštana:
“Night had fallen, the moon was low on the horizon, and she, Redžep’s daughter, waits for me. She lay down on her bed cushions, nude, young, perfect …to see her once, you would weep! She had tossed her arms above her head, her ivory skin, her dark hair flowing about her, and waited for me. She kept looking toward the door, singing…Rafistinde on alma, beš i al, beš i alma! Ten apples sat on the shelf, five for me, five for you… That song, Koštana, that song and only that song shall you sing for me! Take off your mintan, raise you arms over your head… Koštana! Come on, sing! Do you want money? Here… take it!…”
“Noć padnala, mesečina se spustila, a ona, Redžepovica, čeka me. Legla na dušeci, gola, mlada, kapka… Snaga! Da cuneš, pa da se zaplačeš! Ruke više glavu frljila, kosu crnu, fildiš, rasipala oko sebe i – čeka me! Gleda u vrata, gleda kako bi me odma, još od prag, s’s svoje puste crne oči opila, izela… Gleda, čeka me, i poje! Rafistinde on alma, beš i al, beš i alma! Na raf ima deset jabuka, pet za men, pet za teb. Tuj, Koštana, i samo tuj pesmu da mi poješ! Mintan da skineš; ruke gore, više glavu… Koštana! De, poj! Bakšiš? Kesa? Eve na!…”
– Bora Stanković, Koštana, 1924
Embarrassed at such an affront to her modesty, but sympathetic to Mitke and his emotions, she agrees to sing: “Ali ovakva da sam. Da ne skidam mintan.” – “But, as I am. I will not take off my mintan.”
I have acquired two mintani (pl) in my collection. They conform to the two most common styles of mintan that were produced, and both are from the end of the 19th century. The first mintan is from Prizren in the Serbian region of Kosovo. It is made of a striped silk cloth quilted over cotton padding and a lining of printed cotton industrially produced cloth. The bodice has a deep rounded neckline, and closes with small metal fasteners on the underside of each front panel. The ornamentation is of gold srma and black silk gajtan braid. The srma is mainly embroidered, but much of the gajtan has been applied in a technique called couching, where the strands are stitched through the cloth at only a few places, but then stitched onto the surface of the cloth with thin thread. Each side of the slit sleeves has a different geometric design – a large rhombus on the front, and a series of “arrows” (strelice) on the back. This style of slit sleeve is called čevken rukavi, or čevken sleeves. It is a corruption of the Turkish word čepken, a type of levantine garment with this type of sleeve. The čevken sleeve is meant to hang from the shoulders, freeing the arms and showing the sleeves of the wearer’s overblouse, a garment known as burušluk rukavi (silken sleeves), that was worn overtop a sleeveless shift.
My second mintan is from southern Serbia, the city of Vranje. It is an amazing testament to the art and craft of a long-forgotten terzija craftsman. Vranje was an important site of production of many of these garments. The Vranje mintan has the most unusual feature of being sewn from a single piece of bordeaux red velvet cloth, something that becomes apparent when it it laid flat. It is heavy with gold srma, applied along the sleeves, front bodice and back in both geometric and in stylized botanical designs. This one has been acertained to have been made in the last quarter of the 19th century, and although it is from Vranje, it may have been made in Prizren or Djakovica, Kosovo region. It conforms to the sub-group of mintan known as misiraba, which comes from the old Serbian word for Egypt, Misir, and the turkism aba, meaning garment – thus, the Egyptian-style garment.
Other somewhat more modestly decorated garments were also part of the urban costume of southern Serbian women. Two of these are in my collection and they belong to a form known as the salta. This term originated in Leskovac, actually, but was applied to the garment outside of that city as well. The two I acquired both came from Prizren. One is very simple, and was possibly and everyday garment. It has no elaborate ornamentation, just a simple border of passementerie (industrially-produced trim, generally imported from France or Italy). It is made of a light-blue velvet and shows significant wear, albeit no tears or significant damage to the fabric. Unlike the mintan, the sleeves of the salta are not slit, and they widen only slightly at the wrist. In form, they are much more like the widely-worn type of jacket called anterija. This garment is from the early 20th century.
The second is definitely a salta intended for festive occasions. The deep blue velvet and the elaborate srma ornamentation in botanical motifs clearly demonstrate this. The method of decoration includes applique by couching, but using bućma – twisted strands of srma that are used to fill in larger areas of a design; in this case, the flower petals and the paisley designs. Like the first one, it has complete sleeves and reaches further down than a mintan would. While the bodice of a mintan generally only reaches to just below the breasts, the salta reaches down to just above the waistline. This garment is from the late 19th or early 20th century. Unlike the mintan, which was worn by Muslim women as well as Christian women, the salta was only worn by Orthodox Christian women in Prizren, Peć, Djakovica, Vranje, Leskovac, etc.
The height of beauty in all of these garments is reached in the džube, a long open vest worn primarily in Kosovo region. I acquired mine through a collector in Zagreb, of all places. There are several types of džube that were worn, the main two being sleeveless and with čevken slit sleeves. Either kind was worn over a jelek, or in the case of sleeveless ones, over a mintan or misiraba. This would give the impression of čevken sleeves, but would also have been bulkier to wear. The sleeved džube had the sleeves attached on the outside of the garment, at the shoulder, strictly in an ornamental role; wearing a jelek underneath this would have been relatively light in comparison.
The one I acquired is sleeveless, reaching to just below the knees in length. It is sewn from two front panels, two side panels (klinovi) and a back panel that widens at the hem. Along with the side panels, this created a flowing form, reminiscent in some respects of a cape. In the graceful urban dances of Prizren, the džube would sway and flow in a beautifully hypnotic way. The džube, like most, is opulent in its gold ornamentation. The ornaments are made of srma, bućum, and passementerie trim. There are two reinforced oval slits in the side of the džube. These were to allow a braided silken cord to be passed through them outward, so that the bodice of the džube could be tied just below the breasts and jelek/mintan. This džube has primarily floral or botanic ornaments, while most are mainly stylized geometric designs. It came to me in a fairly sad state, so significant restoration efforts were taken to reinforce the velvet, which was virtually crumbling in places. The weight of the gold ornamentation pulled on the cloth over the years in such a way as to tear the velvet lengthwise in many spots. It has since been restored to stop any further degradation, and a few more interventions need to happen (i.e. restitching the lining, damage to passementerie). I really enjoy the restoration work, but this garment presented my biggest challenge so far.
Fun fact: the best known džube in Serbian art is worn by the Kosovka Devojka, or Kosovo Maiden, in Uroš Predić’s famous 1919 painting. And it is totally historically inaccurate (…future blog post!!)
To me, the adoption of elements of Turkish culture into our own is a beautiful thing. It is something that is far too often politicized, and some would see all turkisms, whether linguistic or cultural, purged from our language and culture. This is not only silly, it would be impossible. These cultural borrowings and intermixings run deep, and have made our folkloric and ethnographic culture what it is, and frankly, that is beautiful.
For further reading, I would suggest this excellent publication from the Ethnographic Museum of Belgrade: