An eternal question, one that pops up very frequently in Serbian folk songs… Sorry, Madonna – before you, it was the Serbs who asked, “Who’s that girl?”
We beat you to it, Material Girl. In a culture where, traditionally, female modesty and arranged marriages were once very highly held, it is no wonder that the mystique of a beautiful woman would be the subject of songs, poems and folktales. From the haunting (but, in my opinion, flogged to death by folklore ensembles who ‘re-discovered’ it) “Čije je ono devojče?“, a Kosovo Serbian folk song, to the much more subtle Drina valley folk song “Čija li je ono djevojka?”, sung to beautiful effect by the late Nada Mamula, female beauty has been poetically remembered in Serbian songs. In fact, one of the highest compliments a young man could be given used to be “lep kao devojka” – “as beautiful as a maiden”. It was part of the idioms and slang of a not-so-long gone generation, the generation of my parents.
Now, a little mystery is nice, but sometimes a girl wants you to know her name, right? Again, with the constraints of traditional modesty and propriety, there was nothing akin to what we would today call dating. Young people met and socialized at seasonal fairs (sabori, vašari, panađuri), at work in the fields – especially at organized large-scale cooperative work, called moba – and at the prelo work bees of many a village night. At a prelo, girls would gather to card and spin wool, knit, embroider. The young men would of course drop by, with song and flirtation gradually taking everyone’s mind off work. It was, of course, not unknown for a young man and girl to draw away from the prelo and find some privacy under a moonlit sky. This is immortalized in many a folk song, too.
Emerging in the 19th century (so, actually quite late in our traditional life) girls took advantage of their skills in needlework to get the message across. Instead of limiting their embroidery to the floral and geometric motifs they most used, young women began embroidering monograms, initials, and sometimes their entire names onto clothing and decorative cloths. The practice of embroidering letters or text was certainly known in Serbia prior to this time; it dates back to the medieval period, but was primarily limited to ecclesiastic use.
The best known example of this was created by Jelena Mrnjavčević, the widow of Prince Uglješa, who had fallen at the Battle of Kosovo with Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović. Taking monastic vows, Jelena – the nun Jefimija (Euphemia) composed one of the most beautiful texts of Serbian medieval literature, the Eulogy in Praise of Prince Lazar (Pohvala Knezu Lazaru). Scholars consider this original work to be the first piece of poetry written in the Serbian Medieval vernacular by a woman. It was her expression of sorrow and anguish, meant to be draped over the casket holding the relics of the sainted prince. Executed in gold wire on the finest crimson velvet and silk, it was completed in 1402, just a few years before this extraordinary woman’s death.
Perhaps it was this association with the ecclesiastic that kept text or monograms out of the folk art repertoire of our ancestresses, but a more likely explanation comes from the events of the 19th century itself. After two rebellions, Serbia had freed itself from Ottoman rule. Although final and total independence took decades to achieve, mainly thanks to a series of conditions and caveats set by the Turks to slow their departure from the Balkans, Serbians were no longer serfs. They could accumulate personal wealth. They were communicating more freely with their fellow Serbs in Bosnia, Montenegro, and most importantly, in the lands of the still vibrant Austro-Hungarian Empire. Serbs living in these regions had a key role in funding and aiding the rebellions, freeing prisoners and slaves, and supporting education in Serbia. Through this contact with Pannonian Serbs in particular, they became exposed to the fashions and trends of Vienna, Budapest, Novi Sad – especially the Biedermeier decorative movement, with its over-the-top opulence.
Pannonian Serbian women had already been practicing many textile arts that could trace their origins to central Europe: lace making, crochet, cut work, and metallic embroidery. The lattermost, called zlatovez in Serbian, was used especially by in the ornamentation of upper garments such as vests for both women and men, coats, aprons, kerchiefs and caps. The caps that were worn in the region took several forms. The most common, the džega, was a shallow cap worn on the crown of the head, often tied in place with ribbons attached to it. Both ribbons and cap were covered in stylized botanical motifs, outlined in a stem stitch (ovijenac) and filled in by satin stitch (puni vez), often overtop cotton or wool that made the embroidery more pronounced and gave it an added richness. Another form, the oglavlje or headdress kerchief, had elaborate gold embroidery limited to its broad borders. A third, the zlatara (literally, golden cap) was worn by brides at their wedding and at special occasions throughout their first year of marriage. In Banat, especially, these zlatare (pl.) were works of art. With a cap somewhat similar to the džega, but arching higher, this bridal cap had very long decorative ribbons that hung down the bride’s back. It was typical for the bride’s initials to be embroidered on these ribbons or on the base of the cap itself, often along with the year of marriage.
In Srem region, the people are known to be bold, lively, sometimes sly, always jocular. It is no wonder that in this region, young women took to embroidering their entire names onto their marame (pl) (kerchiefs). The kerchief was made of a triangular piece of velvet, satin, or the heavy silk known as atlas. Gold embroidery was done at the front i.e. the long side of the triangle. For Croatian women in this region and in neighbouring Slavonija region, this portion of embroidery was the most opulent, often combining both gold and silver embroidery, augmented with silk thread and sequins. For Serbian women, the most decorative portion of the marama was on the corner that would cover the nape of her neck. This canvas let a girl proudly let you know who she was.
From these Pannonian zone regions, the trend of embroidery shifted toward central Serbia. By the early 20th century, it becomes more common to encounter initials or (much rarer) names embroidered on garments, most often aprons. These were generally kept discrete but central; one example from the village of Drenovac near Paraćin in the central Morava valley (Pomoravlje) is shown below. The embroidery is very simple, and the script initials Д В (D V latin) and surrounding wreath are done in chain stitch (lančanac)
A bride prepared this lovely marama for her wedding day, in the village of Brestovac near Negotin, in the Timok region. The initials, A П (A P latin) were embroidered in two different orientations, so that they could be read while the kerchief was worn. The traditional mode of wearing these rectangular kerchiefs was with one panel hanging down the back (the one with the upright orientation) while another was draped under the chin and over a shoulder (the horizontal orientation).
Although it was rarer for full names to appear on textiles of the Morava region, some could be found, especially in the interwar period (1918 – 1940). A very beautifully executed apron came to my collection in 2014. It is embroidered in cotton thread on a coarse black burlap. Humbly tucked among the roses and peonies, one can find the name Невена Мичић – Nevena Mičić. It is executed with a skill that indicates the embroiderer’s youth and relative unfamiliarity with the techniques needed for a name or initials. It is from the village of Vrbica near the city of Aranđelovac, central Serbia – Šumadija.
One of my most recent acquisitions came to me when a friend alerted me to an online sale of costume items. I managed to acquire a skirt and apron from an unknown village in the district of Smederevo, central Serbia – Danube valley (Podunavlje). I am including it here because it bears the evidence of a name once proudly embroidered on it: a girl with the picturesque and utterly beautiful village name Malina (literally, raspberry). I still have not been able to fully decipher the last name, which was embroidered first. Her relative was only able to tell me her married surname, Pantić. The holes where somebody chose to remove traces of poor Malina’s memory are barely visible.
The influence of the Biedermeier/Pannonian tradition of monograms and initials did not really make an impact in Dinaric areas of Bosnia, Montenegro, Hercegovina, Lika or Dalmatia. We sometimes find texts on wedding cloths or kerchiefs, but these are late in the 20th century, 1950 to present. A friend of mine has some costume pieces from his native Vrlika, in northern Dalmatia. Traditionally, the women there wore a plain white linen kerchief; however, they too began embroidering their kerchiefs after approximately late 1950s or early 1960s. Partly, this was because of the resettlement of hundreds of Dinaric Serbs to Vojvodina after WWII. This was done to ostensibly reward those who fought for the Partisans (as was the case with Montenegrins, primarily, in Vojvodina), but also with the intent of de-Serbianizing their home regions. They were settled in villages once inhabited by ethnic Germans or Volksdeutsch, Donauschwaben who either fled or were expelled for siding with the invading German army. It was only a matter of time before design elements of the Pannonian zone began creeping into the needlework of these Dalmatian women now in the villages of Srem or Bačka. The two examples, below, are from women originally from the village of Koljani near Vrlika. This and several other villages were flooded when the Perućac dam was built (again, only Serbian villages were destroyed, including a medieval monastery… just saying) and they were resettled in Srem. The design elements, especially the carnations and cross-hatched heart on the kerchief on the right, are distinctly Pannonian. Another effect is seen in the initials themselves: they are in Latin script, not cyrillic.
Generally, the Austro-Hungarian influence did not reach Kosovo and Macedonia and other southern areas. With their primarily geometric designs in both embroidery and weaving, initials and monograms are simply not traditional there. However, I do have an unusual piece in my collection. It came to me from a collector in Cavtat, Croatia. It is a wedding dress with an unusual story.
The beautiful dress is sewn from white linen and has both botanic and geometric embroidery. The botanic is mainly on the skirt, and they are cherries. The geometric are stylized crosses (rascvetani krst) and are on the bodice and sleeves, sequins add to the ornamentation. The young woman who embroidered it also embroidered her name… twice! Once on each shoulder. There, clear as day, in a cross stitch executed in gold coloured cross stitch, stands the name ЗЕЈНЕПА – Zejnepa. This is a distinctly muslim slavic name. So, why crosses? The story I was told fascinated me. The dress belonged to a woman who lived in Prizren, but had been born in the village of Dragaš, in the Prizrenska Gora part of Šara mountain. She was a Goranka, that is, a Serbian Muslim. The Gorani speak an archaic form of Serbian or Torlak dialect that they simply call naš jezik – our language. They use cyrillic as their script, and can tell tales of exactly how their ancestors came to be converted to Islam. During the second world war and after it, they were heavily pressured to assimilate and Albanianize. They have resisted this, despite in some cases being forced to take Albanian surnames by local party authorities. In any case, this Zejnepa Pelivanović married an Orthodox Serb living in Prizren, but originally from the village of Mušutište, by the family name of Ristić. She took his faith, and was to be baptized on her wedding day, too. In honour of this, she embroidered her dress with crosses, and the cherries are a reference to a Serbian wedding song in Kosovo: Trešnja se s koren trešnjaše, mlada se moma udaše… A cherry tree has grown tall from its roots, A maiden today is wed…
Besides garments, girls embroidered towels or peškiri. These were mainly decorative or ritual towels, used at weddings, baptisms, even in funeral rituals. The ones meant to decorate homes often had domestic scenes embroidered on them, humours verses, greetings such as welcome (dobro došli) or good morning (dobro jutro). One that I acquired from a collector in Zrenjanin (the former Bečkerek) in Banat region is a decorative cloth with the initials М Г (M G Latin). Another very common thing to embroider initials or names on were handkerchiefs or maramice. Very often, these were gifts for young men that a girl was fond of, but sometimes they were intended for personal use. I have one in my collection from Banat region, with letters Љ Ж (Lj Ž latin) embroidered on one corner in lavender cotton thread, the same thread that the crochet lace trim was made from. The colour and trim tell us that this was a girl’s personal handkerchief.
Two other handkerchiefs have stories that are very dear to my heart. The first one, because it belonged to my father. As a soldier with the royalist resistance during WWII (the former Yugoslav Royal Army, or četnici) my father was swept up by the maelstrom that hit his homeland: taken prisoner as a military cadet in Subotica near the Hungarian border; escaping, and making his way back to his home village, only to find it devastated and his family gone; making his way to Čajetina, where he had spent his teen years and early 20s living with his uncle’s family; seeing battle throughout Serbia and in eastern and north-central Bosnia; ending up in a displaced persons camp in Austria. Among what little he brought to Canada with him was this one tiny remembrance: a maramica with a single multicoloured flower on it, and the name Милица Гвозденовић – Milica Gvozdеnović.
Another is dear to me because it comes from the early days of one of the most enduring love stories I know – that of my godfather (kum) Ljubomir Prtenjak and godmother (kuma) Milica – Mica Prtenjak, nee Stojković. Kuma Mica was the most skilled woman I ever knew when it came to needlework and textiles. She could process wool, cotton, flax…. She spun wool… She could dissassemble and reassemble a loom on her own… She could weave the finest linens, and the thickest bedcovers, and brightest most intricate ćilim rugs. She truly had what Serbs call zlatne ruke – golden hands. She was from the village of Trešnjevica near Arilje, and Kum Ljubo was from Kotraža village near Guča. Their families traded with each other and their fathers knew one another well. He had caught her eye. So, she did what any golden-handed young woman of her time would have done: she embroidered him a maramica. But, what a maramica! Variegated flowers all around the borders surround the following text:
Марамица са девет боја, везла рука моја. Ја је везла, други носи, нека му је Богом проста. За успомену и дугог сећања.
Maramica sa devet boja, vezla ruka moja. Ja je vezla, drugi nosi, neka mu je Bogom prosta. Za uspomenu i dugog sećanja.
This handkerchief of nine colours, my hand embroidered it. I embroidered it, but another carries it, may he go with God. A memento, so that you may remember me for a long time.
And, just to really hit the target, an embroidered stylized Serbian crest, the two-headed eagle with a crown. To a staunchly traditional monarchist like Ljubomir, this was the sign that she was a keeper!
Nowadays, people are reviving many old traditions and old arts. In a modern context, you can find many skilled hand embroiderers who will make custom items – clothing, traditional costume pieces, wedding cloths, etc. One particularly successful enterprise is the Zavičaj Organization of Sevojno, near Užice in Western Serbia. Through the efforts of Mr. Saša Drndarević and his family, they have revitalized the village of Zlakusa, engaging the women in all manner of textile arts, the men in traditional pottery, and the youth in folkloric pursuits, with a perspective to keep them from going to cities further afield. In Belgrade and other large cities, companies that machine embroider are also offering traditional items – some glitzy and kitschy, others approaching an authentic look, and others
still forge ahead in their own urban style, recognizing the need for modern materials and practicality, and adapting tradition to this. Purists may be aghast, but if you look at our ethnography, isn’t this what our ancestors did, slowly and over a longer period of time? Buttons replaced ties, aniline dyes replaced natural ones, new fibres and materials came into use alongside wool and cotton. Personally, I am pleased to see some, such as the company Darovez, at least making an effort to produce a good product using cyrillic lettering, like the lovely towel mongram shown here. Traditions will change, whether we like it or not. It is up to us to preserve the ones that are most meaningful to each of us personally, to preserve and share the skills and techniques that others should know, and spread the knowledge and understanding of our heritage and material culture.
For further reading: Čija je ovo Kapa? M. Šarac-Momčilović, Ethnographic Museum of Belgrade, 2006.