There’s a Serbian folk song that says “jelek, anterija i opanci, po tome se znaju Srbijanci” – “jelek (vest), anterija (jacket) and opanci (shoes), this is what Serbians are known for”. In a specific sense, i.e. the styles of these, this is very true; in a general sense, not so much. The garments are the result of centuries of foreign influences. But what about those shoes?
Every Slavic nation has its equivalent of the peasant shoe. This is usually a simple, soft footwear, generally made of leather but sometimes of other materials. Some neighbouring non-Slavic peoples have similar footwear, indicating in some cases borrowings due to cultural contact with Slavic neighbours, but in other cases, showing just how ancient this form of footwear is.
Looking at these related cultures, we can see that the opanak has all sorts of cousins. The closest of these are right next door, the Bulgaro-Macedonian opinok (pl. opinci). Romanians, ever blurring the lines between things Latin and things Slavic, use the exact same word for their national footwear. In Moravia, the southern portion of the Czech republic, we encounter two names. Among the population of Valašsko district, they are called topanci. The Valaši (a cognate of our own Vlasi) have a legend that their distant ancestor was one of three brothers from Serbia who travelled north seeking their fortunes. The Valašsko costume bears many structural similarities to Serbian costume, and the topanci are virtually identical to the opanci of northeastern Serbia. Elsewhere in Moravia, as well as in Slovakia, you encounter the name krpce, krbce. The Polish variant, worn by the mountain-dwelling Goral population, is called kierpce. These share a common root with the word krpa – cloth, or rag – indicating the origin of Slavic footwear as strips of cloth wrapped around the foot and calf. In Serbian, these krplje or obojci are often worn alongside opanci, especially by shepherds or field workers, and often in the winter. Now, these Polish mountains form part of the Carpathian mountain chain, and extend into Ukraine. There, the Hutsul population wears a leather shoe also called opanky, but the word postoly is also used. Postoly can be made of rawhide or of other materials, such as flax stalks, reeds, or woven or plaited straw, like the Russian lapti. The word postoly comes from an old Slavic word indicating a foundation, support, or something that lies beneath something else. It persists in the Croatian folk song, Tancuj, Tancuj Crni Kos (Dance, blackbird, dance!) where the blackbird says he cannot dance barefoot, for he does not have straw or pitch with which to repair his postole. (Nemam slame nit smole, da zakrpim postole…)
The opanak (pl. opanci) endured among the Serbs, and is still viewed as a national symbol. Some of our urban modernists view it with disdain, of course, but I’d say that the majority of Serbs regards them with fondness, no matter how interested they are in folkloric things. Even the least folksy of Serbs will make a gift of mini opanci – as bookmarks, car mirror ornaments, keychains, fridge magnets, etc – to visiting friends or family. Generally this will be the type of opanak worn in the central Šumadija region. However iconic, this type of opanak is certainly not the only type, and in fact can be considered (in terms of form) a more recent arrival on the scene. There are six basic types of opanak: the prešnjak, the vrnčan, the dinaric opanak or oputnjak, the šop opanak, the Pannonian kapičar, and the central Serbian šiljkan opanak, or opanak na kljun. The lattermost has several subvarieties.
The oldest type of opanci were made of rawhide, untanned animal skins, sometimes with the animal hair still on them. Rawhide is any dried animal skin that has not been treated by leather tanning, hence their Serbian name, prešnjak (prešnjaci pl.) from presno, raw. The simplest method involved cutting a piece of hide to slightly larger than the foot, then wrapping the flaps of the hide upward until they met. These pieces would be stitched together with a rawhide strip. Alternatively, a similar mode of preparation using wooden forms is also practiced. Because of how supple this type of leather is, it made for an easy to manipulate material, so prešnjaci were generally produced by villagers on their own, at home. Some form of prešnjak can be found in every region inhabited by Serbs. It is likely that the prešnjak type of opanak was the most widespread type of peasant footwear in the last century of Ottoman rule.
The vrnčan is similar in shape to the prešnjak, and can be made of either rawhide or tanned leather. The name comes from the verb vrncati, vrnčati – to braid or twist cords firmly. This is because of the long, criss-crossing cords that hold the shoe in place, called vrnčanice. This type of opanak is very light and comfortable. Like the prešnjak, it does not have a defined sole. In Serbia, this opanak type was most common in Eastern and Southern regions, among both Serbian and Vlah populations. It can be encountered in bordering regions of Macedonia as well. There are regional variations in types of rawhide used, type of cords, and even ornamentation. The vrnčan could also be produced at home, but required more skill than the prešnjak. Over time, the trade of opanak maker – opančar – began to evolve.
The Šopski opanak is most similar to the Bulgaro-Macedonian opinok. The lower portion is identical to the vrnčan, but the upper portion is produced more precisely, with cut or plaited leather straps and with metal buckles. In some cases, the leather would be embossed with geometric patterns for particularly festive opanci (yes, there is such a thing as a dressy opanak!) and in the 20th century, the use of dyed leathers for the straps came into use as well. This opanak gets its name from the Šopi, which is not really an ethnicity as much as it is a designation of lifestyle. The Šopi are those Serbs and Bulgarians who lived high in the mountain ranges of those border lands. The Šopi are shepherds, pastoralists, known for temperamental music and dance, the preservation of archaic song and Torlak dialect, and for the excellent wool and cheese produced from their flocks. Following their flocks of sheep, the Šopi were semi-nomadic, going from pasture to pasture, living in temporary settlements called katuni, and overwintering in their home villages below. Often, katun and village were not on the same side of the mountain. Because of this, the Šopi were faced with a dilemma when the modern boundaries of Serbia and Bulgaria were being drawn up: are you a citizen of Serbia, or of Bulgaria? In Ottoman times, they did not even know this distinction. Serbs were down in their towns over there, Bulgarians were in those other valley towns over there… and everyone up here, well – we are Šopi. The townsfolk below agreed, frankly. It didn’t matter – they spoke a mutual dialect, they shared a common faith, costume, customs… must have been nice! In any case, they were counted up and tallied for one or the other country in the 19th century, but were allowed to continue their nomadism for decades to come. After WWII, the regimes in both countries stopped that.
Further west, in the Dinaric zones of Lika, Dalmatia, Bosnia, Hercegovina and Montenegro, a different opanak evolved. This is the oputnjak, named after the many thin strips of rawhide used in their construction. The strips were either interwoven as is (pleteni oputnjak), or twisted (sukani oputnjak) before being braided and knotted into position. The former is typical the further north one goes, toward Lika, and the latter is more typical as you go south, especially throughout Hercegovina, the Dubrovnik littoral of south Dalmatia, and Montenegro. Like the prešnjak and vrncan, for much of its history the oputnjak was produced by the villagers themselves. Earlier forms of oputnjak were held in place by cords or rawhide strips, but this was soon replaced by a buckled ankle strap. Oputnjaci (pl) could also be made with a leather sole but an upper formed from hemp twine, rough-spun yarn, or even industrially produced cords and twines. Today, even synthetics are used, for their cost and durability. The upper portions of a Dinaric oputnjak consists of cords (flat or twisted) threaded through the edges of the rawhide and drawn across the upper in horizontal rows called premet. Cords or strips from opposite sides were braided into a central supporting structure called preplet. The back and sides of the shoe were formed in a similar way, sometimes with highly intricate braiding. This part, the zaplet, provided a flexible and light support. The oputnjak represents one level of complexity above the vrnčan, and was in many ways a step toward the šiljkan type of opanak.
The šiljkan has so many different names, all related to its most distinguishing feature, a hooked front piece. This came in many sizes and forms, and helps us identify specific regions where an opanak was produced. Thus, we have: opanak na kljun or kljunčić (beaked opanak), opanak na rog (horned opanak), nos (nose) šljivica (little plum), šiljak (sharp point), rt or vrh (tip or peak). Unlike the oputnjak, the šiljkan was strictly made of tanned leather. Initially the tanning process resulted in a deep, reddish brown colour, giving rise to the name crvenjaci (red ones). The structure of this type of opanak relies on a thicker, more durable leather sole, but retains the same form of the front upper: premet, preplet, a top finishing braid called lozica (vine) and in older variants a braided loop called kukica (little hook) through which the leather strap that would tie the opanak to the foot and leg was threaded. As straps with buckles replaced these over time, the kukica was lost or served strictly a decorative purpose. The ornamentation of šiljkani surpasses that of any other type, and the skill required to interweave geometric designs into the upper premet and preplet portion of the shoe spurred the rise of opanak workshops and skilled opančari craftsmen. This rise was particularly noticeable in Serbia itself, while Serbs living outside of Serbia continued to mainly make their own opanci. A reflection of this is the family surname Opančar (opanak maker), which is only encountered in Serbia.
In identifying the šiljkan opanak, one must consider things like colour, width, presence of the lozica; but really, a look at the size and shape of the shoe’s point or tip is the quickest way. The oldest opanci will tend to have a flatter, but cylindrical, point and will certainly have a functional lozica. A small point is typical for opanci from Šabac, but just nearby in the Kolubara valley, the opanci are made with a larger curved point. In Kačer district of Šumadija region, the opanci have the most magnificent tip, sewn into a cylinder, formed into a prominent hook, with a broad final tip that stands high above the preplet and premet. As the town of Užice became a major opanak-making centre, their opanci took on a similar type of hooked tip, but curved much closer to the upper part of the foot. All manner of stories exist for the existence of these really prominent curved tips, the most common being that it gave you something to hold onto while you heeded nature’s call. The general consensus is that it evolved from a simple tip where pieces of leather were stitched together; with time, people left some of the excess material, snipping it into a triangular shape to keep it neat and decorative. (this is the Morava type of opanak). Eventually, the tips grew, a reflection of the opančar’s skill, the quality of the material, and the status of the wearer.
Finally, the kapičar, or capped opanak – opanak that wears a cap. This is a reference to a flap of leather akin to the tongue of a modern-day shoe. Long ago, it provided a slit for straps to be passed through, but as buckled straps came into use, it became decorative. This is the most shoe-like of the opanci, having a defined sole to which leather uppers were stitched or nailed into place. The kapica or tongue could be embossed, fringed, even multicoloured. This was the opanak of the Serbs and Croatians living in Pannonian zones, and it’s form probably was influenced by central European footwear.
The opanak is an enduring symbol. The Serbian language uses it as a metaphor for simpler times, village life. When discussing how fickle fate can be, you’ll hear the expression “nekom opanci, nekom obojci” (to some, opanci; to others, strips of cloth). The curse, opanci ti se osušili (may your opanci dry out) is a pretty veiled way to express a harsh sentiment. Opanci remain supple and pliable as long as you wear them, but stop wearing them, and they become tough and inflexible… and as people all knew, the only people who stopped wearing their opanci were the dead. Today, relegated primarily to folkloric ensembles, the trade of opančari persists – even experiencing a revival – and the opanak itself endures. Long may it live.
For further reading:
Bjeladinović-Jergić, Jasna. Narodne Nošnje Srba U XIX I XX Veku: Srbija I Susedne Zemlje. Beograd: Etnografski Muzej, 2011.
Brenko, Aida. Koje Dobre Šuze!: Šetnja Kroz Povijest Obuće. Zagreb: Etnografski Muzej, 2006.
Šarac-Momčilović, Vera. Obuća u Srbiji. Beograd: Etnografski Muzej, 1996.