Јадранска Зона – Adriatic Ethnocultural Zone

My mother, who was born and raised in Knin, but went to university in Split, sang the melodic songs of the Adriatic to me. A favourite that she sang with great sentiment began with:

Daleko mi je biser Jadrana, Daleko mi je moj rodni kraj…

Far from me is the pearl of the Adriatic, Far from me is the land of my birth…

This ethnocultural zone is unusual in so many ways. Geographically, it is found in that thin strip of land wedged between the Adriatic sea and the Dinaric mountains, including the Istrian peninsula in the north, the Bay of Kotor in the south, and numerous islands. Historically, it has mainly been a part of the Venetian Republic, although Austria Hungary, Napoleon, the Ottomans and even the Spanish have claimed all or part of it at some time or another. Ethnically, it is a diverse mash-up of Italian, Croatian and Serbian populations, who each bring something to the material culture of the zone.

Serbs in the Adriatic cultural zone are not numerous nowadays. The highest concentration of Serbian population is to be found in the Bay of Kotor (Boka Kotorska) and other coastal areas of Montenegro. Along the coast, Serbs were mainly found in and near the urban centres of Dubrovnik, Sibenik and Zadar. In these towns, Serbs were frequently members of the merchant class, trading with Venice. From their ranks, the earliest diaspora community west of the Balkans was established in Trieste, where the beautiful church of St Spiridon still stands. The islands and Istria did not have an autochthonous Serbian population, although in the 20th century communities arose there.

Early 20th century postcard showing the diversity of costumes along the coast and mountains of the Adriatic.
Early 20th century postcard showing the diversity of costumes along the coast and mountains of the Adriatic.

An unusual, and admittedly complicating factor in this zone is the presence of Catholic Serbs. These populations, primarily in and around Dubrovnik, have virtually dissipated or been assimilated into the Croatian majority (which, many historians present, was in fact always much more Serbian and Dinaric in character than elsewhere in the zone!). The origins of these seemingly odd Serbs can be pinpointed to several historic events and phenomena. First, at the time of the arrival of the Slavs, the church was a single universal entity, with Latin and Greek variants both present in the Balkans. As such, which particular rite of worship you followed simply didn’t matter. Stefan Nemanja himself was, as a child, baptised twice: once in the Latin rite in Ribnica, and a second time in the Greek rite, in Ras. Second, there were conversions that happened, often politically motivated and sometimes en masse. That same Stefan Nemanja, having failed to repay a loan to the Doge of Venice, lost his collateral, the district of Konavlje (Konavli, Canali) and the inhabitants were promptly Catholicized. Similarly in the Ston Peninsula, which was part of the Serbian Principality of Zahumlje, conversions en masse occurred after 1333, when Venice annexed it and it became part of the Dubrovnik city-state.

Church of St. Michael the Archangel, chapel to the Serbian princes of Zahumlje, 12th century.
Church of St. Michael the Archangel, chapel to the Serbian princes of Zahumlje, 12th century.

The Orthodox nature of the early post-Roman inhabitants is clear from the archaeological record, from existing monuments (such as the Church of St. Michael the Archangel in Ston, once a royal chapel) and from written documents. Franciscan friar and historian Br. Franjo Vinalić, in his account of the activities of his order in the region, confirms that prior to the 15th century the populace was entirely Orthodox and Serbian in identity. A drawing by Architect Predrag Ristić shows the medieval town of Ston and its now lost cathedral of St. Mary Magdalene, seat of the Stone Archbishopric established by St. Sava of Serbia himself. St. Sava consecrated the first Orthodox Archbishop of Ston in 1219. Third, just like the many converts to Islam in the Ottoman empire, a conversion to Catholicism opened doors to social mobility and economic opportunities in the Venetian Republic. This was the case with Hercegovinian merchant Nikola Bošković, who married Paola (Pavica) Bettera, a woman from a wealthy Italian family in Dubrovnik originally from Bergamo. Their son, Rudjer or Ruggiero (Roger) became a Jesuit priest, astronomer, physicist and mathematician. He even stabilized the Dome of St Peter’s in the Vatican, after it had cracked.

Ston Peninsula in the 13th century, recreated by Predrag Ristić. From Pasarić-Dubrovčanin, 1983.
Ston Peninsula in the 13th century, recreated by Predrag Ristić. From Pasarić-Dubrovčanin, 1983.

Personally, I have never doubted the ability of someone to feel Serbian, despite being Catholic. My friend Marina is a Bunjevka, a Catholic from Bačka region, and she and her family insist that they are Serbian. Growing up in Hamilton, there was a man who attended every Serbian function and event. His name was Baro Pribičević, originally from Dubrovnik, and Catholic by baptism. Finally, my own great uncle Stjepan Srabotnak, originally from Cavtat near Dubrovnik, and an officer in the Royal Yugoslav Navy, was Catholic and proudly Serbian. When he proposed to my great aunt Natalija, she was hesitant. He quickly asked her, “What is your slava?” (the saint’s day of Orthodox Serbs). She replied that it was St. Michael. He smiled and said, “Oh, good. Mine is too. You won’t even change that!”. Yes, the Catholic Serbs of South Dalmatia had, and still know, their slava. In 1986, a villager in Ćilipi, near Dubrovnik, invited me into his home to see the old family icon of St George that hung on his eastern wall. Aggressive measures by the Bishop of Mostar and Franciscan clergy to eradicate this very Serbian custom led to an order in 1908 that prevented their Catholic parishioners from taking their slava bread to local Orthodox priests for blessing.

The Balkans. God love us, we’re complicated.

Anyway…the Adriatic zone’s culture reflects all of these twists and variations. The local dialects employ a heavy dose of italianisms, reflected in music and song as well. The zone was home to the now extinct Dalmatian language, a romance language whose last speaker died on the island of Krk in 1898. Its connections to the Venetian Republic introduced techniques of lace making and jewellery making that were distinctly mediterranean, and articles of clothing that required the sumptuous textiles traded through the cities of the Adriatic. The proximity to the Dinaric zone meant not only contact, but migrations from mountain hinterland (Zagora) to coast (Primorje), and from coast to islands (otoci, ostrva). This led to transformations in both directions, and Adriatic zone costumes often retain distinctly Dinaric elements.


In a typical female costume of the Adriatic zone, we would find the following garments:

Košulja – a long white shift of plain cut and white embroidery and lace.

Stan, kamižon, župet – an upper short vest

Koretac, jaketa – a short, waist-length, long-sleeved garment of velvet with metallic trim.

Carza, Sarža, Bran – pleated skirts, sometimes with shoulder straps (bran) made of homespun fabrics.

Kotula, Marinoš, Gorogran, Saja – similar skirts, but made of factory made or luxurious fabrics

Pas – a sash, either woolen and homemade or of luxurious fabrics for festive costume.

Bošča – an everyday apron of homespun wool, with vertical stripes

Traversa, traveša – an apron of factory made fabric, often a large fringed kerchief or print cotton cloth with passementerie trim.

Bječve – white cotton socks

Facolet, faculet – kerchief, of white cotton or silk, commercial satin, or lace.

Opanci, crevlje – traditional or urban-style footwear.

Botuni, kolani, špiode – Various articles of silver jewellry; round filigree beads (botuni) were used in necklaces (kolani, ogrlice) and pins for kerchiefs, caps and braids (špiode)

Gunj – a very Dinaric style white wool garment, with an upper bodice and long sleeves and a broad skirt, worn in winter

Anterija – a waist-length, long-sleeved winter garment of dark coloured wool cloth.

Costumes of the Bay of Kotor. L, surroundings of Herceg Novi. R, Lastva near Kotor. Postcards from the 1950s, personal collection, A.S.

An Adriatic zone men’s costume would typically be comprised of:

Košulja – a collared white shirt, linen or cotton

Gaće, Pelengiri – blue or black woolen trousers, broad in the seat, that buttoned at the knee

Bječve, navlakaze, dizluci – white cotton knee-high socks and woolen cloth leg coverings.

Dolama – worn in areas with more Dinaric contact or heritage, a long sleeveless vest of woolen čoja cloth, decorated with braid or srma trim. In some areas, strictly a winter garment.

Kružet, jačerma – open vest, decorated with srma and braid.

Presamitač – vest with overlapping panels, worn closed and bound by the sash.

Koret – waist-length, long-sleeved jacket of black čoja. Braid trim, or srma trim for festive costume

Pojas – broad, silk sash, solid coloured (usually red or yellow), sometimes striped.

Ćemer – decorative metal belt worn with the festive costume

Bareta, kapa – shallow red wool cloth cap; also, the red and black Montenegrin Dinaric cap.

Opanci, crevlje – traditional rawhide shoes, or urban style tanned leather shoes.


Two Postcards with images of the costume of Bokelji, the inhabitants of the Bay of Kotor. L, husband and wife from Kotor. R, Young woman from Gornja Lastva. The upper garments of both women show the typical mix of Mediterranean and Balkan-Levantine influences. The girl from Lastva is wearing a pleated carza skirt, found in costumes throughout the zone. Her apron is a good example of the types of commercial fabrics that were used. (Postcards c. 1912 and 1970, personal collection, A.S.)
The Milanese publcation L’Universo Illustrato, on Nov. 21, 1869, published an article about the Bay of Kotor – Le Bocche de Cattaro – by one Dr. Francesco Lanza. Over two pages, they ran these wonderful illustrations of the region’s costumes. The two women in the lower central panel show the most typical Adriatic zone type of costume, while others are clearly Dinaric. The man in the upper left corner is shown in the most representative Adriatic zone male costume; others show both Dinaric and Italian style garments. Original newspaper from 1869, Personal Collection, A.S.


Large gathering of women and girls from Konavlje district near Dubrovnik. They are noted, in cyrillic and latin, as "Konavoke", an archaic term for women of Konavlje. The costume shows a clear mix of the two zones that meet there. Postcard, personal collection, A.S.
Large gathering of women and girls from Konavlje district near Dubrovnik. They are noted, in cyrillic and latin, as “Konavoke”, an archaic term for women of Konavlje. The costume shows a clear mix of the two zones that meet there. Postcard, c. 1913, personal collection, A.S.
Street scene in Dubrovnik, early 20th century. Postcard, personal collection, A.S.

I’ve made an interactive using Thinglink that illustrates the parts of these costumes using a drawing of a typical Adriatic Zone costume.

Four watercolours by Nikola Arsenović. From left to right: Man in costume from Bay of Kotor, woman from Bay of Kotor, two women in costumes from mountains above Herceg Novi. The former two are Adriatic zone, the latter two are Dinaric zone (specifically, Hercegovinian).
Italian woman from Zadar, northern Dalmatia. Postcard, c. 1914, personal collection, A.S.

This description is a generalization, based on the costume worn by ethnic Serbs in the southern Adriatic zone, roughly from just northwest of Dubrovnik, through the Bay of Kotor, to the Montenegrin coast (Paštrovići). Italian ethnic costume was very much a reflection of its Venetian Renaissance origins, very Mediterranean in style and elegantly understated. Croatians of the coast and islands have a greater variety in costume types, although this description holds at least in part for their costumes in the Dubrovnik district.

General trends in Adriatic zone costume tend to be the following:

  • Mens’s costume retains much more Dinaric and Levantine influence
  • Women’s costume tends toward Mediterranean forms and materials, with some Dinaric elements in older variants and winter variants of costume
  • Going Northward, more Dinaric influences are seen in costumes of both men and women
  • Ethnic distinctions in Adriatic Zone costume are blurred in the South, but distinct between islands and mainland.

One of the best chroniclers of Serbian folk costume was the ethnographer Nikola Arsenović. He spent months travelling Dalmatia and the Bay of Kotor, and made watercolours of costumes, traditions and everyday life of the inhabitants there. Several of his watercolours, taken from the book of Yugoslav Folk Art compiled by Nikola Pantelić.

Bridal procession in Konavlje. Members of the groom’s family carry the bridal trousseau (sprema) in a wooden chest and on horseback. The bride walks behind the krstaš barjak (banner of the cross) and is escorted by a brother or cousin of the groom, ceremonially called dever. N.A. in collection of Ethnographic Museum, Belgrade.
Villagers from the Dubrovačka Župa, near Dubrovnik, dancing the poskočica or linđo. The women wear a very Mediterranean form of the Adriatic zone costume, while men retain many Dinaric and Levantine elements. Arsenović has included a small self-portrait: he is the man on the steps with a sketchbook.
Market Day in Konavlje. N.A., collection of EMB.
Man and woman of Kaštela near Split, central Dalmatia. The Adriatic zone is probably the only one where male costume was more conservative over time than the female costume. Dinaric L vs Mediterranean R.


For further reading:

Bjeladinović-Jergić, Jasna. Narodne Nošnje U XIX I XX Veku: Srbija i Susedne Zemlje. Beograd: Etnografski Muzej, 2011. 

Gavrilović, Ljiljana. Jugoslovenski Etnograf Nikola Arsenović. Belgrade: Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences – Ethnographic Institute, 2006. 

Jačov, Marko. Venecija i Srbi U Dalmaciji U XVIII Veku. Šibenik: Eparhija Dalmatinska, 1987. 

Pantelić, Nikola, and Miodrag Đorđević. Narodna Umetnost Jugoslavije. Beograd: Jugoslovenska Revija, 1984. 

Pasarić-Dubrovčanin, Ratko. Srpsko-Pravoslavno žiteljstvo zapadnih krajeva Dubrovačke Republike do 14. stoljeća: Ston, Stonski Rat, Primorje. S.P.Eparhija Zagrebaćka, 1983.

Štorić, Jasenka Lulić, Olga Oštrić, and Branka Vojnović Traživuk. Narodne Nošnje Sjeverne Dalmacije. Zadar: Narodni Muzej, 2003.