Leskovac and its surroundings have been part of the Serbian state since its emergence in the early middle ages. From the rule of an unnamed Serbian Prince, whom Constantine Porphyrogenitos describes as being a vassal of “Emperor Heraclitus, when Bulgaria was under the Romaion” (i.e. before the establishment of a Bulgarian state). The Leskovac district, then known as Dubočica, was under the rule of the Vlastimirović princes through the 8th to 10h centuries, and under Stefan Nemanja, it became part of the state of Raška in the 12th century.
The Leskovac region is sometimes called “Petorečje” – “The Land of Five Rivers”, as the rivers Vlasina, Jablanica, Pusta reka, Veternica and Toplica all join the southern Morava here. Leskovčani themselves are known for their distinct dialect, which fuels a colourful range of expressions, from beautiful similes to the most creative of curses. The traditions of the region are accompanied by a long list of folk songs, and the preservation of archaic musical instruments like the bagpipes or gajde. The local cuisine focuses on grilling pretty much everything, so much so that in Vienna I stumbled across the “Leskovački Žar” restaurant, and Leskovac itself now organizes Roštilijada – Grillfest. Still, the crown of a Leskovac garden or kitchen is the pepper, paprika. Stuffed, fried, pickled, drizzled with yogurt, marinated in olive oil and garlic, or ground into ajvar, it has a special place in the hearts (and stomachs) of the region. Strings of red peppers dry in the sun every summer, (the current record to string 100 peppers is 3 minutes) and the locals say of themselves, “Jedemo paprike, gradimo fabrike” – “We eat peppers, and build factories”. The simple life.
Customs of the Leskovac Morava are especially rich at Christmas, with elaborate carolling customs called koledari, and on the eve of Easter, when the tradition of Lazarice is carried out. The Lazarice were processions of young women wearing their finest clothing, decorated with garlands and flowers, who go from home to home singing songs that invoke blessings on each household. Groups of Lazarice had five or six older teen girls – approaching marrying age – and that many or more younger girls. The younger ones participated in order to learn the ritual and sing for their elder companions, who were dancing and singing. Lazarice enter the home courtyard, and are greeted by the domaćica, or lady of the house. After their first song, the domacica might say, “Pevajte mi na….” “Sing me a song for….” and request something particular to their family or household. Songs are sometimes very specific, eg., a song for the beehives, orchard, or well; a song for the home, the children, a family member abroad; etc. In the case where the lady of the house tries to trip up the Lazarice by requesting an unusual song of blessing, such as for the family cat, the household gate (kapija, a location particularly important in folklore) Lazarice have to be ready. It’s no wonder that ethnographers have recorded volumes of these songs alone, much less the work songs, wedding songs, carols, etc of the district.
Here are some examples of Lazarica songs, Lazaričke pesme. They often have the refrain, “Lazare, Lazare!” “Lazo, le! Lazare!” – variations on the name Lazar, or Lazarus, or the introductory phrase, “Oj ubava mala moma!”, “Oj ubavo maloj mome!” – “Oh, fair young maiden!”. The latter is actually a reference to the Lazarice themselves, who in participating in the ritual have announced their coming of age to the village. Today, where the custom persists, mainly young girls perform the ritual.
The folk costumes of the Leskovac Morava valley conform to the pattern of the Central Balkan – Morava Zone costumes. Materials used were mainly hemp (konopljeno, prteno) linen (laneno) and cotton (pamučno). Of wool, both šajak and sukno (locally called klašnja) were used, generally dyed dark colours, primarily browns. Leatherwork used tanned leather for belts and shoes, but untanned rawhide for certain leather garments (kožuh, ćurče) and for opanci footwear. Design elements are characterized by vertical stripes, sparse but very finely executed geometric embroidery, and copius silk braid (gajtan) applique. With time, especially after the Balkan wars, lower Morava elements, such as floral embroidery, enter into the repertoire.
Like in most Serbian regions, craftsmen – terzije, abadžije, pamuklijaši, ćurćije – made certain garments, typically outer garments and ornate festive garments, and Levantine-style urban garments. They would obtain material from local producers (especially sukno, šajak and klašnja wool fabrics) but also traded with merchants in Vranje and Prizren, and travelled to Prilep, where factory produced or luxury goods from Thessaloniki could be obtained: printed cloth, kerchiefs, special embroidery threads (trapezunt thread, or trobozanski konac), etc.
Leskovac eventually became the leading centre of textile production in the Balkans, earning it the nickname “Serbian Manchester”. However, very little of this textile ended up being used by the residents of the Leskovac Morava region. Conservative and self-reliant by nature, the villagers produced more durable and resistant textiles for their own use. Home production of textile and costume elements was more economical, more reliable and, in the eyes of a population very much tied to tried and true ways of the past, simply better. Fabric production was the domain of women, who produced hemp, linen, wool, and cotton cloth. Cotton, initially an Ottoman Empire import good, began to be grown in Macedonia on a larger scale, making it more accessible. Hemp and wool represented the two most important fibres, and would be taken from field to garment in all of its aspects by the skilled and tireless woman of the southern Morava valley. Silk production was not a traditional practice here, nor was lace making.
During the Ottoman period, urban women wore dimije, dolama, mintan and the other typical Levantine garments of the time. Village women wore different style of clothing which was very plain, but eventually transformed as both economic and political conditions in Serbia changed. The components of the 19th century women’s costume were very elaborate, and included:
Marama, degrmija, samija – various types of kerchiefs
Ručnik, Krpa, Vitica – caps and ornaments worn as head covering by brides and newlyweds
Košulja – linen or hemp/cotton dress, embroidered collar, beadwork at the wrists; in mourning, collar and end of sleeves were embroidered in black.
Pojas, Pojače -a woven sash, generally darker shades of blue, brown, green and red, with a fringed end
Pafte – silver plated or niello buckles, worn on special days (dobrodanska nosnja)
Maramče, peškir – embroidered cloths tucked into the sash, hanging on the left side.
Jelek – short vest, usually velvet or heavy silk cloth, atlas; embroidered “na latinsko S” , “na k’zro” and “na krme”.
Vutarka, futarka: wrap-around, drawstring skirts; generally long, ankle length; various types depending on colour and design. (obručanka, kavezlika, krstatka, nitkarka…)
Pištimalj – a particularly elaborate vutarka, with embroidery and sequins or gold thread; worn by young girls of marrying age
Anterija – festive sleeved jacket, embroidered in silver or gold thread (na bućku) or plain (na rubeni rukavi)
Bojlek – long, sleeveless garment, generally sewn from a cloth of mixed cotton/hemp or silk/hemp, and quilted & lined with cotton. It was tailored at the waist and reached knee or mid-calf length. A traditional bridal gift from the groom, as the bojlek was worn by married women.
Gunjče – sleeved waist-length jacket made of white sukno with gajtan ornamentation, part of bridal & newlywed costume
Skutača – always woven with vertical stripes, occasionally augmented with embroidery; festive ones could be silk/linen mix, but they were generally wool, cotton, or hemp. Darker colours for older women.
Ćurče, disćurak – fur-lined sleeved garments, the latter being longer to about mid-thigh; made by craftsmen called ćurćije.
Libade, bunda, r’ka – waist-length jackets which entered from urban costume and were only for the most important occasions, although bunda was a frequent winter garment.
The ručnik was worn longest in villages east of the Morava. A newlywed bride wore a bright coloured ručnik for the first year of her marriage, and was given a darker coloured one in her second year. The ručnik was made of dyed linen or cotton cloth, rolled and then coiled or braided into a type of cap. A longer rectangular kerchief was sewn onto this, so that when the ručnik was worn (toward the front of the head), the back of the head and the neck were covered by the cloth. Another form of ručnik, called krpa, was sewn from a single rectangular piece of linen. The front would be cut about 10 – 12 cm lengthwise, then brought together and stitched so that they formed a peak (začimki se). Both forms were decorated with silk-thread tassels (kićanke) that were sewn to the sides, so that they hung along the ears and sides of the head.
There were festive and everyday ručnici (dobrodanski i delnični).They were worn by all women until 1900. In fact, women would have been ashamed to be seen without one. The last traces of this cap were seen in Leskovac around 1912. Around the same time, a hair ornament of silver and gold coins, called vitica, was worn by unmarried girls and new brides. It consisted of two densely-strung chains of coins and a central ducat that were worn above the forehead. It was reduced to a single ducat some time around the Balkan wars, and even that fell out of use by 1925.
Until 1900, a typical bridal trousseau would have: 1 silk shirt, 1 silk jelek, 1 cotton vutarka, 1 linen or vutarka, several linen or hemp shirts, a vest made of sukno, a long vest (bojlek), woven aprons (skutace), 1 silk apron (skutača)
By the mid 20th century, the costume had again evolved, giving way to a simpler and more practical costume, augmented by newly available materials and other regional influences:
Marama, Degrmija, Šamija – Marame, locally also called degrmije, are tied under the chin while samije (kerchiefs of finer materials) are tied on top of the head.
Vezoglavka – a lighter material kerchief that binds that hair, and over which the marama is worn.
Pupčiki – decorative pins for kerchiefs or hair.
Košulja – the traditional long košulja persisted, in an even or straight cut with one or two ‘klina’; in addition to it, a short blouse-like košulja also came into use. The košulja does have embroidery on bodice, sleeves and collar.
Prsluk, jelek – festive ones of velvet, atlas silk, or satin, decorated with gajtan or srma; daily wear could be of virtually any material, including sukno, satin, basma, and industrially produced cotton.
Vuta, vutarka; futa, futarka – very little change in this garment; same construction as the older type (two lengths of cloth, sewn together), but girls’ have become shorter, knee or calf length, while women still wore ankle length vutarke. Patterns are still generally vertical, but red predominates for younger women and girls, especially. Many interesting patterns are found: aladžika, ćupinarka, moravljika, etc. Unlike in the older variant costume, vutarke in the newer variant costume often have embroidered hems, or applique trim.
Skutača – like the vutarka, possibly the most conservative or unchanged costume element. Vertical stripe patterns dominate, although floral embroidery has crept in as a result of influence from the lower Morava valley.
Pojas, pafte – as before, limited to very special occasions.
Čarape – cotton, cotton/silk, wool; either with knit ornaments alone (cables, etc) or with embroidery
Opanci – rawhide prešnjak type
Until the Balkan Wars, men’s clothing was generally made from white sukno, like in neighbouring Šopluk. The men wore a knit cap, plain white cotton (summer) or linen (winter) shirt and pants (gaće), anterija or jelek, wide woolen sash (red or dark blue), short vest over the anterija, poturlije, socks and opanci. The knit caps, lite kape or kapa na kolinja, were knit strictly by shepherds. Yes, in the southern regions of Serbia, including Kosovo, knitting is a man’s domain!
As was the case in other cities, the urban costume worn in Leskovac itself, until 1915, had strong Levantine elements, Including the čepken-mintan, dolama, and toska.
Although the 19th century men’s costume was certainly less elaborate than the women’s costume, it did have a wide variety of vests, or Jeleci: Prsluk type, buttoned at the shoulder and sides; Preklopnik, in which two front panels overlap or fold over; the Džamadan jelek was ornate, with heavy braid gajtan ornamentation; and the Gunjče, which was waist length, had a thin collar and an external pocket (older men)
More recent variant of men’s costume was established after WWI. Influences from the lower Morava valley and central Serbia crept in, replacing some costume elements with more practical or simpler ones.
Šubara, baganama, astraganka – lambskin hats, worn by all men after they came of age
Pletena kapa – knit cap, dark, similar in general shape to subara but lighter
Šajkača – as with other Serbian costumes, an ethnic identifier that entered folk costume through military influence
Košulja – linen, hemp, cotton or mixed fibre; no embroidery, unlike the older variant; shorter length, but little change in pattern.
Gaće – summer or work pants, or winter underpants; held in place with a drawstring; when worn as outerwear, often dyed blue
Tkanice – multicoloured, woven from wool or cotton and very wide.
Jelek, prsluk – several types still are worn, depending on the village: both short and longer open types, and the longer folding preklopnik type.
Anterija, koporan – long sleeved jackets, generally made of brown sukno or šajak, for festive or winter wear
Čaksire – brown šajak, “na duz” and “na bridž” types, both much less baggy and more tailored.
Čarape – to just below the knees, dark wool or cotton with colourful ornaments
Opanci – rawhide prešnjak type
I have been fortunate to acquire a number of vutarke from the wider Leskovačka Morava district. They are one of the few costume pieces that are relatively easy to find, in good part because village women in the district still wear them regularly. Unfortunately, I have only acquired two vests (jeleci) from the district, one adult and one meant for a child. So, if you think the vest looks the same in most of the photos, that is why. A few selections from my collection follow.