When the Slavs arrived in the Balkans in the seventh century, the many river valleys made for tempting migration routes. While tame and fertile, these canyons and flood plains were flanked by imposing but protective mountains. One group of them crossed the Danube and followed the Timok River in its winding course through the mountains that make up the modern-day Serbian and Bulgarian border lands. These tribes became known as the Timočani.
Of course, they encountered a Greco-Roman population settled in cities that the nomadic Slavs had never encountered before. One such town was Romuliana, called Gamzigrad in Serbian. Constructed as a Roman military outpost, it was the birthplace of three future emperors: Galerius, Maximius and Licinius. The culture clash between refined urban Romans and horseback eastern nomads must have been severe. Many smaller Roman towns were raided by Slavs, and the Latin population took refuge in the mountains. They had no idea at that time that their descendants would be the Vlachs. The marauding Timočani eventually became placid and settled pastoralists, relying on the natural cycles of mountain meadows and valleys to feed their flocks. As Romuliana-Gamzigrad faded, no city replaced it. Centuries passed, the medieval Serbian kingdom rose and fell, and the Ottomans arrived… little impact of any of this was felt in the highlands of Crni Vrh, Tupižnica, and Deli Jovan mountains. In fact, Zaječar really only came into existence as a town after Hajduk Veljko Petrović and his insurgents liberated it from the Turks in 1806, and definitively in 1833. The population changed as waves of migration crossed the Timok region, bringing with them linguistic and material remnants of their former lands.
Seventeen villages with picturesque names and a mixed population of Serbs and Vlachs surround Zaječar. They represent the central core of the Timok region, which includes Negotin district to the north and Knjaževac district to the south. Folk dress was retained longer here than in other Serbian regions, mainly due to its isolation. (At this time I am focusing on the Serbian costume, and will address Vlach costumes in several future posts).
The Serbian population itself has diverse roots due to numerous migrations through the region. The original population is referred to as starosedeoci (“olden-timers”, roughly), and they can be divided into Timočani, speaking the Timok-Prizren dialect, and the Torlaci, speaking Timok-Lužnica dialect. There are Serbs whose ancestors came from Kosovo and South Morava in the eighteenth century, and others whose ancestors came from over the mountains, in Bulgaria, mainly from Stara Planina and from Vidin, where there are still Serbs to be found. The former are called Kosovljani, and the latter, although ethnically Serbian, are called Bugari. Finally, in two villages are Serbs who are known locally by the nickname Macaci. They trace their origins to settlers from migrant pastoralists from Teteven in Bulgaria. Like the Bugari, their ancestors arrived in the environs of Zaječar at a time that national identities were poorly defined and, frankly, irrelevant. They considered anyone who was Orthodox and who spoke the same way they did as “naši”, “našinci” – “our people”. Their descendents identify as Serbs.
Throughout the Zaječar district, there are two different variants of costume. The Timok costume (timočka nošnja) is worn through the majority of villages, while the Šop costume (šopska nošnja) is worn in the villages inhabited by Macaci. In both variants, wool and hemp cloth are the main materials.
We see reflected in the folk costume of this area its position. Zaječar is located in what is roughly the central portion of the Timok region. The region continues northward to Negotin and vicinity, and southward to Knjaževac area. It touches on areas of the Šopluk, such as Zaglavak and Budžak, and that results in a mixing of a variety of influences onto the Timok material culture: Šop, Vlah, and Bulgarian. Naturally this is also reflected in the music and dance of the district. Among the costumes of Zaječar district, we find two variants of costume. One is considered the more typically Timok version, having more in common with northern costumes, and the other has elements of Šop costume from south of the region.
The men’s costume is much less variable throughout Timok, and is characterized by the following elements:
Košulja, riza: a long hemp or linen shirt, plain for everyday wear and embroidered on the chest, collar and cuffs for festive wear.
Čakšire, breveneci: trousers made from undyed wool sukno cloth, or sukno dyed brown in walnut shells. They had elements of black braid, gajtan, around openings.
Povas: a wide, multicoloured woven sash wound around the waist several times.
Jelek: a fairly plain open vest made from brown or black sukno.
Gunjče, džoka: a long-sleeved jacket that can be closed for warmth; part of the winter costume in general and part of the daily wear of married and older men. The gunjče closes with clasps or braid loops, while the džoka folds over and closes with clasps.
Džube: an open, long vest made of white sukno and decorated with black braid; worn in the villages in the south of the district, and similar to the Jelek of Pirot district.
Opandžak: a heavy wool-cloth cape, worn in winter by shepherds in winter and in rain.
Šubara: a hat made from animal pelts, mostly sheepskin or goatskin.
Čarape: multicoloured knit socks. The socks worn in Timok costume of either sex are truly masterworks of knitting and are among the most elaborate in Serbian costume
Opanci: rawhide shoes, generally of the vrnčan type with long rawhide strips or wool braids, called vrvci
Obojci: wool cloth wraps for the calves, used in winter for warmth.
Kožine, vrlozi: a similar type of winter wrap, but made of animal fleece.
In the women’s costume, we find:
Košulja, riza: a hemp or linen dress, with very fine but restrained embroidery along the collar, bodice, hems, cuffs, and the length of the sleeve.
Jelek – short bodice, made of wool or cotton cloth which is quilted, or of velvet with gold srma for festive wear.
Pregljača, prestilka, mesalj: aprons worn over the front of the dress, with interwoven designs or embroidered. The mesalj is an everyday apron with interwoven stripes, and was generally woven from hemp and later cotton fibre.
V’lnenik, boče, zapregača: various forms of back aprons, tightly pleated and cut so that they wrap around to the hips but are open at the front. The opening is covered by the apron.
Tkanice: a woolen sash, woven in various colours: typically they are woven in a pattern of rhombi (na okce) or chevrons (na sikirče)
Litar: a narrow hemp-fibre sash used to hold decorative buckles in place.
Pafte, čoprazi: paired metal buckles made by craftsmen, with varying degrees of ornamentation.
Aljina: a long sleeved dress made of white klašnja fabric, worn during the winter in villages in the north of the district; decorated with braid gajtan.
Sukno, sukman: a sleeveless tunic made of black wool fabric, similar to a Šop litak, worn during the winter in villages in the south of the district; decorated with applique embroidery.
Zubun: in the oldest form of Timok costume, a very beautifully decorated long open vest; made from white woolen cloth and decorated with woolen embroidery, applique, and later commercially produced passementerie.
Trvelji: artificial braids (hair extensions), pleated into a woman’s own hair, and then braided and twisted into loops that framed the face. The trvelj often included red wool (a protective element in folk magic) and silver coins for festive occasions. They were worn by married women; unmarried girls wore their hair in long braids.
Obradač, krpa: White kerchief made from a medium-weight linen or cotton cloth, covering the hair and trvelji.
Marama kalenćarka: lighter weight kerchiefs made from commercial print cloth.
Igle: decorative silver pins used to keep the kerchief in place by holding them to the trvelji.
Čarape: similar to the men’s socks in colour and design, but generally higher to the knee.
Opanci: rawhide, of the vrnčan type; identical to those worn by men.
Libade, ćurdija: bodices made of fine material, produced by urban craftsmen; both are elements of urban costume that entered into the folk costume after the Balkan Wars.
The two Macaci villages are Vratarnica and Zagrađe (the latter is called Zagracko by locals), Grljan and Veliki Izvor round out the group. The costume here shows definite transitional features to the Timok variant, which reflects Zaječar*s position at the overlap of these two ethnocultural zones. The costumes I have in my collection are comprised of pieces mainly from Vratarnica, Zagrađe, Mali Izvor, and Vražogrnac.
The back aprons are a very distinctive element of women’s costume around Zaječar. They often have embroidery along the hem or throughout the pleats. The name v’lnenik comes from the local pronunciation of the word for wool, v’lna, while boče is connected to the name of a similar garment worn by Serbian women in Kosovo. These aprons, in many ways, are a precursor to the plisirka type of skirt worn in neighbouring regions. The orange v’lnenik I have is from Vratarnica, and has the distinctive embroidered symbols devojački venac (maiden’s wreath) and ovčije pičice (sheep’s hooves). The black boče comes from Zagrađe and is more recent than the former, as evidenced by stylized floral embroidery and applications of velvet and commercial lace. Either style of back apron was replaced by a simple prestilka type apron, with vertical stripes, after WWII.
For Further Reading: