The German geographer Johann Georg Kohl travelled through Dalmatia in the period between 1850 – 1852. Traversing the Dinaric alps, he stopped in Vrlika, which he described in his published notes as “a mouse hole”. Harsh, perhaps, from his well-travelled perspective, but it certainly is not a metropolis. Yet, talk to people who originate from Vrlika and you would think it could rival New York.
Vrličani, the inhabitants of Vrlika, live up to their reputation as proud, boisterous and obstinate. They are also have big hearts and are hospitable – something Fr. Alberto Fortis, the Venetian chronicler who probably best introduced Dalmatia to the western world, knew. And despite the rocky terrain of their town and villages, from them evolved one of the most beautiful, and certainly most photographed costumes of Dalmatia and the Balkans.
The toponym Vrlika comes from Vrh Rike, meaning at the upper reaches of the river Cetina. This river was known to the Romans as the Tilurus. It has its source in hills slightly west of Vrlika and flows out to the Adriatic as the coastal town of Omiš. The surrounding region is called Cetinska Krajina, and it links the town of Sinj (for Vrličani, their closest market town) to the hinterland of the city of Split. There is also a village called Cetina, towards Knin, and near it an ancient 10th century church of the Holy Saviour (Crkva Svetog Spasa). Modern day Croatia has marked it as a monument of early Croatian history, which is apt due to its age and architecture, but the designation and bombastic plaques at the site today assert its Catholic nature. This is entirely incorrect, and can be confirmed by Fortis and many others. The church dates to the period of the unified, catholic Church prior to the Great Schism. At that time, it would have been under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, as all of Dalmatia was. Furthermore the orientation of the church and the surrounding graves are Orthodox – they all face eastward. Fortis himself describes a dinner in the churchyard which was on the occasion of Ascension (Spasovdan) and also describes the Orthodox custom of bringing food to gravesites on memorial days called zadušnice.
Another historical inaccuracy promulgated by official Croatia is that Serbs in Dalmatia arrived no earlier than the 15th or 16th century. This assertion is patently false; it fails to explain Serbian Orthodox monasteries and churches in Northern Dalmatia that date back to the time of Saint Sava in the 13th century. The main distinction at that time was not Serb or Croat, but Orthodox or Catholic. This included Latin and Greek populations living in coastal cities, and was really for many centuries the only distinction that mattered, and even then, weakly. Our two modern nations began as one, naturally. This has been repeatedly confirmed not only by linguistics, anthropology and history, but now even by modern genetic studies.
Since the 6th century onward, waves of migration did change the population of Dalmatia and its distribution. The earliest Slavic presence was in the mountain hinterland, having displaced the Latin speaking population to the coastal fortified cities. In the medieval period, the kings of Serbia contracted trade with Dalmatia, and even established monasteries, such as Krka near Kistanje, established by Jelena Nemanjić Šubić, sister of emperor Dušan married to the duke of Bribir, Mladen Šubić. During the Turkish period, the districts around Vrlika and Knin changed masters several times, from Ottoman to Venetian and Austrian, back and forth. Inland Serbian populations fleeing the Turks entered Dalmatia, to find villages abandoned by local Croat populations, fleeing the same Ottoman army by taking refuge on the coast and islands. People from Cetinska Krajina settled the islands of Zlarin, Ugljan, and Pašman, and many fled as far as the Italian region of Molise, where even today their descendants in the villages of Stifilić (San Felice), Mundimitar (Montemitro) and Kruč (Collecroce) cling to their ikavian Slavomolisano dialect, which they simply call po našo (our language)
It is in one of these waves of refugees, from the Battle of Kosovo, that Vrlika becomes Serb populated and the people build Dragović, Vrlika’s local monastery, in 1395. The town Orthodox church of St Nicholas was built in 1618. A Catholic presence was re-established with the arrival of proselytizing Franciscans and the construction of Our lady of the Rosary (Gospa Ružarica) in 1898. In St. Nicholas’ church, a unique custom of guarding the epitaphion or plaštanica, the shroud of Christ used in Orthodox Good Friday rituals around the world, is practiced. Men in full folk costume stand vigil in shifts night and day from the moment the shroud is placed during Good Friday vespers until Paschal matins when it is removed. The keepers of the grave, or Čuvari Groba Hristovog, was a custom only found in Hilandar monastery and in Jerusalem, outside of Vrlika. Yet, somehow Serbs are accused of having “stolen” this custom from the Vrlika Croats, who practice the custom by simply standing to the left of the altar during one single mass. The inconsistency of this claim speaks for itself.
As you can see, Vrlika is a delicate touchpoint when it comes to discussing Serbian and Croatian cultural heritage in Dalmatia. One part of this is the costume, because it really is indistinct between that of the two ethnicities. Unlike other areas of Dalmatia where nuances in pattern, material or ornamentation help distinguish Serb from Croat, in Vrlika it’s really not the case.
The costume belongs to – nay, defines – the Dinaric costume type. The material culture of the Dinaric ethnocultural zone is dominated by one material: wool. The rocky terrain lent itself to sheep herding, and the wool and sheep of Dalmatia made its way to Venice and beyond, through the ports of Sibenik, Zadar and Split. These ships arrived at a stretch of docks known as the Riva dei Schiavoni, the Slavic quay, today a very chic stretch of Venetian real estate, with nary a sheep to be found.
Wool was processed and dyed in the summer and fall, as weather conditions were ideal then, but spun and woven in the winter and spring when fewer farming tasks meant more time. The spinning of wool was always on a hand held spindle or preslica. In Vrlika area these were often adorned with a mirror. From hilltop to hilltop, girls would communicate to one another, and to their boyfriends, by signals of flashing sunlight. Once spun, the yarn could be knit, plaited, or woven on a vertical loom (tara). Aprons, bags, and rugs were woven the technique known as klečanje. Wool cloth could also be produced from finer, softer yarn in simple standard weave. Later this cloth would be soaked and beaten in a stream, then rolled using heat or steam to produce the čoja cloth used in many folk costume items. As industrially produced čoja became more available and cheaper, this technique fell out of common practice.
Wool was, naturally, warm in the mountain winters, but during the mediterranean summers of Dalmatia, hemp provided a lighter alternative. The costumes’ many layered garments were not always worn; they certainly were not worn not during work. The full garments were worn at festive occasions, such as the summer feast of Dormition at Monastery Dragović. This was an occasion for young girls to be seen, marriages to be contracted, so not only did they wear their finest to look their best but also to demonstrate the wealth of their zadruga or extended family. A unique apron or pinafore of types evolved for this purpose: the gerdan or gendar, a full length bibbed apron covered in coins. The jingling and glimmering of the coins not only attracted attention, but ensured portability (remember that sheep herding was practiced in seasonally nomadic migrations). All of this would have been too heavy to wear on the trek to the monastery so to ensure comfort, young girls generally walked just in their shift, carrying the remainder of their garments in baskets or bags with the help of mother and aunts, who would dress her there, upon arrival.
The Vrlika costume is one of the most stunning and picturesque costumes in all of Dalmatia. As such, it appears on postcards and stamps, and is highly in demand. After the decimation of Serbian population in Northern Dalmatia as a result of the NATO and US backed, but Croatian Army conducted Operation Storm, much of this wealth was destroyed and lost. Acts of resettlement of local population happened regularly after the second world war, as the Communist government tried to reduce the Serbian population of Croatia; many of these prior emigrants were able to preserve their material heritage in Vojvodina, particularly in Srem where many inhabitants were resettled after the flooding of the large Serbian village of Koljane in 1958 – 1960. This was due to the construction of the dam and hydroelectric station Peruča. Villages of Garjak, Laktac, Dabar, Kosore and portions of many others were also affected. The affected lowlands were some of the most fertile and productive of the region
Even in their new homelands, Vrličani preserve and reproduce their costume. While it can be said that folk costume is held as a dear and important cultural symbol for all Balkan peoples in diaspora, the intensity of emotion I have encountered when speaking to Vrličani about it is in my experience unparalleled. The male costume parts are:
Košulja – sewn from hemp or linen cloth, with embroidered collar and ends of sleeves (which may be the older open type, the dalmatic sleeve, or the newer, fuller, gathered type)
Benevreci – dark blue or black drawstring trousers, made from heavy wool sukno cloth, decorated with applique around openings and with wool fringe at the waist
Čarape – generally white woolen socks, with little or no ornamentation as they are worn under bječve.
Bječve, Obojci, Dizluci – leggings or gaiters sewn from multicoloured sukno cloth, and heavily ornamented with embroidery. Worn over the socks
Potkolenjaci – braided woolen straps that serve as a type of garter, tied just below the knee
Krožet – a vest that folds over on itself, generally of blue but sometimes red or black sukno cloth, decorated with chain stitch embroidery appliques.
Jačerma, Čerma – a heavier woollen vest, usually red wool čoja cloth, with many silver ornaments such as embossed plates (ilike), rings (alke), and rows of round or oval buttons (toke) shaped like poppy seed pods. The garment is believed to represent a remnant of medieval armour.
Koporan, Trlagan – a jacket sewn from black or brown wool cloth, decorated generally in red applique and fringes, and worn usually over one or both shoulders.
Kabanica – a hooded cloak with long sleeves, sewn from dark woolen čoja cloth with some red appliqué only along hems and seams; a winter garment worn especially by shepherds.
Struka – a very long sash made of numerous thick woolen braids, augmented with glass beads and bindings of silk or cotton thread. It wraps around the waist several times, allowing the ends to hang down along the thigh.
Pašnjača – a heavy, wide leather belt decorated with metal rivets and buttons; the pasnjaca was a sign of male adulthood, and men carried weapons, tobacco, coins in it.
Kapa – a specific variant of the Dinaric red cap with shorter black fringe, generally with black embroidery only along the rim, and sometimes decorated with silver coins.
Opanci – the Dinaric oputnjak type. Later men often wore black leather shoes, as a sign of wealth.
Variants of the Vrlika costume are worn throughout Cetinska Krajina and even into the environs of Drniš. Certain elements were passed on as family heirlooms, particularly the elaborate and heavy silver ornaments of the čerma, or the sadak and pregača in the female costume. Parts of that costume are:
Košulja – a long hemp or linen dress with broad sleeves and wide skirt, with elaborate embroidery on the bodice, the length of the sleeve, and the sleeve cuff. Once these were masterworks of embroidery, with a full bodice, sleeves and hems all covered in geometric patterns, but more recent ones have notably less ornamentation
Pregača – a heavy woolen apron with distinct and dramatic geometric ornaments and heavy multicoloured fringe. Colours were generally darker for married women and brighter for girls. After the second world war, bright aniline dyes such as pink entered into the palate, as well as metallic thread, neither of which was really traditional.
Pas, panica – any of a variety of types of belt, such as woven, embroidered, or wool cloth. Often decorated with beads, coins, buttons and cowry shells.
Sadak – the distinctive open vest, generally knee length, made of the wool cloth čoja; white for unmarried girls, blue or red for married women, both with green, red, blue appliqué and embroidered circles (zvrk)
Čarape – multicoloured woollen socks, generally on a white knit base and reaching mid calf to knee.
Bječve, bičve – a cross between socks and gaiters, with a woollen knit foot portion and embroidered wool cloth upper and ankle portion, generally no higher than mid-calf.
Bjelača, Biljača – coat-like upper garment made of white čoja cloth, with red ornamentation, worn by unmarried girls.
Aljina, Modrina – coat-like upper garment made of dark blue čoja cloth, with red ornamentation, worn by married women. Unlike in neighbouring districts, the skirt portion of the modrina is often densely pleated
Fustan, fuštan, carza – a summer garment with a sleeveless bodice and a broad gathered or pleated skirt portion, generally of blue or red wool sukno with a contrasting colour hem appliqué.
Kapa – headgear for unmarried girls, or girls of marrying age; red cloth with black embroidery, decorated with a brooch of semi-precious stones (kruna), and a peacock feather.
Bošča – headgear for married women; a very large pure white linen or cotton worn over the kapa or on the head directly.
Gendar, gerdan – a long bib-like garment worn by girls of marrying age or newlywed women; the gendar represents a dowry, as it is covered in silver and the occasional gold coin.
Kovrlja – a padded woolen braid, of sorts, worn on top of the head above the forehead, and tied by cords at the nape of the neck; worn to augment natural braids and raise the bosca higher, and allowing the bosca to be held in place by decorative pins.
Opanci, gumenjaci, cipele, sandale – various types of footwear, ranging from the rawhide oputnjak type of opanak, post WWI opanci made of vulcanized rubber, or commercially made shoes or sandals.
The gendar or gerdan is found in various forms throughout the Dinaric ethnocultural zone. It is often short, like a bib, reaching no longer than the waist. This is the case in gendari (pl.) of Dinaric Bosnia, and even in the neighbouring Bukovica district of Dalmatia, are like this. Vrlika style gendari literally cover the entire front length of the wearer, reaching to mid-calf or slightly above ankle height. They are sewn from heavier weight hemp cloth or canvas, woolen woven cloth, or combinations of both. On it are sewn pierced coins, mainly silver but occasionally a few gold coins are included, usually sewn to the top. Other silver or gilded items are sometimes sewn onto it, such as pafte that may have been acquired through trade (they are never worn in Vrlika costume). The gendar was first worn by girls of marrying age, a public display of social and economic status. It was in every sense a portable dowry; once married, the gendar could in fact be used as a source of money if required. In the household, a woman’s in-laws could decide to use all or part of a gendar in order to acquire land or other goods. It was generally considered improper to use an entire dowry – in fact, gendari were ideally meant to be passed on to daughters and granddaughters. Any silver used for trade was replaced whenever possible, so gendari not only grew with time, they reflected their age and history. One beautiful gendar in the Ethnographic Museum of Belgrade is a virtual timeline of history, as you can follow the changes in the coins: Ottoman, Venetian, Ragusan, Austro-Hungarian, and later Serbian and Yugoslav. Errant Spanish, Dutch and German coins often can be found in gendari or other coin jewelry, as Vrličani might find these on their trading forays on the Adriatic coast. Vrlika Serbs in particular liked to acquire the coins of the Principality and later Kingdom of Serbia, in order to have the Serbian eagle present on their daughters’ gendari.
The reliance on woven or rolled wool makes Vrlika costume very heavy. Embroidery is rich on the hemp or cotton shirts, and generally executed in cross stitch (krstići). This was often executed on a separate panel of linen, rather than directly on the garment. This allowed its removal for washing, or to sew onto a new košulja. Sleeves were directly embroidered, but the same was done with them for washing or re-use. The embroidery on the woollen costume elements is limited yet highly elaborate. The difficulty of embroidering directly on čoja cloth meant that it was usually embroidered on small squares or circles of the fabric, which were later applied to the garments. The men’s krožet and the women’s sadak have especially beautiful and symbolic embroidery, executed in the finest cotton or silk thread in tiny loops of mainly chain stitch (lančanac, sindžirac). Embroidery was always geometric, generally variants of spirals and hooks called loze, kuke, četverokuke, and osmorokuke. Floral embroidery entered the repertoire of techniques only after massive resettlement of Vrličani to Srem happened in the 1950s. Srem embroidery is mostly floral and inspired by nature, and these design elements crept in slowly. (Personally, I find them anomalous – not at all in harmony with the embroidery on other costume elements, and truly dislike them in this context!)
Examples of embroidery patterns from women’s shirts, Vrlika, 1937. From the Blanche Payne ethnographic archive, University of Washington. Click on an image to enlarge.
The sadak belongs to the category of folk garments found throughout Serbian culture, generally classified as the zubun. It originated as an ancient Slavic garment for both men and women, but over time took different forms. Regional variants abound, but they are all in essence sewn from a few panels of cloth, left open for their entire length, sleeveless, and ornamented in embroidery, appliqué and braid. The most significant ornamental elements on a Vrlika sadak are the noktići, three small flaps of cloth paired symmetrically, and the zvrk, an embroidered spiral surrounded by concentric circles of notched cloth, called riza. Zvrk simply means spiral, as the embroidery intricately weaves upon itself. There are always a pair of them on the back of the sadak, just above the noktići, on a panel of red cool cloth called the skerlet. Together they form an abstract face of sorts: two staring eyes and a toothy grin. This is more than an amusing observation – it was once in our distant past meant to be exactly this! The use of large circular designs, alone or in pairs, was atropeic. They were protection against the evil eye (zle oči), a widespread superstition in Balkan cultures. One of the only things that could deter the gaze of an evil eye was to stare it down, and the zvrci (pl.) do just that. They never blink, and they literally have got your back.
It was a long time before I acquired authentic Vrlika pieces. They are hard to find, and people rarely wish to part with originals. Locally, here in Hamilton Ontario, we have a strong community of people from Northern Dalmatia, mainly Knin and Vrlika districts. This gave me opportunities to see and photograph pieces from other people’s collections over time. One of the best collections belongs to Mr. Miloš Katić, who I would say is the single-most passionate fan of Vrlika costume that I know of. Some items from his collection are shown below – they are truly outstanding and have been preserved with care. The košulja in particular is simply awesome – well over a century old, it has survived a turbulent history and path from Vrlika to Britain, and finally to Canada.
Of my own pieces, I have acquired some beautiful pregače. One is from Maovice village outside of Vrlika, and the other is from Podosoje village. The latter was woven especially for me by talented weaver Nevenka Mamić. I acquired a krožet from a collector in Nova Scotia, and bječve and panica from a collector in Rhode Island. Two sadaci (pl.) came to me via Marko Vujasin, originally from Otišić village near Vrlika, now living in Belgrade. Finally, several torbe came to me as gifts from family in Knin, my dear late aunt Branka Amanović (torba from Otišić) and from my dear friend and fellow collector Igor Macura of Stanišić near Sombor (torba from Bravči Do – Koljane village).
For Further Reading:
Bakotić, Lujo. Srbi u Dalmaciji: Od Pada Mletačke Republike Do Ujedinjenja. Edited by Stanoje Stanojević, vol. 18, Novi Sad, Dobra Vest, 1991. (orig. 1938)
Fortis, Alberto, and Antal Verancsics. Travels into Dalmatia. Cosimo, 2007.
“Serbs, Croats ‘Have Most Similar DNA’ in Region.” Balkan Insight, January 23, 2012 http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/serbs-croats-have-most-similar-dna.
Štorić, Jasenka Lulić, et al. Narodne Nošnje Sjeverne Dalmacije. Zadar, Narodni Muzej, 2003.
Menković, Mirjana, and Ivana Masniković-Antić. Zubun: Kolekcija Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu Iz XIX i Prve Polovine XX Veka. Beograd, Etnografski Muzej, 2009.
Milaš, Episkop Nikodim. Pravoslavna Dalmacija: Istorijski Pregled. Zemun, Sfairos, 1989.
Obad, Stijepo. Dalmatinsko Selo u Prošlosti: (Od Sredine Osamnaestog StoljecÌa Do Prvoga Svjetskog Rata). Logos, 1990.
Payne, Blanche. “Pattern Drawings, Vrlika.” Blanche Payne Regional Costume Photograph and Drawing Collection, University of Washington Libraries, 2008, content.lib.washington.edu/payneweb/.