What can I say that has not been said about Kosovo? The cradle of Serbian statehood, faith and identity since the arrival of the Slavs, who encountered Romanized populations, remnants of the tribes and colonies of the Roman Empire. Kosovo, which emerged as part of Raška, alongside Zahumlje and Travunija (Hercegovina), Duklja and Zeta (Montenegro) as one of the earliest Serbian principalities, and which became part of the first Serbian Kingdom of Stefan Nemanjić “Prvovenčani” (The First Crowned). Kosovo became the jewel of the Serbian state, with fortresses and monasteries constructed under the order of kings, emperors and patriarchs: Bogorodica Ljeviška, Gračanica, Banjska, Dečani, so many more… prime among them, the Peć Patriarchate, nucleus of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Kosovo was the turning point for Serbian history, too, as Serbian and Ottoman armies met once again, this time on the Field of Blackbirds (kos, Kosovo Polje) and set in motion the events of future centuries, peonies sprouting from the blood of the fallen.
The Ottoman imperial ardour to firmly establish Islam, and to cling to its territorial presence in Europe, affected Kosovo Serbs deeply. One could contend that it still does, even though the last of the Ottomans left Kosovo after the Balkan wars; their strategies of conversion and settlement did wonders. Encountering an entirely Christian population – a population that entirely remained in its faith until the sixteenth century, in fact – the Ottoman governors grew weary of the people’s reluctance to embrace Islam. Imposing taxes was a first step, but the crafty conquerors knew the magic formula: divide and conquer. From the late 17th century onward, they encouraged and instigated Albanian settlement to Kosovo and Metohija regions. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Bar, Marin Bici, travelled through Kosovo in 1610 and recorded that the Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic, all spoke Serbian. Not an Albanian to be found. But, a fateful clash of Austro-Hungarian and Turkish armies soaked the soil of Kosovo once again, in 1690. Turkish reprisals against the Serbs (who fought alongside the western Christian army) led to large scale migrations, in 1690 and 1737, of thousands of Serbian families, northward. In their place, settlers loyal to the Ottomans arrived: Turks, Tatars, Circassians, Abkhazians, and of course Albanians. Everything changed from that moment on. Centuries later, even the communists took a page from that Ottoman playbook. Marshal Tito banned the return of Serbian refugees, who had fled the atrocities of the all Albanian Skenderbeg SS Division, to their homes in Kosovo. In cahoots with Albania’s communist leader Enver Hoxha, Tito also turned a blind eye to massive illegal settlement of Albanians into Kosovo from the 1940s to 1980s. His successors did nothing to reverse or mitigate any of the damage, even to this day where we find a “democratically elected” Serbian government, desperate for Western validation in a way only matched by needy teenage girls, turning a deaf ear to their people and playing with Kosovo as a political marionette.
Yet, the Serbian people of Kosovo endure.
They must. They are the inheritors of centuries of history, centuries of material and intangible culture. They are witness to our presence, our heritage, and God willing, our future.
A point of clarification before we go on. What many people think of as Kosovo is actually two regions, Kosovo proper to the north east and Metohija to the southwest. The latter derives its name from the word metoh, meaning a monastic dependency or church-owned lands, harkening back to medieval times, when villages supported monasteries through tithes. Indeed, some of the most important monasteries of Serbian Orthodoxy lie in Metohija, attesting to how central this area was and still is to Serbian identity. Metohija runs from Mount Šara in the south parallel to the Prokletije Mountains that demarcate the border of Serbia and Albania, and includes the cities of Prizren, Peć and Đakovica with their surrounding towns and villages. Kosovo itself is divided into two valleys, Velikokosovska and Malokosovska kotlina, that are on either side of the Lab river gorge. It includes the historic Kosovo Plain, between the Lab and Sitnica, and the cities of Priština, Uroševac, Vučitrn and portions of the municipality of Mitrovica. It borders the Kosovo Morava valley to the south, centred at Gnjilane.
Just as they had preserved traditional dress longer than many regions, the inhabitants of Kosovo are known for having preserved a wealth of local tradition and folklore. As it is the region that inspired some of the oldest Serbian epic poetry, it is not surprising that the gusle were found ubiquitously throughout the region, with both men and women knowing entire texts of the Kosovo Cycle epics by heart. Of folk instruments, the reedless woodwind frula was universally played, as was the large drum, tupan or goč. With Turkish influence came the def, daire and darbuka – all percussion instruments, both in village and urban settings. Other Turkish instruments were generally limited to urban settings – the tambura, saz, and zurla (zurna), the latter particularly favoured by Roma gypsy musicians. Via the Levantine urban orchestra tradition, known as čalgija, violin (ćemane) and clarinet (grneta) came more widely into use, and after WWI the accordion came into use as well.
The song and dance heritage of Kosovo Serbs is very rich indeed. Dances often show the elegant moves and rhythms of Ottoman influenced melodies, especially in such dances as Kalač, korča, Pušćeno oro (derived from Turkish karşılama) and pembe (a cousin of the Greek nizamikos, which like Pembe is actually the offspring of a Turkish military tune!). Dances that show less Levantine influence include Oj ti Dosto, Ježo Ježo, Stojkovo kolo, U Kavače, Đurđevo Leto Proleto; of particular interest are dances that served as invitations to the dance, danced at the start of festivities: Povedi kolo Bojano, Sviri Pero, Ajde druge da igramo. All of these would have been seen at the elaborate Kosovo weddings, which last three days but are preceded by a week of ritual preparations, each accompanied with ritual songs. The major festive events of the Kosovo region would have been the various sabori, sobori (festivals) at the fourteenth century Gračanica monastery. The biggest of these would have been at Easter (Veligden, Vaskrs), St. George (Đurđevdan), Ascension (Spasovdan), Assumption (Velika Gospojina, and of course Vidovdan – St. Vitus’ Day, the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, the Serbian national holiday. Here, young men and women of marrying age would come na gledanje – to see and be seen, to make acquaintance while their parents might make marriage arrangements. Unlike in other cultures, arranged marriages in later Serbian custom were not made against the wishes of either bride or groom, although the existence of folk songs where brides (and sometimes grooms!) bemoan an undesired betrothal tell us that this must have been the case at some point in the distant past. The sabor would be an opportunity to scout out potential mates, and as the most important festival days were spring and summer, it allowed young people time to speak to their parents, for the parents to send relatives to drop in on prospective in-laws, and for autumn weddings to be arranged. The Gračanica sabor is still a major event in the lives of Serbs in Kosovo and the neighbouring regions, and one can only assume that this aspect endures as a tradition.
Kosovo proper, being a relatively compact region, has very similar basic costume elements throughout, but the details are where we find great diversity, to the point where at festivals and gatherings, one could identify from which villages or towns people came based on what they were wearing. Branislav Nušić, writing in 1902, stated that “Po celom Kosovu polju odelo je, muško i žensko, jednako ili gdekad malo različno i to ne toliko u kroju koliko u šarama” – “All throughout Kosovo the clothing, both men’s and women’s, is identical or with little variation, and even then the differences are not in design but in decoration”.
Elements of the Kosovo village men’s costume include:
Košulja: a long shirt that reached the knees, with open wide sleeves; embroidery was limited to the collar and the end of the sleeve. Most often, the košulje (pl) were sewn from hemp cloth, or a hemp-cotton mixed fabric called melez. Nušić noted that during his time in Kosovo, young men had started gathering their sleeves into a buttoned cuff. ( A rare moment where we actually have documented a change in costume)
Gaće: Slim white hemp cloth pants, worn in the summer with the košulja hanging overtop.
Čakšire: older type, wide fitting; newer type, narrow cut. White, dark brown, black or grey sukno. Decorated with gajtan braid around openings and pockets, occasionally on the thigh.
Čarape: knit, multicoloured, with braided cord to bind them at the top (vrvca)
Pojas, Ljaurija: woven striped sash, Mixed cotton and wool fibre, very colourful and very long, worn to bind the košulja and pants in place.
Kaiš: a leather belt, occasionally decorated with buttons and beads, sometimes worn over the woven sash
Jelek: Preklopnik folding type or Prsnik open type, sewn from sukno, čoja or aladža cloth. The lattermost was a striped cotton cloth of medium weight. Aladža comes from the Turkish word for colourful, also called ćitabija, as it was often imported from the near east, folded in paper like a book (Tk. kitabi, book)
Fermen: an open central Serbian style vest, which only came into use in Kosovo after the turn of the century.
Koporan: outer jacket worn over jelek and shirt; sewn from dark coloured sukno or in some places, red woolen čoja. The latter is usually of the čepken type, with slit sleeves that are more ornamental than functional. The garment is usually decorated with gajtan if it is for festive wear, and the čepken type is among all of them the most ornate.
Gunjče: winter jacket, sometimes with slit sleeves and gajtan decoration (also called misiraba), or with regular long sleeves and no decoration. Made from sukno, sometimes lined with rawhide.
Jakče, Ljurka: an unadorned jacket sewn from dark brown, black, or grey sukno, with short elbow-length sleeves
Gunja: black sukno or kozina, goat hair fabric; long sleeves, knee length, strictly worn in winter.
Pamuklija: cotton-filled quilted vests worn in winter under regular vests or jackets, for warmth.
Opanci – rawhide, with straps of rawhide (oputa) to hold them in place.
Kondure – tanned leather shoes, made by craftsmen, worn sometimes on special occasions by wealthier inhabitants of towns and villages.
Terlema, Ćeča/Plis – various caps; the first, a cap knit of white wool yarn and the latter a white felt cap, often worn with a colourful shawl, called a bujušbaga, wrapped around it
Šubara – an animal skin cap, generally of shorn lamb fleece and not as tall as those of regions to the east or south of Kosovo.
Šajkača – peaked cap of olive green šajak cloth which only came into use after the Balkan Wars.
Men’s urban costume was of the Levantine type common in other Serbian urban centres of the late and post Ottoman periods. The fabrics of choice were čoja and šajak, the finest of the rolled wool textiles, dyed in costly cochineal crimson or indigo blue, decorated in silk gajtan and srma. It consisted of:
Čakšire – pants, wide – frankly, baggy – in the seat, narrow in the calf.
Košulja – a cotton or mixed cotton-silk shirt, gathered at the cuff.
Pojas, Trombolos – Several sashes were worn: simple woollen ones to hold things together, wide striped silk ones overtop.
Jelek, Džamadan – an open vest, ornately ornamented in metallic srma
Mintan – a slit-sleeved jacket, waist length, worn overtop the jelek, with the sleeves hanging from the shoulders.
Ćurče, fermen – an overvest, worn in place of the mintan or jelek
Fes sa kićankom – a fez, with a silk tassel; Christian men wore a darker coloured fez, maroon or burgundy, to distinguish themselves from Moslem Turks, who wore bright red or black.
Čarape – socks, knit from fine cotton yarn.
Jarm-putine, jemenije – tanned leather shoes, made by craftsmen
Kaput – a winter garment, long sleeved coat, reaching mid-calf, lined and trimmed with fur, for Serbs, always wolf – Turks always used fox.
Unlike the Turkish influence on Serbian urban costume, which was a reflection of wealth and fashion, Albanian influence on Serbian village costume was a reflection partly of availability and partly of survival, a form of cultural camouflage. Atanasije Urošević confirms that the men’s costume was virtually identical between Albanians and Serbs up until the liberation of Kosovo from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. It consisted of all the same elements, in the white klašnja wool cloth, down to the Albanian style skull cap. This cap, and the ljurka, were among the first two elements quickly abandoned by Kosovo Serb men after 1912. Whereas the women’s village costume remained uninfluenced by Albanian manner of dress, the men adopted this costume as they found themselves much more often in the position to have to be among Albanians on market days, in towns, during travel or even in any dealings with local Ottoman authorities. The women were spared such duties; even though Serbian culture never had any proscription regarding women leaving the house, it was simply too dangerous for them to be in hostile surroundings, even if accompanied by men. Thus, the clothing worn by women retained all of its original character, only shifting toward garments of central Serbia after unification.
Kosovo women even today are masters of the loom and đerđef (embroidery frame). In fact, in the current difficult state of their lives, many Kosovo women support their families and communities by continuing to produce costume pieces, sold to folklore ensembles worldwide. A hard-working person was always valued in the culture of Kosovo Serbs, especially among skilled young women. One Kosovo folk song, Čaglavnčanke Sve Devojke (All the girls of Čaglavica) highlights this, as well as a bit of rivalry between the villages of Čaglavica and nearby Lipljan:
I think the message is pretty clear. Vanity, thy name is Lipljanka.
Turning again to Nušić, his praise for the costume of Serbian women of Kosovo is high: “Moglo bi se slobodno reči da je odelo kosovske seljanke najlepše srpsko žensko odelo. Pa ako je po bogatstvu, ono će teško uzmaći pred odelom svakog drugog kraja Srpstva” – “It could be freely said that the clothing of a Kosovo peasant woman the most beautiful Serbian woman’s costume. If we were to judge simply by opulence, it is difficult to say that it would be matched by any other costume of all Serbdom”.
At the turn of the century, women of Kosovo wore elaborate hairstyles and headdresses. They wore their hair in paired braids, sapletke, sapleci, framing the face, and with decorative chains of coins attached to them with hair pins
A rectangular kerchief, marama, was worn folded in such a way that the two decorated and fringed ends cross over one another at the forehead and the remaining part hangs framing the face. Nušić recorded some interesting local names for the different types of ornaments: božurana (peony flowers), pojasana (striped lengthwise), štrekana (striped along the width), zubena (“toothed”, i.e. zig zag designs), zmijana (“snaked”, curved or wavy designs) zvezdana (stars), iseklija (cut out, i.e. with designs that embroidered so that it creates gaps or allows for portions to be cut away, cutwork)
The headdress was then formed by placing a reed mat or card paper form over this kerchief, called the otoz, which was covered in cloth. The middle of this form sat over the forehead, and the ends met at the nape of the neck, tied together by yarn or ribbon, with the ends of the cloth hanging down the back or tied beneath the chin. In some villages, yet another smaller kerchief, called zaušnik, is worn over all of this in order to hold everything in place.
Unmarried young girls were spared this ordeal, and wore a shallow red cap, the tepeluk. This was worn toward the back of the head, and was covered partially by a kerchief that, tied at the nape of the neck, held it in place. On top of the cap and kerchief went a silver or gilded circular ornament, also called tepeluk. These were made by town craftsmen, and had small coins or ornaments (đinđuvi) dangling along the edges, along with small beads (manistra).
Aside from these headdresses, the remaining elements of costume were:
Košulja: a shift or dress, generally cotton, sometimes hemp or linen, long enough to reach between mid-calf and ankle. Incredible embroidery – see the section below for details.
Bojče: a short gathered skirt worn over the košulja, in some villages black and in others red (aleve) or maroon (višnjeve), with elaborate ornaments in a variety of techniques: embroidery, beadwork, applique, and passementerie.
Pojas, bisizan pojas, perkalija, kolić, klobodan – all different terms for a wide cotton sash, made from a single colour of cloth (most often black or red) and embroidered ornately for the portion of its length intended to be worn to the front.
Sindžir sa trepkama – “chain with trembling ornaments”, a decorative metal band worn over the pojas and bojče, generally gilded, meant to shimmer and jingle while moving and dancing.
Jelek – waist length vest, called kolsuz when made from maroon or deep red cloth, or karpuz when made from crimson or bright red cloth. Nušić recalled seeing bright blue ones as well, but rarely.
Koporan – a short jacket, worn over the košulja and jelek, and like the jelek decorated with gajtan (silk braid), srma (metal thread) and bućma (cotton braid).
Ćurče – an over-vest with short sleeves, reminiscent of the men’s ljurka, made from dark sukno
Dolama – a winter garment, a type of long-sleeved coat made from thick cream coloured klašnja, trimmed along the edges with gajtan, and embroidered along the sleeve cuffs, shoulders and bodice.
Čarape – woollen or cotton, with elaborate embroidery and beadwork; red, white or deep yellow were common colours.
Opanci – as in the men’s costume, rawhide with straps
Kondure – tanned leather shoes purchased from craftsmen, worn only on very special occasions by the wealthiest village girls.
Anthropologist and ethnographer Jovan Cvijić considered the traditional clothing of the Serbian women of Kosovo more beautiful than any other; in particular, he found the costume from the village of Nerodimlje perfect among them in its restraint, letting the traditional embroidery stand out with little augmentation: “manje no nošnja ostalih delova Kosova načičkana šljokicama, perlama raznim bojama i starim parama” – “in comparison to the costume in other parts of Kosovo, less over-decorated with sequins, multicoloured beads and old coins”
The elaborate embroidery was generally intricate on the bodice, collar, and hem of the skirt (provoz), but most impressive on the broad sleeves, a large blank canvas for the artistry of Kosovo Serb women. The motifs were taken from old Byzantine patterns, extensions of what was likely the seen in the brocades of the medieval Serbian court. Embroidery was augmented with sequins, tassels, small coins. The embroidery elements have specific names, such as modro kolo (blue circle), crne kuke (black hooks), lepotnik (zinnia). There are names for the dresses based on distinct placement and arrangement of these patterns patterns, such as đurđevojka, đurđevajka (“Saint George’s day dress”, worn on the best occasions and often the main bridal garment a girl wore), tri šarke (three designs), roganja (antlers), zmijana (snakes), lozana (with vines), krstatka (with crosses), zlatnica (golden), skulanka (ladders), iseklija (cut outs), lipljanka (from Lipljan), pazarka (from Pazar), debelajka (made from heavier, thicker fabric). The opening of the bodice was decorated with various types of crochet and picot lace, such as ojmice, krme, kombe.
Urban wear made little distinction between married and unmarried women, and just like the men’s costume, reflected the Levantine style seen elsewhere Serbs lived.
Kocelj – the hairstyle was a single long braid worn hanging down the back
Fes i tepeluk – a shallow fes style cap with a metallic disc sewn onto it, augmented with beads, coins, chains (askije) and a central gold coin (dubljin) hanging on the forehead.
Košulja – a blouse of silk or cotton cloth, often of the Prizrensko platno with interwoven striped weaving pattern
Dimije – the broad Turkish-style pants, distinguished from that of Moslem women by specific decorative details at the ankle, on the thigh and along the seams; made of luxurious silks, satins and brocades.
Bošča – apron woven from melez fibre, mixed cotton and hemp, and embroidered along its vertical stripes with silk and cotton thread; worn as part of the everyday costume over the dimije.
Učkur, Pojas – sashes; first, an embroidered silk cloth meant to hold the dimije in place, and the latter as in the men’s costume silk and colourful.
Jelek – a short open vest, small and meant to worn under barely held in place by a single button, under the breasts; velvet or silk, most often with gold or silver srma decoration.
Boj-jelek, bojlek – a long vest of fine cloth, worn over the jelek, reaching down to mid-calf.
Mintan – an open vest with decorative slit sleeves, worn over the jelek or boj-jelek
Ćurče, anterija – long sleeved, waist length jackets worn in place of the mintan
Džube – the opulent long vests of Kosovo urban costume; always of the finest velvet, with gold or silver srma; worn over all of the other garments.
Papuće – delicate embroidered slippers
Tepeluk, đerdan, naušnice – various items of jewelry, silver or gold.
The costume pieces I have acquired from Kosovo range in age from between the turn of the 20th century to the post-WWII period. I have reconstructed one kerchief in order to complete one of the costumes. They are from Čaglavica and Kosovo Polje, for the most part. When I first acquired a piece from this part of Kosovo, I was hesitant to even purchase it because I never thought I would complete it, so rare are these pieces. From the first pieces (an unfinished košulja and an embroidered pojas) I eventually accumulated others (vest, red bojče, etc) until the day I was contacted by another collector with many of the missing elements, all from a single costume from Kosovo Polje. They are the gems of my collection, aside from a few pieces with great sentimental value.
Full size images of both costumes (click to enlarge)
For Further Reading:
Darmanović, Mina. (1991) Srpska Narodna Nošnja sa Kosova i Metohije. Baština, vol. 2, pp. 135 – 141, Priština.
Darmanović Mina, and Menković Mirjana (2013) Etnografsko Nasleđe Kosova i Metohije: Odevanje i Tekstil Iz Zbirki Muzeja u Prištini i Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu – The Ethnographic Heritage of Kosovo and Metohija: Clothing Textiles from the Collection of the Museum in Priština and the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade. Etnografski Muzej u Beogradu.
Dvorniković, Vladimir (1939) Karakterologija Jugoslovena. Zbornik “Čovečanstvo” vol. 2, Kosmos – Geca Kon, Belgrade.
Janković, Ljubica S., Danica S. Janković (1937) Narodne Igre vol. II: Kosovska, Prizrenska i Metohijska Oblast. Štamparija D. Gregorića, Beograd.
Lakušić, Đorđe (2015) Povratak Ishodištu (A return to the source) Museum of Priština, Službeni Glasnik – Belgrade.
Nušić Branislav D., ed. Svetlana Velmar Janković (1986) Kosovo: Opis Zemlje i Naroda. Prosveta, Belgrade and Jedinstvo, Priština. (reissue of 1902 original, Matica Srpska)
Pantelić, Nikola, Olivera Vasić. (1986) Vez na seoskim ženskim košuljama Metohije i Kosova. Beograd, Etnografski Muzej u Beogradu.
Urošević, Atanasije (1965) Kosovo. Srpski Etnografski Zbornik vol. 78, book 39. Naučno Delo, Belgrade.