If you have seen a production of, or listened to the music from, Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow”, you actually have some passing knowledge of one of the tiniest but fiercest corners of Serbdom, the Black Mountain – Crna Gora – Montenegro. Disguised with the pseudonym Pontevedro in the operetta, Lehar included elements of Montenegrin life throughout every aspect of the production. Premiering in 1905, the two leads, Mizzi Gunther (playing the eponymous widow, Hanna Glavari, a Pontevedran expatriate in Paris) and Louis Treumann (playing the dashing Prince Danilo), wore stage versions of traditional court costume; characters’ names were reflective of the region and the ruling dynasty, the Petrović-Njegoš family; an aria titled “The Song of the Vila” hearkened to the mythological vile (pl.) of Serb folklore, beautiful but temperamental female fairies who inhabited forests and mountains. The operetta was, in many ways, a Viennese nod to the Slavs of its kingdom, even though Montenegro lay beyond its boundaries. The land of mountains and eagles had never been fully conquered through five centuries of Ottoman presence in the Balkans; little did the Viennese know that in less than a decade, Montenegrin Serbs would be fighting off their armies, too.
The costume most frequently encountered today is what is known as the svitna nošnja, from the luxurious silk and satin fabrics (svita) used in its creation. It is a relatively recent version of traditional dress, arising in the nineteenth century and shaped by a variety of economic and political factors. As Crna Gora gained greater freedom, its isolated mountain clans came into greater contact, both in trade and in battle. In form, though, the costume retained elements of the older woollen costume, known as suknena nošnja. Other variants, like the bokeljska or bokeška nošnja, are encountered on the Adriatic coast, in the Bay of Kotor (Boka Kotorska), and the coastal foothills (Paštrovići, Spič); these belong to the Adriatic zone typology. Here we will focus on the elements of the first two variants, which belong to the family of costumes known as Dinaric costume. This refers to the mountain ranges that connect Crna Gora, southwestern Serbia, portions of Kosovo and Metohija, Bosnia, Hercegovina, Dalmatia, Lika and Kordun regions.
Elements of men’s costume did not differ greatly between suknena and svitna variants. The basic garment was a linen or hemp shirt, košulja, and woolen trousers, gaće – čakšire. These trousers were, in the oldest variant, made of natural undyed wool cloth, sukno. The trousers were narrow at the calf but broad in the seat, giving them a loose fit. A drawstring held them in place as well as a narrow woollen sash, the pojas. In the svitna nošnja, the trousers were dyed deep blue. Two types of woollen socks were put on next: knee-high dokoljenice, held in place by braided podvezice, and over these, ankle high bječve or nazuvice. The socks were invariably of undyed white wool, too. Footwear were opanci oputnjaci, the rawhide shoe worn throughout the Dinaric regions where Serbs lived. In the svitna nošnja, these were often replaced with black leather boots, influenced by military uniforms and western urban fashion. The regional costume of Crna Gora is known for layering several upper body garments, starting with a vest that folded over, called the džamadan. This could also have sleeves, like a jacket, and if the sleeves were slit lengthwise they would be worn hanging from the shoulder, strictly decoratively. This variant of the garment was known as dušanka (from the word for soul, duša, alluding to its close fit). A coat called gunj in the suknena nošnja, or dolama in the svitna nošnja, was worn next. It had long sleeves and was made either of undyed white wool (gunj) or sukno dyed deep or light green (dolama). The gunj was relatively plain, with only limited braid ornamentation (gajtan) at hems, borders and openings, but the dolama had both red and black braid trim, and gold srma thread embroidery. Typically, the region’s costume is today known for this intricate gold embroidery. Over this garment (yes, another layer) a short open vest with metallic ornaments, jelek sa tokama, was worn. The metal plates, rings and buttons are a remnant of medieval armour, and similar garments are found in other Dinaric regions. Another woollen sash, as well as a wide leather belt called the silav, bound the costume at the waist. The silav had slits and pockets for carrying money, gunpowder, and weapons; the mountainous territory was a haven for Albanian brigands (kačaci) and Ottoman Turkish raids. In the courtly costume, a very long and wide striped silk sash, the trambolos, covered the silav instead. The men’s costume was completed by a struka, a woven woollen blanket that served as a cloak in inclement weather, and by a variety of highly ornamented weaponry: kubura (pistol), jatagan (dagger), džeferdar (rifle), fišeklije (ammunition case). These were made by craftsmen in Skadar, Kotor, Herceg Novi, and even came from as far as Prizren, Foča and Sarajevo.
But what really makes the men’s costume, the thing that defines it, is the cap or kapa. It is a low cylindrical cap made of red wool cloth, bordered with black satin. The top of the cap is embroidered in heavy gold braid, with five semicircular arcs surrounding a Greek cross (i.e. a cross with arms of equal length) and four letters C (the cyrillic letter S). This cap is laden with symbolism that reminds everyone that Crna Gora is and has always been a Serbian land. The red and black, for example, are symbols of the blood shed at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, and the mourning for that loss ever since. This is found in other regional caps worn by Serbs. The five arcs are a reminder of five centuries of Ottoman rule, but at the same time are a kind of ‘time lapse’ of a rising sun, the emerging liberation that happened over the nineteenth century. Finally, the cross, the symbol of Orthodox Christianity, and the four letters – Само Слога Србина Спасава – Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava: Only Unity will Save the Serbs. The cross and letters entered Serbian heraldry from Byzantium; in Montenegro, they arose first on flags and battle banners of the Balšić and Crnojević rulers, and persisted until they became part of personal adornment. This is the cap Montenegro’s greatest poet and leader, Petar II Petrović Njegoš, wore when he wrote the epic Gorski Vijenac – The Mountain Wreath, describing the fight for independence. It is the same cap his descendant, King Nikola Petrović-Njegoš, wore throughout WWI. It is the cap that gives testimony to the Serbian presence and identity in the black mountains of Crna Gora.
Women’s Costume in Montenegro showed a much greater difference between suknena and svitna nošnja. The suknena nošnja fell into disuse after the turn of the 20th century, but was much more authentically recognizable as a Serbian Dinaric costume. The long shirt, košulja, formed its base garment. In the Vasojevići clan district, an incredible garment called the oblaja was worn. This is probably the garment described by Vuk Karadžić as being “embroidered colourfully all over the bodice and sleeves” – “šareno izvezenu po rukavima i grudima”. The bodice and skirt of this garment were sewn from a light homespun wool cloth, but the sleeves were of heavier woollen sukno, dyed a deep maroon red colour. The garment was virtually covered in embroidery and appliques. Over the oblaja was worn a woven apron, pregača or pregljača, with heavy woolen fringe, held in place by a narrow woolen sash, pas or pojas. A lighter wrap-around apron, called iram, was worn in summer and during work. Wealthier women wore belts with decorative metal buckles, the čamprazi, and a wider heavier leather belt, the akičar, jakičar, or pojas sa akicama, studded all over with carnelian, amber, or coral the size of plums. A long sleeveless vest, the zubun, completed the upper garments in summer; in winter, a long sleeved coat of the same sukno cloth, the aljina, was worn. Footwear were woollen socks, čarape, and opanci. The head was covered with a cap, a red kerchief called povezač, and a white linen kerchief, the marama.
It is the women’s svitna nošnja that we have seen the biggest change. Finer commercial materials have replaced what was essentially a costume almost entirely made of wool. This came as a result of trade with Venice and Austria, the growing western contact coming as rebellions grew stronger and Ottoman power waned. The costume today has replaced the heavier long shift with a light silk blouse of Venetian origin, the kamižola, or košulja sa ošvicama (literally “the shirt with embroidered borders”). The ošvice were embroidered separately and sewn onto the silk blouse. The light nature of the fabric meant that it had to be worn over an undershirt, the bustin. As the oblaja fell out of use, skirts began to be worn. Initially this was a woolen skirt, the raša, but later a damask silk or satin skirt, called either suknja, raša, or kotula, came to be worn. Sometimes this was worn with an apron – traversa, kecelja – sewn generally of the same material. The apron is not universally worn, but persisted because of tradition. In the times when the suknena nošnja was worn, it would have been immodest and scandalous for a woman to leave the house not wearing the pregača, so as this costume came into use, the habit persisted. A belt with a distinctive filigree buckle, the ćemer, came into use under Levantine influence. Women continued to wear opanci in the svitna nošnja, over lighter cotton socks, but often these were replaced with leather shoes (cipele, crevlje) or slippers (papuče) made be urban craftspeople.
Upper garments of the women’s svitna nošnja varied according to marital status. Unmarried girls wore an open vest with short sleeves reaching mid-way to the elbow, called dolaktica. Married women wore a waist-length open jacket with long sleeves known as jaketa. Both garments were made of deep red velvet with opulent gold embroidery in stylized floral motifs. Over these was worn a garment that is essentially a lighter version of the old zubun, a long open vest known as the koret. Sewn from finer and lighter wool cloth, it was either natural white or dyed a pale green or blue colour, with gold embroidery along all edges and openings, and delicate ornaments at the lower corners of the two front panels. A narrower bodice widened to a broader skirt portion, which swayed when moving and flared when dancing. Hair was plaited into two braids that were generally wound around the head, but sometimes left to hang over each shoulder or down the back. Niello chains, pins, and charms, as well as silver coins, often were worn in and on the braids on festive occasions. Married women wore a dark kerchief, called marama or veo, often made of fine lace produced by women on the coast. Young girls wore a cap like the men’s cap, generally with a delicate central motif done in gold braid but very often with the exact same patriotic ornaments, a testament to the strength of the crnogorke, the Serbian women of Montenegro. Change came to the costume, but not to the spirit.
The political changes of the mid and late twentieth century led to the confusion that exists about Montenegrin ethnicity. This is naturally complicated by the fact that the region had a strong history of individual statehood, revived as a principality in the fifteenth century and surviving to create the Kingdom of Montenegro in 1910. Yet, throughout that time, the character of the principality and kingdom were always Serbian. This is clear in the historic record, the linguistic and ethnographic record, the traditions and folk epics, the literature generated in the region, and the national symbols, which were always the Serbian tricolour and other Serbian emblems. The communist regime met with marginal success, aided by local opportunists, in enforcing Montenegrin as an ethnicity (as it did with other Serbian-speaking groups within Yugoslavia), creating a scenario for chaos today. In my own travels through the region, I consistently heard people reiterate that they were Serbs, period. They used ‘Montenegrin’ as a regional identifier: Crnogorac, Crnogorka, as one would with any region (Dalmatinac, Bosanka, Banaćanin…). The only dyed-in-the-wool “Montenegrins” I met were, without failing, also dyed-in-the-wool members of the Communist party or beneficiaries of that regime’s policies. Habits learned under communism persisted after its fall. But, Vuk Karadžić said it best: “Svi su Crnogorci Slaveni srpske grane grčkog zakona” – All of the inhabitants of Montenegro are Slavs, of the Serbian branch, and of Greek (Orthodox) faith”.
Lehar’s operetta is a comedy mixing flirtation and political intrigue. A baron is trying to get Hanna to marry Danilo because, frankly, he wants her money back in Pontevedro, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. Sadly, intrigue seems to be an enduring Montenegrin tradition, with events today much more perfidious than the Viennese stage version. Whatever unfolds, we know that the Serbian soul and heritage of Crna Gora will survive it, persist, and thrive.
Images illustrating the transitional changes in Serbian costume in Montenegro, from Belgrade’s Ethnographic Museum. Click images to enlarge. (From Bjeladinović-Jergić, 2011)
This blog post is an expanded version of an article I wrote for an ethnographic exhibit brochure for the 2020 Sydney Serbian Festival, the largest festival of Serbian culture in the Southern Hemisphere. Check out their social media, including Instagram @serbianfestival. Special thanks to Mr. Petar Kuprešanin for inspiring this post, for his dedication in researching and preserving Serbian folk costumes, and his creative ways of incorporating them into his art and graphic design work.
For Further Reading:
Barjaktarović, Mirko (1979) Poreklo i vreme nastajanja “crnogorske” nošnje. Glasnik Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu, vol. 43
Bjeladinović-Jergić Jasna (2011) Narodne nošnje Srba u XIX i XX Veku. Etnografski Muzej u Beogradu.
Dvorniković, Vladimir. (1939) Karakterologija Jugoslovena. Kosmos – Geca Kon, Beograd.
Karadžić, Vuk Stefanović (1837), Ed. Bogdan Đuričin (1972) Crna Gora i Crnogorci. Nolit, Beograd.
Markuš, Blažo. Milorad Tomanović, Ljiljana Đurišić, ed. Gordana Vlajić, Dušanka Ogar (1993) Narodne Nošnje i Nakit Crne Gore – Katalog izložbe. Gradski Muzej Sombor, Etnografski Muzej Crne Gore Cetinje.
Milojković-Djurić, Jelena (2011) Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow: Revisiting Pontevedro. Serbian Studies: Journal of the North American Society for Serbian Studies, Vol. 25(2), pp. 259-272
Reljić, Ljubomir. Danijelka Radovanović. (1988) Folk Embroidery in Yugoslavia. Jugoslovenska Knjiga, Belgrade.
Vlahović, Mitar S. (1933) Muška nošnja u Vasojevićima. Glasnik Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu, vol. 8.
Vlahović, Mitar S. (1934) Ženska nošnja u Vasojevićima. Glasnik Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu, vol. 9.
Zahova, Sofiya (2017) Ethnographic studies on the Montenegrin festive costume as a national symbol. in Balkan and Balticum: Current Studies in the Postsocialist Space, ELM Scholarly Press, SATOR 18, Tartu