Од Јасенице до Дунава – From Jasenica to the Danube

In a wedge of land bounded by the Danube, Morava, and Sava rivers, many great events of nineteenth and twentieth century Serbian history occurred. The area includes the modern-day capital, Belgrade, and the medieval capital, Smederevo. It was a chunk of geography that kingdoms vied for – Serbia, Byzantium, Hungary, the Ottomans all held it, and for good reason. The land is fertile, the forests rich, and the rivers were numerous. Besides the large, navigable rivers, the area is criss-crossed by seemingly countless smaller tributaries and streams, each creating habitable lowlands between hilly stretches, and each lending its name to local microregions.

One such microregion is Jasenica, defined by the course of the river Jasenica, from its confluence with the Great Morava to its confluence with the smaller river Kubršnica south of Smederevska Palanka. This boundary then follows the Kubršnica to roughly the village Ratari, which marks the point where Jasenica is divided into Gornja (Upper), toward Topola and Arandjelovac, and Donja (Lower), near Smederevska Palanka. The relatively flat lowlands between lower Jasenica and the Danube have always connected it to the Smederevo Danube lowlands, or Smederevsko Podunavlje. A similar traditional culture evolved from this connection, and this is why ethnographers and anthropologists have often considered them together. With this in mind, from Ratari, the microregion’s western boundary is defined part-way by the rivulet Veliki Lug and a northward line roughly connecting the towns Mladenovac and Grocka.

All of Jasenica, taken together, comprises 45 settlements. Gornja Jasenica, sometimes also known as Kragujevačka Jasenica, is the central heart of Šumadija region. Donja Jasenica, aka Smederevska Jasenica, and the associated Smederevo Danube lowlands will be the focus of this article. It is the area bounded roughly by Smederevo, Veliko Orašje, Smederevska Palanka, Ratari, Dubona, and Grocka.

If you ask Serbs to describe this region, they will often use the word “pitom” – tame, gentle. For those who speak Serbian, it’s a very evocative word, bringing to mind rolling meadows, forested hills, orchards… indeed, the land has been tamed thoroughly from its wild past.

Medieval Šumadija was prosperous and densely populated until the end of a period known as the Serbian Despotate (Despotovina), a vassal entity within the conquered Ottoman lands. After the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, Serbia retained much autonomy as it was being ruled by Princess Milica, regent for her young son Stefan and coincidentally mother-in-law of the Turkish Sultan. Prince Stefan Lazarević, an erudite scholar and statesman, ruled as a dual vassal of both the Hungarians and the Turks, gaining Belgrade as a Serbian city. He took the title Despot, from the Greek word for ruler or lord, the term not having any of the negative connotations of its usage in modern English. Through this period, Ottoman policies were somewhat laissez faire, interested far more in tribute and taxes, and Šumadija remained populous, if wounded. Stefan died childless in 1427, and his nephew Đurađ Branković became Despot. He had the endorsement of the Byzantine emperor, John Paleologos, partly thanks to his marriage to Irene (Jerina) Kantakouzene. The couple built the fortified city of Smederevo on the Danube. Having the Byzantine emperor’s endorsement was seen as a challenge to Ottoman rule, though, so despite being a compliant vassal Đurađ continued to gradually lose power and territory, as did his descendants. Smederevo was fully subjugated in 1459 but the Despotate continued to have rulers in exile up until 1537. The Despotate shrank with each Ottoman incursion, with waves of refugees leaving Ottoman Serbia for the lands across the Danube, then part of the Kingdom of Hungary. As villages and towns were depopulated and abandoned, forests reclaimed fields, pastures, and meadows. Ultimately this process of ecological succession is what gave Šumadija its name – the dense forest cover (šuma) that would one day protect rebels and insurgents.

After the Serbian insurrections, the repopulation of Jasenica began, and it brought people from a wide range of Serbian lands. Because of its proximity to the Morava and the Danube, and with that the accessibility to Belgrade, Smederevo and Vojvodina, essentially all of the migrational waves met in Jasenica and the Smederevo Danube lowlands. Migrations happened throughout the Ottoman period, especially as unrest forced families northward, but they intensified after the Principality of Serbia was established. The most significant two waves were the Kosovo – Metohija stream and the Dinaric stream; in Drobnjaković’s survey, over 8800 households could trace their ancestry to these two waves alone.

The vast forests were cleared as farmland was reclaimed. In the process, animal husbandry gave way to crop agriculture. The forests had successfully sustained herds of swine, which the Serbian lowland peasant turned to over sheep, during the Ottoman period. While sheep were collected as taxes, and pastures were also taxed, the Turks weren’t interested in pigs, and forests were for the most part open land where, in the fall, the peasants could fatten their animals on abundant, free acorns for months.  Settlers clearing land turned to growing wheat and corn, cabbage, onions, beans and sugar beet. Pockets of vineyards and smaller scale orchards could be found in the region also.

The material culture of the original and migrational populations merged to create a local tradition that displayed elements of Central Balkan, Dinaric, and Pannonian cultures. During the late Ottoman period, the village costume of Serbs in the area was typically Central Balkan in composition. Women wore long linen or hemp dresses, košulje; heavy woolen aprons with primarily geometric ornamentation; and the almost ubiquitous long sleeveless vest, the zubun. The latter garment persisted especially where Dinaric populations had settled, from as far as Hercegovina and Montenegro, or the closer regions of Stari Vlah and Užička Crna Gora which had been settled by Dinaric migrants once earlier. Men’s village clothing was primarily of white hemp cloth, but the transition to dark wool cloth garments had begun already in the Ottoman period, introducing the čakšire trousers, short jelek vests and anterija jackets. These elements – jelek, anterija, and others – come to mind as distinctly Serbian national costume arose during the late Ottoman period as a sort of visible form of rebellion, in both male and female costumes. Defying restrictive Ottoman laws governing the Christian subjects’ apparel, people began wearing garments of richer material, colour, and ornamentation. As prosperity and contact with regions beyond the Danube grew, the costume transitioned to one that was essentially Pannonian in structure. The long women’s shirt was replaced (albeit not universally) by a blouse and underskirt; dual woolen aprons became a woolen skirt and lighter, primarily decorative front apron; the zubun fell into disuse, while Ottoman influence jelek vests came to be worn. What came to become the virtually iconic 20th century Serbian folk costume would be almost unrecognizable in comparison to what was worn in the 18th and 19th centuries.

An invaluable record of the traditional clothing of Jasenica and the Smederevo district was created by the talented watercolour artist Olga Benson. A Russian emigre, one of hundreds who fled the revolution in her own country to settle in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, she first settled in Skoplje in 1920 but moved to Belgrade in 1939. There was commissioned by the Ethnographic Institute of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences in Belgrade to document material culture both in the field and from the museum collection. Although she recorded all manner of artifacts, including architecture, pottery, and woodwork, her costume paintings are perhaps her most memorable and well-known legacy to this day. The Ethnographic Institute and Ethnographic Museum have hundreds of these wonderful paintings, only a few of which had ever reached wider public. The gallery below is just a small selection from among these images.

The elements of the men’s costume in this area include the following:

Košulja – a white linen hemp cloth shirt, broad in fit and with long sleeves; in the oldest variants the shirt reached to the knees, and as such constituted the major upper garment of the men’s summer garment, but in later variants of the costume the shirt took the form of a collared shirt of typical western style, but with embroidery along the front and cuffs.

Gaće – white linen or hemp cloth trousers, worn as the primary trousers in summer costume (tucked into socks) or as an extra layer for warmth in wintertime.

Čakšire – Woollen trousers made of dark brown, gray or dark blue sukno cloth (tightly woven, then processed by boiling and rolling), in the older variant wide in the seat (turnjače) but in the 20th century narrow in the calf, looser in the thigh, influenced by military britches (hence the name bridž pantalone, also).  

Jelek, fermen – short, waist-length sleeveless vest, worn over the shirt in the summer or over the anterija in winter, made of sukno cloth matching the anterija and sometimes also the trousers. Both names are essentially interchangeable, although in some villages the distinction is that a fermen vest is much more ornate in its decoration. The garment was made by craftsmen known as terzije, using silk or wool braid (gajtan, bućma).

Anterija, gunj – a long sleeved jacket, reaching slightly longer than the waist, and decorated with the same types of braid applique and embroidery. Front panels of the anterija fold over, so the clever craftsmen would leave on panel fairly plain and the other very ornate; the wearer could display whichever he chose, as the occasion dictated. The older variants of men’s costume had another form of the jacket, the gunj krdžalinac, in which the panels did not meet at all.

Tkanica, pojas – a wide, multicoloured woolen sash woven on a table loom or card loom, worn so that one end of it (sometimes fringed) hung down the thigh.

Čarape – socks knit from black wool yarn and decorated with floral motifs primarily at the top of the sock. Generally the socks were knee high, or at least mid-calf, 

Opanci – in this district, universally of tanned leather with the well-known hook, the šiljkan type. The crveni opanci got their name from the red-brown colour of the leather, and were produced by craftsmen, opančari, in cities such as Smederevo, Aranđelovac, Kragujevac, and Belgrade. Oldest types still retained very long straps that could wind around the calf repeatedly, but over time these were became shorter.

Šubara – the older headgear, the typical Central Balkan sheepskin hat, in this region always of dark fleece, and worn partially “caved in”, that is, the hat would be folded or tucked such that a cylindrical base rested on the head, with the curved peak emerging centrally. This eventually became a hat worn primarily by older men or in the winter.

Šajkača – the military style cap sewn from grey-green šajak cloth, a thinner finer wool cloth than sukno.

Šešir – western style brimmed hats that came into use via urban and Pannonian influences; straw or felt hats were both worn, and men often produced their own straw hats (slameni šeširi)

Young man’s festive clothes from lower Jasenica: fermen jelek and anterija worn over embroidered shirt, with šajkača cap.
The use of vibrant blue sukno cloth allowed for the use of opulent silk braid with a reddish tone.
Details of the incredibly ornate jelek, a testament to the skill of the unknown craftsmen of an era long past.

The more recent women’s costume in the Jasenica district and Smederevo Danube lowlands consisted of the following:

Košulja – a long shirt or shift, as in the oldest variants of costume, but generally of lighter linen or cotton cloth, with embroidery on the sleeves and often with lace at the openings. 

Košulja oplećak – a short shirt or blouse, reaching to the waist or hips only, also made of lighter linen or cotton cloth, with embroidered bodice and sleeves, and often with lace at the collar and sleeve hems. Toward the Danube, in some villages, the sleeve length is around the elbow, especially for summer wear, as opposed to the typical full sleeve reaching to the wrist. This form of the upper garment is very much a Pannonian costume element

Podsuknja – an underskirt, plain white cloth, with lace or embroidery at the hem, especially if this is meant to be showing from beneath a skirt.

Suknja – a pleated wool skirt, dark colours in Jasenica and brighter colours in villages toward the Danube. Often assumed to have come into use under the influence of urban dress, it is worth recalling that the southern migrants (who left a significant number of descendants in the Jasenica and Morava valleys) would have brought with them various types of wrap-around skirts, such as the bojče, boče, zaprega, vlnenik, etc. The culture of wearing such a garment was there, and perhaps the urban fashion revived it. The suknja retains structural elements of many of these, although its final form, worn over an underskirt, closes completely. In lower Jasenica, a velvet strip is embroidered separately in floral cross-stitch, then sewn onto the hem of the plain dark skirt. In Smederevo Danube area, the skirt is often decorated with appliques of industrially produced velvet and lace, as a way of showing wealth and status.

Kecelja – the decorative front apron, known for its elaborate floral embroidery. This style of embroidery came from across the Danube, a result of contact with the Biedermeier decorative movement, as well as late Baroque and Rococo design that came with products from Austria-Hungary. In place of heavy wool, lighter materials ranging from loosely woven hemp cloth (conducive to cross stitch) and industrially produced velvet (for festive costume) came to be used.

Jelek, džoka – sleeveless bodice vest of heavy wool sukno (for daily wear) or sumptuous velvet fabric (for festive wear), generally black in Jasenica, but sometimes of deep bordeaux red or purple as you approach Smederevo. Made by terzije craftsmen and decorated with gold wire srma, in both embroidery and applique.

Tkanica, pojas – narrower than those worn by men, but still multicoloured and woolen, the patterns were generally striped with some subtle interwoven designs. As in the men’s costume, this sash was long enough to go around the waist several times, and was bound firmly.

Čarape – knit woollen socks, also of black yarn, but with much more embroidery over the entire length of the sock, executed in botanical motifs using cotton, wool, or silk thread.

Opanci – of similar types as those worn by men, but with straps that would only wind around the ankle and buckle in place. (this avoided the straps obscuring the decoration of the socks)

Cipele – purchased from shops in towns, these were black leather shoes with a low heel.

Konđa – in the oldest variant of the costume, a satin damask or brocade kerchief worn over a headpiece pinned to braids wrapped around the head; retained somewhat longer in the villages closer to the Danube and towards Belgrade district, than in Jasenica. The konđa was decorated with niello hair pins, short chains, and fresh or artificial flowers.

Marama – kerchief of cotton or linen cloth, plain or with a floral print; sometimes with narrow lace sewn to the edges intended to hang down the back. Unmarried girls essentially went about with uncovered heads, but covered their hair during work, while married women generally wore a kerchief at all times, even when doing tasks at home. Flowers were a common ornament, tucked into a kerchief, behind the ear, or into a braid.

Young woman’s costume from vicinity of Smederevska Palanka, lower Jasenica district.
Young woman’s costume from vicinity of Smederevska Palanka, lower Jasenica district.
Details from two aprons from Jasenica, showing changes in embroidery styles over time.
Detail of the embroidery from the hems of two skirts from near Smederevska Palanka
Young woman’s festive costume from Mala Krsna, in the Smederevo Danube lowlands.
Details from the Mala Krsna costume, possibly one of the favourites in my collection.

For further reading:

Benson, Olga. Ljiljana Gavrilović, Biljana Milenković-Vuković (2019) Snovi o Prošlosti i Tradiciji: Olga Benson. Etnografski Institute SANU, Beograd.

Drobnjaković, Borivoje (1923) Jasenica: Antropogeografska Ispitivanja. Srpska Akademija Nauka, Beograd

Drobnjaković, Borivoje (1925) Smederevsko Podunavlje i Jasenica. SANU – Srpski Etnografski Zbornik knjiga 34. Beograd.

Erdeljanović, Jovan. Ed. Petar Ž. Petrović (1951) Etnografska građa o Šumadincima. SANU – Srpski Etnografski Zbornik knjiga 64. Beograd.

Prošić-Dvornić, Mirjana.(1989) Narodna Nošnja Šumadije. Kulturno-Prosvjetni Sabor Hrvatske – Biblioteka Narodne Nošnje Jugoslavije, Zagreb.

Prošić-Dvornić, Mirjana.(2012) East meets West Again: The Formation of National Costumes in the 19th Century Balkans. The Example of Serbia, in Proceedings of the 64th Annual Conference, ICOM, pp. 15-24. Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade.