Bulgaria: General information

The Balkan region now known as the Republic of Bulgaria has a long history. Prehistoric peoples are known to have lived there during the Neolithic times. Since then the traditions of this region have been primarily affected by Thracian, Slavic and Bulgar heritages, coupled with Greek, Roman, Ottoman, Persian and Celtic influences.

Nowadays, the predominant culture is that of the ethnic Bulgarians who trace their ancestry to the so-called Proto-Bulgarians (a central Asian Turkic people) and the Slavs (a central European people, beginning in the 7th century CE in what is now north-eastern Bulgaria). Besides the ethnic Bulgarians, there are several ethnic minorities living in the country; the most numerous being Turks and Roma, with smaller numbers of Armenians, Jews and others. The Turks usually do not self-identify as Bulgarians, whereas the Roma often do. Both groups are generally considered outsiders by ethnic Bulgarians, in contrast to the more assimilated minorities such as the Jews and Armenians.


The emergence of a unified Bulgarian state dates back to the establishment of the First Bulgarian Empire in 681 CE, which dominated most of the Balkans and functioned as a cultural hub for Slavs during the Middle Ages. With the downfall of the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1396, its territories came under Ottoman rule for nearly five centuries. The Russo-Turkish War (1877–78) led to the formation of the Third Bulgarian State. The following years saw several conflicts with its neighbours, which prompted Bulgaria to align with Germany in both World War I and II. In 1946, it became a socialist state as part of the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc. In December 1989, the ruling Communist Party allowed multi-party elections, which subsequently led to Bulgaria’s transition into a democracy and a market-based economy.

The traditional costumes of Bulgaria have developed from this complex historical and ethnic mix. The costumes were usually hand made with local materials woven from flax, hemp, wool, silk and cotton. The materials were dyed with natural dyes. The clothes were embroidered using bright silk threads embellished with coins and beads. The folk costumes are those garments that were worn in Bulgarian villages until the beginning of the 20th century. The basic structure of the clothing worn by men and women for workdays and holidays remained the same for many hundreds of years, until urban-influenced fashions and factory-produced clothes became available. This occurred during the national revival period in the 19th century when in the urban areas, the local traditional costumes began to be replaced by new designs that were strongly influenced by Ottoman and then later Western fashions. These changes took place earlier for men than for women and at different times for the different elements of the costumes. The earliest, fastest and most diverse changes took place in the towns on the Thracian Plain between the mid-19th century and the 1920s. In more remote areas where life remained relatively unchanged, the clothing also remained virtually the same until rural depopulation occurred in the mid-20th century.

The costumes were and are decorated with many elements from pagan beliefs and legends. The designs are never completely symmetrical as Bulgarians believed complete symmetry was a diabolical creation. Intentional mistakes were even made to ward off the evil eye. The embroidery itself was considered to be able to protect the wearer from evil spirits and spells. Bulgarian women were only allowed to do embroidery until they married (they were taught at a very early age). Afterwards, they could only embroider when they were teaching their daughters.

Women’s wear

There are three main types of women’s traditional dress found in Bulgaria today. All three types of costume consist of a chemise (riza) and apron(s) or a tunic and apron, a headdress, a belt, knitted socks and often a waistcoat or overcoat.

The Bulgarian chemise can be described as a shift, smock or gown rather than a shirt. It was typically made of homespun linen, although imported cotton was used from 18th century onwards. Its length varied from long (like a nightgown) to knee or calf-length. The long sleeves varied from gathered at the wrist to bell-shaped. The neckline had either a slit or was gathered. Although most of the chemise was covered by overgarments, those areas visible to the eye were highly decorated with homespun thread. The colours and style of embroidery varied according to region.

1) Single apron
1) Single apron

1) The single (ednoprestilchena) or double apron (dvuprestilchena) costume

This style of dress consists of one or two aprons worn over the chemise and tied round the waist.  The chemise most often worn with the double apron costume is gathered at the neck and wrists and is called a burchanka. The two-apron style is widespread in northern Bulgaria. All variants of this style of dress are worn with a narrow woven fabric belt, knitted patterned socks and leather sandals (tsârvuli) or felt slippers.

The oldest and simplest form of costume is the single apron (prestilka) worn tied round the waist. By the mid-20th century this style of costume was worn only for working in the fields and villages especially in summer, often alongside the saya and soukman costumes, and in a few remote villages in the eastern Rhodopes, where it was mostly worn by Bulgarian Moslems until the first quarter of the 20th century. The single apron can be made from one or two widths of cloth depending on the area of Bulgaria. The double width apron covers almost the entire lower body.

2) Double apron
2) Double apron

With the double apron style, the front apron is made of one or two straight lengths of fabric while the back apron is either the same as the front apron or made of several pieces of fabric joined either vertically or horizontally and pleated or gathered. Again different styles of double apron can be found in different regions. These aprons are tied with narrow straps.

2) The closed tunic costume (sukmanena)

The soukman is a sleeveless or short-sleeved overdress with a low V- or U-shaped neck. It is usually made of dark woollen material for winter and decorated with braid. In summer, it is made of lighter coloured linen or cotton. It is worn over an embroidered straight-cut chemise (riza). The soukman’s skirt is fuller than that of the chemise and its length can vary from knee to ankle length. The soukman can be decorated in a variety of ways: braid or embroidery especially along the neckline, seams and hemline. In most areas, it is covered by a richly decorated apron. A waistband or narrow belt is worn over the soukman. Various types of waistcoats and jackets are also worn. The costume also included knitted socks, leather sandals or felt slippers or, more commonly nowadays, shoes.

3) Soukman
3) Soukman

3) The open tunic costume (sayana)

The saya is an open coat-like gown, usually with long or short sleeves. It is worn with a chemise (koshoulya), a waistband, a headscarf and a straight front apron made of one or two lengths of fabric with a vertical seam. The saya was variable with respect to colour, fabric designs and sleeve length. It was usually made of white or light-coloured linen or cotton. It was usually heavily decorated with embroidery at the neckline, hem and wrists.

4) Saya
4) Saya

The traditional linen or woollen materials were replaced by brightly coloured silks during the 19th century National Revival period in those towns which were involved in trade with the Orient and West. Even the style of costume worn in these towns (e.g. Kotel, Panagyurishte, Koprivshtitsa, Sliven and Plovdiv) reflected these outside influences, with both cut and decoration being strongly influenced by Ottoman fashions; for example, the design on the women’s aprons worn in Kotel (white embroidery on a blue background) is supposed to have been brought back from Jerusalem.

Independent of the region, the women’s costumes worn for weddings were very intricate and had the most layers. The brides were also adorned with heavy metal jewellery. The number of garments worn was reduced once the women were married, and also later when they were widowed, with those garments being worn having little or no decoration. The strict adherence to the use of indictors of age in the structure of women’s garments had died out by the 1930s.

5) Bridal costume
5) Bridal costume

Men’s wear

The traditional men’s dress in Bulgaria were either “white” (belodreshnik) or “black” (chernodreshnik) costumes. These two patterns are not geographically based varieties, but rather two consecutive stages in the development of the male costume. The belodreshnik costume is of Slavic origin and was found throughout ethnic Bulgarian territory. It was best preserved in its original appearance in North-Western Bulgaria as late as the early decades of the 20th century. The emergence of the chernodreshnik type of men’s costume in central, southern and north-eastern Bulgaria was part of a country-wide trend of men’s clothes becoming darker. This was particularly prominent during the period of the Bulgarian Revival due to the associated social, economic, and cultural changes that were taking place at the time. Beginning in the late 18th century and until the middle of the 19th century, Bulgarian men’s clothes were no longer made of white aba (a kind of white homespun woollen cloth), but were made of black shayak (factory-produced brown, dark blue or black woollen textiles). There were also changes in the cut of the trousers and outer garments with the style being strongly influenced by Ottoman fashions. The black costume continued to be worn in West (Pirin and Shopluk), north-west and central north Bulgaria until the early 20th century when it was replaced by Western-style clothing. The style of costume worn by the more wealthy urban dwellers (chorbadjis) consisted of very wide loose trousers — the wider or more pleated the trousers meant apparently the more affluent the wearer — silk waistbands and elaborately decorated short jackets (anteriyas).

8) A white kalpak
6) A white kalpak

Both the white and black types of costumes were worn with a white shirt (riza), a wide, brightly coloured sash (pojas), a belt, a hat made of black or white lambskin (kalpak), legwraps (navoi) or knitted socks, and leather peasant sandals (tsârvuli), or more commonly nowadays, shoes.

6) White costume (belodreshnik)
7) White costume (belodreshnik)

The older “white” style of clothing also includes either long narrow trousers (benevretsi) or trousers with broad and short legs (dimii) with leg wraps (nogavitsi) and top clothes made of white home-spun woollen cloth. The long wedge-like silhouette of the costume is produced by the outer garments (kusak, klashnik, dolaktenik, golyama dreha). Stylistically, the costume is characterised by its specific linear embroidery motifs and colourful braiding (gaytani) around the hems of the neck and the tops of the wedges. An essential element is the waist-band wound tightly around the waist made of richly ornamented fabric, predominantly red.

7) Black costume (chernodreshnik)
8) Black costume (chernodreshnik)

The “black” men’s dress was not only black but could be blue or brown in colour. In addition, the elements described above, it also included loose trousers (poturi) and a straight-cut waist-length top garment: elek, dzhamadan (waistcoat), aba, anteriya (a jacket with sleeves) made of black woollen material. The poturi trousers are richly decorated with black braid.

The men’s costumes of Western Bulgaria, in the regions of Sofia, Samokov, Stanke Dimitrov and Kustendil reflect a transitional phase between the white and black costumes. In these areas, a dark blue or black jacket or waistcoat is worn over white trousers. This costume dates from the 19th century and originated in the urban settlements that were influenced by European fashions.

9) A bridegroom’s costume showing the transition between black and white
9) A bridegroom’s costume showing the transition between black and white costumes

Bulgarian most commonly wore hats (kalpak) made from black or white sheepskin or fur. The hats were cone-shaped, cylindrical or square with a flat top. During festive occasions, men wore red skullcaps decorated with flowers.

Generally, the shoes and legwear were similar for men and women. Leather sandals called tsarvouli consisting of a single piece of pointed leather covered the foot and was secured with leather cords wrapped around the calf. The tsarvouli could be worn over a woollen foot wrap (navoi) made of a rectangle piece of fabric wrapped around the foot and calves and fastened with its own leather cords. The narvoi were then replaced by brightly coloured knee-high socks. These types of footwear were replaced by factory-made shoes in the 19th century.


Condra Jill (2013) Encyclopedia of National dress. Traditional clothing around the world. Volume 1. ISBN 978-0313-37636-8











1) Single apron style of costume – http://i1.wp.com/www.thelovelyplanet.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Heather-Kashmera.jpg

2) Double apron – http://www.thelovelyplanet.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Eli-Wolf.jpg

3) Soukman – http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-An8YujnkSio/UF1OZBTGAOI/AAAAAAAAG-0/3HvtvkP8W4E/s1600/022.jpg

4) Saya – http://www.shevitsa.com/Files/Nacionalni-kostumi-aksesoari/Genski-kostumi/oshte-genski-kostumi/pirinska-saq-1.1.jpg

5) Bridal costume – https://40.media.tumblr.com/d57373143d8fd15758c55c40d495c19d/tumblr

6) A white kalpak – http://nosii.com/userfiles/productlargeimages/product_775.jpg

7) White costume (belodreshnik) – http://www.eliznik.org.uk/Bulgaria/photos/Pleven-calus-4-6-00.JPG

8) Black costume (chernodreshnik) – http://www.omda.bg/public/images_more/Ethnographic_Museums/

9) A bridegroom’s costume showing the transition between black and white costumes – http://www.omda.bg/



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