The Republic of Latvia is one of the three Baltic States. The Latvians speak Latvian, an ancient Indo-European language. Latvia has been at the cross-roads between East and West, North and South since ancient times and as a result Latvia’s population has been multi-ethnic for centuries. However, the demographics shifted dramatically in the 20th century due to the two World Wars. As of March 2011, Latvians and Livonians (about 400 people), the indigenous peoples of Latvia, form about 62.1% of the population, while 3.3% are Belarusians, 0.1% Estonians, 0.1% Germans, 0.3% Jews, 1.2% Lithuanians, 2.2% Poles, 0.3% Romani, 26.9% Russians, 2.2% Ukrainians and 1.3% others. Latvia is historically predominantly Protestant Lutheran, except for the Latgale region in the southeast, which is mainly Roman Catholic.
Around 3000 BCE, the proto-Baltic ancestors of the Latvian people settled on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. The Balts established trade routes to Rome and Byzantium, trading local amber for precious metals. By 900 CE, four distinct Baltic tribes inhabited Latvia: the Curonians, Latgalians, Selonians and the Semigallians, in addition to the Livonians who spoke a Finnic language.
In the 12th century, there were 14 separate lands in the territory of Latvia. Although the local people had had contact with the outside world for centuries, they were more fully integrated into European society in the 12th century when German crusaders were sent by the then pope into the region to convert the pagan population to Christianity by force. In the beginning of the 13th century, large parts of today’s Latvia were ruled by Germans.
The 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were a time of great change for the inhabitants of Latvia, including the reformation, the collapse of the Livonian state, and the time when the Latvian territory was divided up among three foreign powers: German, Swedish and Polish. During this time, the ancient tribes of the Couronians, Semigallians, Selonians, Livs and northern Latgallians assimilated to form the Latvian people, speaking one Latvian language. Latvia became part of the Russian empire in 1710. In 1920, Latvia gained its independence; however, in 1939 Latvia was given over to Soviet rule as part of an agreement between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Latvia finally regained its independence in 1991. Despite having foreign rule from the 13th to 20th centuries, the Latvian nation has maintained its identity throughout the generations via its language and musical traditions.
Latvian folk dress is characterised by two historic periods of specific traditions. First is the “ancient dress” period from the 7th to 13th century. The second one dates back to 18th and 19th centuries and is often referred as the “ethnic” or “ethnographic dress”. The latter costumes are basically the traditional festive outfits of peasants, craftsmen, fishermen and other ordinary folk as worn in the 19th century, approximately up to the 1870s. The Latvians also wore work clothes differing according to the season and weather. Folk dress in Latvia has played and still plays an important symbolic role in the preservation of national values and cultural heritage. Nowadays, traditional folk costumes are worn for festive occasions both at a personal and national level (especially the Latvian song festival). The garments not only display social status but also the origins and traditions of a particular region of Latvia, of which there are five: Augšzeme, Kurzeme, Latgale, Vidzeme and Zemgale.
Ancient Latvian Dress (7th–13th century)
The Ancient dress period is well known for its usage of bronze – rings, spirals and brooches. The ancient dress for both Latvian men and women consisted of long tunic-shaped costumes. During this period, both men and women had clothing made from locally grown flax (linen), like many other countries of Northern Europe, and fleece, while shoes and caps were made mostly from furs and the leather of domestic or wild animals. The cloth consisted of plain weave or twill. Most of the clothing was made locally while trading routes to Scandinavia, Russia and even the Middle East provided the local tribes with jewellery.
Knitting was done using the naalbinding technique known also from the Vikings (nålbindning), which means binding with a needle. It is a little like crochet, but with a needle instead of a hook and short pieces of wool, so that if a piece of wool breaks the cloth does not unravel and just a couple of stitches need to be replaced.
With the invasion of German influence (12th century onwards), Latvian traditional clothing changed, especially the tradition of decorating clothing with bronze disappeared under German rule. In addition, Naalbinding items gradually disappeared and the tradition of knitted mittens, gloves and socks developed, which reflected regional differences in ornament and colour.
Latvian Ethnic Dress (18th–19th century)
The basic element of the ethnic or ethnographic costume is the shirt, which serves both as an undergarment and an over-garment. Women’s shirts are long, coming down to below the knee and act as both a blouse and a petticoat. Over the shirt, the women wear skirts, bodices and jackets. Men wear a waistcoat and a short jacket or an overcoat over their shirts and trousers.
Records from the 18th century show that the most common colour of Latvian peasant’s dress was the natural white and grey of linen and wool, while for decoration they kept to the centuries’ old traditional four-colour scheme of blue, red, yellow and green made with natural dyes in various shades. It is possible that the strict observance of colour was at least in part due to sorcery. White has a special place in Latvian folklore as it has magical associations and the Latvian word for white is synonymous with purity, goodness and enlightenment. Red was associated with fire, blood, life and vitality and was used to decorate aprons, headgear and shirts. Black was used in farmers’ clothing first in the latter half of the 19th century and then only in combination with other colours. Black was regarded as the colour of the gentry.
On festive occasions, the clothing was adorned with embroidered, woven or knitted designs to make it visually impressive, distinctive, and unique. Geometric designs are characteristic of Latvian folk art. They usually consist of separate elements combined in a unified composition. It is thought that the intricate patterns are a form of writing, a way of communicating a concept or a wish, especially as in the Latvian language, the same word (raksts) is used to denote writing and ornamentation.
In the 19th century, different types of adornments and embellishments were introduced to the festive costumes. A popular trend was the use of ring-shaped brooches to fasten the clothes. Since then brooches or breastpins are the significant part of the Latvian traditional costumes. The shirt is closed by one or several small brooches; big brooches are used to keep the cape in place.
The chief footwear for men and women were pastalas, a simplified form of shoes made of a single piece of leather and tied with laces. In cold weather, several pairs of stockings were worn. In earlier times, feet were ordinarily wrapped in foot-cloths. Festive occasions called for shoes or boots, which, of course, indicated the owner’s prosperity. Men in particular were subject to evaluation by the footwear they could afford. Pitch-black, knee-high boots, usually worn by military officers or rich merchants were, to a certain extent, a subject of admiration from the opposite sex.
Women made their own clothes (and those of the men) throughout the centuries until modern times. Even after the 18th century, Latvian women continued to wear linen shirts as part of their ethnic dress. The visible upper part was made of the finest linen, but the part hidden under the skirt as a petticoat was made of coarse linen. On top of the shirt, women wore long skirts, coats of different lengths and also woollen shawls. A favourite piece of jewellery used by Latvian women was the silver brooches, decorated with thimble-like bubbles and/or red glass pebbles or beads. These were worn as fasteners for shawls on the chest.
Before the 19th century, there is evidence of a skirt which was not sewn but which was simply a piece of fabric wrapped around the body and secured with a belt. The Livs wore skirts that extended above the waist. They consisted of two pieces of fabric – one for the front, one for the back – which were fastened at the shoulders (later, sewn together) and cinched with a woven belt. The two-piece skirt was the precursor of the skirt with a sewn upper part. Meanwhile, the wrap-around skirt developed into a sewn skirt with pleats or gathers.
The basic function of the sash (josta) was to secure the skirt and to girdle the waist. Only women wore patterned sashes and it is believed that the designs are related to traditions of fertility cults. The Lielvārde Sash is a popular example of complex Latvian pattern work. Into it, weavers put a particular array of ancient power symbols, said to give strength, health, wisdom and other positive traits to the wearer. Some even argue that the Lielvārde belts – each a unique work of art – hold secret messages in the form of ethnographic codes. There might be some truth to that, as according to Latvian mythology Laima, the goddess of fate, weaves each person’s thread of destiny. The length of the sash varied: sashes of three meters or even more were wrapped around the waist several times. In Liv regions during the 18th and 19th centuries, patterned sashes were not worn because ties of the apron served as a sash.
In all regions, an essential part of the national dress was the woollen shawl (villaine), a rectangular or square fabric draped around the shoulders. Possibly, as the oldest part of the costume, it served a dual purpose. Embroidered or otherwise adorned, it accented a costume worn on a festive occasion. While plain or checked – it kept the wearer warm. Summer shawls were made of linen. In the 18th and 19th centuries, festive shawls were chiefly white or sometimes blue. In earlier centuries, they were predominantly dark blue with bronze ornamentation. The function of a festive shawl was to both adorn and protect the wearer, as if isolating her from the outside world. Occasionally, multiple shawls, skirts and head coverings were worn together, perhaps to show off the owner’s prosperity.
Headdresses are an important part of female Latvian costumes as for at least a thousand years, the head-covering served to signify the wearer’s marital status. Until they are married, teenage girls wore a crown or wreath. The crowns were made of lace and fabric adorned with glass beads and other things. In Liv regions, a ribbon served for the same purpose. In contrast, married women wore either a hat or a headscarf.
Knitted woollen or cotton lace socks and black flat heel shoes (in places – leather pastalas) completed the women’s costume, while men sometimes wore boots. Woven belts are also important parts of the costumes.
In the ethnic costume, Latvian men still wore a tunic-like shirt as in the ancient costume, but with a pair of trousers and a jacket or coat. Men also wore waistcoats, though only for special occasions.
Until the middle of the 19th century, the men’s trousers went down to below the knee and they were worn with knee-length socks. After the middle of the 19th century, Latvian men started wearing longer trousers, occasionally tucked inside their socks.
At the turn of the 19th century, men wore homespun coats, mostly of a natural grey colour decorated with red, green or blue cord. White fabric was used for festive occasions, although this varied largely depending on the region of Latvia. Linen overcoats were worn in summer; long homespun woollen or fur coats in winter. A long jacket was accompanied by a belt.
Belts were an integral dress accessory for Latvian men and were either woven or made of leather, or of metal on leather depending on the region. Woven belts were characteristic for eastern regions (Latgale), while those made of leather with metal elements were typical for western regions (Kurzeme).
Men’s clothes of dark blue, brown or natural black appeared in the second half of the 19th century when industrially-made cloth was used for festive clothing. The men’s dress had more city fashion influences than the women’s costume. The tunic-style shirt remained unchanged, yet the homespun trousers and jacket began to reflect city fashions in the 18th century. Military uniforms also influenced the style of a Latvian man’s costume, especially in details such as the lapels and embroidery. Unlike women, men usually did not make their own costumes. Instead, they often enlisted the aid of a tailor or a female relative.
Although not overtly obvious, a man’s apparel usually indicated his social status and welfare. Small yet important improvements and decorations were made to the standard outfits of various regions. During a number of centuries, daggers were an integral part of a men’s costume.
The men’s headwear was not as strictly regulated as the women’s. The most popular head-dress was the broad-brimmed hat made of felt and adorned with a ribbon. A hat made of straw was preferred for the warm summer months.
Mittens were commonly given as gifts, especially at weddings and also at funerals. Even in summer the men used ornamented mittens for their festive clothing, usually stacked behind the belt.
As said above, there are five larger regions in Latvia — Kurzeme, Latgale, Sēlija, Vidzeme and Zemgale — each with their own specific traditions, spoken dialect and dress culture. Regional borders were never strictly marked and a certain cultural exchange has always existed. The main variations amongst these regions are shown in the women’s clothing; for example, the colour schemes, styles, compositions and embroidery. Also the decoration of shawls, mittens, socks and sashes differs in each region.
The dress of Kurzeme reflects not only the traditions of Latvians and Livs (the indigenous peoples) but also of the neighbouring countries – Lithuania, Estonia and Poland.
In the second part of 19th century, the dress of Kurzeme witnessed radical changes due to the introduction of bright chemical dyes. It began with bright stripes appearing in the north and east of Kurzeme and colourful red in the southwest. A characteristic feature for the bright monochrome skirts was the ornamented lower edge, sometimes made from a band of a different colour. There was a widespread tradition in some parts of Kurzeme for both men and women to wear bronze belts, while in the seaside districts, people adorned their clothes with small amber brooches and strings of beads made from pieces of amber. More than in the other regions of Latvia, the garments of Kurzeme contains industrially-produced textiles and clothing accessories like silk, velvet, brocade and also glass and metal. In the southwest region, women wore large shawls fastened on the right shoulder rather than in front of the body.
The Latgale region has the most international influences in its traditional dress [Belarussian, Estonian, Lithuanian Russian, and Selonian (Sēlija)]. The skirts were usually white with a red-patterned lining on the lower edge. In the south, linen tunic shirts were of more traditional cut, sometimes with a very narrow red-decorated shoulder-piece. The skirt had vertical stripes of naturally dyed, but bright colours. The white woollen shawls of this area of Latvia can be distinguished by their size and their richly embroidered ornaments in dark blue, yellow, green and red. In the northern part of the region, the linen was woven with a twill pattern not seen elsewhere in Latvia. The shirts had distinctive woven patterns in red on the shoulders similar to the hem decorations on men’s shirts in Estonia and similar to the embroidered shoulder panels on Russian men’s shirts. Girls from the northern area of Largale made 10—15 shirts each when they married, decorated with these separate shoulder pieces. Although Latgale costumes used both belts and aprons, they were never worn together. The aprons were very long and wide, being made from two widths of cloth. Sometimes the seams were accented with decorative stitching or lace.
Characteristic throughout Latgale was the intense use of linen in clothing, as garments such as shawls and skirts for summer festive dress were often made from this material. Latgale was the region where industrially-produced clothes were seldom used by peasants: all the garments were usually home-made. In Latgale, bast footwear from linden bark or tow cord was more popular than in other regions.
The traditional clothing of Sēlija has many similarities to that of Lithuanian dress. Nevertheless, its main garment is the linen shirt, shaped like a tunic with sewn in shoulder-pieces. This trait demonstrates an ancient tradition unknown anywhere else in the Baltics. The most typical Sēlija skirt has vertical stripes with tiny patterns or batik yarn. Other patterns include herringbone motifs, zigzags or twisted bicoloured yarn. Brightly striped or tartan skirts are also to be found and elaborate white woollen shawls, richly embroidered along the edges.
The multi-coloured skirt was the brightest garment of women’s dress in Vidzeme. Stripes were characteristic for the first half of the 19th century, while tartan became popular in the second half. When stripes predominated, they even adorned men’s trousers and vests. Meanwhile the white woollen shawls were richly embroidered and reached halfway to the wearer’s calf. The white festive shawls were held in place with silver brooches while the capes and scarves were never pinned. Throughout Vidzeme, married women covered their heads with tower-shaped caps, usually of white linen and sometimes tied with a silk scarf.
Atypical for a border region, it does not show any resemblance to its neighbouring Lithuanian clothing. Zemgale dress has traits of Finno-Ugric traditions, especially in the earliest examples of its garments. Nevertheless it has developed its own unique style with vertical weft-patterned stripes. A very common is the rose motif which is followed by the zigzag, diamond and triangle motives. A wide woven sash can be found worn above the skirt, which stood out with patterned red suns and crosses alternating on a white background, finished with a thin thread of blue or green along the centre line. The traditional headcloths and crowns were abandoned in the 19th century in favour of silk scarves.
Condra Jill (2013) Encyclopedia of National dress. Traditional clothing around the world. Volume 2. ISBN 978-0313-37635-8
1) Ancient Latvian Dress – http://www.latvia.eu/culture/latvian-folk-dress
2) Naalbinding – http://www.recycledlamb.com/images/naalbinding.png
3) Latvian Ethnic Dress – https://babogenglish.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/20b82-image21.jpg
4) Latvian man in traditional colours – https://de.pinterest.com/pin/371054456769030256/
5) Ring-shaped brooch – http://collectionsearch.nma.gov.au/object/40643
6) Pastalas – https://babogenglish.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/50075-image1b.jpg
7) Married couple and unmarried girl – https://babogenglish.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/3d063-image2.jpg
8) Latvian man in summer costume (Southwest Kurzeme) – http://folkcostume.blogspot.de/2011/05/mans-costume-of-southwest-kurzeme.html
9) Latvian leather belt – https://de.pinterest.com/pin/457819118345374470/
10) Kurzeme – http://www.latvia.eu/culture/latvian-folk-dress
11) Latgale – http://www.latvia.eu/culture/latvian-folk-dress
12) Sēlija – http://www.latvia.eu/culture/latvian-folk-dress
13) Vidzeme – http://www.latvia.eu/culture/latvian-folk-dress
14) Zemgale – http://www.latvia.eu/culture/latvian-folk-dress