The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 2/Bohemian Needlework and Costumes

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Bohemian Needlework and Costumes.

By Renata Tyrš

The Bohemian peasantry, whose chief occupation until the middle of the nineteenth century was agriculture, created for themselves on the basis of old traditions an original style of arranging their homes and their costumes, with their own poetry, music and dances, customs and ceremonies. All these may be considered to be the artistic side of the Czech peasant culture. They exhibit in a striking manner the national characteristics in art and industry.

The loss of Bohemia’s independence and the determination of the government to make Germans of the people were the causes that alienated the great mass of the population from the cultured classes. These latter were educated in German schools and forgot their nationality, as well as lost their individuality. But the country people continued to live their own old national life. Even during the centuries of serfdom the peasants of Bohemia were owners of the soil they tilled. They possessed so much innate energy and creative powers as to make for themselves sufficiently cultured and artistic surroundings and thus raised themselves above the dreary monotony of daily drudgery and preserved their national character.

The state of civilization just described belongs to the past. The upper classes of the nation are once more in sympathy with the people and aid powerfully in raising the intellectual standard of the country and in recruiting from the masses the best artists and men of letters. They now regard the traditional art of the peasants with pride as their own inheritance, and see in it as well many links that bind together the various branches of the great Slavonic race.

More than fifty years ago the peasants of Bohemia began to discard their pretty showy costumes, and only in the southern parts, far from the industrial centers and the high roads of commerce, have the forms of ancient life been preserved. Thus on the Bohemian border in the outhwest, where the people are called the “Chodové” or marchers, because they had to patrol the borderland between Bohemia and Bavaria, the old-time customs and the wearing of national costumes continue to a considerable extent up to the present day.

From 1880 upwards memorials and relics of national art have been collected with great care. The Ethnographic and Historic Museums in Prague and in almost all the larger towns in Bohemia possess great collections of embroideries, suits of national dresses from various parts of Bohemia and Moravia, home pottery, furniture and other implements, painted Easter eggs, toys, manuscript prayer books adorned with miniatures and drawings, etc. Folklore, national art and culture are the objects of intense study of a considerable number of literary men who publish special journals and beautifully illustrated books. To the stranger the art peculiar to the Bohemian people is of undoubted interest on account of its originality and great aesthetic worth.

Outside of the museums there is only one district in western Bohemia where it is possible by personal experience to learn how a special mode of life and the nature of the soil have together evolved the fashion of dress peculiar to this part of the country. During a holiday one can meet near Domažlice, in a mountainous and not very fertile country, lean old men wearing broad-brimmed black hats and longtailed white coats of homemade cloth. These are types of the old Chods. The women also appear in a dress of ancient cut and sedate in style—long skirts of red cloth in stiff rich folds, the short bodices embroidered with beads and trimmed with silver galloon; the collars of the chemises are sometimes embroidered in black to demonstrate the mourning of the wearer for the popular hero Kozina, a staunch defender of the Chod privileges, who was executed at Domažlice.

From Domažlice the tourist reaches Plzeň (Pilsen) by the express in one hour. But though the distance is short, the contrast in landscape is striking. Instead of mountains, deep forests and green meadows, a plain presents itself with undulating fields of golden grain, while other fields show the dark green leaf of the beetroot. Everywhere there is evidence of the fertility of the soil and signs to cheer the heart of the farmers with the prospect of a bounteous harvest.

Here only a few traces of the original dress of the country survive. But in former times the rich garments of the portly women from the extensive farms harmonized well with the signs of the land’s fertility and the prosperity of the country generally. The people here are not so tall as their neighbors from Domažlice, but rather stout and not so sunburnt. The peasant women near Plzeň used to wear a dress made under the influence of the town’s fashion of the eighteenth century. The light blue short skirts cover a considerable number of petticoats; the stockings in striking contrast are of a bright red hue and show to advantage by ending in a neat low black shoe. A pretty silk apron and gaily embroidered bodice completes the summer costume. The headdress is large, in proportion to the considerable width of the petticoats, and consists of a large cap adorned with long horizontal flaps in nice openwork, the cap being sometimes tied with a fine white handkerchief beautifully embroidered.

The nearer we approach to Prague and to the north and northwest frontier, the signs of the present day increase, busy factories meet the eye, and just as the evidence of modern commercial life grows stronger, so traces of old customs and fashions become few, until in the busy towns it is to the museum we must go to learn the lessons of the past.

The characteristic feature of the various national costumes in Bohemia, more especially in the dress of the olden time, is the evident aim of producing a good effect not by the use of expensive material, but by the display of rich embroidery. In this respect the dress of the peasant class in Bohemia is akin to Moravia and other Slavonic countries. Wherever embroidery can be applied there it is sure to be found—on the borders of aprons, collars and tails of men’s coats, women’s bodices, collars, cuffs, chemises, caps and coifs. The scarf and kerchief for headwear generally show some especially fine examples of the embroidered work. Occasionally the latter is set off with artistically formed bow. Some caps, not larger than two palms, are absolutely covered with the finest needlework of knotted and flat stitches, forming a graceful pattern of a light gray shade and bordered with broad pillow lace, which matches fine old Valenciennes. The aprons are often of coarse blue linen, which is woven and dyed by the weavers in the hill districts. This material is studded with blossoms embroidered in homespun yarn and finished with a beautiful border which would be more than a whole week’s task to an experienced worker.

In the different districts these ornamental trimmings vary as to the patterns and combination of colors, and often as to the manner of execution. But all agree in the common source of inspiration—nature. The flowers and graceful foliage of the native soil, the opening buds and lovely blossoms are full of suggestion to the embroiderer who requires no printed patterns, and while the marks of inherited tradition are always conspicuous, the designs are as a rule the outcome of the technical side of the work. The head kerchiefs differ in the style of ornamentation and color in each district, some showing embroidered corners of many colored silks, others snow-white with open work embroidery contrasting with those worked with tinsel and glass beads, other specimens are almost covered with close embroidery in black exhibiting an endless variety of patterns, but in every case showing a perfect harmony of color and design.

Still more characteristic and varied and even more interesting are the embroideries from Moravia and the Slovakland. It would be out of place to initiate a stranger unacquainted with the geography of the Bohemian lands, into the characteristics distinguishing the ornaments of needle work and the dress of the several districts. Only general observations may be given here.

Bohemian Girl from the Plzeň (Pilsen) District.
Bohemian Girl from the Plzeň (Pilsen) District.

Bohemian Girl from the Plzeň (Pilsen) District.

The innate liking for decorative display concentrates its aims principally on the head-gear; hence the endless variety of caps and coifs, as well as of scarves and kerchiefs. The chemises of the women have either broad collars with rich embroidery, or a broad ornament in the middle of the sleeves. The aprons in some districts are blue with a garland of many colored blossoms as a border. In other parts they wear black with blue embroidery or in some cases with an insertion of open work and a colored ornament. Even the men, especially the youthful swains, indulge in many bright ornaments on their dress, the breast of his shirt, waistcoat and breeches, and sometimes even the mantle thrown in graceful folds round the shoulder is ornamented with a fine display of lacing and embroidery. The same fondness for ornamentation is exhibited in work in bed curtains of unbleached linen, and the white covering with yellow embroidery worn by women on the occasion of churching. In the south of Moravia everything is decorated with work of floral designs, not only the dress, but the walls of dwellings, the furniture, mugs, dishes and plates.

Whoever regards the specimens of Bohemian needlework, involuntarily asks himself: “Who made these nimble miracles of art and taste?” Those who wear them themselves make or made them. When the country people ceased to wear their national dress, some of the workers who formerly had supplied only the requirements of their neighbors began to work for a larger circle of customers. The people’s art developed into an important home industry. This was the case of the lace workers; their laces are originally made for local use to adorn caps, coils, kerchiefs, etc., of the village people, but when times changed, peddlars trading amongst the people carried their work to the distant towns and villages. These home industries soon got beyond the peddlar stage of its existence; in some districts they are now organized by diverse societies who bringing their trained experience and capital into the business have succeeded in largely increasing the trade. The art of lace making is the special object of certain industrial schools and the efforts of the teachers have been rewarded by a large measure of success.

In Bohemia and Moravia, earlier perhaps than in any other part of Central Europe, much attention has been bestowed on the apparently vanishing innate inventive powers of the country people. Some forty years ago articles of dress, furniture, pottery and such like were collected in Museums, and a great number of exhibitions brought to light quantities of interesting objects of textile and ceramic industry, along with various small household utensils from all parts of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. All these proofs of genuine inventive spirit of the people and their peculiar aesthetic taste had so much artistic value that there was a general desire to save this art from utter extinction. This was aimed at in two ways. First by preserving the old customs and taking steps to encourage the genuine inventive spirits in the various districts where the old traditions still survived. This is hardly possible in Bohemia, but more so in Moravia and Slovakia. There the old art of embroidery still fourishes and is executed in the traditional manner and style. In certain districts potters are even now able to produce ware in the old original style and form of ornamentation.

Many things that had a high artistic value and the great charm of antiquity cannot, alas, be again revived; nevertheless, the examples found in national and municipal collections ought not to be consigned to museums and as it were buried. We are convinced of their worth, and all who are interested ought to study technical peculiarities, the designs and style of ornamentation, and endeavor to extract from the consideration of ancient art an inspiration for new artistic creations.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1937, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 85 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.