Ethnology of Today


I have no examen in ethnology  thus I can not fullfill the formalities of this faculty.  Since I am speaking of traditional peasant dresses of balkan countries, I know that as a true ethnologist I would be obliged to name the former owner, the area,  the village, the manufacturer, the year of production and the year of finding plus the different materials used for the dress and where they were grown.

About my balkan peasant dresses I can not give any of  the required  informations since I bought them in the 70ties  in the commission shop in Bitola from a big heap of clothes, on the Ohrid vegetable market, on the bit bazar in Skopje or Izmir or got them as a present for this and that. No chance to fill out the chart according to the scientific requirements. My pieces have no proveniance.

My own way

Thus I was forced to develope new systematics of ethnology independent from the old fashioned style of registering a dress. Leading me was the statement: „This looks like…….“.  So  I could find out that I bought an antique  Bosnian Fez for ladies on the market in Izmir/Turkey with black silk around to hide the real, possible blond hair of the lady.

What was the reason for so many traditional dresses to be on the market? First people wanted change to keep up with western fashion, the housewifes wanted to handle easier bedcloth. Second  there was a hype about folkdancing in the 60ties, 70ties and 80ties started by the flower power movement worldwide. Many folkdancers from all over the world travelled to the Balkan countries to attend balkan folk dance seminars or to learn folk music.  Nearly each oft them wanted to own a piece of a traditional dress or a full dress, men as women. Either to show, that he or she made it to  the „Balkans“ or to demonstrate a certain close relationship to the balkan folks. It was a cultural manifestation, an emotional tie to another culture. They were the customers for all the unwanted old dresses in the trunks. Sometimes it was pure poverty that made balkan people sell the dresses.

My „collection“

When I started in the 2nd half of the 70ties to buy pieces of traditional dresses the most spectacular Mariovo dresses from Macedonia were sold for about 1000$ and decorated in rich Californian homes as I could see myself. The bright red Skopje dress changed hands for 500$.  So I had no chance to buy a complete red costume.

I was mainly interested in music and dance  and I did not want to have a collection of dresses. The minimal fittings for the dance group I needed were socks, belts and opinci to make them look like a balkan folk dance group. This was the beginning and little by little I bought more outfit. One day it was neccessary to learn something about the outfit I bought. But I did not see myself as a rerious researcher or a collector.

On one trip to Bitola I found the commissonary shop in the bazar and in it a big heap of visibly old dresses of the region, vests, shirts and aprons alike. I put together the pieces according to my feeling for material, cut and colours. I went home with a trunk full of black Bitola dresses nobody wanted to buy because everybody was looking for  the „real“ red Macedonian dress. In this shop I found dresses oft different groups of Vlachs and of the Karakatzanis/Sarakatzanis, too. I could not name them at this point of my experience but I could see that each of them represented a different group of people. During the time I found out that it was very difficult to buy socks and in general most socks were too small for our muscular legs and I had to copy them. By this procedure I learned that using our wool and needles of number 2 the socks fitted our needs. This was a thorough lecture about the difference how material influences the style of  (the balkan) clothes.

Later, with growing experience, I specialised to find unique pieces of socks, aprons, headscarfs  and belts from allover the balkan countries. Only some exceptionel merchants knew details about folk dresses in general and about the items in their shops. Most of them did not know anything.

My learning process started two-pronged: I started to copy socks for the dance group and Ulf and I visited every museum on our route. I studied foto books about folk dresses and I read articles and books  about folk dresses, stiching, crochetting and card weaving. With a friend in Skopje I wandered from house to house in a little district to find an old lady to show me crochetting with a fork. I attended and organised classes for needle lace and card weaving from different regions.

I always had a piece of handycraft in my bag to „work“ in a restaurant or in a cafe. It is unusual in summer time to make needle work thus it attracted other women to talk to me even if they needed help with the laguage from their kids. I did not learn any techniques on the streets but I learned the criteria by which they decided if it was „their“ pattern or  from a neighbouring region or from nowhere. Knitting socks with the pattern of the Ovcepolje Region/City of Kumanovo provoked the widest range of consent, down to Attika in Greece. This did not say anything about the popularity of the pattern, but it gave a hint that people might have been dislocated from other places in the Balkan. This experience made me attentive fo the long history of political and religious conflicts which results you can find in music and dance and in the folk dresses as well.

A good place to learn about bulgarian costumes was in Koprivstica in Bulgaria. In 1986 and 1991 it was still a festival with very strict access citeria based on socialistic cultural politics. Which means that a group only could perform which was properly dressed and could dance and sing. This was a chance for me to run around to make a documentation of costumes of the different regions of Bulgaria in times when there was no book available.

It was a chance to come very close to the real folk dresses and to make pictures of details, because the Bulgarians were forced to be patient with the tourists. This festival was a good chance to learn not only about the dresses but to study the way how people expressed themselves as groups, how they acted as tolerated minorities and as disliked minorities. It was an intensiv lecture about folk art and politics. A starting point for this complex topic! Not to forget all the stories of the other folk dance freaks from all over the world. At the festival I wondered why there were so many Japanese people to dance Balkan dances.  Later I found the solution in history after WW II.


My learning process was over many years which enabled me to determine, define and specify pices of folk dresses independent from their place of origin. We have  to face the fact, that nowadays when folk culture became a commodity that we  leave the old criteria  in Ethnology originating from colonal times. There are no hidden villages anymore which the researcher finds, just by chance. And an old lady he or she knows by name is possibly only the vendor of the complete dress. Actually dancers on festivals do not know anything about the traditional music of their region or about the folk dresses they wear. As it happened with a group from Podgorica/Montenegro. They had outstanding  complete folk dresses and I documented them. They told me that the dresses were more than 100 years old. No more information. Back in Berlin I had the idea „This looks like…“ an Albanian Karakatzani dress. So I send  the pictures and this idea to a scientist in Santa Fé, NM, who is an expert of balkan dresses. She knew that they had a similar skirt without any proveniance and told me that the felt stripes of their skirt were connected the same way as in Greek and Albanian Zarakatzani dresses. This seems to me a possible procedure in modern Ethnology. Sic!

Ethnology of Today  II

You learned from the first part some very important and basic facts about Ethnology today:

The colonial times of the  preceding centuries  ended finally with WW II.

People left the villages, became mobile as well as informed and connected worldwide.

Traditional cultural items from people became a merchandise, sometimes even an investment.

Therefore you have to think about changing the methods to register things that belong to a culture you are interested in.  It is not enough to document the proveniance of a piece back to one  person as a proof of originality and truth. It should be categorized in the historical, political and social interrelations as a piece of the cultural mosaik. Asking just for proveniance you will loose many interesting items that were sold on the vegetable markets.

But some scientists do not want to leave their observation post and mumble that this is a task of the folks themselves. It became obvious after WW II that most folks can not generate the courage out of their own lines because they are shy for their own history out of many reasons. Often people were forced from outside to do this. For us folklorists from outside, it is easier to see correlations and to specify the facts we find. This has to become part of the dialogue with the local scientists.

„Madame at Home Handmade“, Really?

Let us look at the stitching. You know the fantastic stitchings decorating the hems of sleeves and shirts. You might know the special technic of stitching down in Macedonia. By the pattern and the choice of colours you can make an estimation from where the folk  dress comes.

So let´s go back to the heap of folk dresses in the Bitola commission shop. I selected vests, shirts aprons and belts. Better than in any museum I could see by the variety of vests lying in front of me that some of them were made by the same person even though they had different patterns. „Madame at home hand made“ as it always was advertised to me on the market? No, the moment you can sew, stich and knit yourself even on a high level you have the experience that it comes out differently  on different days. As a further proof take the little pattern aberrations you can find in hand woven or knotted carpets by those expert women. So I formulate the first thesis that the decorative stiching is mostly done by people who do only this, by professionals. This thesis does not touch the fact that the women themselves prepare the woolen, hemp and cotton  yarns. Furthermore it is to be assumed that they  were weaving and bleaching the fabrics in the household.

The moment the yarn and the material was to be dyed it was brought to a professional dyer. Cutting the material to prepare a shirt you need a pair of scissors and a big table to displax the material. Watching the household items in many of those museums you could rarely find a pair of scissors and a big table to cut out  the pieces for the shirt in process, even though you can assume that ethnologists  collected the items from the regular households. By the missing scissors you can speculate that a professional hand outside the household was included in the process of preparing a shirt. Needles for stitching, sewing  or knitting are missing, too. So you can speculate that in the eyes oft he following generations there was no special reputation  in producing the decoration on the dresses. Or, presumably it was made in a shop. Otherwise they would have kept the tools, especially since it were the tools which had to be made or bought in special shops for money.

Another argument buying expert stitching is that the  regular girl preparing her dowry with the help of her mother and her grandmother had to work in the houshold, the fields and herding animals. She had no time and calmless to stitch the very sophisticated little stitches. Some authors refer to the very early morning or the very early evening when she was stitching. Maybe some authors never got up at this time oft he day otherwise they would know that there is not enough light.

The same was with the majority of woolen aprons to make a folk dress complete. Comparing woolen aprons which were made by the same tailor I could see the difference to other tailors. Among the woolen aprons you could find the cotton aprons for everyday work in the household and fields. They were woven at home.

A possible hypothesis  could be that for the heavy duty garments a payed expert, a tailor,  did at least the final touch and decoration. So it is an illusion to track back a folk dress to one woman and assume that she and only she made it. Probably the old lady in the village understood the words but not the reason of the questions asked by the ethnologist, so she answered something that she thought might be pleasant for the visitor. A family worked as a cooperative and the whole village was the back up to organise the survival oft he group.

„From Macedonian Tresasure, Penka Matovska, Association „MakedonskaRiznica“, Bitola

Back to the black folk dress of five villages in Pelister area in Macedonia

History: about 1900 Bitola was the capital of Macedonia and many diplomats were living there. They brought western fashion in an area which was still part of the Ottoman Empire even though many different efforts were seen to repell the Osmans. Bitola was multilingual. Nearly everybody could speak a Slavian Dialect, Greek and Turk. Educated people spoke French, too. The Vlach language belonged to this area and Albanian, as well. The churches were present in Bitola. Especially the Roman-Catholic and the Protestant churches were there on a missionary duty because they wanted to gain followers in times of change.

Black became the colour of elegance and mourning according to fashion from France for the rich people.

In this area you can find a telling that 100 women killed themselves because they were afraid of ottoman revenge in the fight for freedom from ottoman domination. Remember, women were and are the pledge in military conflicts from antiquity on.

In the time after this suicide it is said that the women in some villages changed the main colour of their folk dresses especially vests and aprons from red to black. The date was terminated to Illinden (August 2nd) in 1903.

geschrieben von

Eveline Krause