Since the beginning of January, Latvia’s most influential trend opinion leader, visual journalist and editor of Benji Knewman, Agnese Kleina, together with Dīvs Reiznieks have been hosting a weekly TV program called Uzvelc tautastērpu (Put on a Folk Costume). The extremely engaging magazine show switches seamlessly from the vaults of the National History Museum, former President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, outfits by Recycled.lv that use bicycle parts and electrical resistors, t-shirts by Vainags.com to men’s pants created by the iconically named Ulmaņbikses.
This seemingly willy-nilly melange elicited a flood of irate mail from traditionalists and ethnographic experts too great for Latvian Television to ignore, that last Friday, Henrieta Verhoustinska devoted a special program of Kultūršoks to debate the issue.
As staunch protectors of the canon of the national costume*, the critics felt that the TV program was sending a message – wear what you like, a folk costume is anything worn by the folk!
In 2013, whilst working for the Latvian Song and Dance Celebration, I received an equally irate reaction from the opposite camp when I attempted to contribute to a discussion on Facebook (Latvians in Australia) seemingly defending the draconian attitude of the “national costume police” regarding what could or couldn’t be worn at the song festival.
In both cases, it depends on what you call the issue. I see two possibilities.
- If the issue is a TV program made by creative people with a broad vision that ranges from identity, branding, creative expression, and national pride to the preservation and development of heritage skills, then wearing a national costume is clearly an intelligent journalistic device that furthers discussion of all of the above.
- On the other hand, if the issue is an ensemble that specifically Latvians wore (as opposed to the other nationalities resident in Latvia at the time) at the end of the 19th century, then it is a closed set of rules, proportions, angles, colours and components that finished evolving in the early 1920ies.
For the benefit of Latvians Online readers, whose ties to the Latvian language and traditions are perhaps less active, there is another term that it is important to note, which is goda tērps. It simply means “Sunday best”. It is the outfit you wore to church on Sundays, to christenings, weddings, funerals and events requiring an expression of dignity and honour (like perhaps meeting the President). As the industrial revolution took hold and communities became urbanised all over Europe, the wearing of folk costume disappeared everywhere as these community lifestyles changed. There are some exceptions like Arles in France, Bavaria and provincial Austria where trachten is still worn, but that is because their traditions are still (surprisingly) alive.
The fact that in Latvia, so many examples of authentic national costumes survived is astonishing, and the range and variety — different for every village — is even more astonishing. This is the reason that this ethnographic treasure trove must be preserved intact. It can’t be lost to individual bad taste. Examples of “degeneration” were clear in the 1920ies when flapper fashion pushed folk costume crowns onto the foreheads of their wearers. The Soviet era brought in ever more bizarre adaptations. Some were deliberate in the greater scheme of things to dilute national culture into an eventual “Soviet aesthetic”, and others were simply kitschy flights of dance group leaders’ fancy. The needs of dance groups are still a threat to the integrity of the authentic national costume, as is the ridiculous demand that they all be identical. Of course all skirts in Alsunga are purply-red, but each woman would have her own version, and they would all be different. It’s the complete ensemble that matters, the line that is created, the subtle pallette of colours and proportions. Every modern designer knows that. Ultimately, the canon of the national costume is a remarkable visual snapshot of the Latvian aesthetic world before globalization sets in, created with delicate harmony by community consensus accumulated over a number of centuries.
Having closed off the realm of the national costume to further interpretation there is nothing at all to stop any person or designer to create, assemble or wear whatever elements they fancy to their hearts content. This however, is not called a national costume, it’s called “my clothes”. In the case of folk dancers – “my stage costume”.
Of course there is a Latvian aesthetic, a mood, a sensibility in the 21st century (and a Baltic one!), but it’s quite intangible and eludes precise description. It too is an accumulation, but our methods of documentation now are insanely faster than the development. As we will all eventually tire of our love affair with the global looks of the High Street like Zara and Primark, and we will; our choices will be made (not just in fashion) on other criteria, individuality and sustainability being part of the mix.
As Latvians prepare for their centenary of independence in a few years – a very tangible statement of identity, Uzvelc tautastērpu is simply ahead of the game, provoking, poking and posing pertinent questions.
* In this article I use the term “folk costume” to refer to the general topic and “national costume” specifically as a translation for the Latvian “tautas tērps”.
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