Sunday, December 27, 2009

More About Aprons, and Apron-like Garments

When I posted my entry on the possibility that aprons were a component of Viking women's dress, Pearl suggested that I look at some of the essays in a book called Folk Dress in Europe and Anatolia. To my surprise, I was able to locate an inexpensive copy of the book on line, so I bought it.

I have been reading the book with great interest, even though a lot of it has nothing to do with aprons. The book consists of a number of essays about women's costume in Europe, both folk costume and very early historic costume, particularly in Eastern Europe. The most salient generalization that can be made about the earliest costume is that its basic form consisted of only two garments; a linen shift, and a (typically woolen, and often fringed) belt.

Aprons and apron-like garments seem to have emerged as elaborations upon and variations of the belt. The Kievan/Russian poneva (or ponyova or panova; there are a lot of different spelling variants in English) is a wrapped garment, either with multiple panels or shaped like a towel or blanket, that covers the front and back of the lower half of a woman's body. E.W. Barber believes that it served the same functions, and possibly had the same origin, as the infamous Scandinavian string skirt.

But so far as I can see, none of the essays I've read so far sheds much light on when (or whether!) the fringed belt and the doubled or tripled cloth apron transmuted into a single apron covering the lap only. Barber presents a theory that may relate to the process. She suggests that the string skirt is the oldest specifically sex-linked European garment and that it originated in Eastern Europe, i.e., from the southern Urals to the western Balkans. As time passed, the string skirt transmogrified into ponevas and other apron garments made out of solid fabric, and the original string skirt idea was transmitted farther north and west. Thus, Barber hypothesizes, "it is far more plausible to assume that the string skirt, which occurs with similar associations in discrete eastern and western areas, is the survival of an old form and the squared back-apron, which occurs in one patch in the center (i.e., part of Russian and the Ukraine), is the innovation, than to assume the reverse."*

Barber's suggestion may give us a working hypothesis for the origins of the Russian panova and similar forms of garment, but it raises tantalizing questions about how the type of apron found in the Eura grave originated, and whether it too arose from the primeval string skirt. No fringe appears on the Eura apron, or on any garments other than the shawl--which in certain regions of Eastern Europe also had reproductive and magical significance.

What might be useful is a stricter chronology, not only of appearances of the string skirt, but of other garments with fringes. That may be difficult--particularly since it cannot necessarily be assumed (as Barber apparently assumes) that the fringed folk garments observable in Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries are necessarily survivals of the Paleolithic string skirt.

*E.W. Barber, "On the Antiquity of East European Bridal Clothing," page 27 in Folk Dress in Europe and Anatolia.

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