Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Early Latvian Costume Article

Against my better judgment, I purchased a copy of the sixth annual volume of Medieval Clothing and Textiles for full price back in May, instead of shopping around for a reduced price as I usually do. What led me into this rash behavior was the fact that I knew that this particular volume contains the following survey article on Latvian costume during the seventh through twelfth centuries:
Davidson, Hilary & Ieva Pigozne. Archaeological Dress and Textiles in Latvia from the Seventh to Thirteenth Centuries: Research, Results and Reconstructions, in Medieval Clothing and Textiles 6, pages 1-32 (Boydell & Brewer 2010).
This survey article is noteworthy in that, according to the authors at least, it is the first article available in English to provide an introduction to "excavated Latvian clothing and textiles and their interpretations."  (p. 1).

I eagerly devoured the article. Then, when I had some spare time last week, I read it more slowly and carefully, and found that it states a number of conclusions, based upon the archaeological research, which are, at least to me, somewhat surprising.  Among the more interesting of those conclusions are the following:
  • The only detailed analysis of textile weaves is from the Liv area and from between the tenth through thirteenth centuries CE.  There, the most common weave for wool is 2/2 diagonal twill, with thread counts usually 15 by 12 (about 160 of 250 total samples).  Few were plain weave (25 samples).  These were primarily 8 cm by 10 cm and appear to have been used for lining graves or as burial wrappings, not for clothing. 42 samples were 2/2 herringbone twill, mostly 20 by 15 count.  Only five samples were diamond twill, and these were late examples (eleventh and twelfth centuries).  Twenty-one of the woollen samples were 1/2 or 2/1 twill, again 15 by 12 count.  (p. 10)
  • Virtually all of the dyed fabrics found in the graves are either dark blue or *dyed* brown.  In general, overdresses, shawls (called villaines), leg  and arm wrappings, and overtunics/coats, are dyed dark blue with woad, while women's wrapskirts (called brunci) are brown with various tree barks.  Red, yellow and green are found in small amounts as decoration, mostly in tablet-woven trim or sashes.  Natural gray wool appears to have been used for common garments, and other colors are not found. (pp. 27-28) 
  •  Linen, which was used for women's shifts and men's shirts., would either have been bleached or used in its natural gray color.   Natural gray wool or  linen was seen as less desirable, ostensibly because it looked like dirty white clothing, and likely was relegated to everyday attire as a result. (p. 28 )
  • Women and men are believed to have worn a v-necked overgarment, called a svarki, which was typically dark blue.  Apparently the female  version was closed in the front, and pulled over the head like a tunic; the male version might also be closed or might be open all down the front  like a coat and closed with fibulae or special clasps resembling hooks and eyes.  The authors believe that this overgarment was an everyday item of clothing and not an item of fancy dress.  (p. 20)  Unfortunately, the article is unclear as to where the hemline of this overgarment might have rested.   
  • Females of all ages appear to have worn a bronze circlet or crown (called vainagi) over a veil.  The earliest forms of these were made from coils of bronze wire, strung onto leather or fiber cords, and separated at intervals with bronze plaques.   These vainagi do not appear in graves in the Liv area of the country.  (p. 24)
  • Liv women wore a longer overdress with tortoise brooches, like the "Viking" apron dress; this garment, which is also referred to as brunci, was typically dyed dark blue.  It's drawn as though the garment was formed like a peplos, and there is no mention of loops on these overdresses such as the loops found inside tortoise brooches in the Scandinavian countries.  (p. 15)
The wonderful pearl previously found a page where color photographs of reproductions of Latvian costume from the seventh through thirteenth centuries can be found; a number of those photos appear in the article in black-and-white.  Small copies of some of the color images can be seen here, and at the bottom of the page is a PDF about "Latvian Folk Dress" with much larger, clearer color copies of the same images that appear in the article, and more.

Because this is a survey article, it lacks detail with regard to the support for certain statements that are both intriguing and novel.  However, the footnotes list sources in Latvian that the determined Western researcher can track down, and attempt to translate for further information.  The authors express optimism that more information in English about early Latvian costume will start to become available in the future.

I found the article fascinating.  On the other hand, it's making me wonder whether the Lithuanian Viking era costume I've been working on for years isn't closer to how Davidson and Pigozne have described early Latvian costume.  More on that in another post.

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