How Romanian blouses became an international style

10 Mins read

From Queen Mary of Romania, painter Henri Matisse to Yves Saint-Laurent, the traditional Romanian blouse has become a symbol of universal femininity.

After being an exclusive piece of clothing, part of the traditional costume for many decades, the Romanian blouse has crossed the borders to become a strong international trend for several seasons.

Simply named “ie” in Romanian, the blouse is arguably the strongest representative pieces of Romanian folklore.

The handmade embroidery find its roots in a picturesque past; even after thousands of years, Romanian women carry on the tradition of sewing peasant blouses to this day.

The most popular fabrics are cotton, flax, hemp and silk and a manually-worked embroidery can take up to three weeks for just one single blouse to be made.

Every '"ie" is a unique story.

Every province takes pride in their blouse with different models, patterns and colour elements [Andreea Alexandru/Mediafax Foto]

The floral patterns are numerous and tell never-ending stories about the history of femininity in this part of the world.

In the past, married women or the eldest in the family used to wear simple colours and patterns, while the youngest members wore the more colourful shirts.

Over the centuries, the traditional beauty of Romanian blouses passed from generation to generation, leaving the small idyllic villages and spreading through towns and cities in all their spheres: paintings, photography, fashion houses, royal houses as mainly an emblem of femininity.

Known as the most important piece of the traditional female costume in Romania, the blouse has so much more to it than just colourful patterns and detailed embroideries.

It preserves tradition through its ornaments which highlight the differences in age, social status and life events.

The first type of Romanian blouse is considered to be born in Cucuteni Culture starting as early as the sixth century BC.

Traditional Romanian Folk Costume from Southern Romania,region of Muscel and Oltenia. ANDRADA DACIANA via Flickr

Traditional Romanian costumes from the southern regions of Muscel and Oltenia [Andrada Daciana via Flickr CC]

Although the tradition has remained powerful over time, the number of Romanian women who create these authentic pieces of art has dropped considerably over recent decades.

Over time, the beauty of the carefully handmade embroidery of peasant blouses captured the attention of big names in the fashion industry.

Yves Saint Laurent was the first designer to introduce the Romanian blouse in his collection in 1981.

He was followed by Oscar de la Renta in the early 2000s, Jean Paul Gaultier in 2006, Tom Ford in 2012 and Isabel Marant 2013. More recently, Anthropoligie has created a collection inspired by Southern Romania.

There are also Romanian designers who promote Romanian folklore in their collections such as Adrian Oianu, Dana Budeanu or Ingrid Vlasov.

Authentic Romanian blouses can be found at most fairs and traditional bazaars all over the country. MIHAI DASCALESCU / MEDIAFAX FOTO

Authentic Romanian blouses can be found at most fairs and traditional bazaars [Mihai Dascalescu/Mediafax Foto]

During the 20th century, the famous French painter, Henri Matisse, created a series of important works portraying women in Romanian blouses.

His fascination with the traditional “ie” started after he received one as a present from Theodor Pallady, a Romanian painter and his colleague at École des Beaux Arts in Paris.

One of Matisse’s paintings is displayed on the cover of Constantin Roman’s book The Unsung Voices of Romanian Women, a book about tradition and art regarding traditional blouses.

Henri Matisse 'La Blouse Roumaine' at the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris.

Henri Matisse ‘La Blouse Roumaine’ at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris.

For both women and men the blouse represents an important part of the Romanian traditional costume, whose structure has remained unchanged over the centuries.

Nowadays, in rural regions of Romania, men can still be seen wearing fur hats, leather peasant sandals and traditional trousers (“ițari”) alongside their blouse.

Women usually wear a printed woollen scarf and a traditional straw hat over it when working in the fields in summer.

The Romanian peasant blouse has become a highly valued piece of clothing in the interwar period, when Queen Mary of Romania started to wear it as a symbol of respect and belonging to Romanian culture.

Later on, the traditional item entered the international iconography along with Matisse’s painting La Blouse Roumaine.

The Romanian Cultural Institute in London told Artefact: “We have organised numerous celebrations of the Romanian folk, art and culture, consisting of a series of spectacular events defining our national identity.”

The exhibition Revisiting Romania: Dress and Identity is a recent project organised by the Romanian Cultural Institute, in partnership with the Horniman Museum and the Romanian Embassy in London, the National Village Museum Dimitrie Gusti and the Romanian Tourist Office in London.

The collection presented was donated by the Romanian Government in 1957, which was organised from behind the Iron Curtain and is the most complex in the UK in that it covers all aspects of life in rural areas.

Available for the public until April 10, 2016, the gallery explores how Romanian folk art has been used to express identity and nationhood in Romania in the 19th and 20th Centuries, including the meaning attached to textiles – particularly costume – was manipulated under the Ceausescu regime to promote national unity.

The exhibition highlights the elaborately decorated textiles, costumes and artefacts used in Romanian peasant homes to showcase women’s skill and industry, to display a family’s social connections and to express national pride.

We spoke to Fiona Kerlogue the Deputy Keeper of Anthropology and curator of the exhibition: “We started looking into the history of the collection and I became very interested in the way that the kind of materials and work that is produced in the countryside changes its meaning.

“It means one thing in the village and then it means another thing nationally and then governments create competitions and things to promote a sets of national identity using this materials. There is a lot of mythology [involved] I think about a lot of the materials not just in Romania.”

Most Romanian blouses are classified on regions, and even though there are costumes that belong to a specific region, this is not always the case.

In many cases, it is impossible to identify where the people are by the costumes they are wearing because they wear a variety of different costumes from different places.

“When you look on the ground, people were moving about a lot. Somebody from one place would marry someone from another place and they would bring their patterns with them. It was never as clear cut actually on the ground as the books suggest,” says Fiona.

  • Display of traditional outfit
    Traditional female costume at Hornimans

“We get messages saying how much people like it. I think it kind of raised the profile of Romania as well because at the time the exhibition opened I think Romania was getting rather a bad press in the UK. Especially because the work is so fine, it is all very beautiful and visitors like that, they are always amazed at the handwork that goes into this kind of material which does not happen in the UK, and sadly it happens less in Romania as well,” she added.

Talking about the recent popularity of the Romanian blouse she believes: “Fashion goes around in cycles I think. I remember when I was a teenager there was a great fashion for the ‘peasant blouse’ [as it was called]. There wasn’t a specific reference to Romania but it may well be that that is where the inspiration was coming from.

“It had to do with the hippie era and interesting handmadeness. Maybe this is sort of a movement towards women being more feminine.”

Artefact spoke to Dinu Bodiciu, a Romanian fashion and accessories designer based in London. After his first degree in Graphic Design, he received a Master’s degree in Fashion Design and Technology at London College of Fashion.

His graduation collection, shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum, drew media attention with its shapes, textures, and styling. He is also well known for creating an outfit worn by Lady Gaga.

[pullquote align=”right”]“A Romanian blouse does not belong to any period. All the peasant clothes are passed down from century to century without going out of fashion.”
Yves Saint Laurent [/pullquote]Dinu believes that, as any other ethnic inspirations, Romanian folkloric costumes and details are a valid and very rich area for exploration. Many have clearly done it before and according to him most of the results were quite successful.

More and more big companies and designers get inspired by international cultures such as Romania. Whether or not the local or national economies of those countries benefit from it or are indirectly affected is another story.

According to Dinu, you cannot put a copyright on a folk culture: “The success of the final product is what makes its value, and if a product becomes very popular maybe this is actually a positive side for spreading the Romanian folklore. The question is rather the quality of the final product.”

We asked him why he thinks this has become a trend in the last few years and why he believes big names such as Tom Ford, and companies like Anthropologie all have collections inspired by the Romanian folk: “At this point maybe, the variety of other ethnic inspirations that have been widely used became unattractive. The contemporary customer gets bored very radial and designers have to face this with new and fresh ideas season by season.”

There are designers such as Isabel Marant which sell a copy of the Romanian blouse to Hollywood celebrities at high prices even though most of these are not manufactured in Romania. Dinu argues that it’s very good when a brand is mentioning the inspiration.

To him, the monetary value is actually not so important when talking about national identity – what matters is “if the design is well interpreted or just purely copied. In the second case I believe that the brand itself has to suffer, like the KTZ case, literally replicating an ethnic design.”

“I guess it is fare and honest to share the inspiration, mostly because these days nobody is reinventing the [fashion] week.” he added.

Despite being Romanian Dinu Bodiciu’s work is not influenced by his origins: “My direction in design has not reached the edge of folkloric inspiration yet. Maybe a certain attitude to shapes and abstract ideation has a connection to my heritage but not in an aware way. Don’t get me wrong I do appreciate folklore, but so far I was concerned about other directions.”

Elisabeth of Wied, Queen of Romania, in a complete national costume / photo Franz Duschek

Elisabeth of Wied, Queen of Romania, in complete national costume [Franz Duschek]

The early 1960s marked the rise of hippy fashion due to the popularisation of Boho, also known as “bohemian”, which refers to the travelling culture that some would argue has similar aestethics.

As a result, a number of style and film icons like model Jane Birkin and Raquel Welch were wearing the “ie”.

The question of inspiration and cultural misappropriation of heritage symbols in fashion is an on-going matter, which outlines the controversy of plagiarism.

The World Intellectual property Organisation WIPO have stated that there are certain cultural expressions which could only be passed from generation to generation and they are characteristic for smaller communities within certain countries.

Nevertheless, simply borrowing an idea doesn’t mean it is not at the core of the family traditions such as ceremonies, designs, symbols, music and various other artistic expressions.

Western designers are more and more drawn to these cultural symbols due to their lack of popularity.

The only way these could be preserved is to work on a long-standing statutory legal framework, which would protect the copyrights of a certain culture.

The Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (part of WIPO) is currently addressing the issue.

National laws do not provide a solid legal protection of heritage because it is considered to be in the public domain, which excludes certain groups from their rights.

The debate has been raised in the EU on multiple occasions, the most recent of which was in 2015, when according to the European parliament, quoted by Naomi Abraham for Remarks on Trademark and copyright: “Geographical indication protection should also be granted to products that are created through traditional know-how and to techniques that form a part of a culture’s heritage, and should include non-verbal signs and symbols associated with a particular region.”

Artefact also spoke to Professor Lou Taylor from University of Brighton, a dress historian and author of The Study of Dress History (2002), and Establishing Dress History (2005).

Her career is focused on developing critical approaches to the discussion of the objects of clothing in their historical, material culture and museology settings, through teaching, Ph.D supervision, publishing, and exhibition curating.

A Paul Poiret's dress worn by Denise - Russian linen towels embroidered and made from original peasant work/  KYOTO Museum dress collection / via Pinterest

A Paul Poiret’s dress worn by Denise – Russian linen towels embroidered and made from original peasant work/ KYOTO Museum dress collection / via Pinterest

She has previously adressed the issue of foreign designers borrowing embroideries from other cultures in her second book.

“It all depends how well or badly the ‘copying’ is done, doesn’t it? Paul Poiret made the most beautiful designs based on Romanian blouses […] his wife Denise wore them. Under the Ceausescu regime, the Regional State fashion houses made usually fearful dresses and coats based on regional peasant dresses.”

Denise also stresses the fact that Paul Poiret’s work was not sold as a couture garment and was also made from original peasant work.

Even though in Taylor’s view, national cultures don’t necessarily benefit from it, she also strongly believes designers should credit the influences in their work: “Of course they should and the ‘copying’ should be done with proper respect. When it is not there is always, rightly, a fearful row.”

In 2015, designer Isabel Marant was under lawsuit after creating a blouse inspired by a 600-year old traditional design from a small Mexican community of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec. The blouse is believed to be the national symbol of their identity.

The item has been renamed Viola and then priced for £200 without giving any credit to the locals – the Mixe community has issued a declaration calling on Marant to recognise their contribution since she pleaded that the designs were her creation.

However, in the later stages of the court case, Marant “did not claim to be the author of this tunic and these designs”.

Similar situations occurred when Sir Paul Smith created a Peshawari inspired chappal-leather sandals from Pakistan, which he named Robert without giving any credits for his design. A pair of the sandals was sold locally for less than £15 while the British designer’s price was £300.

French designer Philippe Guilet has been personally inspired by the Romanian culture and took part in the initiative 100%RO in order to promote Romanian heritage in fashion.

In 2011 he created a collection in collaboration with five local designers and more than 50 craftsmen in the country, and this is often cited as a positive example for translating inspiration in a culturally correct manner, a rare case of creative surge.



Additional reporting: Desislava Todorova

Featured image by Marius Dumbraveanu via Mediafax Foto

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