October 13, 2016

That embroidered “sorochka”


Ladies, there’s a Ukrainian event coming up and you want to wear your Ukrainian finery – a “vyshyvanka.” That word is fairly recent and refers to an embroidered (or woven) Ukrainian “sorochka” (shirt).

So you have a selection – the traditional sorochka you or your Mama or Baba embroidered years ago, or a contemporary one with traditional Ukrainian embroidery motifs in a modern design, or one of the newer ones from the past decade or so. These last may be the pretty multi-colored poppy or sunflower and other field flowers designs on a generic folk- or peasant-type blouse, the ones machine-embroidered in China or India. Or you may select the fully embroidered bright-colored multi-flowered sorochka, maybe even all-beaded in neon colors. This kind has become popular in the last few decades and is, according to legend, traditional from Bukovyna.

This may be shouting into the wind, but while the last two examples may be pretty to some, they have nothing to do at all with anything folk Ukrainian! If they are to be the next generation or reincarnation of the traditional Ukrainian sorochka, this would be a mistake. They are not and should not be.

And this discussion is not about the contemporary Ukrainian folk-influenced fashion, which is a separate category of folk-inspired designs. Most often, these use traditional embroidery motifs and costume styles in innovative elegant designs. In North America, we have been doing this for decades.

People can wear whatever they wish. But when it comes to the Ukrainian costume today, especially the sorochka, there needs to be some knowledge of tradition. There is a reason the Ukrainian sorochka/vyshyvanka has such a special, even sacred place in Ukrainian hearts. (Listed at the end of this column are my previous articles on this topic.)

One can understand the popularity of the new pretty floral blouses and T-shirts. (I myself am a certifiable poppy-nut.). They are relatively inexpensive (machine-embroidered; although you would pay a lot for a hand-embroidered floral blouse), and easily available in many variations. But they should not be worn in place of a Ukrainian sorochka. They are just pretty contemporary tops. Sadly, for some Ukrainian folk dance ensembles, they are now even appearing as part of the Ukrainian costume.

As for the mega-floral embroidered and fully-beaded tops in neon or other loud colors – these are not part of the traditional Ukrainian sorochka realm. While there are very many regional variations of the sorochka, the blouses just described are not really Ukrainian. They may be popular now, in style for a few decades, or embroidered by Ukrainian women, but they are not part of any Ukrainian tradition. The fully-beaded ones have migrated from Rumania into Bukovyna, and the full-blast floral ones have followed, but anyone studying Ukrainian folk costume will know that these are not the old traditional sorochky of Bukovyna. The latter would have the three-part division of the sleeve, with archaic symbolic embroidery motifs and touches of beading.

The big loud floral embroidery is just that, and has no place in Ukrainian folk dress. Realistic flowers in natural colors, usually cross-stitched, are not traditional Ukrainian motifs. They are lovely, but could be petit-pointe, or crewel work, or whatever, from anywhere in the world. These beaded and neon sorochky are so expensive – what a shame when an authentic sorochka could be purchased for that amount.

“Ah, but this is the creation of the people, folk costumes keep evolving,” you say. If we are speaking about authentic folk costumes, they have stopped evolving because Ukrainians are no longer “folk” in the word’s strict definition. We know what the traditional regional costumes are and were from archival ethnographic documentation. Stage costumes for folk dance ensembles should follow some semblance of authenticity and accuracy, but so many don’t and the outfits are generic eastern European “ethnic” or are strange creations of avaricious costume designers. The artistic directors of ensembles should know better than to depend solely on the designers’ models.

Recently, I had my head bitten off by some artistic directors (via others – no one spoke to me directly) after I commented on strange dance costumes at a festival. “She worked so hard on this… His work in preparation was not appreciated… Devastated by your comments.” Considering what the resulting costumes were, I don’t think these directors did much proper research, and they apparently did not ask for professional advice.

We must remember that tradition is old, really old. If someone says that a sorochka is about 100 years old, from 1916 – that is not that old at all. Urbanization and industrialization were already under way, as was modernization. In general, our folk traditions and costumes go so much earlier, beginning in prehistory. The Rumanian influences upon Bukovyna sorochky are from the mid-20th century. The line that Ukrainian women embroidered these does not count, because anyone can embroider whatever she wishes, but that doesn’t make it traditional Ukrainian. That used to be the line repeated about the popular gauzy embroidered Rumanian shirts sold at the late Surma and other Ukrainian shops back in the 1960s. Oh, Ukrainian women embroidered them in Rumania, so that made it OK? In case some folks still don’t get it: people all over the world have embroidered clothing, not only Ukrainians. But just as we wouldn’t be pleased if someone else wore our sorochka as if it were theirs, we should not wear another nationality’s folk dress in place of ours.

When it comes to men’s shirts in choirs and dance ensembles – the embroidery of the men’s shirt is not supposed to match the women’s. Embroidery designs for men and women are and have always been different. Also popular now in some ensembles and choirs are broad embroidered bands on the upper arm of the man’s sorochka. But in the folk costume, only a few specific regions have fairly narrow bands of embroidery on the men’s sleeves.

There are the machine-embroidered “traditional” sorochky for men and women. This is a different category – either someone cannot embroider or cannot purchase a hand-embroidered shirt because of the expense. Also, for practical reasons, ensembles and choirs order these sorochky. Often it takes an experienced eye to see the difference.

Again, people wear whatever they wish. But when it comes to Ukrainian dress, traditional or contemporary, we must distinguish between what is traditional, authentic and accurate, and what is ersatz-Ukrainian. Innovation is wonderful and creative, but when it comes to such precious items of Ukrainian heritage, we must have knowledge about what is true and then progress from there. The Ukrainian sorochka deserves our respect.

In a Facebook commentary about these “new” sorochky, Lesia Turyanska of Ivano-Frankivsk wrote (translated from Ukrainian): “There is no symbolism, NONE of any kind! Mad, insanely ‘fashionable’ now are all kinds of poppies, sunflowers, roses, machine embroidery, beading – and more of everything and the shinier the better. The Chinese are now speculating on this. The popularity of this lack of taste is shocking. Few people understand the value of hand-embroidered, one’s own, traditional and symbolic embroidery.”