A folk costume—sometimes called a regional costume, national costume, or traditional costume—is a garment or ensemble that expresses an identity, usually associated with a geographic area or a period in history. These garments, like all clothing, can reflect changing styles and bodies and can tell us about the lives and activities of the people who wore them.
Before the 1900s, most of the world’s clothing was made, at least partially, at home, using materials that were available to the makers. Fabric was an expensive, labor intensive, and deeply important part of people’s lives. Garments that people wore might indicate social, marital, religious, or ethnic identity or status and reflect the events or activities that a person might participate in, from festivals or everyday workwear to marriages or burials. Some garments or materials were only accessible to certain classes or groups. Often clothing was made using extant materials from the natural environment and a knowledge of how these materials could be made into garments. Importantly, traditional dress was not a single, unchanging form, but reflected function and fashion over people’s lives–a dress’s closure might expand to make room for a pregnancy, or a blouse might not close with buttons to facilitate nursing.
By the late 1800s, traditional clothing became a site of study for European academics concerned about the ways that the countryside was changing and modernizing. These academics sought to collect, codify, and categorize folk dress, resulting in codified forms and styles that symbolized certain regions. As access to factory-made textiles expanded and homemade clothing was replaced by store-bought goods, the making and wearing of folk costumes became increasingly tied to festivals, performances, and special occasions, rather than the everyday. By the 1930s, people like Jane Farwell, Mary Ann Herman, Karin Gottier and others collected and used folk costumes to teach about different cultures of the world. In this way, these garments became “costumes,” or the clothing of another place or another time, used for performance. While the use and meaning of folk costumes differ from group to group, region to region, and person to person, for many people, wearing one is often a claim to an identity.
At Folklore Village, most of these costumes were used for dance performances, special occasions, and as educational tools to teach about the communities they represented. Jane Farwell’s lessons paid attention to traditional materials, patterns of making, and use. These items were made, repaired, and sourced by the community and these practices reflect both the traditions of the regions they represent and the needs of the community. Many of these costumes are made in styles that rely on the codified costume descriptions, but their pattern of use, making and repair, and the meaning that has been ascribed to them is informed by local materials, skills, and concepts of what it means to be dressed for the community to which they belong. Many of these items have become treasured garments that have been worn by many people. The collection of folk costumes at Folklore Village was not developed intentionally by one person, but instead reflects the interests, skills, and activities of the community over the last 100 years. The collection represents connections and cultures across the globe.
Traditional Materials and Techniques
Many of the oldest garments in the Folklore Village Collection are made with materials that were easily sourced from their regions of origin. Many of the traditional garments that are held in museum collections, and the costumes that are modeled after them, are representative of festival clothing. These garments were usually made of fabrics that were costly or labor intensive to make and had more embellishment than a typical workday outfit, which helped ensure that they were saved. Wearing these garments showcased the skill of the maker, the wealth of the wearer, and could be used to signify identity or place in the community. Everything from the pattern of weaving on an apron, the style of embroidery or needlework, even the use of accessories can relay information about the wearer’s geographical region, social status, and the culture to which they belong.
"Costumes have changed over the years. Some of them have become shorter, some of them have become simpler....."Jane Farwell, 1992 Interview
Linen: In Europe, many of the shirts, skirts, aprons, and petticoats used in folk costumes are made of linen. Linen is made from the flax plant, which was widely available in Europe and used to make everything from everyday to fine fabrics like damasks and lace to industrial ropes and canvas.
Linen is made through a labor intensive process that involves harvesting the plant, drying it, and then processing it to become a textile. This is known as threshing and retting (removing the seeds and breaking the straw from the fibers), dressing (cleaning and pulling the threads through iron combs to make it flexible and soft), and then spinning it into a thread. These threads are then used, dyed or undyed, to make textiles and eventually the garments. It is sometimes woven together with other fibers like cotton and wool.
At Folklore Village the linen shirts and aprons often wore out or were misplaced and replaced with cotton replicas, which were easier to find and cheaper to buy in the twentieth century. Cotton was also used in older garments in some locations and as it became more widely available in the 1800s.
Animal Fibers: Many of the outer layers of folk costumes from around the world are made of animal fibers. Wool from sheep would have been easily available in most of Europe and provided warm and water resistant protection from cold weather.
Wool is a natural fiber made out of animal hair. Usually people sourced wool from sheep, but goats, rabbits, alpacas, llamas, silkworms, and other species of animals can provide materials that can become part of a folk dress.
After shearing a sheep, the wool would be cleaned, sorted and graded by quality, and then carded to help all of the fibers line up. Then, the fiber might be dyed and finally spun into a thread, which can be used in weaving, knitting, and embroidery.
Luxury or Mass Produced Textiles: Many of the costumes in the Folklore Village Collection are made with fabrics that would have been purchased, rather than handmade at home. As different types of materials like rayon and cotton became widely available in the 1800s, people incorporated them into their folk dresses. Sometimes these materials became signifiers of wealth and were used for the whole ensemble, and in others, they were used in combination with other locally sourced materials.
The types of materials used can also tell us about the trading partners or fashion trends of the time, as seen in the Dutch example to the right.
People also made use of materials that we might not think of as being commonly used for clothing, such as horse hair. Jane Farwell once remarked, “I imagine all the horses in Switzerland hide behind the haystack because their hair is always being used for hats.”
Embellishment: In some areas, embellishments on festival dress could include a wide range of materials, including coins, beads, cord, tassels, embroidery, lace, and more.
Often, traditional dress requires specialized sewing and crafting techniques to achieve the desired effect. Handmade cloth was made by weaving, knitting, knotting, and crocheting—skills that were sometimes learned in childhood and practiced throughout someone’s life.
Other techniques are used for constructing the garments themselves. For example, some of the pleats seen here were made by folding the cloth, securing it, and then baking it in an oven. Others are maintained by paying attention to the drape of the cloth or storing the garment in particular ways.
“That’s the interesting thing, is… wherever possible, you escape doing extra work! So under the apron, you don’t have any. But there must be forty or fifty pleats in the behind.”- Jane Farwell, Interview in 1992
A Garment to Last a Lifetime
You know I think that all those folds are for the expansion of people…Jane Farwell, 1992 interview
One of the most important things about many folk costumes is that they were made to last a lifetime. These were and are culturally and materially valuable costumes that were worn again and again, passed down across generations. As such, they would need to be adjustable and able to fit a variety of bodies.
These folk costumes have many adjustable parts. Women might wear their costumes from their confirmation onwards and this often meant creating a garment that was capable of expanding to fit a changing body through pregnancy and motherhood. Shirts could be replaced or layered, bodices could be changed out or laced to fit a changing body. Skirts tied in the front and aprons covered the opening that accommodated a growing belly—a dress might reflect a whole range of styles and functions!
When you get married, you have to think about this married business. When you get married, you have white embroidery on your blouse. Then you have to have a blouse with black embroidery. So then you have to go and redo all your embroidery on your blouses...Aren't you glad you got married here?Jane Farwell, 1992 Interview
As Farwell notes, sometimes, there are strict rules about who can wear what with what, but more frequently, the study of traditional dress shows the connections between different people through craft, symbols, economics, and the transmission of knowledge. Variation in the garments can make it hard to tell exactly where a garment is from, but there are many stories to be explored in these garments.
In some cultures, there are strict rules and meaning around the types of clothing that different people wear. In others, it is more flexible. Regardless, the study of traditional dress shows the connections between different people through craft, economics, and the transmission of knowledge. A closer look at some of the costumes can reveal a lot about the communities that made them. Decorations on folk dress may have symbolic or cultural values that can tell us about a person’s social standing. Wearing a specific hat, apron, or pattern of embroidery might let us know if a person is, for example, married or in mourning. These variations and decorations may even be a part of a wedding dress. Jewelry can be a marker of region and wealth or perhaps just personal taste.
Like now, the clothing that people wore was often in anticipation of the weather and the occasion. Outfits could be comprised of many layers to help cope with cold winters or hot summers. In addition, the steps of getting dressed might not always be intuitive to us. The costume from Marken in the Netherlands has many layers—undershirt, striped underskirt, boned and embroidered bodice, overskirt, apron, vest, decorative cotton stomacher, and finally, a many layered lace and cotton hat.
Historical garments can help us learn about daily lives of people in the past, but the ways that these garments are collected and used can also help us understand how they become and why they remain important to different people in different contexts.