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Ukraine’s Traditional Clothing and LITKOVSKA’s Folkloric Motifs

 by Oana-Maria Moldovan

In the last two years, Ukraine has garnered significant international attention, although often for less favorable reasons. However, we are not talking about politics (or are we?) today. We are talking about art, fashion, and creation – with a little bit of history.

Ukraine is a Slavic Eastern European country that can be tracked town – like most of its neighboring countries – as far back as ancient times in history. Various tribes, including the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Cimmerians, inhabited the area around the Black Sea.

In the 9th century, Kyiv (Kiev) became the center of the powerful East Slavic state known as Kyivan Rus’. Under the rule of Prince Volodymyr the Great in the 10th century, Kyivan Rus’ converted to Christianity, primarily following the Byzantine Orthodox tradition – remember this part for later, we will need it. This conversion played a significant role in shaping Ukrainian culture and identity.

In the 13th century, Kyivan Rus’ was occupied – and a little bit colonised – by the Mongols, leading to a period of decline. The principality of Galicia-Volhynia emerged in western Ukraine, while the northeastern territories fell under the control of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

In the late 18th century, Ukraine was partitioned between the Russian Empire, the Austrian Empire, and the Kingdom of Poland. The majority of Ukrainian territories came under Russian control, where they experienced cultural suppression and Russification policies – including here language, traditions, and culture.

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Ukraine briefly experienced independence as the Ukrainian People’s Republic. However, it was soon engulfed by the Russian Civil War and subsequently became one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union in 1922. Under Soviet rule, Ukraine suffered from political repression, forced collectivization, and a devastating famine known as the Holodomor in the 1930s, which resulted in millions of deaths.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine declared independence, like many other neighbouring countries. However, the transition to democracy and a market economy was challenging, marked by political instability, economic struggles, and tensions between the Ukrainian-speaking West and the Russian-speaking East.

Throughout its history, Ukraine has been at the crossroads of various cultures and influences, which have shaped its diverse identity and ongoing struggle for independence. This is also the case for the country’s traditional attire.

Let’s read between the lines of what we know so far. Ukraine is a Slavic country and one of the first Orthodox states of Europe. It also has a rich cultural background that was interchanged by the many times this beautiful country which is known for its scenery was attacked and occupied. And then – almost as if all of that wasn’t enough – the country became part of the USSR, under the Communist Regime. And all of that influenced its fashion.

At the core of Ukrainian traditional clothing lies embroidery, an art form passed down through generations. This type of embroidery isn’t merely decorative; it’s a language of its own, communicating familial ties, social status, and even protection from malevolent forces – basically bad spirits. Every stitch carries meaning, from the geometric patterns symbolizing fertility and prosperity to the intricate motifs representing nature and spirituality.

The iconic embroidered blouse, known as the vyshyvanka, is a hallmark of Ukrainian attire. Typically made from linen or cotton, vyshyvankas feature elaborate designs adorning the sleeves, collar, and hem. Each region of Ukraine boasts its unique embroidery styles and color schemes, reflecting local traditions and beliefs. More times than not red, white black are the colours most used.

No Ukrainian ensemble is complete without a distinctive headdress, which varies widely across regions. Among the most recognizable is the vinok, a floral wreath worn by women on festive occasions such as weddings and harvest festivals. Vinoks are intricately crafted from fresh or artificial flowers, herbs, and ribbons (which are red usually), with each element carrying symbolic significance. For instance, wheat symbolizes prosperity, while periwinkle represents eternal – fated even – love.

In contrast, men often don the oplotka, a ceremonial headband worn during traditional rituals and celebrations. Made from embroidered fabric, oplotkas serve as symbols of honor and dignity, evoking the warrior spirit of Ukraine’s past – as the tale will tell you.

For women, the sarafan – which can be also found in other Eastern European countries and has Turkish origins – is a quintessential garment, consisting of a sleeveless dress worn over a blouse or shirt. Sarafans come in various lengths and styles, with decorative elements such as embroidery and pleating adding visual interest. In some regions, women also wear pancholy, elaborately embroidered aprons, as a symbol of marital status and wealth.

Today, artisans and designers are reimagining traditional motifs in contemporary fashion, blending timeless elegance with modern silhouettes. Ukrainian embroidery, once confined to rural villages – we can even call it pastoral couture if you wish –, now graces international runways and high-end boutiques, serving as a potent symbol of Ukraine’s cultural renaissance.

In a world characterized by rapid globalization and homogenization, Ukrainian traditional clothing stands as a testament to the enduring power of heritage and the importance of preserving cultural diversity.

One good example of this is the Ukrainian brand LITKOVSKA which stands out once again with its Autumn-winter ‘24 collection, UNDERWATER. Inspired by the pristine wisdom of mountains and the revitalizing essence of water, designer Lilia Litkovska presents a collection that symbolizes a new beginning, both for fashion and for Ukraine.

At the heart of the collection lies a profound exploration of rebirth and purification, symbolized by the motif of fish prints adorning tops and shirts. In many cultures, including Ukrainian folklore, fish represent the essence of life, symbolizing the start of new journeys and the cleansing of the spirit. This theme of renewal is echoed throughout the collection, with nods to the cyclical nature of time and the endless possibilities for reinvention.

Presented during the official Paris Fashion Week program at the esteemed L’éclaireur concept store, the unveiling of UNDERWATER was a testament to LITKOVSKA’s innovative spirit. The presentation itself was a meticulously curated experience, with special invitations handwritten in children’s script – a touch that added a sense of whimsy and innocence to the event, but also of different times.

The inspiration behind the collection stems from Litkovska’s recent expedition to the Himalayas, where she found solace and inspiration amidst the serene landscapes. It was there, amidst the towering peaks and tranquil valleys, that the designer envisioned a future of peace and harmony for her homeland, Ukraine. This sentiment was beautifully captured in the integration of Himalayan symbols and traditions into the fashion show, further emphasizing the message of unity and hope.

Models wearing hiking gear took to the runway, clutching thermoses and sleeping bags, evoking a sense of camaraderie and warmth. After the show, guests were invited to leave their wishes on ribbons – can you see the motif? –, which were then hung on a symbolic tree in the concept store, creating a tangible representation of collective aspirations.

Behind the scenes, a team of talented individuals worked tirelessly to bring the vision to life. From styling by Goce Jovanovski to casting by Manon Sassy, each element was carefully orchestrated to perfection. Hair stylist Soh Kogasaka and makeup artist Yuuka Nishi added their artistic touch, enhancing the natural beauty of the models.

Capturing the essence of the event was photographer Nick Soland and videographer Volodymyr Kozubskyi, whose creative vision immortalized the magic of the moment. Julien Sitruk’s music set the tone, while production by Napoleon Studio ensured a seamless execution.

 As a memento of the occasion, guests were gifted postcards featuring Litkovska’s personal Himalayan photo diaries, each imbued with her heartfelt wishes for the future.

In today’s geopolitical space, we talk about the historical ramifications of the horrid things that are happening as I write these words. And although that is an important ongoing discussion for us to have, is also important to look with heart-shaped sunglasses at the art that is still, after so many centuries, created because of it.

As I turn the page of my history book and remember to never close it fully, I also think about these clothes, that adorned so many people for so many years, that were loved and will still be loved even after all of us will no longer be.

Ukrainian traditional clothing is no less and no more than the pure statement of people always creating.

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