Explore the British Museum's collection of spectacular jewellery and costume from the Balkans
The Balkans: 1800s - 1900s
Much of the area was formerly governed from Istanbul as part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Different regions secured independence from it in a series of wars in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The jewellery and dress shown in the exhibit was mostly produced in this period, during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and reflects the emerging nationalistic sentiment of the time.
Communication was extremely difficult before the creation of passable roads during the 1920s and 1930s. Settlements were isolated and people belonging to different ethnic, linguistic, or religious groups – Albanian and Serb, Christians and Muslims – lived in close proximity to one another in neighbouring villages.
In rural, often wealthy, communities jewellery was a crucial part of the lavish and complicated costumes worn as bridal outfits, for festive occasions and for dancing.
Balkan jewellery was made professionally in a small number of centres, resulting in a similarity of types and designs across the whole area: colossal clasps, head ornaments hung with clusters of rustling pendants, or chains strung with coins and pinned across the body, to mark rites of passage, protect from evil spirits and to create a jangling accompaniment to music when dancing.
Most jewellery in the Balkans was made of a base metal alloy, largely of copper. It was always called silver. It did contain small amounts of silver but the white colour was enhanced by adding arsenic.
In 'Black Lamb and Grey Falcon' (1941), Rebecca West, travelling in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in the 1930s, wrote of the Skopska Crna Gora region, where this chemise was made:
'They wear the most dignified and beautiful dresses of any of the Balkans, gowns of coarse linen embroidered with black wool in designs using the Christian symbols, which are at once abstract (being entirely unrepresentational) and charged with passionate feeling.'
Wedding costume and headdress (kaitsa)
Pleven, North Bulgaria
This festive costume for a married woman is designed to be practical – for working in the fields in the grain growing areas of the Danubian plain in northern Bulgaria.
It is a ‘two-apron’ costume. Instead of the customary fitted over-garments, the long linen chemise or shift was covered by aprons at the front and back, and a loose sleeveless coat. The chemise hem has a row of dancing women as symbols of fertility.
Woman's headdress (kaitsa)
The headdress is part of the woman's two-apron festive attire from the village of Komarevo, Pleven district, central north Bulgaria. Rows of Turkish coins form a huge crescent above the head, framed with bunches of wool yarn and two paper roses at each side. The bride’s hair is covered with a white silk scarf, indicating that she is married. Head scarves are not worn by unmarried women.
At the front, beneath the scarf, is a semi-circular pad stiffened with cardboard, to support the weight of rows of Turkish coins of different sizes. Their value varies according to the wealth of the bride. In the top row are the largest and most valuable coins, followed by smaller coins of lesser value. A chain formed of overlapping Turkish coins attached to a fabric band hangs under the chin.
The woman's costume traditionally has one hundred silver filigree buttons. In this costume there is one row with twenty on the jacket and two rows with twenty buttons each on both the inner waistcoat and the longer outer coat. The five rows of buttons are visible in the image of the complete costume.
Galičnik bride's costume, head ornament (igla)
late 1800s or early 1900s
This silver alloy forehead ornament with amuletic discs and beads was attached with hooks to a tasselled bridal headscarf. It was worn for fetching the first water for use in the bride’s new home, and later for special occasions.
The trousers were made by village tailors from locally woven wool cloth.
In her book, 'St Peter’s Day in Galičnik' (1935), Olive Lodge noted a long wool sash wound round the waist, over the trousers which were ‘kept on by means of a narrow leather belt threaded through their tops and drawn very tightly, extremely low down, round the hips, so low it is a wonder they do not drop off.’
A coin chain (nizalka)
A woman's coin chain, a 'nizalka'. The coins are Bulgarian and Serbian, dated between 1882 and 1938, and are suspended together with filigree amulets from a heavy silver chain, and secured onto the upper sash by three decorative hooks, the central one having the Serbian royal coat of arms and the two outer made of silver filigree work. Worn at the wedding and subsequently on festive occasions.
Albanian woman's headband
Late 1800s or early 1900s
These long bands with stiffened tops were attached to the crown of the head and hung down to cover the plait at the back. The red cotton velvet band bears bird, crescent and sun motifs, executed in tiny metal coils and used in Muslim and Christian contexts.
To make the tiny metal coils, metal wire is wound round a thin rod to form a cylinder, which is then cut into pieces and the pieces sewn down, a technique known as purl work.
Albanian slippers or outer socks
These slippers were owned by the great traveller and writer on Albania, Edith Durham (1863–1944), who toured the rough and then hardly visited Balkans from the early 1900s. She championed the cause of Albanian independence from Ottoman rule and her vivid books, especially 'High Albania' (1909), remain standard texts today.
Durham records receiving these knitted wool slippers in 1912 as a gift from Gruda tribesmen in the mountains of North Albania, ‘in return for aid to burnt-out villages’ during the First Balkan War. Two pairs of socks would be worn by men and women to protect the sole of the foot inside thin hide sandals or opanci. Inside the house the sandals were removed and the decorative over-sock formed a slipper.
From the Sumadija, Central Serbia.
The hem is embroidered on the inside with stylised flowers and edged with purple cotton crochet in a scalloped pattern. The apron would be tied on inside out and arranged to reveal the embroidery. The bottom two corners are pulled up and tucked under the cord at the back to create a butterfly shape. The hem embroidery then hangs down vertically. The skirt is finally firmly secured with a decorative belt.
Serbian woman’s waistcoat (jelek)
This waistcoat would have been worn over a white blouse with Ottoman-style gathered silk trousers. This waistcoat is made of cotton velvet cloth decorated back and front with couched embroidery in gold- and silver coloured metal-wrapped thread, metal sequins and tiny red plastic beads. The printed cotton lining dates from the 1920s or 1930s.
Based on the 'Traditional jewellery and dress from the Balkans' exhibition, curated by Judy Rudoe at the British Museum.
Contextual images relating to the Galičnik costumes courtesy of Ken Ward
Image of Sarakatsani women from A. Hatzimichali, 'The Greek Folk Costume', Athens Vol I, 1977, page 305
More information on Balkan textiles can be found in Diane Waller, 'Textiles from the Balkans', London (British Museum Press), 2010