British Museum

Explore the British Museum's collection of spectacular jewellery and costume from the Balkans

The area known as the Balkans is mountainous, and covers much of Southeast Europe, including the countries of the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania and northern Greece.
(Street View image: Seven Rila Lakes, Western Bulgaria, south of Sofia)

The Balkans history and people
The area known as the Balkans covers much of Southeast Europe including the countries of former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania and northern Greece. The British Museum has an outstanding collection of textiles and jewellery from the Balkans. Edith Durham, champion of Albania, gave pieces in 1914. The Bulgarian government made a large gift in 1971, and since then many pieces have been acquired from collectors who had lived or worked in the Balkans in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of whom were members of folklore groups and bought complete costumes, often with accompanying jewellery, to be as true as possible to the spirit of the dance and the styles of the different regions.

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.

Balkan jewellery

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.

Because the metal has such a low silver content it could not be marked by the silversmith. This means that most Balkan jewellery is unmarked, making it impossible to say where it was made. The place names given here indicate the areas where such pieces were worn.

Balkan textiles

Unlike jewellery, textiles were made locally, varying distinctly from village to village, so that the wearer’s origin was immediately recognisable.

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.'

Rebecca West went on to describe the use of blue in garments as:'the effect of an inner light burning in the heart of darkness.'

Greece, southern Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Street View image: Belasitsa Mountains, Southern Bulgaria

The Sarakatsani people

The Sarakatsani are a nomadic people of Greek origin living in Greece, southern Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. They are Greek Orthodox Christians with their own distinctive traditions in dress, song, dance, and poetry.

Historically they spent the summer months on the mountains, returning to the plains in the winter. Since the mid-1900s the nomadic way of life with migration across state borders has been gradually abandoned. Here, three women are winding yarn outside a traditional hut.

Sarakatsani costume
Alexandroupolis, northern Greece
Early 1900s

This many-layered festive costume was made from locally-spun wool and linen, as seen in the photograph on the previous page.

The pleated skirt, low-slung apron, wide cummerbund and two waistcoats, rigid with embroidery and made of wool, are worn over a long linen chemise or shift dress with embroidered sleeves. The armlets (visible below the embroidered sleeves of the dress), and leggings (not shown) complete the outfit.

The large clasps (pafti) like this were worn by married women as part of the groom’s wedding gifts. They sat well below the waist to protect the abdomen.

Sarakatsani belt
Alexandroupolis, northern Greece
Early 1900s

The dazzling zigzag patterns used on this belt were designed to ward off evil spirits.

Most of the Bulgarian objects shown here were given by the Bulgarian Committee for Cultural Relations in 1971. This comprehensive group of 350 objects was the foundation for subsequent acquisitions. The gift contained ceramics, musical instruments and weaving equipment, as well as jewellery and textiles, from all regions of Bulgaria. Since then much has been acquired from collectors who lived or worked in the Balkans – as anthropologists, folk dancers or historians, keeping meticulous documentation. (Street View image: Seven Rila Lakes, Western Bulgaria, south of Sofia)

Wedding costume and headdress (kaitsa)
Pleven, North Bulgaria
Early 1900s

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.

The elaborate embroidery was always placed at the openings - of neck, sleeve or hem - to protect the wearer.

The motifs on the coat include the sun (right), the tree of life (left) and water pitchers (right, between the sun's rays), symbolising the ritual fetching of water as a new bride.

Woman's headdress (kaitsa)
Early 1900s

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.

Gilt-metal necklace
Western Bulgaria
Late 1800s

This necklace is characteristic of western Bulgaria. Coloured glass stones are set into a cut-out metal backing. The tight neckband is made of plaited silver alloy wire and fastens at the front.

The multiple hanging chains end in enamelled crescents. The chains are linked at the base to form a bib. The crescents with no chain at the sides are decorated with imitation enamel and are perhaps later additions.

Women's head-discs (tepeliki)
Late 1800s

These hammered silver alloy discs were sewn to the top of a woman’s fez-like cap to ward off the evil eye.

They are a Muslim form, but both are decorated with Christian subjects: the Nativity, and St George and the Dragon. St George’s Day in April was celebrated throughout the Balkans. The name tepeluk (singular) comes from the Turkish tepé (hill) because the discs are usually domed.

Chain for headscarf (podbradnik)
Late 1800s

Head ornament or chin chain ('podbradnik'), silver alloy, formed of multiple chains ending in hemispherical plaques with a cluster of leaf-shaped pendants, cut out and stamped with ring and dot motifs.

The chain secures the inner
headscarf at each side with sharp hooks, and passes under the chin.

Herzegovina is the southern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Belts formed an important part of a married woman's wedding outfit. This belt was given by Edith Durham (1863-1944), who travelled in the Balkans in the early 1900s. In 1903, she recorded that similar belts had been worn until 25 or 30 years ago, that is, until the 1870s, writing that they were  'worn in the Herzegovina and in the Herzegovian side of Montenegro. People remember seeing their grandmothers wear them. The last place where they were worn was the Kraka-a-slay 'island' near Scutari Albania where - for feast days - they have only just died out.' (Street View image: Treskavica, Herzegovina, Bosnia)

Married woman’s belt (Jakičar) from Herzegovina
Mid–late 1800s

Formed of a stiff triple layer of leather, this belt is studded with rows of carnelians and agates. At the back are pierced and riveted copper alloy plaques with a clasp at one side. These belts were worn from the wedding onwards.

There are 41 carnelians and agates in all.

Galičnik, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
The village of Galičnik is in a mountainous region close to Albania. Its isolation before roads were built meant that traditional customs survived much longer than elsewhere. Galičnik weddings have traditionally been held around St Peter's Day (late June or early July). Due to the seasonal work habits of the men who were away from the village for months at a time, several weddings were often held at once. (Street View image: Galičnik, Republic of Macedonia)

Photograph of a bridal couple from Galičnik, 1920s

The couple are wearing the costumes shown in the following pages.

Bride's costume from Galičnik
Early 1900s

This ensemble has ten separate elements. A jacket, waistcoat and outer coat create the triple opening with gold braid and buttons. The fringed sleeves belong to a long chemise worn between the jacket and the outer coat.

Red symbolised marriage, while the layers, all amuletic, were so hot that brides often fainted.

The colouring of these socks and the floral bands suggest that they may be from a neighbouring village, rather than Galičnik, where the socks are usually a strong red with geometric patterns in black and white.
The leather shoes are the typical hand-sewn leather opanci, worn throughout the Balkans.

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.

Bridal clasp (pafta) and coin-belt (nižalka)

This clasp and coin-belt, gifts from the groom, were acquired with the costume. The belt jangles with Turkish coins of the late 1800s. The hooks bear the widespread double-headed eagle used in Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

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 bride would don her wedding clothes for the journey on horseback to her father-in-law’s house.

Man’s wedding costume

This costume was acquired by the donor from the widow of the man who wore it for their wedding in 1910. The dark red under-jacket has an inner flap across the front and is decorated with metal-thread braiding.

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.’

Decorated with coins

The coins used in Balkan jewellery had little intrinsic value as the silver content was usually low or non-existent. They were often from other countries or were no longer in circulation as currency.

Worn throughout the Balkans as part of a man’s festive costume, the breast chain was hooked at the shoulder and secured on the opposite side, or looped over the belt. This one is hung with Bulgarian coins from 1925, probably used once they no longer had any monetary value.

A coin chain (nizalka)
Early 1900s

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.

Albania gained independence from the Turkish Ottoman Empire only in 1912. A larger part of the population was Muslim than elsewhere in the Balkans. Albanian Christians include both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. (Street View image: Gjere mountain range, southern Albania)

Albanian costume
Late 1900s

This costume has two waistcoats. The front flaps are densely embroidered with glass beads and pearl buttons to protect against the evil eye.
Although worn by Catholics, the solar patterns hark back to Pagan symbolism.

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
Before 1912

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.

Made of hand-spun wool and decorated with commercial black braiding and metalwrapped silk thread plaited or twisted and then couched (sewn down).

Serbia is a landlocked country at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe. It borders Hungary to the north, Romania and Bulgaria to the east, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to the south, with Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro to the southwest. The landscape ranges from the Pannonian Plain in the north to the Dinaric Alps and the Balkan mountains in the south, with the hills and rivers of the Sumadija in the centre. (Street View image: Sumadija, Serbia)

Serbian costume back apron (suknja)

This wool back apron would have been made by women from tough goat or sheep thread. The thread is dyed in several colours and woven in stripes. The apron is then pleated and the pleats tacked in.

After baking in a warm oven the tacking is removed and the fabric bound up to retain the pleats. The apron is then sewn onto a waistband and long, thick, plaited tie cords are added.

Serbian Costume

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)
Early 1900s

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.

The flowers and leaves on the front flaps are done in purl work (see Albanian hair ornament).

Credits: Story

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

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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