In the general structure of the museum’s patrimony, the collection of peasant costumes has a special significance and a specific weight, both because of the large number of pieces that make it up, and because they reflect in a balanced way all the ethnographic areas of the country, giving both specialists and visitors the opportunity to know the evolution over time of this genre of peasant art.
The collection of peasant costumes includes about 20,000 heritage objects, bringing together pieces representative of all the country’s provinces (Moldova, Muntenia, Dobrogea, Transylvania, Banat and Oltenia), from the 19th and 20th centuries. The collection began to take shape during the directorship of Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș and was largely completed under the direction of Tancred Bănățeanu. Thus, between 1906-1953, the collection was established through purchases and donations (over 5000 pieces), mostly shirts, scarves, belts and less so combs, coats, shoes, etc. Personalities such as Sabina Cantacuzino, Elisa I. Brătianu, Princess Maria or collectors such as Dimitrie Comșa and Octavian Roguski donated to the museum remarkable objects, true works of folk art. The first object acquired and registered by Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș was a women’s shirt from the Mehedinți area, with delicate geometric ornaments, reflecting the craftsmanship and taste for beauty of the person who created it. When the Samurcaș collection was reorganised according to scientific criteria, this shirt was registered under inventory number T 607.
After 1953, Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș was succeeded at the head of the Museum of Folk Art by the well-known ethnologist Tancred Bănățeanu. During this period, research and heritage acquisition activities developed intensively. The result of numerous research campaigns was the acquisition of over 9000 pieces of folk costumes, representing almost all ethnographic areas. This has enabled the historical development, variety and regional spread of the costume to be outlined.
The mutual influences and borrowings resulting from living together with ethnic minorities were reflected in the costume as a whole more than in other areas. Thus, alongside the most representative examples of Romanian costume, the costumes of Hungarians, Saxons and Swabians, Serbs and Crasovians, Bulgarians, Turks and Tatars, Csangos, Hutsuls and Ruthenians stand out.
A third phase of growth of the collections began in 1990, when, after an enforced absence, the museum was reborn under its present title.
They are grouped into two subdivisions according to the type of material used as raw material in the making of the pieces: the collection of thin wears (containing objects made of linen, cotton, raw silk, etc.) and the collection of thick wears (containing objects made of fur, felt). Organised according to scientific criteria, they include women’s and men’s shirts, women’s skirts, men’s trousers, fur coats and aba. There are also items of clothing covering women’s skirts – various kinds of aprons (catrinţe, fote, vâlnice), girdles, head coverings for men and women, folk ornaments and accessories of the most varied kinds, and footwear – boots, shoes, etc.
Each costume piece is in its own way unique. Thus, pieces made of linen, especially the skirts, are generally decorated with needlework. These are complemented by the most diverse forms of lap covers fastened at the waist with belts made in the loom (girdles and belts) or made of various materials, such as metal, cloth, semi-precious stones (in the case of Saxon cords), beads (cords from Bistrita Năsăud) and leather (men’s kimirs and belts from Transylvania and Moldavia). Thick garments, such as felt and sheepskin coats, are more often decorated with trimmings and applications of leather or other materials, associated with embroidery. Metal elements and, in some areas, pieces of mirror framed in leather make up a special, unique ornamental composition.
As different as it appears at first glance, the peasant costume is also very unified, considering the structural simplicity of the cut of the component pieces, the concentration and circumscription of the motifs in ornamental spaces, arranged according to traditional principles that strictly respect the compositional style, balance and chromatic ratio.
In general, the folk costume is based on the white shirt. From childhood until death, the shirt accompanies the peasant to work in the fields, to celebrations and to weddings. It also plays the role of a social mark in rural society, being worn by village personalities (the priestess’s shirt from Oltenia – T 121). However, there is also a shirt for Sundays, for the yearly celebrations, weddings and baptisms, for customs and traditions, the dead man’s shirt, the maiden’s shirt and the widow’s shirt. The mother-in-law’s shirt, from the Sibiu area, worked by the bride is proof of her skill and talent (T 1146). Only the ‘Junii Brașovului’, a custom specific to the area, brings to the fore the costume of the members of an old military-popular organisation, which in the past represented an original way of preserving the unity of the Romanians on both sides of the Carpathians. It is significant that four women worked on this shirt, worn by the vatafi, for four months so that the finished product was covered with 40,000 sequins weighing almost 10 kg (T 1342).
The folk costume also marks the biological characteristics of the individual (sex and age). The condition of strict differentiation is linked to a whole mentality regarding the general role of men and women in the community, underlined by the different manner of costume. This role could be transgressed only on certain occasions of a ritual nature and was expressed through the so-called travesty, a circumstance that we find for example at the wake in the central area of Moldavia, where some men dressed up as women.
It should also be noted that the gender difference is marked mainly by the basic piece of the costume – the shirt.
For women, depending on the area, the shirt may be completed from the waist down with one or two pieces: catrinţe, fote (skirts – either straight or curly) or oprege (fringed aprons). These are supported with a loomed or braided waistband, metal cords or beads, mounted on various material supports.
Married women cover their heads with maramas, woven from raw silk, terry cloth, woven from cotton or wool, kerchiefs bought in shops and bonnets called, depending on the area, cepse or conciuri. Girls tie flowers in their tails or dress themselves with crowns and tiaras.
The men’s costume has a simpler form and a more unified component throughout the country. The component parts are: the shirt (straight, with “barburi” – ‘M’-shaped gussets – or with a yoke), the trousers, the girdle, the belt or kimir, the hat or fur cap, the laced leather loafers and the boots.
Depending on the season, both men and women wear waistcoats, leather coats and large aba or fur coats over their shirts.
The action of the social factor is also very important. The multitude of objects in this collection also imposes the folk costume as an element of material culture, being directly influenced by a number of general factors: occupations, season, occasions, etc.
The museum’s collections contain costume pieces specific to certain occupations. Shepherds, for example, wear long coats with oversized sleeves (bitușca), while they also frequently wear hoods. There are the ‘hairy’ shirts worn by shepherds in mountain areas, soaked in buttermilk to make the fabric waterproof; hunters and rafters wore large leather or woollen cloth bags, and in some areas also axes or “hatchets”, necessary in their solitary lives, both as a tool and as a defensive weapon. Likewise forest workers used wide leather kimirs to support the waist during strenuous efforts.
There were also specialised professional costumes, such as the coachee one, of which the beautiful housings, ipingele (from southern Romania), have survived to this day. There is also a fisherman’s working costume, made up of specific pieces such as long leather stockings, waterproofed blouses, tent sheet cloaks, etc.