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Traditional dress

The Suiti are Catholic, which distinguishes them from their Lutheran neighbours, which is the main reason why they have preserved quite a lot of their ancient features. Since the Reformation in Courland in 1561, the congregation was Lutheran, until the future owner of the area Johan Ulrich von Schwerin married a Catholic Polish aristocrat Barbara Konarska and converted to the Catholic faith himself, later forcing the entire congregation to do the same between 1632 and 1636.

According to a legend, he also forced the congregation to wear special costumes – long, white overcoats for men, and kapatas for women. This might not be true, because the white overcoats used to be a traditional dress also in the Kuldīga area and all the way to Ventspils. The same could be said about the kapata and woolen shawls villaini or mēleni – an indigo-blue color with metal (usually bronze) folds and coils. Unmodified, it has been known throughout the Venta river region.

In the 19th century, rural residents used everyday (work) clothing, as well as ceremonial and Sunday clothing. Casual clothing was usually not decorated. It was simple and durable. It was worn both at home and at work and was usually made of linen fabric. In the Land of Suiti, women also wore red woolen skirts as work clothes.

The ceremonial dress was much more exquisite in both color and pattern. It was possible that, according to certain traditions, it was made only once in a lifetime and worn rarely, only on special occasions in life – weddings, baptisms and similar. Such a costume was often kept for future generations. Therefore, many details from the costumes of previous generations remained in the festive clothes, such as belts, decorated shawls, brooches, headdresses, etc. In addition, each subsequent generation added (or simplified) the clothing with details and decorations characteristic of their time.

The Sunday (i.e. church) outfit had much more contemporary clothing features, i.e. it was more modern, with more pronounced urban fashion elements. The main difference in the clothing of rich and poor people was only in the quality of the material and the quantity of clothing, but the cut and style were the same for all.

The Suiti folk costume has has been used in a certain area, to the north and east it was bordered by the former Ventspils and Kuldīga districts. But to the south it gradually passed into the folk costume area of Sakasleja and Aizpute. Therefore, from the point of view of costumes, in addition to Gudenieki, Basi and Jūrkalnei, the former municipal parishes of Apriķi, Klostere and Ulmāle can also be blended into the Suiti costume area.

When we speak of the Suiti folk dress, we speak about it starting from 17th century, when the parish of Alsunga or Alšvanga adopted the Catholic faith. In addition to the spread of Polish material culture and Catholicism, the development of the Suiti clothing was also particularly influenced by several historical events:

The period of Duke Jacob’s rule in Courland (1642 – 1682), when there was active economic life, industrial production flourished, including textile. Farmers worked in these small factories, but the masters were Swedes and French, from whom the local farmers could learn a lot.

The Northern War (1700 – 1721). During that time (1710), a plague broke out, which completely destroyed the prosperity of Courland. Many inhabitants died (about 4/5 of all peasants). In order not to leave arable lands in complete ruin, the large landowners brought in people from Lithuania and even from Saaremaa island in Estonia. It is possible that some ideas were also borrowed from the them. Here, we should especially mention the parallels in the construction of Suiti skirts with sewn-on straps, which in the 18th century were widespread among the inhabitants of Hiiumaa, Saaremaa islands and elsewhere in Estonia. In the 19th century, the inhabitants of these territories, for example, like elsewhere in Europe, began to wear thick (wide) skirts with a sewn-on belt.

Historical events in Europe (French Bourgeois Revolution in 1787 – 1794 and annexation of the Duchy of Courland by Russia in 1795, when it became a Russian governorate. Consequences of Napoleonic war (1812) in Courland. The entire Courland Governorate was temporarily occupied by the French. Local farmers suffered greatly due to the occupation. However, seeing the clothes of the French army and the rest of the household details, the local residents adapted something for their own needs as well. So, for example, one of the most characteristic differences in the silhouette of the Suiti women’s dress in Latvia is the raised waist of skirts and shirts with thick, folded sleeves. Such skirts and shirts in Europe were fashionable during the Empire style (1804 – 1815), which coincides with the aforementioned Napoleonic campaign in Courland. It is thought that the cut and ornamentation of the shirt’s long fitting cuffs and jackets also originated in the same period of history. Several European nations (including Poles) borrowed in their clothing ideas from the cut and design of the uniforms of Napoleon’s army soldiers.

On August 25, 1817, the abolition of serfdom was announced in the Courland governorate. After the this in the Baltic provinces, a noticeable increase in industrial development began. The 1830s and 1840s are the beginning of the industrial revolution, when there was a transition to the capitalist factory, where machines and steam engines were used.

These were the most prominent historic events, which directly affected the people of Courland, including the Suiti. The common people had to be directly or indirectly involved in them in order to adapt and be included in the common course of historical development. The clothes of the common people (peasants) also adapted with the times. Peasants reacted to what was happening around them, borrowing a lot in terms of clothing and adapting it to their needs, understanding and traditions. However, the Suiti, who were very much influenced by the Catholic conservatism over several generations, kept the uniqueness of their traditional clothing until the 19th and 20th centuries. However, this does not mean that this folk costume has been unchanged throughout its existence – it has continuously developed within the limits of its possibilities.

Changes in folk clothing in the 19th century

Unfortunately, there are no drawings of the traditional folk costumes of the Suiti, which have been preserved, that would refer to the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as the beginning of the 19th century, and therefore we can judge about their former appearance only after the 20th century. Early ethnographic material (Monuments Board, Cultural Atlas of Latvia), records of collectors and after the 20th century for initial publications. Information about the oldest time period is fragmentary, individual items have been preserved, often in one copy, and comprehensive conclusions cannot be drawn from them. Therefore, it is not possible to completely reconstruct the very old traditional clothing of the Alsunga residents. It is only possible to list the individual parts (details) of the clothing and, draw some parallels with the material preserved by the nearest neighbors, as well as the specific course of historical events, make assumptions about what the ancient Suiti were wearing.

We have more material from the 19th century, in the beginning of which, there was a time of socio-economic changes in Europe, new capitalist relations were formed, industry, trade and also cultural connections developed. Matīss Siliņš writes about the transformations of this time: But what the rule of local Germans could not do for more than half a thousand years, the European factory industry system did in half a century. It affected Latvia in the first half of the 19th century, when competition from the cheap, lightweight factory products pushed out folk handicraft out of everydey use into tins and dowry chests, like precious memories of the past. It was from there, half a century later, that much of what was left, was moved to a more permanent place – the glass cabinets of museums.

The national taste for clothing and jewelry was gradually and inevitably replaced by the European fashion, which, even though it was foreign, was not German, but French, starting with the short (culotte, French soldiers’ uniform) men’s pants from the 18th century, and finally with blouses for women. Then, instead of the beautifully decorated belts, crowns, rather sloppy industrial embroideries took their place. The fact that there has been a real French presence in Courland continuously from the time of Duke Jacob (mid-17th century) to the war of Napoleon I (1812) cannot be disputed, and therefore it is not surprising that quite some French influence has been preserved in the clothing of the Suiti people.

In summary

In the 19th century, the appearance of people’s clothing changed radically in the whole Europe. It was the same and also quite dynamic in the territory of Latvia, old cultural values disappeared from circulation and new ones took their place. During this time, several forms of urban clothing were adopted in the rural areas. Men were the first to change. Already in the first half of the 19th century, the traditional cut clothing changed to the classic English-type suit, which consisted of a jacket, short waistcoat and long trousers. Women started wearing urban fashion clothes later, in the second half of the 19th century. This outfit represented the so-called costume dress – a costume made of plain, striped or checkered fabric, consisting of a skirt and a jacket. Children’s clothing was similar to adult clothing in terms of material, cut and color. Urban clothing was first adopted by the younger generation. In the clothing of the elderly and small children, certain archaic cut forms remained longer.

Changes in the clothing of Latvian peasants, as elsewhere in Europe, took place when new pieces of clothing entered the household, for example, waist-length jackets, white and colored aubes, decorative collars, industrially made scarves of various sizes and uses. Homemade clothing articles were gradually replaced by clothes sewn by a professional tailors according to specially designed, rather complicated cuts.

It is characteristic that the modern, tailor-made clothes of the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century initially were made from wool and linen fabrics woven at home. Often, separate parts of the older clothing were worn with the newly made outfit. It is in the style of clothing created, on the one hand, a certain confusion, but, on the other hand, a peculiar, region-specific costume set (ensemble), in which individual parts of the traditional costume of previous generations could be seen.

Even today, in the Land of Suiti, the traditional folk costume is often worn in folklore events. For the most part, it represents a variant of the last stage of development of folk clothing (end of the 19th century), which is often supplemented by parts of clothing characteristic of an older period. New decorative techniques are also used to decorate the shirts. This means that the folk costume is still evolving and being creatively interpreted – so it lives.

The following literature has been used in the text posted here:

The sections of the book Suitu identitāte published in 2005 edited by Janīna Kursīte, authored by Aija Jansone;

Latvju raksti. Tautas māksla uzvalkos, audumos, būvēs, podniecībā u.t.t. Pēc materiāliem valsts un privātajos krājumos. Published by the Valstspapīru spiestuve in Riga 1924 – 1931;

Novadu tērpi, II Kuldīga, Ventspils, Alsunga,, published in 1938 as a publication of the Latvian Chamber of Agriculture.

Latviešu tautas tērpi, II Kurzeme, Zīle Bremze, Velta Rozenberga, Ilze Zingīte, Jāņa sēta, Riga 1997, 398 pages.