VYSHYVANKA: more than 100 years in fashion

International Vyshyvanka Day, May 19, 2022

Vyshyvanka in Ukraine is a serious thing – it is a national symbol, and a work of traditional arts and crafts, and a powerful amulet of Ukrainians. But fashionable things, on the contrary, are international, temporary, and superficial. Despite this, in the history of fashion from the beginning of the twentieth century until today there have been many seasons when the vyshyvanka was the “last cry”, enriching trends with traditions and absorbing the spirit of the moment.

From the point of tradition, an embroidered shirt should never be called an “vyshyvanka” – it is a very gross violation, as well as a shirt shortened to the thighs (this is a blouse). It will be a desecration of tradition to wear a long shirt uncovered below the waist (plakhta, derga, zapaska (traditional apron), lytnyk (summer skirt), etc.).

Girls in Ukrainian traditional costumes, Donetsk region, 1924
Schuri calendar, 2017
Project “Nation” Ukrainian authentic costume of the end of XIX – the middle of XX century Project manager Ksenia Malyukova Zhytomyr region

But fashion is not a tradition and allows itself all sorts of wonderful embroideries: dresses, blues and even T-shirts with printed patterns. Fashion can allow everything – it is part of modern mass culture of consumption, not the traditional culture of a unique craft. Fashionable vyshywankas, mostly, are only interpretations or imitations of traditional embroidered shirts.

Vyshyvankas make the tradition relevant. According to Google Analytics statistics, the query “embroidered shirt” is almost 20 times less than the query “vyshyvanka”. As a blogger who has been running modoslav.blogspot.com for more than 10 years, I see that people come to me for “vyshyvanka”, and I deliberately prescribe “vyshyvanka” in my posts to have traffic, to be found, read, liked, and shared. Similarly, designers make vyshyvankas to sell more.

Vyshyvanka, XIX century

The big problem with the culture in general and traditional culture, in particular, is that it is a bit distant from ordinary people, trying to impose something on them, and no one thinks about how to do something so interesting that people want it. In most cases, cultural figures complain about the lack of orders (once commissioned by the Communist Party, the state) and demand funding. Fashion (and this area is completely commercial) immediately feels what is in a trend, what consumers demand – it immediately picks it up and exploits it to the maximum.

The term “vyshyvanka” originated a long time ago. For example, in the ’90s in Kyiv fashionable brochures “Vyshyvanka” was published. Models far from traditional shirts were offered, but traditional embroidery motifs were used to decorate them.

Schuri calendar, 2017

Ukrainians probably use the basic elements of traditional costume in everyday life easier and more often than representatives of other European nations, but over-identification of the national style with vyshyvanka in our country often leads to so-called “vyshyvatnytstvo” and kitsch. For example, embroidered shirts were worn on living cats or dogs, as well as on monuments to Lenin. Obviously, this does not change the essence of things and it is better not to torture animals and remove the bloudy leader “away from Ukraine”.

Fortunately, fashion deals with lively and beautiful people, and vyshyvankas as a fashion item were offered by magazines and studios in the early twentieth century. The dresses of Paul Poirier or Coco Chanel used certain elements of the embroidered shirt. At that time, such things were perceived as exotic (like Japanese kimonos or African bracelets) and did not have an ethno-national value.

Schuri calendar, 2017

In 1930-1940, many vyshyvankas were also offered in fashion magazines. This was due to the actualization of national sentiments and trends in Europe before the Second World War. Brochures with patterns and embroidery patterns were published. These embroidered shirts were called somewhere Bavarian, somewhere Russian, and somewhere Romanian, but, for the most part, the embroidered shirt in these fashions appeared as an attribute not of a particular nation, but of the social stratum – as a peasant blouse. And to this day, this culture is a rural culture after all. And so, perhaps, it was not so popular in the fashion of the twentieth century – the village was considered less developed than the city. It is already in the post-industrial era, and everyone began to sing odes to handicrafts and environmental materials.

In the Soviet Union, vyshyvankas are a special topic, because, since the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, nationalism has been strongly condemned, but almost all Soviet artistic modeling was built on the promotion of folk traditions. They wanted to build socialist fashion on elements of the traditional costumes of the republics, thus contrasting it with Western fashion.

The outbreak of the popularity of embroidered shirts took place in the late 1950s – early 1960s, when Khrushchev was in power, who himself did not hesitate to wear an embroidered shirt. In world fashion, this trend is associated with hippie culture. Then the embroidered blouse became a symbol of freedom from the canons, from fashion trends. It was anti-fashion rather than fashion – freedom from the dictates of magazines and catwalks.

Mykyta Khrushchev

The 1970s were the most ethno-fashionable period. The main designer of the decade, Yves Saint Laurent, “traveled” with his collections to the traditional cultures of many nations. In 1976, Saint Laurent showed Haute Couture vyshyvankas. In different sources, they were called differently. All russians have positioned it as a purely russian collection, although it is likely that the embroidered blouses were inspired by Matisse’s paintings, including his painting “Romanian Blouse”. And till this day, the embroidered shirt called a “Romanian blouse”. Therefore, if we talk about national self-identification, the embroidered shirt is a very slippery ground, because it is an element that is present in many cultures. And if the Ukrainian shirt is easy to distinguish from the Mexican, it is difficult to draw the line between the traditions of neighboring nations. In Ukraine itself, each region has its own specifics, which do not add clear guidelines.

Yves Saint Laurent

I had to study for the period of perestroika and folk traditions were perceived, in particular, by fashion students as “Oh, my God!”. We were drilled to make collections based on national motives. That is, it was compulsory and all competitions were won by maternity clothes and clothes based on national motives. These were topics that added points. This obsession with “roosters and towels” has repulsed our generation’s positive perception of traditional clothing for many years. It sounded very good in one dissertation in 2015 that we need not so much to open as to rediscover and rethink our traditions, which were instilled in us from above.

Embroidered items of the Soviet period in the scientific literature have been given very different assessments since independence, but in fact, if you look now, you can see that the designers of the Republican model houses were professionals and created very harmonious things. Today, one can even envy the development of Soviet artistic modeling based on embroidered items.

The outbreak of fashion for vyshyvankas in the XXI century was associated with political events in Ukraine. For the first time since the 2004 Orange Revolution, embroidered shirts from the Jean-Paul Gauthier and Gucci collections have appeared on world catwalks. John Galliano made a “Ukrainian” collection in 2008, inspired by our traditional costumes.

John Galliano Ready-to-Wear A/W 2009

In Ukraine, on the wave of patriotism, many design options for embroideries appeared, but the demand for them did not fall, and after the Revolution of Dignity jumped – we had a “breakthrough” on a global scale called “Vyshyvanka by Vita Kin”.

Vyshyvanka by Vita Kin

In Lviv, Oksana Karavanska came up with such a direction as “Vyshyvanka Couture”, promoting it as a unique Ukrainian know-how. Roksolana Bogutska‘s vyshyvankas from Lviv can also be identified as Couture.

Vyshyvanka by Roksolana Bogutska

In 2015, at the Haute Couture fashion week in Paris (and this is still the coolest thing that can be in fashion), the Italian brand Valentino made a collection with embroideries. “Valentino embroidered shirts” flooded social networks and blogs, proving that the need for high-quality design interpretations of embroidered shirts is huge and this topic should be developed. Because of today’s terrible war, the world is not just chained to Ukraine – it is united around us by moral and material support. This is the best time in our history to show the world the beauty and grandeur, as well as the relevance of Ukrainian vyshyvanka in both traditional handicrafts and the latest digital versions.

Vyshyvanka Couture by Karavanska


Myroslav Melnyk

Look also: ГЕНІАЛЬНО: сучасні вишиванки Valentino resort 2017

Military vyshyvanka

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