One could assume that distinctive dress of any country derives from the clothing the people of that nation wore in antiquity. However, one would be mistaken in the case of Poland. In the Middle Ages, the clothing of the Poles, nobles and gentry alike, followed the fashions of Western Europe, most particularly Germany and Spain. It was not until the 16th century that Polish dress emerged as a distinct form.
In the early 16th century, poets and satirists commented upon the diversity in Polish clothing and encouraged their audience to shun “unfashionable” German styles and wear native dress instead. But the real emergence of Polish dress dates to the appearance in Parliament in 1562 of King Sigismund Augustus wearing a grey nobleman’s coat.
As mentioned above, Polish dress did not derive from the ancient clothing of the Poles. Rather it came from an outside Slavic influence. If clothing may be traced to a single “foundation sire”, the Hungarian szür is the coat that gave rise to all Slavic dress in this time period. The szür is characterized by a front and back made from a single piece of fabric, a front slit for the head, and a rectangular collar. The most distinguishing feature of the szür is the sleeves. The sleeves were often not attached at the front of the armscye and therefore could be worn off the shoulders with the wearer’s arms emerging in the front and the sleeves hanging behind. The szür is a boxy overgarment constructed of multiple rectangles of material sewn edge to edge. Its beauty lies in the way it is decorated. The almost waist-length collar can be closed up into a hood in bad weather. The sleeves can be functional or purely decorative. And the entire garment is covered with colourful braid.
The shape and construction of the szür belie its Eastern origin. To put it simply, the szür is a caftan and it retains the distinctive characteristics of that garment. A look at pictures of garment from as far afield as Iran and Finland will demonstrate exactly how far the caftan proliferated. Before we move onto Polish dress, let us take a look at the other garments to which it is related.
The first garment is a felt coat from Hungary decorated with white and red braid. It is pictured below. The garment is laid flat in pieces, from left to right: side gore and sleeve, back with collar lying above, front with attached collar, front overlap, and side gore and sleeve. Detail of the interior of the collar and front opening is shown between the back and front pieces. The pieces of this garment are rectangles or bisected rectangles. And yet the garment fits well and gives a pleasing appearance. The most strikingly eastern element of this coat is the front overlap. It makes it resemble Tibetan and even Chinese coats. A variety of similar coats from all over the world are shown on this page.
The jumping off point for our discussion of Polish dress will be the garment you see below this paragraph, the Hungarian mente. The mente is a fitted caftan that developed from the szür. The name ?mente? has been in use since 1476 and we can deduce that it referred to a garment similar to the one at left. The outstanding features of this robe are the standing collar, the overlapping fronts, the gold braid and passementerie decoration especially around the front opening, the skirt widened by gores, and the elbow-length sleeves.
In the Late Middle Ages, caftan-like garments were already in use. Of particular note were called the zupica, the jopula and the hazuka. However, according to extant cutting diagrams and descriptions, these so-called caftans resembled Western European doublets and houppelands more closely than they did Eastern caftans.
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© 2004 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.