TALLINN - Estonians have strong connections to local traditions related primarily to different dialects and reinforced by variations in customs and dress. By ‘folk costume’ we nowadays primarily mean the festive costumes worn by the peasantry during the last century. Such clothes, made according to historic examples, are now worn at song festivals and other national events. Today the Estonian traditional costume is most spectacularly exposed at “Laulupidu,” the national song festival, both on the stage and among the audience.
In Estonia traditional costume denotes mainly the festive peasant dress of the 19th century, which in its time referred, besides social status, also to national background, as the ruling class was mainly German at the time. The former peasant costume of regional variation has today become a national symbol and has turned into a national dress due to its altered function.
The development of the Estonian folk costume over the centuries was influenced by fashions of the upper classes and the traditional costumes of neighboring countries. However, most of the costumes were influenced by well-established native traditions and customs. At the same time, folk costume denoted national belonging and social status, and both everyday and festive clothing constituted a complicated system of signs, referring to the wearer’s social status, age and marital status. Differences were especially obvious in women’s clothing, and they often became distinctive in neighboring parishes. In men’s clothing variations were much smaller, usually being differentiated by county.
Estonia’s northern climate is conducive to natural fabrics like homespun wool, linen fabric and sheepskin, keeping Estonians warm during the damp and cold winter months. Colors for the clothing came from plants which were a source of dye for the weaving wool and embroidery thread. Patterns, styles, designs as well as methods of sewing, weaving and knitting have influenced, and have been influenced, by neighboring cultures. Culture always seeps through the political boundaries and the boundaries of ethnic Estonians have shifted a lot over the centuries.
Even though folk costumes change over time, many of these traditional aspects have passed down through the generations and are seen today in Estonia and elsewhere in the world where Estonians live and gather for small and large festivities.
Generally, traditional Estonian clothes were divided into three parts:
• Festive clothes worn only on special occasions and often handed down from generation to generation;
• Visiting clothes for errands, business, and visits of a less festive nature;
• Working clothes worn every day and made of poorer material and without decorations;
• The belt has remained an integral part of traditional Estonian clothing for centuries.
Due to urbanization in the second half of the 19th century, folk costumes became less used. At the same time, during the so-called national awakening, it became increasingly popular in Estonia to wear folk costumes on festive occasions: at song festivals and various national events. A more widespread usage of folk costumes as national festive clothing started at the beginning of the 20th century. Folk costumes today basically mean the festive clothing dating from the first half of the 19th century.
Stylized flower patterns derived from the water lily or tulip are among the most common found on women’s blouses and head gear, mostly embroidered in coordinated hues with the skirt in understated brightness. Silver brooches function as fasteners on most blouses. Brooches, necklaces, earrings and bracelets based on traditional designs continue to be common among some Estonian women as the jewelry they wear frequently.
The Estonian word for belt, “voo,” is one of the oldest words in the language, dating back 7,000 years. Tightly woven when made, then tightly wrapped many times around the waist, the belt gave the women back support when doing heavy field work. Later the patterned belts served to hold up a skirt whose style consisted of an unsown rectangular fabric piece. To this day, most of the women’s national costumes include a belt worn that way.
Formerly a prestige item, wool socks with elaborate designs form an integral part of the coastal area national dress. As a result, a few folk dances include a step where the man momentarily bends down to admire his partner’s socks. The designs and their knitting are sufficiently unique that several books have been published recently in North America about Estonian socks.
In spite of Estonia’s small size, there are numerous local differences in folk costume as worn today on special occasions. Northern Estonian men wear breeches (a type of pant reaching down to the knee) accompanied by a short-coat, mostly blue. Women wear a distinctive short, loose, long-sleeved midriff blouse embroidered in floral patterns over a sleeveless shirt. The skirt stripes may be vertical or horizontal. These are the most popular styles among Estonians in Canada, United States and elsewhere outside the country.
The largest event featuring Estonian national costumes is the Song and Dance Festival, which takes place in Tallinn once every five years. Some choirs wear national dress as their uniform making for a splendid display of the 20,000 singers. The 7,000 folk dancers weave many interesting patterns punctuated by the traditional costumes from various regions of Estonia.