A woman's kroj is typically a full skirt worn with petticoats underneath, defined waist, topped with a variety of colorful tops of blouses, vests, or other touches, paired with unique puffy sleeves. The man's kroj is typically high boots, pants in a variety of styles, and a more colorful shirt, jacket, or vest. Kroje are an evolving folk art, and different times and communities all had different flavors.
From a very young age, girls in early Czech communities were taught to sew. They used linen, wool, and silk that they had in their community to create garments. Their skills were not just applied toward everyday practical use, but also to make the kroj for their Sundays and special days. It was fairly common for a pre-teen girl to spend years creating her own wedding dress for later use. With growing confidence over the generations, the stitches became elaborate, and a talented girl might make geometric patterns and use colorful threads. A young lady might be inspired by the high fashion of Gothic and Renaissance elite (12th through 17th century), her natural surroundings and materials, and even her religious upbringing.
One thing remained true in each community -- there was a tendency to conform to the status quo. They wanted to look like their neighbors and friends, so it's often the case that the costumes of a specific time and region will all be the same length, proportion, and color selection.
These communities developed individual tastes as they had little interaction with other communities.
These communities developed individual tastes as they had little interaction with other communities. There were changes to that trend as these pockets of people gained exposure to other communities for various reasons, and they assimilated all or some of the tastes of those areas. The kroje traditions remained fairly strong through the 19th century, with the Eastern areas or more secluded areas retaining more of it than the West. Today, there is still a strong interest from modern Czechia in celebrating this culture and it's easier to see examples of the traditional costumes worn during holidays and celebrations.
The over arching fashions of Gothic and Renaissance eras were a factor. The Gothic favors shawls and kerchief head coverings paired with a low waisted skirt. The Renaissance favors cloth hoods paired with high waisted skirts and soft bodices laced in the front. Both traditions incorporate elaborate kinds of details in lace, threadwork, and flashiness in the upper classes.
You can also find some similarity with the countries surrounding the area. Interestingly, there are some cases of an Oriental flare, which comes from the Turkish tradition far South.
Another influence was religious. The Bohemian Reformation (16th century) brought a wave of interest in Protestant leaders, such as Jan Hus, and with it a simpler, stark taste in fashion (dark colors and stark whites with more simple details).
Another factor was natural environment. In the uplands, mountain life lent itself to homespun linen, blueprinted fabric, and woven aprons. Proximity to foreign influence and wealth was a factor elsewhere. For example, the villages around Trencin mimicked the nobility with rich embroidery of silver and gold thread, lavish brocades, lace, and ribbons.
You can tell where a man or woman came from, depending on what they wore. If a woman married into a new community, she would only truly become accepted if she started to look like her neighbors. Likewise, it is said that you could tell what life experiences a person may have had depending on their kroje.
It is common to see a tendency for youth to be wearing the most colorful and ornate forms, and marriage to bring a more reserved fashion. For example, in Plzen both married and unmarried women wore a white cap with a large bow on the back. The unmarried women starched the bow to stand straight out horizontally, and the married women used less starch to let the bows fall to each side.
In many regions, young women wore their hair uncovered in braids. On special occasions, they wore various kinds of decorative headbands that were flashy and colorful. Once married, it was traditional that a bride would be given a cap by other married women in her community, and she would wear it until her death.
Likewise, young men tended to be more colorful in their youth. In the Moravian tradition, a groom wears a long ribbon called a musla at their shoulder. His wedding day brings out his finest clothes -- and in many communities the man would continue to wear a musla or version of it as a symbol of his marriage. In the same tradition, the bride has the most elaborate costume example with a literal crown on her head. Often, elaborate braids of her hair would be part of the look and were a time-consuming process. This is because of how significant marriage was within the culture.
Today, enthusiasts and those with Czech or Slovak heritage still enjoy wearing the garments of their ancestors. We are seeing interest in creating handmade items or acquiring traditional items.
For the practiced, this means doing a bit of research. There were over 50 different communities and regions recognized as having a unique form of kroj. In some cases, you may be able to find examples from a specific village, and in others, you may need to select a regional inspiration. One caution is to not mix-and-match at will, and find pieces that go together.
You can also see examples of kroje at festivals both in the Czech Republic and in the United States. Some people may be willing to tell you about their kroje if you ask nicely.
Finally, some of the finest examples of kroje are in museums. The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, IA has a very large collection which is rotated into displays. Their exhibition, Faces of Freedom, includes a rotating platform of mannequins dressed in some examples. There are also typically examples of accessories and other items on display throughout the museum that allow for a close inspection of the handwork detail that went into the creation.
Special thanks to the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library for use of the images and for their extensive research resources used in this article.
Faces of Freedom (exhibition), National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library
National Costumes of Czechoslovakia by Karel Smirous
A Treasury of Slovak Folk Dress by Helen Cinebeaux
Folk Culture in Czechoslovakia
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