National Costume

20.05.2005. 14:02

What is a National Costume?

National costumes are an integral part of Latvia's heritage. The ones that have survived up to the present are the costumes worn on festive occasions They have been handed down from generation to generation as colourful adornments and treasured heirlooms. Ordinary garments have been less well preserved. A national costume includes everything that its owner has made for wearing in various seasons and on various occasions.

In contemporary usage, the term "national costume" refers to the apparel of the indigenous inhabitants of Latvia - the Balts and Livs. These original inhabitants were country folk-farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen. Their apparel is an important part of Latvia's cultural heritage and a valuable source for historical studies. Along with the costumes themselves, information about their construction and ornamentation has survived from antiquity. The power of tradition ensured that a generation would continue to think, act, and believe as its predecessors had done. 

The Development of National Costumes

Previous generations seemed to attach more importance to things than we do. Garments worn on festive occasions lasted for several lifetimes because each generation was proud to wear the beautiful adornments-brooches, woollen shawls, patterned belts, and head-coverings inherited from its ancestors; at the same time, it was free to add modern accessories. Undoubtedly, every garment had its own unknown history and legends, but at least we can be certain that each piece, because of its individual maker and wearer, was unique. While preserving and continuing the traditions of a region, each wearer created his or her own distinctive costume.

 Women's Costume

Formed by the thirteenth century, the main parts of a woman's costume consisted of a skirt and a long-sleeved, tunic-shaped linen shirt, which was a unisex garment worn alone or with other pieces. The shirt and skirt were sewn from a square fabric without the aid of a pattern.

Skirt. Before the nineteenth century, there is evidence of a skirt which was not sewn but which was simply a piece of fabric wrapped around the body and secured with a belt. The Livs wore skirts that extended above the waist. They consisted of two pieces of fabric-one for the front, one for the back-which were fastened at the shoulders (later, sewn together) and cinched with a woven belt. The two-piece skirt was the precursor of the skirt with a sewn upper part, and from the wrap-around skirt developed a sewn skirt with pleats or gathers. 

Sash. The basic function of the sash, or josta, was to secure the skirt, as well as to girdle the waist, in order to allow freedom of movement. Incidentally, only women wore patterned sashes; it is believed that the designs are related to traditions of fertility cults. In Liv regions during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, patterned sashes were not worn because there the apron served the same fertility-related function. The length of the sash varied; long sashes of three meters or more were wrapped around the waist several times.

Shawl. In all regions an essential part of the national costume was the woollen shawl, or villaine, a rectangular or square fabric draped around the shoulders. Possibly, this piece was the oldest part of the costume. It served a dual purpose: embroidered or otherwise adorned, it accented a costume worn on festive occasions; plain or checked, it kept the wearer warm. Summer shawls were made of linen. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, festive shawls were chiefly white or sometimes blue. In earlier centuries, they were predominantly dark blue with bronze ornamentation. The function of a festive shawl was to adorn and protect the wearer, as if isolating her from the outside world. Occasionally, multiple shawls, skirts, and head coverings were worn, perhaps to show off the owner's prosperity.

Head Covering. For at least a thousand years, the head covering served to signify the wearer's marital status. The symbolic covering for a maiden was a wreath or crown (vainags). In Liv regions, a ribbon served the same purpose. It was unseemly for a married woman to go out bareheaded. On festive occasions, married women used to wear a head-cloth, a practice that continued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During this period, various types of women's hats were worn. For daily wear, married and unmarried women favoured homespun linen or woollen scarves. At the end of the 18th century, commercially manufactured silk scarves became a fashionable part of the national costume; they were worn on the head, over a hat, or around the shoulders. In the making of the head covering, various manufactured materials were used-glass beads, lace, and fabric 

Men's Costume

The men's costume was more influenced by city fashions than was the women's costume. While the tunic-style shirt remained unchanged, the trousers and jacket, though homespun, began in the eighteenth century to reflect city fashions.

Military uniforms also influenced the style of the men's costume, especially in details such as lapels and embroidery. Women usually sewed their own costumes, but men often enlisted the aid of a tailor. Jackets and trousers for daily wear were usually made of grey homespun material; white fabric was used for festive occasions. A belt was worn with the long jacket. A woven belt was characteristic of eastern regions; leather, metal, or leather with metal was typical of western (Kurzeme) regions. Until the mid-nineteenth century, trousers came to below the knee, and woven stockings came up to the knee. Long trousers became popular in the latter part of the century. The most popular head-dress was the broad-brimmed hat made of felt and adorned with a ribbon. The summer hat was made of straw.


The chief footwear for men and women was pastalas, a simple footwear made of a single piece of leather and tied with laces. It served for daily and festive wear. In cold weather, several pairs of stockings were worn. In earlier times-and up to the twentieth century-feet were ordinarily wrapped in footcloths. Festive occasions called for shoes or boots, which indicated the owner's prosperity.


An abundance of jewellery on the national costume also indicated the wearer's wealth and status. Shirts and shawls were fastened with brooches. Those created between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries reflect the influence of Renaissance and Baroque art, as well as local artistic traditions. Most of the jewellery was made of silver. In Kurzeme brooches were plated with bronze. Sometimes they were adorned with red or blue stones. Amber brooches, amber beads, and double buttons, or frogs, were characteristic of southern regions. Brooches and frogs engraved with solar designs attest to the symbolic association between amber and the sun.


Costumes for festive occasions were adorned with embroidered, woven, or knitted designs to make them visually impressive, distinctive, and unique. Geometric designs are characteristic of Latvian folk art; they consist of separate elements combined in a unified composition. It is possible that the intricate patterns are a form of writing, a way of communicating a concept or a wish. In the Latvian language, the same word is used to denote writing and ornamentation. Sometimes a design, or raksts, consists of ever-changing patterns. Traditional ornaments and decorative designs have been preserved chiefly in national costumes.


Colours played an important role in costume adornments. White and grey predominated because costumes were made of natural fabrics, such as linen and wool. In ancient times, yarn was coloured with natural dyes, chiefly from indigenous plants. The designs on mittens, shawls, and sashes were created from combinations of four colours-red, blue, green, and yellow. These colours occurred in various shades and proportions in every part of the costume that was made of wool. Possibly, the strict observance of traditions regarding colour was related to concepts in magic.

White, with its magical associations, holds a special place in Latvian folklore. The word itself is synonymous with purity, goodness, and enlightenment. White was deemed fitting for festive garments.

Latvians, like other Eastern European nations, use red in their national costumes. Red has always been associated with fire, blood, life. Red cotton threads decorated linen garments, such as aprons, head-coverings, and shirts.

Black, which was regarded as the colour of the gentry, was not characteristic of national costumes. The use of black in farmers' garments began in the second half of the nineteenth century, and then only in combination with other colours in striped skirts or patterned mittens.

Regional Differences

Each region of Latvia developed its own distinctive traditions regarding costumes. Tied as they were to their homes and lands, farmers were acquainted only with their immediate vicinity but were ignorant of the traditions and practices or more distant villages. Everything necessary for fashioning the national costumes according to regional traditions was found at home. As long as these traditions were observed, the national costumes retained their distinctive designs. Home-made costumes for daily wear preserved traditional features longer than did festive costumes, which were more susceptible to influences from the city. Exceptions were some regions in Kurzeme-Nica, Rucava, and Alsunga--where festive costumes remained unchanged until the mid-twentieth century, though ordinary garments were store bought. Traditions governing national costumes are still alive in these regions.

National Costumes Today

Having lost their utility in daily life, national costumes are mainly valued museum pieces. However, even today some parts of society are eager to revive the use of national costumes as a way of affirming their national identity or adding a distinctive touch to holidays and special occasions. One such occasion is the Song and Dance Festival, where national costumes are worn not only by the singers and dances but also by the audience. The wearing of national costumes creates a feeling of unity among those present and affirms a link to the past. Together with the songs and dances, national costumes demonstrate Latvia's cultural heritage to the world.

Things tend to last only as long as someone needs them. Nowadays there is still a need for national costumes. Orders for individuals and organisations are filled by artisans at studios of applied arts. Young people in trade schools or home economics schools are learning to make national costumes. Displayed as a diploma work, a handmade national costume can take years to construct as its maker masters weaving, embroidery, and other essential skills. By fashioning one's own costume, the maker becomes acquainted with one's family history because the pattern for the costume is chosen from the region or district of one's ancestors.

Designs characteristic in national costumes are reflected in professional works of art, as well as in everyday objects. These ethnic accents help to distinguish Latvians from other nationalities.

Although the traditions associated with national costumes are part of history, the desire of each generation to be creative and individualistic in one's apparel is still alive today.

Sources of Additional Information
In English:
Latvian National Costumes, Vol. 1: Vidzeme.- Riga, Museum of History of Latvia, 1995.
Latvian National Costumes, Vol. 2: Kurzeme.- Riga, Museum of History of Latvia, 1997.
Latvian National Costumes, Vol. 3: Zemgale, Augszeme, Latgale.- In preparation.
In French:
Ornement Letton, 3 vols.- Paris, 1990.

Written by: Ilze Zingite (The Museum of History of Latvia)