Intervjuu: Rahvarõivaste komplekteerimise poliitiline kunst / Interview: The Political Art of the Assembly of Folk Costume Sets


  • Kersti Loite



Kersti Loite (MA in traditional technologies) spoke to ethnographer and researcher of national costumes Igor Tõnurist. Tõnurist has been active as a lecturer on Estonian national costumes since the 1970s and was a member and later the chairman of the national costume unit of the Office of the General Song Festival of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. From 1971–1992, he was the artistic director of the famous Estonian folk music ensemble Leegajus.
The discussion concentrated on the ideas and ideologies that have influenced the completion of Estonian national costume sets. The museum collections in Estonia include many separate items of national costumes, but there are few such complete costume sets as worn together in peasant society. Tõnurist describes the preferences for the assembly of sets during the Soviet period and the principles he would now be guided by in developing a new national costume for Virumaa. While discussing these themes, issues relating to national costume patterns, suitable jewellery and the different social functions of clothing sets emerged.
The roots of the completion of national costume sets in Estonia can be found in the 1930s when a national costume advisory chamber operated at the Estonian National Museum. A book compiled by ethnographer Helmi Kurrik, Eesti rahvarõivad (Estonian National Costumes) (1938), is today considered one of the most important manuals for analysing historic national costumes. During the Soviet era costume sets were completed by ethnographers by supplementing earlier publications and recommendations. On the other hand, in this period choirs and especially dance celebrations were more forcefully directed towards a homogenous colour scheme. It became increasingly common for groups performing in national costumes to wear unified costumes that caught the eye on the dance field and enabled the use of different colours in dance performances. The great influence of dance instructors on the wearing of national costumes had several consequences: certain costume sets (Muhu, Anseküla et al.) became fashionable and were worn everywhere in Estonia; eclectic sets were compiled and unsuitable styles were used; striped skirts became an unpopular choice due to their heterogeneous appearance; and so on. Trained ethnographers and the national costume advisory chamber had little impact on these processes. Nevertheless, attempts were made to develop and train people’s tastes in national costumes: groups that wished to use a set worn in their home region were recommended by the advisory chamber to use new costumes and not those already existing, deep-seated sets. These tendencies strengthened during the period of Estonia regaining its independence in the 1990s.
When the advisory chamber received orders, these were discussed jointly by the ethnographers and the craftsmen. The solutions offered proceeded from the ethnographic model as much as possible. Tõnurist’s personal example and the experience of his group Leegajus made it possible for many of the now popular alternatives to come into use. It was he who again recommended the use of short trousers alongside stylised trousers and a more typical short waistcoat alongside the long one; for women he recommended colourful aprons alongside white ones and was an influence for the development of the bead-wearing fashion.
Tõnurist emphasises that the completion of a national costume set is in fact a generalisation. An ethnographer who introduces typical examples of various regions to people must be familiar with the whole picture. It is worth remembering that some phenomena may be common all over Estonia, but fashion is regional. One craftsman could have serviced a wide region, but homemade embroidery characterised the tastes prevalent in the community and the local sense of beauty. An ethnographer is able to take these discrepancies into account and make broad generalisations. However, people wearing national costumes should not be guided exclusively by the most typical examples but should rather be open to variations as well.
Tõnurist encourages the use of more diverse sources when assembling new national costume sets: the written sources and materials found in museums can be taken into account, but you should also pay attention to the written descriptions of former national costumes or to paintings in which they are depicted.


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