Snapshots of Dress in Old Romania
In the early 20th century, German photographer Kurt Hielscher traveled throughout Europe, visually chronicling local cultures and landscapes. One of his journeys was through Old Romania, where he produced a series of sublime images, later published in a book, many of which document dress at this particular moment in place and time. Here, Hielscher contextualizes the work in a preface to his book that I found written in Romanian (and translated through Google translate so excuse the rough translation):
...Besides the thanks I felt, working, I was grieved that the whole Romanian people is threatened by a cruel enemy, because the culture of this blessed country is approaching the heavy clouds of the West: the dust of civilization that stifles every life full of color. Some villages have also been shrouded; the gray cloud increasingly covers the ancestral tools and the cheerful color of the costumes, drowning them in the extinct monochrome of fashion everywhere. That's how he [sic] gradually loses himself, a people [sic] with artistic sense, his [sic] old appearance. That's why we put so much importance in these photos to folk life to the detriment of the landscape. It seems to me that I can save my book for future times, which is slowly and continuously destined to perish. May a favorable fate still keep the people of these mountains, valleys and plains long, in its beauty and spontaneity.
- kurt hielscher
It was apparent to Hielscher even then both that fashion was a rich marker of culture, people and place, and that it was susceptible to the inevitable march of time, bringing with it urbanization, industrialization, and commercialization. His statement about the "monochrome of fashion everywhere" is as much poetic as it is prescient.
In seeking to understand what fashion really is- whether it's individual or tribal, whether it's creative or commercial, whether it's practical or ornamental- I find it useful to consider the role fashion has played in societies throughout time. It gives me perspective. And it makes me think about my clothes.
What did it mean to get dressed in Old Romania? Was fashion a matter of necessity or was there room for vanity? If most people wore variations of the same folk clothing, was it possible to stand out from the crowd- to express a sense of individuality through fashion? Was this even something desirable? Or was it precisely one's belonging to a tribe which gave the individual meaning? Is what we see below fashion? Is it style?
Also, of final note is how many of these items have threaded their way into contemporary fashion, whether that is the peasant blouse, the embroidered jackets and vests, or the oversized shaggy coats. Which leaves me wondering, whether, despite our sense that fashion is always changing, is it really always the same?