Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Dress, design : Romanian

  • Dress, designRomanian
  • Cultural Field
    Sight and sound
    Jianu, Angela

    An integral part of Romanian nation-building was to emphasize the Western/European nature of the country (often by emulating French models) and to dissociate it from Ottoman culture as manifested in dress, food, and lifestyle.

    One can distinguish three main stages in the Ottoman-to-European transition in the dress of the Romanian elite: from c.1750 to 1830-32 (the establishment of the Russian-sponsored Organic Regulations, the country’s first constitutional charters); a shorter transitional period from 1830 to c.1850; and from 1850 to around 1900, when both male and female fashions became practically synchronized with Western European styles but peasant or traditional dress gained symbolical importance as representing authentic nationality.

    Changes in the first of these three periods were driven by foreign staff at the courts of the Phanariot princes in Bucharest and Iaşi (1711-1822), the French-educated officers of occupying Russian armies, resident Western diplomats, and Transylvanian merchants. The ceremonial dress of the Phanariot princes and officials and the emblems of their authority were strictly codified: the colours, types of fur used for the kaftans, the size of the men’s pear-shaped head-dress – kalpaks – and even the length of their beards depended on rank and official capacity. Although elite women in Ottoman Wallachia and Moldavia wore şalvars and entaris (loose overcoats) up to the 1840s, they were not required to be veiled and were less closely confined to women’s quarters than their Turkish counterparts. Both at court and in boyar households, elite women were therefore exposed to Western and Central European influences. Consequently, the politics of appearances was gendered and, by the mid-century, women (rather than men) were in a position to present themselves in line with Western European fashion. In the turbulence around the 1848 revolutions, French-educated and liberal-minded men came to adopt the three-piece suits and cravats of the new age. This had an impact on the appearance of streets and interiors, on patterns of trade and consumption, and also on the lexicon of fashion, dress-making, and textiles, which had been almost exclusively Turkish until the 1850s. New words of French and English origin entered the Romanian language, itself in a process of dramatic construction at the time; some neologisms, usually of English origin, have remained in use until the present.

    As elsewhere in East-Central Europe, dress and fashion became invested with national and political values and subject to strenuous debate. Westernizers, who wished to align their nation with mainstream European trends, faced traditionalists intent on safeguarding “native” traditions against the “corrupting”, de-nationalizing influence of the Western other. The French-educated Moldavian writer Alecu Russo (1819–1859) saw the frock-coat and waistcoat – which he called the “clothes of equality” – as harbingers of emancipation; even so, as he welcomed the emergence of a new, more egalitarian civic ethos at court and in towns, he deplored the vanishing of an idealized community of boyars, serfs, and Gypsy servants who coexisted in their respective stations in society and were identified by the social markers of their dress.

    By the mid-century, the baggy trousers, Turkish slippers, and ermine-lined entaris were preserved in grandmothers’ dowry chests and paintings as artefacts and relics of a premodern past. As the failure of the 1848 revolutions drove liberal and radical militants underground or into exile, a reflection on the nature of that “people” which had been rhetorically invoked but which had failed to be mobilized led to an awareness that elite-driven “Europeanization” by itself was inadequate as an agent of modernity; a new symbolic repertoire arose drawing on vernacular traditions.

    In 1850, Maria Rosetti (born in 1820 on the Channel Islands as Mary Grant, and married to a future founder of the Romanian Liberal Party) modelled for what was to become an iconic portrait in modern Romanian art. The artist was the Jewish-Hungarian painter Constantin D. Rosenthal (1820–1851), who had been naturalized Romanian in 1848 and was to die in a Habsburg prison as a result of his involvement with the Wallachian Forty-Eighters. Depicted in half profile, Rosetti appears in a graceful but defiant pose, dressed in a richly embroidered ethnic Romanian blouse and wearing a necklace of golden coins, an item of traditional peasant dress. Her left hand clutches a tricolour flag and her right fist is clenched round the handle of a dagger. Intended for an inner circle of disaffected Parisian Republicans around the historian Jules Michelet, the portrait, which did not display the model’s identity or name, created a Romanian Marianne-like allegory later used in philo-Romanian propaganda around the Congress of Paris (1856); Michelet evoked Rosetti’s pose in his Légendes démocratiques du nord.

    Rosenthal’s metonymic use of ethnic dress to make a national-political claim and bolster a new sense of collective identity was perhaps the first example of its kind in modern Romanian painting. It stands in marked contrast to the portraits painted a few years earlier (1845) of an elite female figure in Romanian ethnic dress by the Transylvanian-born Carol Popp de Szathmári (1812–1887): an official commission by Wallachia’s last pre-1848 ruler, Prince Gheorghe Bibescu, it shows the reigning prince’s consort adorned with a number of conspicuous golden accessories that point to her status as the wife of an old-regime ruler.

    Towards the end of the 19th century, as French-trained Romanian painters aligned themselves with Impressionism, artists such as Nicolae Grigorescu (1838–1907) and Theodor Aman (1831–1891) produced plein-air representations of peasants and idealized bucolic scenes in the idyllic genre. At the same time, Szathmári, not only a painter but also a photographer, continued to produce a large output in the ethnographic-documentary tradition, chiefly as official painter at the court of Carol I of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, the newly-installed king (r. 1866-1914). The Romanian Hohenzollerns sponsored vernacular folk imagery both as a self-legitimating device and as national visual propaganda at home and in the West. Samples of Romanian ethnic dress showcased at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1867, however, received lukewarm responses from audiences more familiar with Academic painting than with rustic aesthetics. At home, the Romanian royal family continued to sponsor a number of interlocking programmes of vernacular revival. The design of military uniforms for the national army of the young Romanian state went hand in hand with the collection and display of ethnic dress and with the development of a “national school” in architecture and urban planning. Carol I’s consort, Elisabeth of Wied, also known by her pen name Carmen Sylva (1843–1916), revived the tradition of elite women posing in Romanian ethnic dress. Carol himself, who led the Romanian army in the War of Independence (1877-78), was often represented wearing the ethnic-inspired black lambskin hat of the irregular Dorobanţi infantry troops. The trend was continued by Crown Princess (later Queen) Marie, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria who married Ferdinand, the heir to the Romanian throne, in 1893. She wore Romanian ethnic dress both for posed portraits and for public ceremonial occasions, e.g. the 1906 royal jubilee celebrations. Her – and women’s – role in the First World War were recognized in a number of photographic portraits showing her wearing the uniform of the cavalry Roşiori troops. She was also the patron of the Artistic Youth (Tinerimea artistică) group, founded in 1901 to promote a native school in art and architecture.

    In spite of these and other similar folk-inspired initiatives, the reality of peasant life in early 20th-century Romania was defined by the legacy of the perennially unresolved land question. As King Carol I initiated Romania’s first Museum of National Art (today the Museum of the Romanian Peasant) in 1906, the country was about to be rocked by one of the most dramatic and devastating of peasant revolts in its history, an event which exposed the tension between nation-building aesthetics and the inadequacy of a series of agrarian reforms.

    Word Count: 1275

    Article version
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    Drace-Francis, Alex; “The invention of the Romanian peasant: Word and image”, in Drace-Francis, Alex (ed.); The traditions of invention: Romanian social and ethnic stereotypes in historical context (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 9-59.

    Eicher, Joanne B. (ed.); Berg encyclopedia of world dress and fashion (10 vols; Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010).

    Enache, Monica; Stancu, Valentina; Nicolae Grigorescu (1838-1907): The age of Impressionism in Romania (Bucharest: Silvana, 2012).

    Ionescu, Adrian-Silvan; Modă şi societate urbană în România epocii moderne (Bucharest: Paideia, 2006).

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    Jianu, Angela; “Women, fashion and Europeanisation in the Romanian principalities”, in Buturović, Amila; Schick, Irvin C. (eds.); Women in the Ottoman Balkans (London: Tauris, 2007), 201-230.

    Kallestrup, Shona; “Romanian «national style» and the 1906 Bucharest jubilee exhibition”, Journal of design history, 15.3 (2002), 147-162.

    Oişteanu, Andrei; “Romania’s vestmental transfiguration”, Euresis, 3/4 (2007), 317-326.

    Vintilă-Ghițulescu, Constanța (ed.); From traditional attire to modern dress: Modes of identification, modes or recognition in the Balkans (XVIth-XXth Centuries) (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge scholars publishing, 2011).

    Vintilă-Ghițulescu, Constanța; Mode et luxe aux portes de l’Orient: Tradition et modernité dans la société roumaine des XVIII et XIX siècles (Boecillo: Iniciativa mercurio, 2011).

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    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Jianu, Angela, 2022. "Dress, design : Romanian", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 23-03-2022, consulted 14-06-2024.