Just as Ukrainian Wedding traditions vary from family to family, village to village and region to region so too wedding attire varies. Colors, embroidery patterns, fabric, application, style of clothing, head gear, jewelry, footwear all can vary. In general, Wedding colors of fabric were often brighter than regular daily clothes.
In most cultures, today’s Bride gets more attention to what she wears than today’s Groom. Bridal attire in Ukraine can be equally grandiose. So that is where we will start, with the Bride.
The clothing of a little Ukrainian girl changed when she became an adolescent and changed again when she married. Little girls often wore unbelted long shirtdresses and let their hair flow loosely. Adolescent girls had their hair braided in a single braid down their backs and wore a belted skirt over the long shirtdress. As a married adult woman, her head would be covered and as she aged, her clothing became more modest and darker.
Often both in the past and now when people dress-up for Ukrainian events, they would wear Embroidered shirts/dresses (Vyshyvanka/Вишиванка). At all formal aspects of the wedding, Vyshyvanka can be seen. The Bride and her Bridesmaids wear their Vyshyvanka when dropping off the Shyshky inviting guests to the wedding. Vyshyvanka was also worn for the ceremony in the church and the various ritual acts in the home of the bride and groom throughout the day. During Soviet times, the church wedding was banned so there was pressure to stop wearing Vyshyvanka and to switch to the more modern white dress and veil. Many villagers did not like this and would wear the white dress for the civil ceremony only. Outside of official circles, during all the ceremonies in the home, for example, they would still wear Vyshyvanka. There has been a resurgence in Ukraine of wearing Vyshyvanka on one’s wedding day as a nod to the past and an outward expression of Ukrainian heritage. Incorporating embroidery designs on a white wedding gown are other iterations of the Vyshyvanka theme.
The traditional women’s wedding costume usually consisted of a richly embroidered shirtdress or blouse, a long skirt, an apron, outerwear, an embroidered towel or woven sash as a belt, shoes, jewelry, and a bridal wreath. Each garment had to be bright and beautifully embellished but feminine and delicate at the same time.
The Bride’s shirtdress/blouse was usually prepared a long time before the wedding itself. Typically, it was handmade and hand-embroidered by the bride as part of her dowry and proof to her mother-in-law of her abilities. 30 shirts in your dowry indicated you were poor, 50 was average and over 70 wealthy. The patterns she chose often had an underlying magical element to them protect her from the evil eye and to promote happiness in her marriage. This made every shirtdress unique. Some had a vest or coat as part of their attire as well. The korsetka was a sleeveless, close fitting jacket made with rich fabrics like velvet, brocade, or silk. A keptar was a highly decorated vest made from leather or sheepskin.
The bottom half of the bride varied by region; it could be one piece, it could be a rectangle that wraps around, or two pieces that tie on the sides (zapaska/obhortka/plakhta/spidnytsia). The skirt fabric was likely woven with colors typical of that region. Red again was a favored wedding color. The sash or belt for unmarried women was tied in the front, if married your sash tied in the back or on the left side. Footwear also varied from soft soled leather slippers, to shoes and boots (postoly/cherevyky/choboty). Red footwear was often the brides chosen color.
The Bride’s jewelry was often passed down from her mother. Necklaces were not only beautiful but were believed to protect from evil spirits. Necklaces were made with natural materials – seeds, grains, shells and then glass, metal, coins and semi-precious stones were introduced. Red and shiny colors were favored as their magic promoted good health while dull color = illness. Necklaces were rarely 1 strand. Wealth was associated with how many strands you had. Six strands of coral beads could cost as much as a pair of oxen. The poorest Bride would have 2-3 strands where the richest could have a very heavy 10-15 strands. Earrings and rings played a less significant roles.
On the wedding day, the attention to the Bride’s hair was a symbol of the change to occur. There are 2 and sometimes 3 events during the wedding celebrations where a Bride’s hair took center stage. The morning of her wedding, the Bride’s single braid is unplaited by the closest unmarried male relative in a ceremony that involves singing by the Svashky (Свашки). The Bridesmaids (Druzhky) comb out her hair, covering it with butter and honey and dangle coins and garlic in it and add a crust of bread. Her hair is re-braided into a wreath on her head. Sometimes at church, the priest escorts the Bride to the icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As the priest offers up prayers on her behalf and replaces her wreath with a scarf (ochipok/namitka/hustka) that covers her hair and signifies that she is now married. Finally, that night, when the Bride arrives to her new home, her new mother-in-law and the Groom take the flower wreath off her head and undo her braided hair. They comb it through and re-braid it into a crown, no longer able to wear the single long braid down her back of her youth. The Bride now, is considered a wife and, when in public, must wear her hair covered over her braided crown which symbolizes the new status of a married woman.
The Bride’s headgear changed depending on what point in the wedding celebration they were at. Often the Bride wore a special wreath (vinok) on her wedding day. In recent times these vinky have been making a comeback in a very exaggerated form. As a symbol of maidenhood, in its round shape, gives a protective, mystical quality of strength and fertility. The wreath was made of flowers, wheat, coins, grasses, feathers, fabric, beads depending on region. In the summer, the flowers would be fresh; in the winter, they might be made of paper or cloth. Brightly colored Ribbons of silk or satin were often added to denote the festive occasion. At some point after the service, the Bride had to switch from this maidenly wreath to the matronly headcovering which could consist of a kerchief (Hustka), or an ochipok and namitka type of covering. The ochipok is a box-like form that goes on the woman’s head and then it is covered by a long rectangular piece of cloth.
Ukrainian men, by contrast, wore the same hair style and pretty much the same clothing throughout their lives, similarly to the women, their clothing became darker with age.
The traditional embroidered Vyshyvanka shirt was the centerpiece of the Grooms’ attire. The bride or his mother are commonly the ones who would have embroidered the shirt for him. Just like the bride’s top, the groom’s shirt also has elements of magic associated with it. There was the belief that all openings, the neck, chest, wrist and bottom hem areas were to be embroidered so as no evil spirit could enter and attack the body that way. Depending on what region and style of shirt the men wore dictated if the shirt was tucked in or left out.
The men’s pants were basic without much if any ornamentation and varied by region. There were basically 3 styles of pants made of flax, leather, or linen: shtany (narrow leg); sharovary (wide pants with a deep gusset); or hachi (wide leg). They were held up by a belt/sash that was woven or made of leather.
For the groom, his outerwear was of greatest significance. He might wear a vest/coat (keptar/bunda/serdak/svyta/kozukh) and then over top of that a long, heavy, highly ornamented coat or cloak called a manta. The more garments you wore and the wealthier it was believer you were as it showed you could afford all the fabric, the embellishments and labor costs to create it.
The groom’s headgear was usually a decorated hat called a shapka or kapeliukh made of straw, felt or fur. On his feet were leather slippers, boots, or shoes. He may also wear a boutonniere of flowers with long ribbons.
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A Rushnyk is a Ukrainian embroidered ritual cloth. Cloths such as these are part of many Ukrainian traditions, and figure prominently in Ukrainian weddings. Rushnyk comes from the word ‘ruka’ meaning hand. For her wedding, a bride has been embroidering Rushnyky by her very own hand to add to her dowry since she was a little girl. She has had Rushnyky at her birth, at her wedding, at all festive occasions, decorating her home and will have them at her death.
The Rushnyk is believed to have magical, spiritual powers. The act of embroidery is sacred, the symbols, patterns and colors all aid in the protective elements of the cloth. When a Bride embroiders, she sews in all the good intentions for a good groom, a healthy family, and a happy life. She will not work on a Rushnyk when she is unhappy or angry as those feelings are believed to be ‘sewn’ into the work.
The fabric used for the Rushnyk must be one solid piece of fabric. As several pieces sewn together would foretell disruptions in a marriage. When embroidering on a Rushnyk, the Bride makes sure that the middle section does not have any embroidery as the center is symbolic of God being the center of family life. To embroider on this area could bring on harm to the family.
The patterns on the Rushnyk vary as each region has its own designs. The symbols have been passed down through the generations. Many are ancient symbols like the tree of life, the goddess, animals, sun, moon, stars, flowers and other symbols from nature. Birds often represent the Bride and Groom. Abstract symbols in bands represent eternity. In most regions, the main embroidery color is red, the symbol of life, sun, and fertility.
In a Ukrainian wedding, the Rushnyk and other embroidered cloths figure prominently. The wedding breads and Korovai are reverently carried on or covered in a Rushnyk. Tables are decorated with embroidered tablecloths. The Starosty have a long rushnyk across their left shoulder that is tied at their waist to indicate their important role in the wedding. The icons carried by the Starosty and used in the blessing ceremony and at the church have Rushnyky covering them. The Bride sits on an embroidered pillow at her Divych Vechir and Wedding morning when the groom picks her up.
Two of the Rushnyky that take a main role in the wedding ceremony in the church are the Pidnozhnyk and the Binding rushnyk. The Pidnozhnyk (meaning under foot) is spread out across the aisle in front of the smaller alter, the tetrapod. In some regions of Ukraine, mothers will hide coins under the four corners of the towel to ensure the Bride and Groom will have a rich life without misery. There is a saying that wishes that the couple “may never stand on a bare dirt floor.” When the Bride and Groom are brought to the front by the priest, there is a tradition that whoever steps on the Pidnozhnyk first will be the head of the family. Most often, the bride and groom attempt to step on the towel together to ensure marital harmony. At the end of the ceremony, the bride drags the towel out of the church with her foot. Tradition dictates that when the bridesmaids follow behind the Pidnozhnyk, they are following the path of the bride and hopefully will be married next.
The priest ties a long thin Rushnyk in the Binding ceremony around the hands of the Bride and Groom as they walk 3 times around the tetrapod to signify their marital journey and the unity required for it to be a success. Brides keep and protect their wedding Rushnyky, as they encompass protective powers for the family's future.
In more recent times, especially seen in the diaspora, embroidered rushnyky appear in a variety of rainbow colors to match a wedding theme. Additional embroidered items that have made an appearance are pew markers at the church, embroidered mini pillows and bookmarks as thank you gifts (bonbonnieres) for the guests.
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