Slavic Women’s Long Sleeves are Associated with the Wings of Firebird
Bulgarian folk female costumes are a real work of art. Each region has its own style, displayed in countless variations according to the art- istry and imagination of Bulgarian woman. In the past women used to make clothes themselves, and their clothing could be read like a book: where it comes from, whether married or still maid, whether she is from a rich family, whether she is a grandmother and even what time of year it is. All this was woven into the different types of fabrics, elements, colors and embroideries as complex symbolic code that represented the woman like her business card.
One of the most curious elements in the female folk costume in Bulgaria, but also among other Slavic peoples were over-long shirt sleeves and outerwear. The shirt had a special status in the closet of the old-time Bulgarians. People said, “No shirt, no show before God” and actually per- ceived it as an integral part of themselves.
In Bulgarian folk beliefs even the world is presented as seven layer shirt with the sun, the moon and the starsattached to its lowest layer. In its two main varieties -tunic-like and barchanka the shirt was seen as the most intimate space – each girl hid and locked her shirt so nostranger’s eye could see it.
The decoration on women’s shirts was in the main colors – white, red and black, the first colors known to man since the Bronze Age. White and red represented the masculine and feminine in the world,i.e. heaven and earth in a sacred union. Martenitsa is a symbol of living life in opposition to black – the color of the afterlife. With these colors Bulgarian woman embroidered on the sleeves, bosomand hem of her shirt various floral motifs, birds, animal figures,elementsof crosses and female silhouettes, sometimes holding birds. Stylized female figures holding birds in their handswere often interpreted as mythical echo of the female goddess, guardian of life.
Bird element on traditional Bulgarian, and also on other Slavic folk shirts, hides other ancient secrets as well. Once young girls become marriage- able, on the sleeves and bosoms of their shirts alight embroidered strut- ting birds and flamboyant peacocks display their tails. On her wedding day the bride puts on a shirt with numerous bright flying cockerels with fluffed feathers or painted with gracious doves with raised wings. They believed that feathers protect from evil forces, bring rich harvest and are sign of fertility.
Bird elements of Slavic female costume remind us of the mythical image of Firebird. Fairy tales tell us about her palace at the end of the earth and her golden feathers glowing in the dark. In many myths Firebird inhabits the crown of the World Tree and guards the golden apple that grows in its branches. It is a messenger of divine will, as she has the ability to mi- grate between the world of gods and the world of humans Yav. Firebird could resurrect from the ashes like Phoenix.
In some versions the princess-frog appears as bird –the startling beauty Vasilisa the Wisest. The tale tells us how the youngest son of a boyar (nobleman) took her for wife, and all marveled at her beauty. But during the day she would put on her frog skin. At dinner time with the king, shewould play with her long sleeves, putting in the left sleeve water and in the right one the bones from the dish. When the king asked her to dance, she waved her left arm and there appeared a lake, waved the right one and white swans swam in the water. However, once the other princesses did like her and whisked sleeves they just splashed guests and showered them with bones.
In this fairy-tale motif known in all parts of the world, some researchers found the key to the secrets of Slavic long sleeves. The oldest known version of the story is the Chinese version of 300 BC., but people from more ancient Neolithic cultures, VI millennium BC, carved statues with the body of a frog, woman’s head, long braid and female deities with bird hands. In these archaic female goddesses is encoded the symbol of fertility. In Europe,since frogs, snakes and birds lay eggs they are con- sidered sacred and associated with the rebirth of nature and earth as feeding mother. In this complicated motive lies the archetype of bird wings found outstretched in Slavic and Bulgarian traditional bride robes and of a woman-harbinger of spring performing magical dance in front of the Sun-God.