21 January, 2015

Tradition: an appreciation of a personal antique

Today I'd like to highlight what is unquestionably the oldest article of clothing I possess.

It's called a "kożuszek góralski", and is a natural sheepskin shearling short coat, decorated in the tradition of  Poland's highlanders (górale), residents of Podhale, the High Tatra mountains of southern Poland.  My family really loved that part of the country, and we spent many holidays there.  I learned to ski in Zakopane, and hiked my little legs off around Morskie Oko, a very deep little lake whose name translates as Eye of the Sea - cue legend of a super-long underground tunnel connecting the lake to the sea - situated in one of the most picturesque valleys in the high mountains.

Here is yours truly and my beautiful young Mom, many, many years ago, at the Old Chalet in Morskie Oko.  It was early spring, and all the young people staying at the chalet, my parents included, used the roof  of the porch as their tanning bed, the men in nothing but their briefs (I rememer that oh so well).  That hooded plaid coat that I'm wearing in the photo was made from a thick wool blanket by Mom: I get my sewing fingers honestly ;)
Look at that! I found this recent pic of the Old Chalet on the web. Amazing, eh what?! The photo of Mom and me above encompasses the porch and the left window.  I have NO idea why the chalet is surrounded by this enormous madding crowd; the place was practically deserted when we were there. 
Poland, by the way, has a very rich traditional ethnic dress culture.  If I was to compare it to anything, I'd say the country's ethnic dress is almost as diverse and instantly informative as the tartan tradition of Scotland.  However, whereas tartans are for the most part reflective of family names, the Polish folk garb reflects regional divisions.  Just take a look, aren't these gorgeous? I love that the men's outfits are every bit as delightful and ornate as the ladies'.

I claim the łowicki style (second row from top, at right) by birth,
and the krakowski (third row from top, centre) by descent
But that's just the very basics;  the regions have their subdivisions, and there are gazillions of wonderfully diverse variations on the main regional themes.

An aside:  to fully appreciate those costumes, you really have to see them in motion.  If you scroll down to the end of this post, you'll find a few links to some really dynamic, professional performances of Polish folklore.

My kożuszek dates from 1969: a gift from my mother as we were leaving for Canada (thanks, Mom!)  Though not yet a teenager at the time, I stopped growing early and was almost fully grown by then, so its fit today is just about the same as when it was brand new.

In researching this subject on the internet, I was able to find just a single very tiny icon of a kożuszek that appeared - at least at its miniscule scale, at left below - very similar to mine, at right:

 I chased the link to discover that it was a "for sale" entry from five years ago, advertised as "antique, patterned on the style used for the Polish Olympic team in the 1960s". The date certainly fits! Unfortunately, the icon's link to a larger photo no longer exists, so I couldn't verify its similarity to mine in detail.

I dug around some more and discovered - aha! - that it was at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble when the Polish team's beautifully embroidered shearling coats made a fabulous impression on the world.  The Poles didn't bring home a single medal from that event, but damn, they must've been a stylish looking lot. Ironically, they didn't bring their kożuszki home either, but flogged them locally for the to-them-astronomical sum of $200 (think Iron Curtain economics).  Good for them, I say - free enterprise rocks.

My search for a photo or video of the team has yielded only this photo of the team's coach in a very nice shearling:

Although his coat does have traditional embroidery, the embroidery is utterly unlike mine, and with the huge hood on its back, the coat itself is very atypical.  So I feel that I'm still no closer to finding out what the coats of the '68 Olympians looked like, and whether mine is at all similar to them.  It would be nice to know, if only for the historical perspective.

My kożuszek is in far from perfect condition. Apart from the scuffing of its embroidery due to normal wear and tear (yes, I did wear it for the first couple of winters here, though it really isn't adequate as winter wear in Canada's severe climate), its fur has begun to separate from the leather.  Limited lifetime of the tanning process, I suppose.  At any rate, it's no longer wearable.

I'd like to preserve it somehow, as the original workmanship was really beautiful and it's unique. My internet search showed me that other examples from that period are practically nonexistent. There are similarly embroidered sleeveless shearling vests, serdaki (see serdak góralski) , but full on long sleeved embroidered coats are rare indeed.

I'm thinking of picking or cutting the garment apart and creating a series of framed pictures of the embroidered sections.

 Much of the cross stitch on the back and shoulder trim, and some of the stitching holding the leather appliqué have rubbed away so I'd have to undertake some repair work, but that strikes me as a relatively easy if painstaking task.  Because the fur is falling out, it could perhaps be removed entirely (?) and replaced by facsimile trim made of faux shearling. Or I could use felt or some similar wooly cloth to allude to the original fur in a somewhat more abstract way; a slavish recreation may not be necessary.

Anyway, I'm throwing this idea out there to see if any of you might be willing to voice your opinion and give me some advice on how to proceed.  It's a tricky thing - on the one hand I'd like to be respectful of the item - on the other, it offers no artistic benefit nor personal joy to me while hanging in a closet.  And really, curating it in its original form is not really an option, as it has already begun to disintegrate; a process that's bound to continue.

If you got this far, here is some fab folk dancing for you that show off the folk costumes as they ought to be seen:

It starts with a song medley, but about 1m 20s into the video they begin to dance, and at 2 minutes a different set of costumes of the same region (Krakow) enters the scene.

For a unique look, not to mention pure athleticism and boy on boy competitiveness, you can't beat the dances of Podhale:
Above, the real fun begins at 2m 50s.

And finally, a dance of the central region; it begins with a very beautiful, very lyrical duet:

Thanks for reading!


  1. What a BEAUTIFUL piece of art!!! So much detail! Love this post and your history.

  2. Wow. Just...wow. I have no wisdom to impart on preserving it in some fashion...but what a beautiful garment and sweet piece of history!

  3. An amazing garment and a very informative post.

  4. Lovely! thank you for sharing lovely detailed explanations and photos.

    Rose in SV

  5. Such a beautiful jacket and definitely needing preservation. Just a thought... a large shadow box display with the jacket opened up with the worn parts concealed in folds? A friend of mine had this done with her grandmother's evening jacket, and the display also includes a picture of the grandmother wearing the jacket. A stunning piece of "art" on a wall, as well as a way of preserving family history.

  6. What a beautiful jacket and such a great post! I love the picture of you and your Mom at the chalet, and all of the history behind the jacket. I'm excited to see what you decide to do in your preservation of it.

  7. I have a coat very similar to yours that was brough to the United States from Poland by my grandmother!

  8. I have a coat very similar to yours that was brough to the United States from Poland by my grandmother!

  9. By contrast, within the Orthodox Church, such icons are seldom discussed except by experts and iconographers. Antique icons are commonly venerated by the faithful in Churches sell icon.