( Originally Published 1928 )
THE national peasant costume is in many countries gradually falling into disuse, and ugly imitations of the so-called European garb are being substituted. The movies are largely responsible; they bring to far-away corners of the earth pictures of attractive stars, and fans of both sexes discard their own picturesque peasant attire and try to emulate in dress Adolphe and Pola. So true is this that in Italy alone, one must travel to Sardinia in order to find a distinctive costume. In fact, it has become the custom in all European countries to wear the ancient national and local peasant dress only for festivals.
Climate and local products always have had much to do with the materials used. Woolen cloth, for ages a staple product in most parts of Europe, was generally used in the colder portions linen and silk, dyed in brilliant colors, were found more suitable for the south. Silk was manufactured in Italy and Spain at an early date ; the cheaper grades were procured by the well-to-do peasants for festivals. From the days of the Gauls, dyeing was a much practiced art among the peasants ; ancient manuscripts show us bright greens, blues, reds, etc. For holidays, the costumes of all countries are colorful. Tillers of the soil, however, of course found brown, gray and black more suit-able ; and such hues, enlivened with blue, maroon, green and scarlet, are used in the dress of stage peasants. In addition caps, aprons, boots and laced jerkins, all of leather, are worn by the men. For women, the costume with slight variations consists of a white cap of the shape known as "mob," a laced front bodice of cloth or velvet worn over a white shirt with puffed elbow sleeves and a round ruffled neckband, a cloth skirt with stripes of velvet or fancifully colored braid running horizontally above the hem, white stockings and low buckled shoes, frequently tongued. This ensemble has been the chief standby of costumers for all comic opera or musical comedy peasantry, no matter what the country or time, since stage dressing has been given any thought. In most details, it belongs rightfully to Switzerland and Hungary.
In dressing peasants for any date prior to the Great War, both the style typical of the nation and coloring selected to harmonize' with the mood of the scene, should be considered. White caps and kerchiefs are wrong notes in scenes of sordid tragedy. These, with aprons, should be in dull colors.
The most brilliant of peasant costumes may, for amateur productions, be achieved by investing in dull shades of cheap material from which shawls, skirts, aprons, hand-kerchiefs and waistcoats can be cut. From bright colored muslins, make narrow bands in various widths. Stitch five or six different colored rows of these horizontally about the bottoms of skirts and aprons, running stripes of cheap tinsel braid between. Buy several yards of gay cretonne in different patterns; cut out the flowers, butter-flies, birds and foliage and applique to the fringed shawls, aprons, kerchiefs and the like. If tastefully done an effective imitation of hand embroidery is given the audience.
Cloth hoods having capes attached were worn with or without caps or hats placed over them all through the Middle Ages. Tunics varied in length, but were never trained. Garterings of leather and straw fastened cloth to the legs of the peasants long after well fitting tights were common among the rich. Until a few years ago, rustics of England wore the smock frock, often of russet brown or gray with collar and wrist bands worked in color, knee breeches, rough cloth strapped to the leg between knee and ankle, and hobnailed shoes.
From Anglo-Saxon days, the wimple of white cloth furnished head covering for all peasant women until, with chin and forehead bands added, a stiffer style developed. The hair for centuries remained covered by starched linen, whether in the form of wimple, gorget, turban and chin-band, chin clout or mob cap. Aprons, offering space for effective decoration, have been common in all countries. Bone lace and embroidery, products of arts plied by the peasants for centuries, have naturally adorned their own garments.
Circular mantles and capes were the wraps of the Middle Ages. Matting raincoats have been used in many countries, including such widely separated localities as China and Japan, Hungary and Portugal. Turbans bound the heads of East Indian peasants, while the rest of the costume, for which cotton fabrics were used, was largely negligible. In Egypt and the Holy Land linen, easier to procure than cotton, was used.
In Italy, as well as France, white caps abounded in an infinite variety, every section boasting a distinctive style. The peasant women of Milan, for centuries after all Spanish authority was removed, persisted in the use of a black mantilla of cheap lace or cloth.
In Spain, also in Italy, sandals of straw shared popularity with those of leather. In Seville the usual garb is of black cloth with a black lace mantilla draped over a high comb. When leisurely promenading about the band-stands, both peasants and women of the middle class carry small fans. Young girls have adopted the "wave." Bull fights call out the gayest shawls and most beautiful of mantillas, the former being draped over the balcony railing. The bull fighters and their attendants make a kaleidoscope of colors. The long hair of the former is fastened in a knot at the back of the head; a very long sash is wound many times round the body, serving as an improvised corset. In "Blood and Sand" the winding of Otis Skinner's sash by his attendant afforded an entertaining scene. Ball trimming is much used on all parts of the costume—hat, bolero, knee pants, sash ends and garters being so decorated. The modern peasant is noticeable only because of his hat, a black affair, round of crown and brim, and a sash, often of red, about his waist.
Lace, bandings of bright braid and many buttons, appeared on the costume of French peasants, especially those of Brittany. The smock superseded the more colorful attire. Long cloth capes were much used by men ; even schoolboys playing on the streets of Paris wore them.
The clothes of the Russians, Hungarians and Bulgarians have many points in common; the high wrinkled leather boot, round fur caps often with square crowns, and long coats flaring at the knee. The Russian blouse, belted and worn over loose trousers tucked into the high boot, is the typical male costume.
The Turks are fast discarding the national costume.
Trousers and veils are disappearing, and bobbed hair is quite openly flaunted—largely Gloria's fault !
The high black hat, shaped like that of Mother Goose, is resurrected by the Welsh for festivals. The Irishman's "stovepipe" drooped about the brim, its band a convenient place to hold his clay pipe; a tail coat, knee pants, striped stockings and a shillalah completed the costume. Bare-footed women wore small shawls crossed on the bosom and tied at the back; their petticoats often were of red.
The male costume of Holland was chiefly remarkable for enormous trousers, direct descendants of the Flemish "slops" of Shakespeare's day. A double-breasted vest worn over a full-sleeved shirt shared popularity with a short jacket; buttons were used as decoration. A tasselled cap resembling a Victorian nightcap was much worn, also a round cap of fur. The women's caps were extremely fascinating, being of lace wired out in curving wings each side of the face. A headdress of gold wire, balls and discs can still be encountered in out-of-the-way places.
The most picturesque peasant of the New World is the Mexican in his high peaked hat with wide rolled brim, his Spanish bolero, sash, and colored handkerchief knotted about his head. A mantle or blanket is draped like a toga about the body. This frequently serves as his bed, to which he retires at any hour of the day or night, with an alley for a bedroom. The large hat is still worn, even if the costume consists only of trousers and shirt of modern cut and a blanket. The woman wears any variety of skirt and blouse, but over it she places the rebozo, which is usually of dark blue or black cloth and about two yards in length. This covers her head and shoulders and one end is flung across the chest and over the left shoulder, completely covering whatever she carries, whether it be baby or market basket.