An ethnographic zone is a historical, geographical, social and cultural sphere with distinct political economy, societal behaviour and traditions, dialects and visual and material culture. Nonetheless, ethnographic regions are not carved in stone, nor do they stand as perfect isomorphic entities – they are rather constantly changing hybrids.

Administrative Map of Romania in 1930
What we’re interested in is essentially how culture was (and still is) practiced in the space of these ethnographic areas, exploring into the production of culture and the sensuous relations to the visual and material world.

No matter how far we would zoom in on an ethnographic area, differences can amount from one neighbouring village to the other — and just as well, striking similarities in folk wear can come up in areas miles apart from each other, separated by mountains and rivers and endless hills. But all of this is part of the curiosity of exploring into the folk visual and material culture of rural Romania.

In very broad historical and geographical terms, the following major ethnographic areas can be considered as a start: Transilvania, (Banat, Crișana, Maramureș are often included as part of the Transylvanian region), Oltenia, Muntenia, Moldova, Bucovina, Dobrogea, Basarabia (northern Bucovina and all of Basarabia were lost after WWII to the Soviets, with Bucovina allotted to Ukraine).

In Transylvania, given the mountainous and hilly landscape, many Țări have formed, either at the crossings of rivers, or in the depressions created by the Carpathian mountains. Țară literally translates to country — Țara Amlașului, Țara Oltului, Ţara Bârsei, Ţara Oltului (or Ţara Făgăraşului), Ţara Zărandului, Ţara Moţilor, Ţara Lăpuşului, Ţara Oaşului, and they often limit ethnographic regions. The term is infrequent in Moldova (only Ţara Vrancei and Ţara Dornelor) — even more so in Muntenia, where the only one such medieval Ţara formed is Ţara Loviştei.

Muntenia, Moldova and Oltenia have less clearly defined boundaries as a result of the mainly flatland landscape — they take regional names such as Iași, Neamț, Câmpulung Moldovenesc, or Argeș, Gorj, Mehedinți, etc. The system of administrative counties is called județ - there’s a total of 41 judete in Romania, but they rarely perfectly overlap with the namesake historical ethnographic zones, which causes many conundrums along the way.
Hungarian Minority in Transylvania — Census 2002
Furthermore, Romania has a very interesting mix of ethnicities:

The first census held in Romania after its full unification was in 1930 — 71.9% claimed Romanian ethnicity, 7.9% Hungarian ethnicity, 4.1% German ethnicity and 1.5% Roma ethnicity. The most recent census in 2011 identified 88.9% Romanians, 6.5% Hungarians, 0.3% Ukrainians, 0.2 % Germans and 3.3% Roma.

Transylvania in itself is a melting pot of ethnicities and religious affiliations — in fact, some counties are preponderantly Hungarian, such as Harghita: 14.06% Romanian, 84.61% Hungarian.

For a starter we set on exploring three main ethnographic zones in Romania — Mărginimea Sibiului of southern Transylvania, Gorj of Oltenia and Muscel and Arges of northern Muntenia.  Not only do all three together encompass a wide variety of types of Romanian folkwear — but they all organically communicate within one another, both northern Muntenia and northern Oltenia being the settling places of Transylvanian (mocani, ardeleni) shepherds crossing the mountains towards the lowlands as part of the transhumance process.  Ungurean is the term that denotes those originally from Transylvania who set up new homes for themselves (establishing ungurenești villages) across the mountains. The continuous interactions between mocani and musceleni (a generic name for Muscel area) as well as between mocani and gorjeni resulted in the creation of interesting folk art hybrids.

Mărginimea Sibiului - Transilvania

Romanian family, Săliște, Sibiu, cca. 1940. Photo credits: Emil Fischer
On the left bank of River Olt there’s Ţara Făgăraşuluiand on the right, Ţara Amlaşului — the old denomination of Mărginimea Sibiului. A series of villages (now communes) make up this land: Boița, Sadu, Tălmăciu, Tălmăcel, Răşinari, Poplaca, Orlat, Fântânele, Sibiel, Sălişte, Tilişca, Rod, Poiana Sibiului, Jina.

The name "Mărginimea” (Mărginea, Marginenimea) translates to “the edge”, “the border” — reflecting the position of the land right between the mountains and the plains and the inhabitants of this area have been called mărgineni — famed for shepherding — especially transhumant shepherding. The practice of transhumance ensured a constant coming into contact with neighboring regions, culminating with the wide-spread familiarity with ardeleni shephards across most of the southern region of Romania, some of them even reaching the farthest south-eastern parts of Romania, such as Dobrogea.

The most prominent villages of transhumant shepherds were Sălişte, Răşinari and Poiana Sibiului (where the first Union of shepherds is put together, together with the first published magazines on shepherding — one can only imagine the headlines).

However, regardless of how far away they’d stray from their homes, Mărgineni would always stay true to their origin and would never become assimilated — they would keep their traditional clothing and their local tongues.
Women would help but rarely join in transhumance traveling. With the exception of a few villages where women were directly involved in shepherding — the rest of the villages in Mărginimea Sibiului area were, by and large, left to women to run — some anthropologists even argue for conceiving of these villages as a matriarchies, as women would have utmost authority.

Historically, Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the very beginning of the 20th century. Mărginimea was regarded as a major advantageous military point by the Habsburg Empire, given its proximity with the principality of Wallachia, which was then under Ottoman sovereignty. The first Saxon colonies start settling around the 12th century, as mentioned in the first documents noting their appearance — in a sense this is the beginning of a characteristic opposition between local Romanian folk and Saxons that will characterize the interesting mix of Mărginimea Sibiului.
Marginimea Sibiului. Photo Credits - Emil Fischer, 1940cca
Șezătoare lângă fântână, Săliște, județul Sibiu. Photo Credits - Emil Fischer, cca. 1940


The folk blouses specific to the ethnographic area of Mărginimea Sibiului are quite unique in their structure and distribution of the embroidered ornamental “field” — their iconic sobriety makes them stand out.

The Sibiu traditional peasant blouse is not structured with an altiță — the most common blouse structure in some of the major ethnographic areas of Romania (Moldova, Muntenia, Oltenia) yet very rarely seen in Transylvania. Ia Mărgineană or ia de Sălişte as it is traditionally referred to, displays, in lieu of an altiță, an umăr, umeraş (literally, “shoulder”) or pui peste umăr — a thin horizontal line across the shoulder area that acts like a thin altiță.

A specific aspect of the Sibiu folk blouses is the presence of long black fabric bands sewn onto the blouse, called ciocănele (literally translates to “little hammers”) — which is why Sibiu-specific ii are sometimes called to as ia cu ciocănele.

The embroidered motifs on the sides of the sewn black bands have distinct names —whilst they can still be referred to as râuri (literally translated to “rivers”, the traditional name given to the embroideries flowing down the sleeve) they are also called pui, rânduri pe braț (rows on the arm), şiroaie (flows), umbreji, lâncețuri, etc. The râuri flow from shoulder level all the way down the puffy sleeves to the ruffles called “fodori”.

The structure of the sleeve consists in two rectangular folds of fabric — twice as voluminous compared to the folk blouses of neighboring ethnographic zones. Traditionally, it is said that the puffiness of the sleeve would indicate the wealth of the family: the puffier, the wealthier.

The colour palette is usually entirely monochromatic, defined as “chromatic sobriety”: mostly black and brown with fine golden embroideries in the olden days. The embroidered symbols cover a wide area of representations — one can identify phytomorphic symbols (plants), skeuomorphic symbols (household tools, architecture, etc) and zoomorphic symbols (animals). The most embroidered symbols are bănicei, zălute, muste (flies), lănțuse, păhărele, cârcei, struguri (grapes), trifoiul (clover), vița si frunza de vie (grapevine), trandafirul (rose). Traditionally, young girls would wear the opening of the blouse in the middle of the shirt, whereas married women, on the side.
Woman from Saliste, Sibiu, 1928 Uncredited

Lower body outfit

Initially, the full outfit of Sibiu would include a șurț or șurțe (from the german, schurz) in the front, which would cover the underskirt (poalele). However, in the 19th century the șurț was gradually replaced with two catrințe, covering the front and the rear, made from a slightly lighter hand woven woolen fabric onto which black and gold silk embroideries are applied. The frontal catrință has tassels and lace insertions on the margins which are called colți (literally, “corners” or “fangs”).

Back in the day, girls up to the age of 14 used to only wear only one șurț covering the front. Later on, in order to indicate that the girl is eligible to marry, which in Romanian is referred to as the moment of intrare in joc,  “entering the game”, they would have to wear catrințe , covering the back as well as the front.

The șurț or the catrință are held in place with a dark navy blue waistband belt, brâu, which later on, after unification, became tricoloured with the colours of Romania: red, yellow, blue.
Women spinning. Poiana-Sibiului, Photo credits - Kurt Hielscher
Tilisca, Marginimea Sibiului, Uncredited


Young girls can wear their head uncovered, whereas married women must cover their heads;

— Cârpă or pastură: a black or white head scarf, sometimes fringed, made of linen, tied in front, under the chin when not married — behind the neck after marriage.
— Velitură and pahiolul were types of headdresses worn only by married women:
— Pahiol (from hung. fatyol): often made out of borangic silk.
— Sovănelul: head scarf made out of cotton.
Woman wearing pahiol in Poiana Sibiului. Uncredited
Young woman from Rod, Sibiu- Kurt Hielscher
But the most exciting headwear by far is the broboadă, or vălitură, a white coif covered with a fine white veil. Made out of two items: vilitura and ciurel, this is one of the most complex headdresses of the area. The canvas of the coif is called “broboadă văliturii” — made out of jolt, a very fine linen fabric — usually up to 2.50m long and 2.70 m wide. The process of putting this vălitură involves a whole set of steps — including chairs, so you can imagine…
Women from Poiana Sibiului, 1928, Romulus Vuia
Woman from Poiana Sibiului, Romulus Vuia, 1923
Young girls’ hair would be cut short with a fringe, as shown in this old photo of a family from Poiana Sibiu (girl on the far right). The term — despite varying from village to village — is overall retezat roata (literally, wheel chop). With time, girls are allowed to grow their hair long — and tie it in braids.
Family from Poiana Sibiului, Uncredited

Gorj - Oltenia

Women spinning in Tismana. Gorj 1938. Photo Credits: Kurt Hielscher
Woman going to Târgu-Jiu, Oltenia, Uncredited
This ethnographic subzone has a lot of stories to tell when it comes to its local folkwear. Located at the foothills of two mountains of the Carpathian chain, Vâlcan and Parâng, Gorj was a lively place of interactions between Transylvanian folk (ungureneni) descending during transhumance as well as people from all over during the annual fairs (bâlciuri, nedeile) held in capital city Târgu Jiu, bringing in foreign traders who introduced cotton, tinsel and other new fabrics.

Moreover, the inhabitants of Gorj were constantly on the move in the search for work – especially during the dry seasons of summer, Gorjenii would travel either southwards towards the Danube, or northwards towards momârlanii from Ţara Hațegului, southwestern Transylvania – all these movements would, of course, prompt the constant borrowing, renewal and adoption of different folk clothing styles.


The “original” folk outfit ensemble specific to Gorj included the Carpathian-gathered type blouse, ia, with a thick altiță, a white or yellow încreț and râuri embroidered across the sleeve. The bell sleeve is predominant. The covering of the poale, the underskirt, would consist in either brightly-coloured paired catrințe (aprons) — the front one being referred to as fâstâc (narrow with vertical woven stripes) and the rear one, catrințoi (wider, with horizontal woven stripes) — or the vâlnic, the wrap around pleated skirt. An important source of information on the folk clothing specific to Gorj is represented by the lay paintings found in the Christian Orthodox churches of the 18th century in Gorj, depicting the founders in traditional costumes.
Romanian Family, Gorj
Sezatoare-in-tismana-MG.Vessa, 1932
The Gorj blouse is renowned for its intricate designs and bright colours. Behold, only a minuscule fraction of the variety of decorations, these are a couple of models collected until 1943 by Elisa I.I.C. Brătianu.
Gorj Decoration
Gorj Decoration
Gorj Decoration
Gorj Decoration
Gorj Decoration
Gorj Decoration
Alongside geometrical motives such as the rombul, the diamond, one finds cârlingul ciobanului (shephard’s hook), coarnele berbecului (the ram’s horns) and spicul grâului (wheat ear).

Towards the end of the 19th century two main tendencies appear — a particular type of “fashion” worn by the wealthy peasants and the intellectual elite: portul schilăresc — this was referred to as thebaroque” period of Gorj folkwear. This was first embraced by men and later on by women and its main addition was that of introducing industrial thick white woolen fabric, embroidered with black tufted chenille. The origin of portul schilăresc is allegedly attributed to the wealthy and influential local politician Dincă Schileru. Moreover, portul ungurenesc came in strong with its sober esthetics — white blouses with minimal black embroidery and black or dark violet aprons (catrinte or șurte) and was adopted by Gorj women mainly after the wars, when many would have lost their husbands, and the brightly coloured Gorj-specific folk clothing seemed inadequate.

The blouse specific to ungureni folk clothing is “ia de Săliște”, with “umeraș” instead of altita and fine ciocănele flowing down the sleeve, displaying little stylized decorations (padoghială). In addition, the collar of the shirt is commonly sown with black and yellow and the main decorative motifs embroidered are the star, the bell and the rose.

Furthermore, portul ungurenesc started spreading amongst Gorj households as the fabric of the blouses and the aprons were readily available commercially. Villages that are preponderantly ungurenesti in the Gorj ethnoghraphic region are: Polovragi, Novaci, Baia de Fier, Alimpești, Bumbești-Pitic, Bengești, Sacelu, Crasna.
Women from Dragoeni, Gorj carrying


Carpa lungă or peschir. Head scarf, around 2 meter long, at first made out of hemp and linen, then gradually out of the cotton that was commercially available at fairs. Towards the end of the 19th century raw silk, borangic was introduced into the making of the head shawls — thus, 4 meter long shawls marame became a mainstay of the outfit. Only a few women from every village mastered the delicate art of weaving borangic raw silk — from boiling the silk cocoons to approximating the number of cocoons required for producing the softest thread. To highlight the fine white embroidery (usually made with the alesături technique), it is said that the marame were dyed yellow with the help of onions or quince leaves.

Muscel and Argeș - Muntenia

Representing the northwestern part of Muntenia, both Muscel and Argeș are ethnographic areas situated at the foothills of the Făgăraș Mountains. Given their complementary history as well as their strong connection with Transylvania (Ardeal) — stronger than with the rest of Muntenia — Muscel and Arges are habitually considered together when it comes to folk art. Both Muscel and Argeș were pivotal in the history of the Principality of Wallachia (Tara Romanească): Curtea de Argeș became the capital of the principality in the 14th century and both Câmpulung in Muscel and Curtea de Argeș were home to the residences of the ruling princes over the centuries. Thus, Argeș and Muscel developed as relatively wealthy areas.

Argeș and Muscel were points of access and transition from Wallachia into Transylvania — at one point, travelers would have to pay customs duty when crossing over to Transylvania, where they would reach Sibiu county and Făgăraș county. As a result, strong ties developed between the two sides of mountainous chain — moreover, Argeș developed strong connections to its westbound neighbouring county, Vâlcea, part of Oltenia, interactions that can be noticed in the evolution of folk clothing in Argeș.

Similarly to Gorj in Oltenia, the nomadic pastoralism of Transylvanian shepherds resulted in ungurenești, ungureni settlements in both Argeș and Muscel. Different in composition, the ungurenesc folkwear is composed of the somber  Ia de Săliștea, of handwoven catrinte (aprons) worn as a pair, usually with a surț  in the front, and a catrința at the back. The interesting fact is that women’s traditional ungurenesc clothing was not assimilated in the rest of the Muscel area — like it would in northern Gorj — rather, the Muscel typical folkwear prevailed. The folk menswear of the Ungureni shephards, on the other hand, was embraced by Musceleni alike and became the norm. Nonetheless, the ongoing interaction between southern Transylvania and northwestern Muntenia is revealed by the similar terminology of folkwear and crafts, as well as the introduction of the ruffled sleeve.
Postcard of woman from Campulung Muscel - MNIR
Shepherds from Novaci. Photo by Kurt Hielscher
Muscel and Argeș specific folk clothing was embraced by the Romanian bourgeoisie and intellectuality of the mid 19th century. Both Queens of Romania — Queen Elizabeth and Queen Marie — sparked a real trend amongst the urban noble elites by always choosing a complete Muscel or Argeș folk outfits to wear at ceremonious events.
Queen Elizabeth of Romania. Photo by Franz Duschek
Queen Marie of Romania


Muscel and Argeș folkwear is very distinguishable both through its heavily embroidered ie and its flamboyant silver and golden decorated fote. While both areas developed the same outfit ansamble, Argeș , due to its communication with its Oltenian neighbour introduced the apron (catrinta) as well, worn in combination with the fota.

The Muscel and Argeș folk outfit is made out of: the blouse (ie) with the underskirt, the wrap —around skirt (fotă) the waist belt (brâu), the headwear (maramă, cârpoi, broboadă), narrower belts (bete), thick wollen socks and opinci.

The composition (making) of the folk blouse keeps the traditional key ornamental registers of an ie: all the folds of the fabric, including those of the sleeves, are gathered at the neckline (bretară, biantă); the sleeve is divided between the altiță, the încreț, and thick randuri — and it generally ends with a cuff (obinzică, brețară) rather than a ruffle (fodor); thick rauri also flow down the front side (ciupag) of the blouse. Types of embroidering techniques and particular stitches such as ales in spetează, punctul bătranesc, in rumănescuri are popular in both regions — this technique results in tufted chenille-like 3D embroidery.
Muscel folk blouse back. Exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Muscel folk blouse. Exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The everyday blouse worn at work would be handwoven with a loom while ceremonious blouses — hand embroidered. The main colours used were black and brick-red.

An established differentiation between the Muscel and Argeș folk blouses is that Muscel specific ii tend to display exclusively geometric motifs of embroidered decoration.

The most common decorative motifs are entitled the fuști, fuște — this decorative technique however takes different names according to the area — for instance, in Câmpulung it goes by brăduleți (fir tree), in a village called Nucsoara: colți (fangs).

Another motif, ciarba — the meandering spirals, serpeasca and melcu — the snail.
Photo by F.B. Florescu
Muscel blouse. Photo by F.B. Florescu


Arges Decoration
Arges Decoration
Arges Decoration
Arges Decoration


Muscel Decoration
Muscel Decoration
Muscel Decoration

Lower body

A characteristic element is fota, a covering garment worn across Moldova and northern Muntenia. Additionally, due to Argeș’ ties with its Oltenian neighbour, Valcea, a series of interactions and influences has introduced the catrința into the early Arges folk outfit together with the fotă.

The aspect of the fotă — a rectangular handwoven woolen fabric acting as a wrap-around cover-up — started off as very sober, entirely black. With time, burgundy vertical stripes were gradually introduced it became more and more embellished with hand embroideries using metallic thread (golden or silver alike). Black was still the most common colour for the woolen fabric but burgundy and blue were also embraced with time — occasionally, brides would make white fote for the wedding.
Full Muscel folk outfit. Exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Rucar. Photo by Kurt Hielscher
Wedding in Rucar. Photo Emilie R. Speek


Four main types: Broboada: Usually black and tied at the back of the neck, broboada would be worn during the working days. Stergarul — or marama: up to 4 m long and 0.5 m wide, made out of fine raw silk (borangic), marama would be decorated with geometrical or floral motifs. In some villages, the marama is placed on the head with the help of a props called legatoare (literally, binder) – these come in the shape of a textile crown heavily embroidered with floral and geometric symbols or of a tiara placed on top of the marama. A rare presence is the velitura type of headdress — presumable testimony to the tight interactions with southern Transylvania, the velitura resembles the pomeselnic specific to Tara Oltului, Făgăraș.
Marama seen from behind. Rucar, Muscel. Photo by Photo by F.B. Florescu

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