As a tour guide in Romania, I share with tourists from all over the world the history, culture, and traditions of my country. It is my job, but most of all, it is my passion. I am always happy to see people eager to discover the real face of Romania and its people, and I do my best to create great holiday memories together with them.
Even though the journeys may be the same each time, every day I get to meet different people makes my job very special as each visitor is different.
Nevertheless, I have found one thing that is universal to all tourists. It is actually a basic question: “What is the best souvenir to take from Romania?” A simple question, but quite difficult to answer, given the complexity of our culture and the baggage limits of the airlines. (And I noticed that there are tourists who take this very seriously. It could be the traditional fridge magnet or a postcard, a CD of traditional music, typical food or drink, a special mug, a carved spoon, local pottery ….the list goes on. Well, let me tell you what I find to be the perfect souvenir from Romania. I have just one word for you: “i.e.” I do not think that even Google Translate can help you here, so let me give it a try: “i.e.” represents the Romanian traditional blouse worn usually by women, although there is a version for men as well.
This blouse embraces the essence of Romanian beliefs and is special for each person wearing it. Because the Romanian blouse is becoming more and more popular and being reinvented by national and international designers, I think this is the perfect moment to understand its importance and why it is a defining feature for Romanians worldwide. It’s like a Romanian version of the Scottish kilt.
The beginning: The Romanian Blouse, Henri Matisse and Yves Saint Laurent
In April 1940, Henri Matisse finished “La blouse roumaine,“ having begun the painting in November 1939. Theodor Pallady, a Romanian painter, had given him a beautiful collection of traditional Romanian blouses as a gift – which eventually inspired Matisse to create this painting and others currently on show in Paris at the Pompidou Centre’s National Museum of Modern Art. Forty years later, in 1981, these paintings by Matisse were to inspire the famous fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent to dress his models for his autumn-winter collection presentation in Paris. And this is how the dusty streets of Romanian villages became a podium for the chic clothes worn by international top models. Nice, isn’t it?
That fashion collection was later exhibited worldwide in numerous museums. In 2009, a year after the death of Yves Saint Laurent, the collection arrived in Bucharest and stayed here for two months (28 May-26 July). Thus, the fashion designer succeeded in raising the Romanian blouse – the large sleeves, the open neck, the geometric figures embroidered on the chest – to a cult object. This was only the beginning. After Saint Laurent, the Romanian blouse was later used as a source of inspiration by other fashion designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Oscar de la Renta, and Tom Ford. For instance, Tom Ford reinterpreted the Transylvanian blouse with black embroidery specific to the region, which appeared in the American Vogue Magazine in March 2012 worn by the British singer, Adele.
But what is so special about the Romanian blouse, i.e.?
This is a piece of clothing turned into pure art. Famous artists wear it; it is seen on the streets, on the covers of international magazines, and in shops. The fineness of the materials, the chromatic harmony, and the special cut were also highly appreciated by Queen Marie and Queen Elisabeth of Romania Elisabeth and Marie. They proudly wore the traditional blouse on many official occasions. “Is there a more charming picture than a Romanian woman dressed in peasant costume or a lady with a white veil on her head working on the loom?” – Queen Elisabeth used to say in Introduction to Embroidery Art written by her English friend Catherine Howe in 1910?
The magic blouse includes ancient Neolithic signs that were miraculously preserved until now. When the Romanian peasant was embroidering her blouse, she knew exactly what she was doing. With needle and thread, she was “writing” the story of her own destiny with the symbols for fertility, war, love, fragility, power, and faith. I.e., it is made entirely by hand out of cotton or borangic. One woman usually needs at least 3-4 weeks to complete the embroidery of the blouse. It is believed that the blouse is a symbolic representation of the woman who wore it, including her age, status, events in her life, and spells against evil.
So, with a proper guide, you can easily “read” and understand the story of each “ie” and probably, by extension, the story of the woman who made it. This, of course, remains one of the most difficult riddles for all men to solve . . . .
So, let’s learn together the alphabet of these ancient signs: the tree or even a few branches are the symbols for life, wisdom, or renewal. Another universal and important motif is the sunflower or the circle, which signifies Divinity and abundance: easy to understand if you realize how important the sun is in Romania, a traditionally agricultural society. Regionally, local signs were used, including water, a river, the waves of the sea, fish, corn and wheat, wheels, coins, among many others.
The colors shouldn’t be forgotten, either. These used to vary according to the region, so in mountain areas, the main colors are red, gray, and brown. In the plains, green and gold; at the seaside blue and silver; and the list goes on. Also, the young girls used to wear light colors, but as they grew older, they tended to wear darker colors according to their social status in society.
So, it is effortless to understand why “ie” is much more than a reinvented piece of clothing – it represents a symbol, a story, and Romanian history itself. The blouse became very interesting for fashion designers because it is ancient. It is perfect with beautiful proportions. It has remained unchanged for hundreds of years and is very feminine with a unique design that wraps and reveals at the same time.
These days, wearing a traditional blouse has become very fashionable. Of course, this is very good, but the old and authentic blouses are endangered because older women living traditionally are often buried wearing their blouses. According to their wishes, they can be recognized by their relatives when they arrive in the afterlife.
The Universal Romanian Blouse Day
Today we are trying to resuscitate this culture, which is why we declared June 24th a worldwide celebration: The Universal Romanian Blouse Day! Romanian communities in over 40 countries and more than 100 cities have made this a truly global event. If you are curious to find out why this specific date was chosen, you will learn that on this day, the Romanians celebrate Sanziene, an annual festival in honor of the fairies. I read in an article that it can be easily compared to the Swedish Midsummer holiday, and it is believed to be a pagan celebration of the summer solstice in June. In Romania, it goes like this: the most beautiful women dress in white and spend the day searching for and picking flowers, among which there must also be the Lady’s bed-straw, locally named “Sanziana.” Eventually, they use the flowers to make floral crowns which they wear while going back to the village at nightfall. There, they meet with their beloved ones and dance around a bonfire. Finally, the crowns are thrown over the houses, and it is believed that if the crown falls, it means that someone will die in that house. But if the crown stays on the roof of the house, then the owners of that house will have great wealth. Also, it is believed that on Sanziene Eve night, the Gates of Heaven are open, which makes it the strongest night for all forms of magic – especially love spells.
If your heart wore a coat, what would it be?
Today, I can see all over Romania women, young girls, even tourists walking around wearing “ie” – and I realized that wearing this blouse has become a national trend, not just something hip in Bucharest. And if you are in Bucharest, there are many places where you can find these blouses: in souvenir shops, in small clothing stores in the old city center, and even online.
I know that clothes don’t make the man, but in this case, the Romanian blouse is who we are, and we are very proud of it.
I once heard an interesting question that a fashion designer used to ask himself every time he created a new collection – and now I find it the perfect way to end my story. The question is: “If your heart wore a coat, what would it be?”