Fashion Statements

Tell the truth now – what do you really think when someone mentions Ukraine (apart from the drunkenness and stodgy food, stereotypes which I have hopefully dispelled)? Is it the ‘babushka’ a la Russia’s Eurovision entry in 2012? A bit dowdy, a bit dumpy, scarves, thick socks and choboty or boots (though, admittedly, those babes had awesome jewellery).

As far as I can tell, a Ukrainian performer has yet to enter Eurovision wearing the national vyshyvanka. (I will confess I have not done an exhaustive search). Vyshyvanka literally means embroidery and refers to the embroidered shirts worn by both men and women.

Traditionally, the embroidery design is region-specific and reflects different techniques and colours as, in days of yore, thread would have to be dyed using local plant materials. For example: the Hutsuls who live in the Carpathians decorate their shirts with floral patterns; residents of Sloboda in the east embroider only geometric patterns with white threads; and vyshyvanky from the Borshchiv region in Western Ukraine are known for their dramatic shirts of black thread, as a symbol of mourning in response to the killing of local men by Turks and Tartars somewhere in the historical annals.

The history of these vibrantly coloured pieces of clothing is actually more sombre and pre-dates Christianity. The embroidered patterns, usually found at the end of sleeves, collars, hems, necklines, buttonholes – in other words, vulnerable places on the garment where evil spirits could enter the body – were there to protect the wearer from evil. Even children were given an embroidered shirt after birth to protect them from evil spirits. As the embroidery was always done by women, it symbolised goodness, love and loyalty. Girls often had to embroider shirts for their fiancés before their wedding.

In more recent times, Ukrainians have started celebrating Vyshyvanka Day on the third Thursday of May each year. (Could be worth hanging around Kiev for!) This is not an official public holiday or feast day of any sort – more a flash mob holiday where Ukrainians wear vyshyvankas to demonstrate adherence to the idea of national identity and unity.

The idea seems to have really caught on! Vyshyvanky have become a feature of the global fashion catwalk in recent years. Jean Paul Gaultier was inspired by the Ukrainian vyshyvanka as far back as 2005. During Paris Fashion Week in 2015, Ukrainian fashion designer Vita Kin was featured in Vogue Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar for introducing vyshyvankas as modern Bohemian designs. The Times of London then declared vyshyvanka “this summer’s [2016] most sought-after item of clothing” and the New York Time’ advised readers to stock up on this “top summer fashion”. Suddenly it was everywhere – actresses and royalty wore vyshyvanky to the Cannes Film Festival and the Olympics.

Eurovision 2017 could be the next step in the fashion world takeover!