The Mystery Behind the
Polish American Polka Costume

by Stas Kmiec
© 1999 Stas Kmiec

For many years there has been a mystery among Polish Americans and those pursuing authentic Polish culture surrounding the popularity of the ribboned skirt costume, especially among Poles abroad. Some thought it was part of a communion outfit, others labeled it a wedding dress.

 On a recent trip to Poland, I met with noted costume and ethnography expert, Sabina Dados, a curator at The Ethnographic Museum in Lublin, and spoke with her about this costume. I had now noticed Cepelia shops in Poland were now carrying dolls and costumes of this unknown style. Where did this costume come from?

Ms. Dados informed me that the costume did have its roots in Poland, but was not an authentic regional costume. During the period of 1920-1939, prior to the outbreak of World War II, Poland was rapidly progressing toward modernization. What originated as a fashion (moda) at various functions was the presence of what was now concieved as a stylized modern folk costume.

Adopting elements from Kraków, Rzeszów, Lublin and even Góralskie areas, the woman’s costume consisted of an easily attainable plain red or white skirt (the colors of the Polish flag) with sewn ribbons, a visible “tourist vest” or “sukiennice vest” (as it could be easily found at Krakow’s cloth-hall market square), red or colored beads, a plain or embroidered blouse, a flowered head wreath, ribbons off the shoulder of the vest, and sometimes a white apron.

The costume was highly visible in newsreels and newspapers during official functions, such as when flowers were given to a visiting national or foreign dignitary. Poland fell into World War II and a heavy emigration to other countries followed. Immigrants to the United States held on to the only image of a Polish costume that they possessed, and as a reflection of their pride wore this costume to festive occasions and dances, carrying its popularity to this day.


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