TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. Juli 2012

Sektion 8.5. The Urbanity of the World and the Dividing of Cities
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Mariana Neţ (“Iorgu Iordan – Al. Rosetti” Institute of Linguistics, Bucharest, Romania)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

In the 19th Century Bucharest

Lorenta Popescu (Romanian Academy Library, Bucharest, Romania) [BIO]



As early as 1800, the Romanian Principalities, Wallachia and Moldavia, with their capitals, Bucharest and Jassy, underwent radical changes under the influence of the prestigious Western World.

The cosmopolitan society in the Romanian countries kept a keen eye upon what happened in the technologically-advanced foreign countries at the time. The century of the cities offered both capitals the opportunity to start their modernization from mere trade towns up to systematized cities. This implied a new architectural, industrial, economic and cultural approach apt to serve a concentrated structure functioning in a limited area like that of a city. Bucharest, which was to become the capital of Romania in 1862, acquired a new identity, full of contrasts marked both by an old patriarchal way of life and a new dynamic bourgeois style. The flexible character of the people turned the whole process easier and the city experienced a most original and flamboyant dimension out of which a strong urban society emerged. As the costume had acquired an Oriental style since the 16th century, at the turn of the 18th century it was high time young noble people borrowed the new German clothing, as they would call it, in order to synchronize with Europe.

The presence of many merchants, from the Orient and the Occident as well, ensured an affluence of articles from both areas. All the foreigners who journeyed through the Principalities were fascinated by the strange mixture of costumes and manners, nowhere else to be encountered as such. Memoirs and letters have been of much help in reviving their miraculous vanished world.

The costume schism in the 14th century Occident changed the concept of human corporality. The outcome was a shorter male costume, more adjusted to the body, cut upwards down and buttoned. Thus, the old cultural order was discarded and was followed by a state of co-existence between old habiliment patterns, kept as such in domains like religion, law and university practice, and new patterns considered of a more “sensualistic” (Bădescu 2003: 177) orientation in social action with a higher concern for human shape. Although the change in the axis was visible in the military vestment, for instance, in the then Romanian countries, the society did not have the necessary time to adopt the new style when the Phanariote superstructure imposed its cultural matrix. Thus, the influential status group, as it is called in sociology, which was made up mainly by famous aristocratic families, re-orientated our society towards the Levantine universe with its hierarchy and established customs.

For an optimum communicative interaction, clothes represent a non-verbal language which can nuance, consolidate, authenticate or distort the verbal message. The space of a city is a fundamental semiotic experience for social actors. It induces specialization, creates civic identities, forms separate proxemic territories, rigorously codified, distinguishing hierarchies out of people’s behaviour. Density causes specific dynamics and solidarity, an ethno-cultural estrangement and syncretism. This was obvious in the way people dressed. Oriental rich garment, concealing the body, had been playing a significant role in marking ranks and social strata. The dress, a sign meant to express and to impress, to hide and disclose, a sign of polarization typical to urbanity, was adroitly handled to answer the historical and political circumstances. The Phanariote "interregnum" (Bădescu 2003: 177) pushed us to the "periphery" of the empire just like the Occidental capitalist metropolis would throw us to its “suburbs” (Wallerstein 1974: 147) two centuries later. In spite of all obstructions, the Romanians developed an original formula capable to resuscitate many common elements in order to cope with the modern European conjuncture of the 19th century. The imperative assertion of a new type of society created a reformist urge, even in the most conservatory segments, that the process, sometimes dramatic, constructed a new social paradigm. In a few decades the whole society turned Occidental.

For a long interval of time, prolonged even up to the late 60’s, main basic pieces in the upper class men's old array reminded liturgical vestments in name and cut. Ostentation and prodigality governed boyars’ concern. Experts in Romanian costume archaeology, Al. Alexianu and Adrian-Silvan Ionescu identified and described a few basic pieces of vestment in their works. We have noted a few exeamples starting with the ANTERIU, a collarless, long loose robe, buttoned from the waist up and worn over a long shirt, usually tightened by a fine cashmere shawl worn as a belt called TAKLIT, both compulsory items for any boyar. Other famous items were the FERMENEA, a fur-bordered waistcoat to cover the upper anteriu, made of gold embroidered velvet just like the long white CAFTANS and the DJUBEA, a precious sable-collared great coat. Large red SHALVARS were used for trousers and MESHI or MESTI, heelless soft leather boots were worn in adequate slippers. But what amazed mostly was men's head gear, the ISHLIK, a cap of a huge bulbous form. In 1818, William Wilkinson, an English diplomat, wrote about the Romanian noblemen: "When walking out, the first and most striking object that meets the eye of a stranger is the enormous balloon-shaped Moldavian cap, or calpak, of an appearance so unwieldly as to seem ready to annihilate the person who has the courage to move under such an oppressive burden. They are, however, not quite so formidable being in reality very light, made of pasteboard, and covered with grey fur, which, I believe, is generally lambskin from the Crimea.” (Wilkinson 1820: 81). This most singular article had an important role to play in archontology, through colour and form. It had to have strict dimensions in circumference which, if exceeded, “the wearers were subject to decapitation” (Ionescu 2006: 192). Another more informal item was the TARABOLOS or the CHALMA, a sort of turban of Indian cashmere. In fact, the gentlemen’s wardrobe exhibited, for a long period of time, a struggle between the above-mentioned traditional social symbols and the desire for more comfortable garments able to allow natural movements. Entertainment and balls succeeded one after another in spite of a difficult economic situation of the country. The Romanian high-life was livelier than ever. All the aristocratic families, many of them of foreign origin, had a zest for enjoying life. Urban life, with its attributes, allowed rapid gatherings at worldly events, occasion to display expensive garments and jewellery. The British painter, Sir Robert Ker Porter, left a description of a ball in Bucharest in 1820. He noted: "The general costume was Turkish, and of every-coloured brocade, embroidered and be-furred; so far all was well, till the huge Valachian cap turned the whole to the ridiculous. It is of a pumpkin form, nearly three feet in circumference and of an equally enormous height. The material, a grey silvery Bucharian lambskin with a tassel on top to assist the wearer in taking it off when he means to salute an acquaintance. The little appendage is green with every person, excepting royal family, and they have it white. The cap of the lower orders is of the same shape, but not quite so large; and a square cushion covered with dark cloth is its huge crest; in fact, all these people appear so top-heavy, that it is painful to look at them after the first risible impression of the absurd passes away." (Ker Porter 1822: 785). Documents attest that ranks including ministers and courtiers of the ruling prince were allowed to wear long beards, bright colours, expensive furs and huge caps. More popular furs and textures, darker shades were recommended for the lower hierarchy, beards forbidden. The Greeks of Phanar were educated in European universities, they were conversant with several foreign languages, therefore they could be entitled Dragomans in the Ottoman Empire court staff. Their elegance was imposed as a mark of social status by the Sultan himself in an investiture ceremony when they received the CABANITZA, a serasir (a fine golden textile) with a sable collar mantle, the GUDJUMAN, a cap of sable topped with a white cloth, white feathers on the right side clipped in a jewel called SURGUTCHI.

Generally speaking, men's large clothes caused their movements to slow down and that explained why most of these boyars used to spend the day on Turkish sofas, receiving guests, drinking coffees, smoking nargiles (hookas) or chibuoques. In the afternoon, they used to go to promenades to the famous gardens of the city, the Herăstrau or the Băneasa. Many carosses built at Vienna, driven by gilded Arnaoutsi (boyars’ armed guard), could be seen in the streets of Bucharest those days. In the evening, these aristocrats paid visits to one another where they talked, smoked, attended concerts and gambled. The balls, organized on a regular basis, included European dances like waltzes, Polish mazurkas, quadrilles, cotillions, polkas etc., besides the Romanian horas. “The impatient dancers”, wrote Ker Porter, ”were on the floor in a moment. The huge caps of the boyars were thrown off; their splendid pelisses followed the same fate; and each former inhabitant of such panoply of vast magnificence, appeared suddenly by the side of his intended partner, in a smart tasty jacket of red, grey or other colours, fancifully embroidered. This tighter vest gracefully fitting the shape did not mingle ill with the more flowing drapery of the skirt below, which was bound round the middle by a splendid shawl; neither was any part of this easy dress discordant with the elastic movements of the dance” (Ker Porter 1820: 789). Modernization meant less formal outdoor garments, new materials resulted from the industrial revolution machine performance and daring body-shaped attire. The century-long RIDING COAT, sometimes called GEROCK, under the German influence, or the democratic JACKET in various forms and materials, besides overcoats, topcoats and great coats, pardessus, ulsters, cloaks bearing special names as SPENCER, CHESTERFIELD, RAGLAN, MCFERLANE, ALBERT, NORFOLK etc., came in after many fore-mentioned pieces had come out. Sartorial artists produced shirts with higher and tighter collars able to hold bulky neck wear which made heads immovable. Vests exposed gorgeous materials and buttons. Waistcoats, tokens of useful guidance for fixing the time of their make due to significant details like type of collar, of lapel, number of pockets, lining, padding, sleeves, were always in vogue as dress regulations imposed. Leg wear, ranging from breeches to pantaloons, knickerbockers, trousers, cossacks, extended their use following the fashionable style. One could be labeled unfashionable or ultra-fashionable according to the construction of this highly stylish article of clothing. Head wear were most spectacular, although democratic, as no respectable person could go downtown without a hat on. Hats could be tall, that is toppers, called TZILINDRU or with a round crown hat, called MELON or with a dent in the crown called HOMBURG etc. Rigid straw hats, CANNOTIÈRE and PANAMA and many types of caps are said to have irrefutably damaged the age-old symbol of social rank. Accessories like umbrellas, light bamboo canes, walking sticks were compulsory to any man of urbanity just like whiskers and moustaches or Imperials. Neck wear as cravats, scarves, stocks made an irresistible appearance of a gentleman. Foot wear as TALL BOOTS, GAITERS, HALF BOOTS had a quality which testified a certain well-being hardly concerned with utility. One can sense in all these elements wealth, moral, physical, aesthetic grounds.

But this opulent era reached peak in female fashion. The first attempts to change the costume belonged undoubtedly to Romanian rich women. Ladies' garb auspiciously combined the Oriental richness with the European fashion. Women had not conquered yet the public space which was accessed through their family's name. This was however an advantage in acquiring freedom of choosing and adopting a modern look. “The Code of the Civil Dress” (1870) indicated the right demeanor, criticized extravagances and set rules to educate the public taste. For the boyars, the Oriental costume certified their rank and position in the administration, it was a matter of policy and they continued to make use of it long after their ladies and children had adopted the European style. However, Romanian women made an institution out of the TSCHEPKEN, “a jacket of fine cloth or velvet, with slit sleeves and rich embroideries of gold hem, chest and back” (Ionescu 1999: 183), embroidered with gold bullion thread accompanying flacketing crinolines. BOURNOUSES, PELERINES of all cuts gave amplitude and style to women’s garderobes. They still wore BASHLIK or TAPELIK, TURBAN or URMUZ with marabouts or egrettes as head wear, richly adorned with diamonds, pearls and other precious stones, fastened with FULYAS and PAFFETAS (gold brooches set in jewels), all exhaling persistent Asian perfumes. Fabulous wardrobes belonged to rich ladies in the “protipendada”. They used to order them abroad or to famous Romanian tailors and milliners. Fortunes were spent on showy dresses meant to be worn at numerous carnivals, masquerades and charity balls. Serials like La Voix de la Roumanie, Le Journal de Bucarest, L’Independence Roumaine and others would present such events under special headings held by well-known mundane chroniclers such as Ulysse de Marsillac and Claymoor. The atmosphere of conviviality was maintained by experiencing new gastronomic, musical, literary tastes or aping behavioural patterns. Conversations about niceties of fashion and slander were compulsory ingredients for young ladies attending balls. On special occasions Romanian ladies would wear folk costumes encouraged by Elisabeth, the consort of Carol I, King of Romania.

Anyhow, modern ladies possessed “morning and afternoon dresses, outfits for visiting, for outings in town or to fashionable promenades, evening gowns for theatre, concert and opera, family or official parties, dinners and balls, outfits for the spa and the countryside, for wedding or mourning. Hats, gloves and parasols were required for outdoor wear as fans, lorgnettes, long gloves and small evening nécéssaires (châtelaines) were for balls and theatre.“ (Adrian-Silvan Ionescu 1999: 183).

High-waisted Directoire or Empire dresses and many other dress styles kept appealing to fashionable ladies of the time with low décolletages, rounded, square or V-shaped, covered with mantles fit for oversized crinoline skirts. The supreme product of the prevailing taste, called MALACOFFS, which continuously changed shape from hemispheric to oblong and elongated, draped at the back in a bustle or with long trains were enthralling. A lavish of woolens and fancy materials flooded fashion. Bewildering blouse sleeves had a variety of forms, voluminous in the case of BOUILLONĖS, à la ZOUAVE and à GIGOT ones. Hats, from bonnets with mentonnières tied under the chin in the 40’s and 50’s to berets or smart toques or even to alarming huge-brimmed hats at the end of the century full of ribbons, fruits, flowers, leaves, butterflies, jewelled pins, were attributed popular or historic names. Ravishing accessories like Jaquemart gloves, fans, fur muffs, boas, ponderous watches, astounding earrings and bracelets would complete a coruscating wardrobe. Foot wear consisted of leather boots, latched in front, and leather or satin shoes. It is to underline the employment of separate masses of colour for the upper and lower halves of the female dress. As for the materials used, there was a multitude from muslins, cambric, poplin, satin, cottons, crape, nankin, plush, velvet, cashmere, merino, silk, brocade, tulle, batiste, barege, gauzes, organdy etc.

Artists, a number of dandies, contributed to the modernization of vestment imprinting their original personality and fantasy to counterpoint the general tendency to uniformity. Stereotype cuts and similar materials did not allow marking signs between social classes. It was, therefore, the tailor’s ability to adapt the patterns to each person’s manner of dressing. This tableau of the Romanian urban and urbane society is meant to outline a unique phenomenon of a rapid reconfiguration under the restructuring influence of a highly esteemed area at the time, the Occident, in spite of the elements of the substrata with a profound significance in the coming events. Important fashion centres radiated crossing influences upon smaller countries contributing thus to their massification. From the inflexible code of the early days of the century, fashion arrived at a wide expression by the end of it. The costume defining the local identity and the morphology of the space, the traditional-conventional scheme, the indoor activities and the mobility in a carriage-culture world were replaced by a continuously simplified sameness in clothing unable to offer many elements of individuality. This is an example of the force of the collective will to define new cherished concepts in order to absorb, integrate and express modern mentalities in public life.

Foreign models highly contributed to the construction of this ample plan which grounded a Romanian institutional system. International clothing articles acted, in this case, as a civilizing principle able to add identity and spiritual freedom to the masses ready to become active factors in a new world.



8.5. The Urbanity of the World and the Dividing of Cities

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For quotation purposes:
Lorenta Popescu: In the 19th Century Bucharest - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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