The Romanian Blouse, IA, its Story, History, and Symbology

The Romanian blouse, ia, is the fruitful outcome of a millennial history and rich tradition. Woven in codes. Ia, this Romanian embroidered peasant blouse also known as la blouse Roumaine, is the acclaimed symbol of the Romanian nation.

Visual patterns representing an unwritten knowledge and assiduous hand crafting seep like bygone scents in our wireless world. Welcome to the Romanian blouse, ia, a highly visual blog post for a trendy fashion symbol.

Read on and I’ll tell you it’s history, I’ll explain a symbol or two, and we’ll even glimpse into its future – as its presence in art, as portrayed over centuries, predicts.

The Romanian Blouse, IA, its Story

The hemp’s palmate leaf reaches for the sun to harnesses it’s energy. It locks the heat of summer and the rushing of rainstorms in it’s green body. Harvested, it’s lithe shoots are laid to rest. The energy within concentrating, simmering to an essence. Its parched body a mere illusion. Stubborn hemp, can’t be rushed. Respect nature, it teaches still.
And then, when the time is right, the shoots are ready to be beaten… used to be done by hand… to get rid of shives (or hurds, the hard outer layer). And combed. So that the fiber can emerge… Slow, patient process. Respect nature.
Only then can the fiber be pulled apart, by hand. It shares its core energy harvested during summer among a myriad of thin strands. Long ones are best, sorry hemp. Life’s not fair. So let’s comb you some more… Looks like a mere tangle, pulled and stretched. Silkier and smoother though. Holding the last of the sunlight on its skin.
Then washed it is, pure human arrogance. The subdued golden shades paling into milky-white. Pulled again into hair-this string.
Then, only, weaved to cloth.

The sleeves of an ia sprout from its bodice like the branches of a tree hugging the Heavens. Its colors are rooted in the purest snow covering the Carpathians; in the fleshy beets or the bark of plum trees (red); in the golden layers of an onion (orange); in the gentleness of dandelions (yellow); or in the walnut bark (black). While the inspiration for its patterns comes from life, its symbols reflecting the brilliance of a blue sky, the hopes of a young heart in summer, and the prayers of a mother.

The Romanian Blouse, Ia, a Historical Timeline through Art

This is the Romanian folk shirt, ia, its roots dipped in ancient folk tales. A cultural will left by the first inhabitants of this land. How deep and how far back? As far back as the Cucuteni culture (5500 BC – 2750 BC), some specialists in Romanian folklore say – Cucuteni culture spread over the north-eastern quarter of today’s Romania (historical provinces of Bucovina, Moldava, north-east Transylvania, and part of Maramures).

Symbols of Cucuteni culture are recognized in the pattern hand-sewn in the Romanian blouse to this day.

And as far back as the Bronze Culture (3300BC -1200/1100BC) – geometric designs on pottery items and idols are similar with what we admire today on a Romanian blouse, ia.

Art is an extraordinary first-hand source for historical events as well as the life of everyday people. So what we do know about the evolution of the Romanian blouse, ia, we know from art, at least for the next thousand year.

If intangible proof is what you need, then notice the Roman occupation of Dacia, 106AD, the Dacians’ silhouettes carved on Trajan’s Column and their attire: collarless blouses with gathered necklines and wrap-around skirts worn by the women, and knee-length, belted shirts worn by the men:

(Basorelief image source Trajan’s Column.org)
The Dacians, these ancestors of Romanians who lived two millennials ago, were first and foremost a spiritual culture.
Similar basoreliefs can be admired on Tropaeum Traiani (Trajanic Trophy), a monument built in 109 in Adamclisi (today Dobruja, Romania) to commemorate Roman Emperor Trajan’s victory over the Dacians, in the winter of 101-102.

The Romanian Atheneum of Bucharest has a breathtaking fresco inside. It depicts 25 main events from the history of the Romanian people, and although it was painted at the end of the 19th century by Costin Petrescu, we can still catch a glimpse at the life and attire of the masses:

Romanian Atheneum Fresco, Scene 7 - Romanian blouse, ia.
The Establishment, the Romanian peasant prepares his tools, the box and the ax.
Romanian Atheneum Fresco, Scene 7 – Notice the woman standing, wearing a Romanian blouse, ia.
The Establishment, the Romanian peasant prepares his tools, the box and the ax (11th – 12th century AD).

Further in art, we see the Romanian attire as depicted by the Vienna Illuminated Chronicle, a 14th century medieval illustrated chronicle from the Kingdom of Hungary, a source for the cultural history of the Late Middle Ages.

Vienna Illuminated Chronicle 14 century, The Posada Battle, source Wikipedia

The scene depicts the Battle of Posada, 9-12 November 1330 (a long battle for those times) between Voivode Basarab I of Wallachia and the invading army of Charles Robert of Anjou, king of Hungary.
The Romanian Vlach warriors ambushed and the 30 000 soldiers of the invading army by rolling down rocks over the cliff edges in a place where the Hungarian mounted knights could not escape, nor could they climb the heights to fight the attackers. (Image Wikipedia)

The Romanian army, cavalry, foot archers, and local peasants, only a third in numbers, won.

Over the following ha;f a millennium the Romanian territories, first lands and then principalities, knew (and fought off) the influence of the surrounding powers: Byzantine and Ottoman in Wallachia, Byzantine, Polish and Ottoman cultures in Moldova, and the Hungarian and Ottoman Empires in Transylvania. Thus, the high classes, the ones mainly depicted in art, would have adopted the new fashion, as well as the one of the west… While the masses, yes, they would have persevered and made ends meet. And keep the Romanian fashion, ia, alive.

Middle 19th century: Constantin Daniel Rosenthal paints Revolutionary Romania, portraying the 1848 Romanian Revolution (there is a gorgeous story behind this – some other time).
Theodor Aman, in his painting The Union of the Principalities depicts the 1859 union between two of the three historical provinces of Romania, Wallachia (in blue) and Moldova (in red). A similar duo is part of the circular fresco painted inside the Romanian Atheneum.
(Image source Wikipedia)

Still 19th century, Romanian painter Nicolae Grigorescu: Peasant Woman Spinning and Peasant Woman from the Mountain. (Image source Wikimedia):

Stepping into the 20th century, more Romanian painters: Francisc Sirato, Peasant Women from Dolj, Ion Theodorescu-Sion, Camil Ressu Hora (Dancing), Dumitru Ghiata:
(Images source Wikiart).

After the Great Union of 1918 the Romanian blouse, ia, became the visual symbol of national unity for all the Romanians, this one item of the folk costume being a visual common denominator for all the historical provinces of Romania.

Marie Queen of Romania in her garden at Bran Castle (1920 -1947) and The Queen of Heights, Smaranda Brăescu, Romanian parachuting and aviation pioneer (1897 – 1948) wearing a traditional ia from Argeş (notice the shimmer of the metal thread):

Apparently Paul Poiret, pre-WW1 Parisian fashion designer, was dazzled by Queen Marie’s Romanian folk attire and promoted it in its designs.

Thus, in the first half of the 20th century Henry Matisse paints La Blouse Roumaine, The Romanian Blouse:

1940, Henry Matisse, La Blouse Roumaine, The Romanian Blouse, ia, source Wikiart
1940, Henry Matisse, La Blouse Roumaine, The Romanian Blouse, ia, source Wikiart

In addition to these painters who immortalized the Romanian blouse, ia, I think I ought to mention Nicolae Tonitza, Camil Ressu, Ion Theodorescu-Sion, Francisc Șirato, and Dumitru Ghiaţă – more great Romanian artists also inspired by this classical piece of folk costume.

Late 20th century and into the 21st century the Romanian blouse, ia, strides… Yves Saint Laurent was the first designer to introduce the Romanian blouse in his collection in 1981. Oscar de la Renta followed, then Jean Paul Gaultier, and Adele in 2021 in an ie designed by Tom Ford, Kenzo, Anna Sui, Agatha Ruiz de la Prada.

“A Romanian blouse does not belong to any period. All the peasant clothes are passed down from century to century without going out of fashion.”

Yves Saint Laurent

The Romanian Blouse, ia, its Design and Symbology

A tree whose branches reach for heavens, a cross, a prayer, this is the shape and the symbol of the Romanian blouse, ia. Started as a full shirt, knee-length, it shortened to the hips and, as time folded, it wrinkled around the neck, the folds thus formed conferring the top certain gentleness, like the soft rhythm of a local Doina song . Why, to balance the joyful sleeves, bouncing over the shoulders, their fullness collected, like a rivulet in spring, at the wrists.

And then, the embroidery slowly developed.

Different designs for each ethnological area of Romania, designs that express a social status, a special occasion or a religious event, the needle work on the Romanian blouse, the ia, is a beautiful language spoken by few.

Millennial and cosmic symbols:

  • the life-giving sun (as a rosette, a spiral), symbolizing life and perpetual movement.
  • the circle, representing the sun as well as renewal and nature’s rebirth,
  • stars as a source of light and finding the right path.

More symbols, some inherited from Romanina’s Dacian ancestry, some born later, of Christian origin, and others – inspired by flora and fauna – together with their meaning are:

Basil for love and bounding lovers.

Bell flowers announce spring, as joyful and incredible as its arrival is after a heavy winter. Thus, wearing an ia decorated with bell blowers is auspicious, especially when one hopes for good news.

Clover with four leaves, for abundance and luck.

The cross, for spiritual protection and the perfect balance, perhaps stitched over the chest, to protect the soul and the heart.

A cross inside a circle, or the all seeing eye – also for protection against evil spirits as it watches all around, all the time.

Circle, symbolizing the passing of time, seasonal cycling passage and regeneration. It make sense why wearing a ia with embroidered circles after a difficult moment in one’s time, as a source of strength and wisdom, is desired.

The comb, as the line between good and evil.

Diamonds, their peaks /\ symbolizing mountain tops, while their dipping V stand for hidden secrets found below, but also fertility.

A fir tree branch for the central axis of the earth, its core.

Flowers symbolize fleeting beauty, femininity, vitality and youth. Butterfly, a pure soul.

The pine cone and deer antlers stand for growth and longevity as the mountains are a big part of Romania’s landscape and major resources are found here, home-building materials, food, but are also perceived as a barrier against invaders.

The ram‘s horns stand for power, strength – used for protection.

Rooster – protecting against evil spirits and bad spells, since he announces the victory of light over darkness each day.

The snail (the spiral in its shell) and the spiral are symbols for birth, rebirth, fertility, life cycle, the movement of constellations on the sky, and evolution. Thus, young brides would wear ii (blouses) embroidered with these symbols.

Stars connect one with the heavens and divinity. Wearing an ia with stars grands one wisdom and helps her find the right path.

The tree, sen as the tree of life, symbolizes one’s roots, the spiritual connection with the Heavens, resurrection and immortality.

The vine and grapes are a nod at the Dacian cult of Dionysus, but also to eternal life and vitality.

Water streams are a symbol for the passing of time,

The wheat represents wealth, prosperity, and peace.

Tradition advised the pregnant woman would often wear a stalk of whet in her shirt, to bring into the world a healthy, strong baby.

The wolf’s fangs are often placed along the hem of the blouse, for protection – the Dacians saw themselves as daoi, descendants of wolves.

The zigzag line is a symbol for sky and time.

The way the Romanian Blouse, ia, is made

Cut as a cross, its symbols are meant to generate positive energy and redirect it for the benefit of the one who wears it. Thus, the embroidery on the chest and sleeves is meant to channel the positive energy downwards through the body, for strength and protection.
And the cloth on which these symbols dance is sacred, as it was born through pinning and weaving, an activity over which songs, heartfelt words, and prayers would have been whispered.

Sewn on fabrics such as cotton, flax, hemp or silk, the Romanian blouse has motifs dedicated to the important events that mark a human life: weddings, baptisms, religious holidays, and even the sequence of a marital status (married women wear modest colors and patterns, while the youngest members wear bright, colorful shirts.)

With needle and thread, the story of one’s destiny is written on cloth: love, fertility, faith, luck, hope.

It takes three to four weeks for the completion of a Romanian blouse’s embroidery.

Moldova Oltenia Valcea Bihor Oas - each ethnographic region of Romania has a different tradition
Moldova Oltenia Valcea Bihor Oas – each ethnographic region of Romania has a different tradition

Etymology, ia

It is assumed that the name of the Romanian blouse comes from the Latin tunicae lineae, which means thin tunic worn directly against one’s skin.
Yet Nicolae Iorga, Romanian historian and writer, believes that the name of the blouse comes from inia, derived from the name of the linen obtained from the flax plant (in in Romnian)from which the shirt was initially made.
Ia holds different names in the various ethnographic regions of Romania: ie in Oltenia, shirt in Muntenia, Banat, Moldova, Dobrudja, ciupag in Bistrita, spătoi in Bihor.

Noticed that ia (as in the blouse) or ie (as in blouse) are both diphthongs (a combination of two vowels). Know that the plural is ii, another diphthong.

I took these pictures in my yard. I thought they will aid illustrate the difference between some of the different ethnographic areas of Romania and their national clothing, including ia..

Moldova clothes tradition, ia

In Moldavia (NE of Romania), the ia is typically pleated on the shoulder. Embroideries are made in best loved colors: red, black, white, and green.

In Oltenia (SW of Romania) black designs often contrast with multicolored patterns. Beads are used only to mark a higher social status. In this case the ia is sewn for, not by, a teacher, a lord’s wife, or a clergyman’s wife.

Below: traditional Romanian clothes from Oltenia and Valcea (N of Oltenia):

Traveling to the very north of Romania, to Bihor (in NW) and Oaș (further north).
Notice the men’s typical round hat. In Oas the hat is called a clop.

24 June, the Universal Day of Romanian Blouse, #ZiuaIei

On June 24, respectively the Feast of Sânzâiene, Romanian all over the world celebrate the International Day of the Romanian Blouse.

Today, the Romanian blouse, ia, is more than a peasant item of clothing , is unequaled art, treasured and admired. And it joins the material dowry of a nation, with its spiritual inheritance.

Folk art straddles the traditional and the practical, baring witness to the spirituality and the daily life of a community. Symbols depicted in art can be admired in seasonal traditions such as sacred egg painting, everyday clothes (such as the renowned Romanian ia here), iconography and woodwork, and also traditional folk pottery.

As always, discover my books on Amazon, and my latest book, Transylvania’s History A to Z:

21 Replies to “The Romanian Blouse, IA, its Story, History, and Symbology”

  1. I’m pretty much sure this is a well-written, informative post, but your site can’t be reached for now. 🙁 I’ll be back.

  2. I could reach it meanwhile. Now I can read the text, but I can’t see the pictures. Good thing I’m somewhat familiar with the Romanian representation of ia in paintings. And I googled the Henri Matisse one. Wow! I learned new things today. And how clever of all those French designers to draw inspiration from our national ia. I’m no longer surprised that I saw a picture of Meryl Streep donning a… boho blouse – as it was named in the article, in fact, it was very much a Romanian ia.

      1. Oh, so you remember the article. That was quite a surprise back then, but not anymore. If you say our ia inspires famous designers…

  3. One refresh later I could see the pictures as well. 🙂 What a capricious day! It was quite a surprise to see you wearing that interesting black ie. Interesting because black is an unusual color for it.

  4. I really enjoyed your trip across Romanian tradition and history with all your explanations of the various symbols, where I met again our rooster, Patricia, and its victory of light over darkness! Many thanks and all the best:)

    1. So glad you enjoyed this, Martina. Thank you!

      Ah, our friend 🙂 By the way, my neighbor rooster still announces the imminent arrival of a daily dawn 🙂 and a few other divisions of the day I haven’t figured out yet. I only hope he’ll make it through Christmas time!

  5. Interesting history. I had no idea the colourful embroidery also had symbolic meanings. I’ll look at these blouses differently from now on. Maggie

    1. So pleased to hear this, Maggie.

      Yes, they would have been like good-luck charms a peasant could afford, and treasure, and also able to carry around all day long. Or during crucial life events.

  6. Hi Patricia! You know how passionate I am for fashion and style, so I really enjoyed reading this article on the Romanian blouse. I learnt so many new things about this iconic clothing piece, thank you so much for sharing! I actually own quite a few blouses in this beautiful Romanian style, but if I ever visit Romania, I’ll make sure to get some genuine Romanian blouses because I really love the embroidery detailing and the traditional crafted feel they own.

    1. Dear Blanca, your comment makes me so happy 🙂 I knew it, I could easily exclaim now 🙂

      I am thrilled to discover that you own similar fashioned tops – and now I will hope to spot one of them in your future fashion blogs. 🙂 Since you brought it up!

      You are spot on, running your fingers over a piece of hand-crafted item is mesmerizing and I do hope that you will live through the experience of choosing one, with your eye and your heart.

      There are lots of online shops that sell them now, as well as boutiques in most Romanian tourist hot-spots. But I would recommend visiting Peles Castle in Sinaia and there, as you make your way on foot on the cobblestone road that snakes along the mountain river, you can take your time to feats your eye on the crafts sold by peasants. 😉

      1. Hi Patricia, thank you so much for your amazing tips and recommendations! I will definitely follow your advice whenever I visit Romania. One thing is for certain: since following your blog and reading your posts I can´t wait to visit the country, there´s so much to see and so much history to explore!

        And you´ve given me a brilliant idea for a blog post featuring the Romanian blouse. Thank you so much once again.

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