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Peasant blouses are deceptively complicated. What makes a blouse “peasant”? Essentially, this description is an umbrella term for the kind of informal top with a wide neck, short and puffed or long and full sleeves, and elastic or smocking at the waist, cuffs, and neckline. In spite of multiple variations and fashionable re-incarnations, I think it’s safe to say we know it when we see it.
Minimal in tailoring and construction but often beautifully and elaborately decorated, peasant blouses are seen in sartorial traditions from a wide range of cultures, including Hungarian, Ukrainian, Mexican, Russian, Roma, Greek, and Caribbean, with each making it their own through needlework and trimmings. Lately Ukrainian embroidery has been dominating both runway and street styles, with the help of designers like Vita Kin and Maria Grazia Chiuri, the latter of whom re-worked embroidered motifs at Valentino and more recently at Dior. The peasant blouse is a unique garment that’s having a resurgence thanks to its ability to communicate contradictory messages — it can be both bohemian and conservative, sexy and modest, urbane and rustic.
I don’t presume to write a history of the peasant blouse, and I doubt anyone really could. Some items are so ubiquitous and functional that they elude a straightforward origin story. At first I struggled with the word “peasant” — it seemed a little too much like “ethnic,” another unspecific form of other-ing. Was this one more well-intentioned pejorative implying that some cultures are somehow simplistic — or, to put it crudely, poor? My trepidation wasn’t borne out in reality, though, since there is no single nation or culture of origin for the garment. The name, though evocative, refers to its construction.
The term “peasant blouse” appears in the pages of Vogue as early as 1902 to describe a high-necked, embroidered bodice with loose bishop sleeves paired with a long, elegant skirt that couldn’t be mistaken for anything rustic. Rather, the term “peasant” suggests a kind of bucolic simplicity, while the intricacy and variety of hand skills needed to make kaleidoscopic floral or geometric embroidery is nothing short of luxurious. The blouse has long served as a canvas for rich and distinctive ornamental traditions, but 20th-century and present-day interpretations, which speak to how the blouse engages with notions of ethnicity, class, and femininity, are particularly thought-provoking.
A lack of tailored structure makes the peasant blouse perfect for showing off shoulders and décolletage. Its softness reveals the shape of the body underneath, and its airy light cottons and voile fabrics can be semi-sheer.
Hollywood silent films brought the peasant blouse into popular culture primarily through exotic “gypsy” characters. Take Pola Negri as Carmen with big earrings, head wrap, and peasant blouses in 1918’s Gypsy Blood and, in 1925, Jetta Goudal’s Malena Paulton in Cecil B. De Mille’s Road to Yesterday.
Combined with fringe-trimmed shawls and gold chains, their hybrid look was part Spanish flamenco and part Eastern European, with some orientalism thrown in the mix. The women were active, passionate, beautiful, and undoubtedly foreign — in a non-threatening, enticing, and theatrical way, of course. The softness of the silhouette in a time when women were only just leaving corsets behind lent a hint of freedom and allure that wasn’t lost on audiences.
Twenty years after the silents, in 1943, actress Jane Russell is barely concealed by her tight white peasant top in The Outlaw (the fact that this film was a “historical” Western movie was part of the justification for sneaking such a sultry costume past Hollywood censors), and in 1946 Jennifer Jones wore a similar — but less scandalous — example in Duel in the Sun. In the mid-1950s, Marilyn Monroe sported a more elegant sheer lace peasant blouse paired with a form-fitting skirt in the movie Bus Stop. Fashions and mores changed over time, but Hollywood costumers continually revisited the peasant blouse as a wardrobe shorthand to communicate an exotic, sometimes foreign, and barely-contained sexuality.
Hollywood may have helped bring the peasant blouse into view, but it ran alongside a parallel movement that existed throughout the 20th century: bohemian counterculture. In a way, the blouse signified similar things — the appeal of the “exotic” and the un-bound shape — but the Greenwich Village bohemians of the 1920s were making a provocative statement against traditional Western beauty standards.
While consumption of commercial fashions promoting flapper glitz was booming, bohemians looked to indigenous cultures, Asian design, and handmade traditional garments as an alternative to factory-stitched retail offerings. It seems counterintuitive, but turning away from mechanically reproduced tailor-mades was a way to be modern, a means of engaging with avant-garde concepts of beauty and freeing the body.
The peasant blouse thrived throughout generations of counterculture movements that held similar liberal sentiments. 1920s bohemians who sneaked drinks at the Krazy Kat Club were followed by women of the Beat Generation in floral Mexican peasant blouses at the Gaslight Café. We even saw a midriff-baring peasant top on Don Draper’s artistic girlfriend in the first season of Mad Men, set in 1960. The blouse was a perfect fit for the later 1960s hippie movement, which valued all things handcrafted.
Hippies, or fashionable wannabe hippies, could revive vintage peasant blouses or buy some while traveling, but it wasn’t long before the shape appeared in fashion editorial with high-end names and high-end prices attached. Yves Saint Laurent’s famous Russian Collection of 1976 was hugely influential in bringing embroidered details and billowing sleeves to the mainstream. The fact that the collection was more inspired by the romantic costuming of the film Doctor Zhivago than direct experience with Russian clothing notwithstanding, YSL helped make what had read as an anti-establishment look high-end fashion.
Other, more sinister currents in visual culture have also found meaning in the peasant blouse. Women wearing peasant blouses are seen in the iconography of some of modern history’s most brutal totalitarian regimes. Socialist realist paintings and graphics from Stalin’s Russia, as well as German propaganda from the Nazi era, strategically employed the garment as a symbol of traditional womanhood. When The Producers parodied German stereotypes of dirndl- and peasant blouse-wearing chorus girls, they didn’t have to exaggerate the pink-cheeked, blonde-braided look much.
The reality is, naturally, a little more complicated. Many propagandistic representations were supposed to depict actual peasants — hearty women working the fields alongside others in tailored uniforms or workers’ coveralls. Like the uniforms and workwear, the peasant blouse expressed a particular role, one rooted in nationalism and nativism. Russia and the countries under its yoke, as well as Germany, do have folk dress histories that include peasant blouses.
The blouse is not hard to fit into a jingoist narrative that idealizes retrograde notions of traditional femininity in which motherhood, fitness for work, loyalty to country, and connection to the land are paramount. Two regimes with disparate ideologies were in agreement on at least one sartorial symbol: The peasant blouse-wearing woman in propagandistic imagery conveyed a connection to ethnic heritage and rustic simplicity, serving as an aspirational figure whose vitality could be shared by those who followed in line with the regime.
A propagandistic tool couldn’t be farther from the flirtatious appeal, modernity, and embrace of diversity that attracted others the peasant blouse, but it shows that a simple garment can relay very different meanings. The ability to shift in significance without shifting in shape puts some items of clothing in a category to themselves.
The peasant blouse operates outside of trends, but it’s more than just that: It’s a barometer to help gauge a cultural climate. There is nothing that makes the peasant blouse specifically “peasant,” but the name activates ethnic and historical associations, real and imagined.