What exactly is Vyshyvanka Day?

  • What exactly is Vyshyvanka Day?
Issue 123, May 2019.
What exactly is Vyshyvanka Day?
The holiday celebrating Ukraine’s most iconic piece of clothing gets bigger and bigger each year. Here’s what you need to know.
What is a vyshyvanka?
Ukraine’s most identifiable piece of clothing is the vyshyvanka. It’s an embroidered shirt that comes in a variety of colours, patterns, and styles. Much like the kilt is to Scotland and the kimono to Japan, the vyshyvanka is the prototypical Ukrainian garment. It’s worn on national holidays, to work and school, to sporting events, and even at fashion shows. The garment is so popular that it has its own holiday! Vyshyvanka Day has gained worldwide popularity in recent years and is now one of the most well-established post-Soviet Ukrainian holidays. It’s a global cultural diplomacy opportunity for the numerous Ukrainian communities around the world and a national statement inside Ukraine. 
When did they first appear?
It’s not known just when vyshyvankas first appeared, but there is evidence that they’ve been around for centuries. Our ancestors are known to have worn embroidered clothes, including Prince Daynylo Halytsky (after whom our international airport takes its name) when he attended princely congresses, and Grand Prince of Kyivan Rus Monomakh’s sister Anna, who created the first school for girls wanting to learn how to create and sew the patterns. During those days, you could tell a lot about someone based on their vyshyvanka. Unmarried girls preferred red shirts, while older women who already had families preferred blue. Residents from the capital often sported designs with grapes, plants, and guelder roses. Great attention was paid to the patterns, as they were believed to bring prosperity. Legend has it that our ancestors sewed black and red crosses on ‘vulnerable’ parts of the shirt to ward off evil spirits. Each family would sew its own talismans – berries, flowers, tridents, shapes, or anything else that represents good fortune for the family. There were – and still are – scores of colours and patterns to choose from.
From the days of the pagans through Christianity and Kyivan Rus, from the Cossacks at Zaporozhian Sich to the ‘cyborgs’ fighting for the Donetsk Airport, from Nazi occupation to the Cold War Soviet Days, one staple has remained – the Ukrainian vyshyvanka. Ukrainians wear their vyshyvankas to show pride in their country, and they’ve been doing it for at least the last 1,500 years. Patriotism via the needle.
Culture is chic
Ukrainian designers regularly incorporate vyshyvanka motifs into their designs, be they traditional shirts, fully-embroidered dresses, or stylised accessories. Vyshyvankas are found on some of the biggest catwalks in the fashion world. In fact, iconic fashion mag Vogue has called them the “bohemian garb across the ocean” and noted that the garment’s impact in the fashion world has “made waves far past the Eastern European country”. You’ll have no problems finding a stylish shirt at many of Lviv’s chicest clothing outlets.   
Vyshyvanka Day is born
The modern Vyshyvanka Day was born just 11 years ago when a Chernivtsi University student noticed that her classmates often wore the garment to classes, but never on the same day. Little did she know that her suggestion would spawn one of Ukraine’s most modern and photogenic cultural celebrations. Happening each year on the third Thursday of May – this year on 16 May – you are sure to notice a lot of Leopolitans wearing vyshyvankas. Support Ukrainians in their tradition of wearing embroidery over the entire weekend of 17-19 May. Be sure to pick up your very own vyshyvanka. The style doesn’t matter, by wearing the garment you’ll show your support for the Ukrainian spirit, traditions, and belief that Ukrainians are a strong and talented people fighting for a better future. Wear it with pride, get some photos and post them on social media with the hashtag #vyshyvankaunites to join the worldwide online flash mob. Happy Vyshyvanka Day!
-- Lee Reaney