Since early 20th century Lithuanian national costumes have become an object of public exhibitions. They were displayed at the exhibitions in Paris (1900) and Moscow (1911), as well as in art exhibitions in Vilnius. Consistent collection and research began in the 30s, when the Palace of Agriculture decided to assemble all available information and authentic ancient costumes. In 1939, the description of national costumes was included in the 7th and 8th volumes of “Sodžiaus menas” (“Rustic Art”) that focused on the 18th – 19th century women national costumes. In 1940, the originals of these costumes were handed over to Vytautas Magnum Museum of Culture in Kaunas. Anastazija and Antanas Tamošaičiai were the leading researchers of national costumes at the time. They were the authors of the costumes that were worn by the ensemble members in 1941.
Here is how A. and A. Tamošaičiai described Lithuanian national costumes:
“The costumes of Aukštaitian women display the most archaic forms, weaving style and patterns, and rather light colours. Until not so distant past, women still wore headdresses. The costumes of Zanavykian women are among the most ornate ones in terms of patterns, colours and design. Kapsian national costumes merge elements of Zanavykian and Dzūkian attire. Dzūkian costumes are especially colourful, employing a variety of striped and chequered patterns. Attire of Vilnius residents bears a resemblance to that of Lithuanian nobility. Costumes of residents of Lithuania Minor display the most archaic elements and use darkish colours. Aukštaitian men dress in light colours, chequered or striped patterns. Žemaitian men wear dark colours. Costumes of Zanavykian men are luxurious and ornate. Kapsian men dress in vivid and light colours, their attire is often stripy. Dzūkian men dress in motley, but quite simple fabrics”. By and large, this description is still germane today.
Unfortunately, the first set of ensemble’s costumes and instruments perished in fire in Vilnius during the WWII. In Moscow tour in 1946 the dancers were dressed in new costumes designed by Vytautas Palaima. Yet again, new costumes for the entire ensemble were made on occasion of very important appearance in Moscow in 1949. The ensemble upgraded its wardrobe in 1954 (V.Palaima). These were traditional general national costumes.
Ten years later artist Dalia Mataitienė (b. 1936) designed costumes for the ensemble’s new programme „Winds of Ages“. As programme featured ancient songs and dances as well as works by contemporary composers and choreographers, the costumes were designed accordingly. For example, the designer used metal elements in “ancient” attire and headdress. Although, this type of ornamentation was not common in national costume of that time, its use was validated by historical and ethnographic data.
After thorough examination of examples of folk art, archaeological data and substantial body of historical information, the artist designed costumes in which she put emphasis on main components of the costume, enlarged forms and ornamentation, and sought that the ornamentation and colours highlight the character of the dance. For example, she chose red colour and bright ornamental patterns for polka, chequered fabric for humoristic “Oželis“ (“Goatling”), and soft hues of blue and yellow for lyrical dances. The artist sought that the prints and arrangement of colours “sing out” the melodic lines of Lithuanian folk songs and dances.
Regina Songailaitė (b. 1922) and Juozas Balčikonis (b. 1924) designed or altered previously created costumes for six programmes including “Festive Evenings” (1968). This programme showcased songs, dances and customs of four ethnographic regions of Lithuania: Lent – Christmas in Dzūkija, Mardi Gras in Žemaitija (Samogitia), Joninės (St.Johns Celebration) in Aukštaitija, and End of Work Season in Suvalkija. National costumes in this programme displayed characteristic features of each region. Thus, for the first time in ensemble’s history the regional differences were revealed not only in songs and dances, but also in costumes for previously the performers wore general national costumes. “Festive Evenings” earned highest state awards (regrettably, the costume designers were not included in the awardees list).
For the programme “We Sing for A Man” the designers R. and J.Balčikonis have explored the depth of Lithuanian folklore, but also did not recoil from innovations. The costumes were adorned with spangles, fur and openwork. According to the designers, they were guided by one principle: to creatively recreate folk costume without forfeiting its stylistic exactness, i.e. not combining elements of different ethnographic regions in one costume. Men’s shaggy hats and women’s fur ornamented coats astounded the audiences. But the designers asserted that in the past Lithuanians used fur for making clothes. Fur vests and coats were usual components of peasant wardrobe. After all, the 19th-century engravings, portraying the residents of Lithuania Minor, abound with fur clothing. The designers felt, that an unvarying costume – skirt, apron, vest and shirt – becomes monotonous.
For the first half of the programme “Rye’s Chant” (1985) the designers were asked to design as authentic national costumes of the 15th – 16th century as possible (the second half took the viewers to the 20th century). After surveying museums and archives, and examining ethnographic and archaeological data, the designers fashioned historical costumes glimmering with mediaeval bronze. Ushering the viewers into the epoch of Vytautas the Great, the performers vindicated their new attire. The designers admitted, that they saw the programme’s first half as a Lithuanian version of K.Orff’s “Carmina Burana”… The then government harshly criticized “Rye’s Chant” for “glorification of the past”; the programme was forbidden in Vilnius, as were its press reviews.