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Guna Kinne and her Latvian national dress

Curator Karen Schamberger, National Museum of Australia, 14 May 2008

KAREN SCHAMBERGER: Before I begin I would like to thank our registration and conservation staff for preparing the display of items today. Also I would like to point out that the terminology I use for parts of the dress are those used by the donor, Mrs Guna Kinne.

To part with one’s Latvian national dress is similar to putting aside an important banner from the past. It is really not a costume, because to wear your own national dress at a costume ball would be in very low taste. It is a symbol of one’s ancestry.

Mrs Guna Kinne wrote these words when she donated her Latvian national dress to the National Museum of Australia in 1989. She had assembled the dress over a period of 20 years in Latvia, Germany and Australia and when she donated it to the Museum she wanted to express her life story to the Museum through her dress. When asked by the Museum for more information she said, ‘For you to understand the significance of the costume to me, I have to explain the background’.

Guna Kinne was born Guna Klasons on 6 June 1923 in Riga, Latvia. [Shows image] Her father was a sea-going captain and accountant. Her mother was an archivist in Riga’s Latvian state archives. Klasons was born and went to school during Latvia’s brief period of independence between 1918 and 1939. Latvians had been oppressed by foreign rule for more than 700 years until independence was declared on 18 November 1918.

As Guna Klasons was growing up, the Latvian government emphasised the importance of Latvia’s 1000-year heritage by teaching national dressmaking in schools. It was during Klasons’ schooling that her national dress became a part of her personal story.

[Shows image] The first part of the dress to be made was the white linen blouse decorated with red and grey cotton cross-stitch embroidery. The material was purchased in Riga in 1937 and was cut, embroidered and sewn by Guna Klasons at high school in 1939 under the supervision of a handiwork teacher.

The blouse is distinctive in its use of a decorative fringe on the collar. Guna noted herself that it is of a different design to that in her pattern book:

A different pattern book was used at school. I made the blouse at school. I had no particular feelings. It was a task we had to do, so I did it. We could actually pick what type of blouse we wanted and from which national region. I picked a particular one from the district of Nica but later I was really emotionally involved. I think I was 17 years old then. My father gave me the material for the skirt, the jacket and the ready-made crown. I thought, ‘My God this is a very rich great gift, a national dress’, but because I was at that age I also said ‘my God all the work that has to go into it’.

The honour of having a national dress ensured she began the process of assembling it, and when she had to flee Latvia the unfinished dress was amongst the few possessions which she took with her. The dress became both a symbol of her Latvian identity and part of her rite of passage from adolescent to adult, from maiden to married woman. In Latvia the crown was the appropriate head covering for an unmarried woman or girl. It would only be once she was in Australia that she could make the appropriate head covering for a married woman.

Essential to the creation of the dress is the publication Novterpa or ‘District gowns’ that was issued by the Latvian Chamber of Agriculture in 1939. Guna Klasons used the publication to sew the skirt, sleeveless vest and bonnet. It is written in Latvian and contains photographs of parts of the costume and patterns. Her dress is in the style of costumes from Nica. [Shows image] At least 24 district costumes were identified in Latvia. Guna Klasons wrote, ‘I expressed a wish to have a Nica dress because it was one of the most beautiful’.

By choosing this Nica dress Guna Klasons was continuing both a regional and a national tradition. Guna Klasons made up the red wool skirt while still at high school in Riga in about 1941. The hem contains a cord to make the lower edge stand out, and the top has an inserted cord to fit any waist. Weaving, embroidering and dressmaking were specialised skills in Latvia as demonstrated by the shops specialising in national costumes, selling dress materials, as mentioned earlier.

Guna Klasons used her dressmaking skills to make up the skirt but she did not weave it. The women of Nica began making red skirts for their national dress in the nineteenth century. Earlier they had been black. They are unlike any other of the Latvian national costumes and the patterns in each skirt are different, depending on the weaver and the taste of the wearer. The region of Nica was expressing its own identity, attempting perhaps to shape Latvian identity through its regional dress. By the early twentieth century, the regional styles of national dress in Latvia were set and in the present day the Nica dress has become a symbol of the Latvian nation as a whole.

The imitation silver brooch was purchased in the same shop as the shirt by Guna Klasons’ boyfriend in Latvia in 1942 when silver was unavailable due to the war. The brooch was made by cutting a round sheet of metal and beating it into shape with a hammer in a mould of pitch and tar. Smaller chisels were used to emboss the brooch with various patterns. This brooch also has the traditional type of pin across the front centre. Modern Latvian brooches often have a small pin in the back to ensure that synthetic garments are not torn. The brooch was ethnographically meant to hold a huge shawl on the shoulder but Guna Klasons, as many other Latvian girls, wore it to hold the jacket together at the waistline as she never had a shawl.

To Klasons:

The keeping alive of national heritage seemed to assure that our nation was important enough to have a place amongst other nations. In this light the Latvian national dress became very important and to own and wear one showed the owner’s pride in our small, insignificant and struggling nation. It became the custom to wear the national dress at any important national function but also as an alternative to an evening dress. It was a dream of any Latvian woman, especially a young girl, to own a Latvian dress. It was very complicated to make and costly to buy.

Between the wars Latvia had rebuilt its economy and was successfully competing in world markets with its agricultural, food, textile and electronic products. The country also excelled in education. In Europe it was the country with the largest percentage of women students, at 39 per cent, and was placed in second place behind Estonia as having the most students in tertiary education in proportion with population.

Klasons had completed one year of tertiary studies in architecture before fleeing Latvia. Latvia’s political instability during this period led to it coming under the rule of an authoritarian dictatorship in 1934. Latvia’s independence would not last long. It was invaded three times in the space of five years. The first invasion was in June 1940 by the Soviet Union, the second in June-July 1941 by Germany and in July 1944 to May 1945 by the Soviet Union again. By the end of the Second World War, Latvia had lost one-third of its population, executed, killed in war, murdered in the Holocaust, allowed to die by deprivation in prison camps, deported to the Soviet Union and Germany and scattered in prisoner of war and displaced persons’ camps across Europe.

Many Latvians fled Latvia as the second Soviet invasion was coming, including Guna Klasons. She left because, under the first Soviet occupation she:

... saw how life changed in Latvia after the Russians invaded. All of a sudden the shops became empty then gradually some people started to vanish. It was easy to dob in your neighbour as being against Communists if you were angry with him or her. Many people were taken into prison.

Just as her nation was being destroyed, Guna Klasons took with her the remnants of not only her personal life but also remnants of what she knew as the Latvian nation. The unfinished dress, pattern book and some photographs were all that she fled Latvia with in about 1945, with her mother and sister:

At that time the dress including the Latvian jewellery was my most important possession, sentimentally and materially, and I took the dress and the unfinished jacket with me in my suitcase on a ship to Germany, Gdansk, now in Poland while fleeing the USSR army. There was one suitcase for each and the suitcase also included all the belongings and edibles. It was a hard decision what to select. For instance, I remember going to the photograph album. The albums were big and heavy. What to take, what to leave. I selected a portion of the photographs. Also I had to decide whether to take one pair of shoes or two pairs, which dress and how much room there was in the suitcase. So actually taking the national dress was quite important to me at that time because of its sentimental and monetary value. I thought I could buy another pair of shoes anywhere, later, but I couldn’t get the national dress.

Guna Klasons’ way of preserving and continuing her nation was to preserve and continue to make her national dress. The jacket in particular was not only acted upon as she drew the pattern and then embroidered it but it also acted upon her. When she had worn the unfinished dress in Latvia she had borrowed the jacket. She was able to imagine the finished jacket and despite her difficult circumstances was able to draw the pattern onto the material in pencil from the pattern book and then embroider it. It was finished in 1945 in Germany in the Russian zone. She says:

It was in the suitcase also when I ran to catch the last Red Cross train carrying wounded Latvian soldiers from Gdansk to Berlin. Neither the suitcase nor the dress was harmed in the Berlin bombardments and later I took it to Parchim, in Mecklenburg, which on the close of the war became part of the Russian zone. There, desperate to find my family, always short of food, fearing deportation back to Latvia, obtaining false documentation, forced to find new lodgings because of a Russian officer’s rape attempt, I finished the jacket.

The jacket is particularly significant because of the circumstances in which Guna Klasons made it. The jacket is embroidered with double rows of back stitch, which are sewn so close as to appear to be one thick row. The yarn for the embroidered design is traditionally a tightly spun black wool. Possibly as an expression of her individual taste and circumstances, the embroidery is slightly different to the pattern. The coil pattern is larger and more free flowing than that shown in the pattern book. She has also extended the pattern further up the left shoulder.

At the waist and sides of the jacket a fan-shaped piece of fabric is inserted and folds ironed into it. [Shows image] The lining material was hand woven on a farm and obtained on the black market in 1942 when Guna Klasons began to put the jacket together. The jacket material is woven in an eight-shaft twill using white cotton warp and unbleached linen weft. It is close fitting and usually sewn to the wearer’s measurements. The Nica vest fabric is believed to have originated during the reign of Duke Jacob or Kurzeme in the seventeenth century. Dutch masters taught linen block weaves and fancy twills to Latvians in weaving workshops set up by the Duke in Rucava which is not far from Nica. Guna continues:

I had the completed costume in my only suitcase when I fled the Russian zone. I was then thrown off the train at the border by Russian soldiers but in the dark, rainy night I, still holding the suitcase, fell down the railway embankment and was able to crawl back up to reach the last freight wagons of the train before it started to move and thus escape to the English zone.

I wore the dress with great pride for the first time there at the Geestacht [which is in the north of Germany near Hamburg] Latvian Displaced Persons Camp dance in December 1945 and met my future husband on that day. The dress was worn at many other dances during that period in DP camps in the English and American zones.

Guna Klasons married Arturs Kinne in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1946. In the DP camps of Europe, national dressmaking became a way to remember and continue Latvia, as patterns were shared amongst the refugees. Circulating in the DP camps were sets of 18 postcards of folk costume pictures created by Anna Darzina, published by Janis Liepins in Esslingen, Germany, and on this postcard you can see the shawl [shows image] which Guna Kinne never had. You can also see where the brooch would normally have pinned the shawl at her shoulder.

In the same way performances of traditional dance and song were arranged in displaced persons camps on a relatively small scale to continue an important aspect of Latvian tradition outside its occupied borders. National dress is worn by both the audience and performers at the Latvian Song and Dance Festival, [shows image] as can be seen in this photo taken on such on occasion in July 2001, the 800th anniversary of Latvia. This is a tradition that began in 1873 and continues today in Latvia and throughout the Latvian diaspora, including in Australia.

In Latvia the festivals are held every five years. The essential elements of the festival are Latvian folk culture and songs. About 36,000 folk songs have so far been recorded. In the mid-nineteenth century these songs provided the inspiration for classical composers and the formation of choirs for the Latvian song and dance festivals. The festival itself spans a week and consists of concerts, folk craft displays, photographic and art displays, opening and closing ceremonies. There are usually visual references to nature with birch branches tied to platform frames, wreaths of oak leaves wrapped around railings and plenty of floral arrangements.

The performative aspects of Guna Kinne’s national dress were to continue, albeit in a different form, in Australia. Mrs Kinne and her husband left the port Bremerhafen in October 1948 and arrived in Sydney a month later. The dress was worn again in Wangaratta, mostly at Latvian gatherings. The silver brooch inlaid with amber stone was used to secure the blouse collar. It was won by Mrs Kinne in a Latvian church bazaar lottery in Wangaratta in the 1950s.

[Shows image] This necklace of natural polished pieces of amber was sent to Mrs Kinne by her husband’s sister in the 1950s. Some beads contain traces of visible prehistoric remains and it was worn with the costume on various occasions. Amber is fossilised pine resin. Baltic amber is about 30 to 40 million years old. Deposits are located on both the shore and the seabed. During storms amber is often washed up on the beaches of Latvia and Lithuania and until the beginning of the twentieth century whole families of amber fishermen lived and worked on the coastline near Liepaja on the Baltic Sea.

It was at Wangaratta that Mrs Kinne made the last piece of her dress according to her pattern book, in about 1957, when she felt too old to wear the crown. In Latvian tradition once a woman married, her head covering changed from a crown to a bonnet, thus completing the passage from adolescent maiden to married woman.

Mrs Kinne has worn the dress at numerous nationalistic or social Latvian gatherings. She wore it on one occasion to represent the Good Neighbour movement, greeting the arrival of Princess Alexandra of Kent in Wangaratta on the morning of 16 September 1959. Princess Alexandra spent 20 minutes being driven through Wangaratta with an estimated 12,000 people watching. However Mrs Kinne was not impressed with the visit. She says:

I don’t know who invited me to that particular occasion. I don’t remember. I knew that there was such a good neighbour organisation but I didn’t actively participate. How did I feel when I wore my Latvian dress? Well in a way I was proud to show off the dress because it was unusual, being red and all, but otherwise the reception was rather boring. And also if I had to describe the day, it was standing around for hours and waiting and waiting and then in two minutes the Princess drove past. So that was it.

Wearing the dress in Australia also enabled Mrs Kinne to be overtly politically active when she wore the dress in two Melbourne rallies. The first rally involved walking in a procession to St Paul’s Cathedral in 1968 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the declaration of independence of Latvia. The second rally [shows image] was in 1974 to protest against Australia recognising the incorporation of Latvia into the USSR. She said about this occasion:

It was a lot more emotional. Again we grouped together in St Kilda Road but then we walked up Bourke Street. In Bourke Street there were lots of people and some cried out ‘you Nazis, you Nazis’. We were so angry. How could they call us Nazis? The Nazis occupied us as well as the Soviets.

The rally was probably worth while because Fraser cancelled Whitlam’s decision:

Usually we felt as second-grade citizens in Australia. We all stood out only in a bad way. This was sort of standing out in a good way even if only externally.

As well as wearing her national dress, Guna Kinne and her family continued to remember Latvia in Australia in other ways. Her earliest memory is of a beach resort which the family visited each year. This might be why she painted the beach of Jurmala, which is not far from Riga. [Shows image] This painting hangs in her lounge-room on a wall with a Latvian wooden plate and a painting of the Murray River near Wangaratta. Mrs Kinne simultaneously holds both Gemalla and the Murray River in her mind as places of influence and value in her life and visually makes the connection between the two through her paintings and in her home.

Mrs Kinne and her husband also kept in contact with relatives who remained in Latvia through letters and sending parcels, although to begin with communicating with relatives in the Western world was dangerous for those left inside Latvia. She says:

We sent lots and lots of parcels. Just with clothing and shoes. Anything for everyday usage. Also gifts for weddings, gifts for birthdays and, for instance when I was changing computers, my relative from Latvia said, ‘Guna please don’t throw it away. Send it to me’. She was just retired from her job. They weren’t available over there. I sent my old computer then also a second computer about five years later. Now she bought her own. She could afford it and it is possible to buy one, but then it wasn’t. The parcels were very, very important to them in Latvia.

When I interviewed her, Mrs Kinne explained what it was like to travel back to Latvia in 1988 and 1992:

It is too late to return. Both our sons were born in Australia. Both have been to Latvia. I have been back. At first it was a great emotional experience. I could speak to people on the street, visit old familiar areas. It was a sort of very funny feeling, looking at the house where I lived, going past the door and remembering that we left, when we left. Even the flowers on the table and giving the keys to some relatives. We thought we would come back in a short while. My memories, I remember there was a big painting of my grandmother, the piano, the books and all our belongings. The feeling was if I now rung the door bell and I was let in, how much would be left? It was like an open hurt somehow.

In 1989 Guna Kinne made the final decision to finally part with her dress because in her words:

I have no female descendants. I wish to donate the costume to an institution, preferably the National Museum.

This was a poignant moment in her life and the life of the dress, given the significance she had placed on ‘putting aside this important banner from the past’. Just as person’s life ends, so does the period of interaction between person, object and place and displaying these connections presents the curator with its own challenges.

Guna Kinne’s dress connects Latvia and Australia, the protests on the streets of Riga at the Soviet invasion with the protests on the streets of Melbourne 40 years later. Interwoven with her personal story, the story of her dress connects Riga, Gdansk with Geschacht and Wangaratta of Melbourne. Their shared biography offers insights into the relationships between occupied and displaced people, material culture, how objects act and are acted upon in people’s lives and national and personal identities.

For Guna Kinne:

A national dress is a symbol for me is a symbol for some other Latvians. It is a symbol for the whole nation of Latvia because if somebody sees a dress, the question is, ‘which dress is it?’ Ah a Latvian dress, Ah Latvia. It is in a way like a language. You identify a language. Well, it is harder to identify a national dress than a language because there are many, many, national dresses, many nations and many national dresses. But it is like, ‘what do you think of the Australian flag?’ That is my question to you. It is more or less the same of what I think of a national costume. I can wear it. My husband cannot, but he could because there is a male version. It is a symbol of the nation because when I wear it, I am representing it and it is an honour for me.

Thank you.

QUESTION: I just wondered what year she donated the costume to the Museum?

KAREN SCHAMBERGER: 1989 but she has since, in 2005 she donated the small brooch and also the amber necklace and the booklet as well.

QUESTION: I am quite curious as to why they settled in Wangaratta of all the places in Australia. What took them to Wangaratta?

KAREN SCHAMBERGER: I will have to explain a little bit of her husband’s story. Arturs Kinne was a farmer, a dairy farmer in Latvia by trade. When he came to Australia that’s what he wanted to do so he wanted to live in a rural area. So first they moved to Maffra and then he eventually found a job in Wangaratta.

QUESTION: I found it amazing that when you consider, and I know I was born in wartime Europe myself, when you have to leave your home and everything behind, which includes foodstuff, you are on the run you only take what you can carry, that she would have brought that with her and the pattern book. I find it amazing, the need to belong. I have read a couple of books about Latvia and how they were first invaded by the Russians first and then when they were on the run from the Russians the Germans took over. There was one story written by a woman here in Canberra called Reach for the Moon. The things you have to leave behind.

Also my family, and I remember being on the run when I was a toddler. I just find it absolutely astounding that you would take material and a pattern book which weighs a lot. That sort of material is a lot of bulk. I find it amazing. It is because of people like her that these sorts of things remain. We left all of that behind. Each time we came back to our house there was more and more plundered. People towards the end of the war people were so desperate they would steal your furniture, not for the furniture but to burn it for fuel, for heat for cooking. I found the story absolutely amazing. Thank you.

KAREN SCHAMBERGER: She is quite an amazing woman when you talk to her.

QUESTION: My people were the first Latvian family to come to Australia. That is why I have come along today. They came here after the 1905 revolution. They didn’t seem to put much store in that sort of thing before the First World War from what I can gather from my family. It was only between the wars when they became more nationalistic that this sort of costumes and everything came about. My family actually, some of them danced in national costume, one little piece of which is here in the museum at the 1938 Sesqui-centenary in Sydney. I find it amazing having to flee like that. I have heard many stories of it. That she would take the costume with her. The costume and the nationalism of it really only became significant between the wars. I don’t hear much of it or any national really deep things before the first war, although my grandfather helped lead the 1905 revolution there. Thank you for what you have done there with that talk.

KAREN SCHAMBERGER: Thank you for your comments.

QUESTION: Like the previous speaker I would like to congratulate and thank you, Karen. I found that extremely moving. My family had a very similar story to hers. The way you put it all together really told that story very well. Thank you.

KAREN SCHAMBERGER: Thank you.

Date published: 8 October 2008