Until the middle of XX century, opanci (or peasant shoes) were the basic footwear for the majority of people living in villages of Serbia. Leather, light, shallow footwear, flat or groved shape and rigging or straps used for tying the shoe. From this basic form, a piece of leather size and shape of a foot, which in the past satisfied people’s elementary need of protecting their feet, through centruries several types of opanci were developed on the territory of Serbia.
Depending on the type of leather used and the manufacturing style, there were:
Presni opanci or homemade freshly cut paesant shoes made of untanned hide; crvenjaši – red leather shoes or ‘reds’ made of half-tanned hide, manufactured with a sole; and opanci kapičari made of tanned leather in shoemaking workshops across Serbia.
Presni opanci were made of raw, salted and sundried cow, pig, goat or buffalo skins. They were manufactured according to the shape and size of a foot and then by straps slid through the loops which were along the edges, the shape of the shoe was formed and the shoe was fixed to the foot. There are two kinds of opanak on the territory of Serbia: prešnjaci and vrnčani. As opposed to the prešnjaci, which are shallow and only partially cover the upper part of the foot, vrnčani opanci are made of vrnčanica – straps which allowed the shoes to be shallow or deep, decorated or without any decorations.
Presni opanci were usually worn by cattlemen in mountainous areas of Dinaric Alps and central Balkan. This type of peasant shoes originated from the earliest times of human civilization and lasted through the middle and new ages, worn in the areas from far North (Estonia) to the far South (Greece) of European continent. On Balkan Peninsula this simple footwear was worn as working footwear until the first half of XX century.
Common names for opanci made of raw leather are: prijesni, presni, prešnjaci, sirovari, šivaći or krtice.
Crvenjaši (red ones) got their name after the colour of the half tanned cow skin from which they are made. They were similar in looks to vrnčani opanci, but stronger and better. They were first manufactured in Užice in mid XIX century. Užice became a center from which manufacture of opanci spread to other parts of Serbia.
Opanci kapičari consist of a sole, body, a piece of strap behind a heel, and a tying strap. One piece of leather covers the top of a foot and that is how they got their name (derived from a Serbian word which means ‘a cap’). They were manufactured and worn mostly in Pannonia plains, and areas around Sava and Danube rivers. They are also known as banatski, prečanski, švapski, lubaši and capped opanci. They were an integral part of modern traditional Panonian clothing, and are considered an element of European and Panonian Serbs’ culture.
Djonaši or built opanci were made of tanned cow skin. They consist of a sole, body, peak and a binding strap. Body is woven of thinly cut straps of soft leather. It depended on their positioning if the opanak will be simple, half-capped or capped. On a simple opanak the weaving was down the middle and along the edges of the shoe, and on a capped one along the whole width. Most commonly worn were the simple ones.
The peak is the most prominent and recognizable part of a built opanak.
It was made of a fold resulting from shaping the sole, and it became its key decoration. Opanci differ according to the shape, size and the way in which the peak is folded. It is a rule that women’s opanak has a smaller peak or no peak at all, as is the case with East Serbian opanak.
Numerous local names for built opanci are a proof of their general acceptance among the Serbian population. Opanci usually got their names after the areas in which they were manufactured or according to some of their characteristics. Opanci worn in Serbia are šabački, valjevski, užički, šumadijski, kosmajski, kečerski, kolubarski and moravski, but also noske (snouts), mrki (brown ones), kilaši (kilo ones), šiljkani (peaked ones), kukičari (hooked ones).
Built opanak was being made in Serbian workshops from the second half of XIX century. They were initialy worn in special occasions. Later, giving way to modern factory made footwear, they became mostly working footwear.
In Western parts of Serbia built opanci were more popular, and in East Serbia presni opanci.
senior curator of the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade.
Magazine “FOLKLOR“, No. 010, pg. 23
Posted with the permission of the editorial board
This article originally appeared at Svevlad. It was translated for Meet the Slavs by Meet the Slavs Team.