Origins of the Xhubleta

Xhubleta, the women highlander traditional dress. Existing since 4500 years ago and inscribed in UNESCO on 2022 as a world heritage. It’s made completely out of wool with unique pagan-illyrian symbols and it was the only kind of wear that women and girls used in our mountains till the communism arrived. One year of time and men strength were needed to complete the artisan work of making a Xhubleta which would weight up to 17 kilos. This glamorous dress represents our women’s strength and the feminine beauty. Today only a few of them exist, and we are proud to have one at our house museum.

The xhubleta is a traditional, bell shaped skirt with strong historical ties in northern Albania, as well as parts of Kosovo and Montenegro. The oldest representation of a xhubleta is a terracotta figure found in Klicevac, Serbia, along with other terracottas originating from Mycenae and Crete (Belkaid, 2013). The figures date back to the Bronze Age, around the second millenium BC (Juka, 2018). It appears to wear a dress with the same bell shape as the xhubleta, but scholars debate whether the figurine of Klicevac is truly an older version of the dress. Franz Nopcsa studied traditional costume in northern Albania with a special focus on the xhubleta. He writes that the terracottas from Serbia correspond directly with the form of the skirt found in the xhubleta (Gjergji, 2004). Several scholars, such as Rrok Zoji, Haberlandt, and Garasanin, accept the writing of Franz. One critic, Vojislav Trbuhovic, claims that the links between the figurine and the xhubleta are not present. He cites the inclusion of an apron and other symbols, along with a varied color pallette that are not seen in xhubleta from the Kastrati and Kelmendi regions. However, Trbuhovic’s arguments are not accepted by all, as he has not acquainted himself with the costumes of the highlanders (Gjergji, 2004).

It is likely that the xhubleta was taken from the coastal locations along the Mediterranean into the small mountain villages in northern Albania (Gjergji, 2004). This is supported by some symbols seen on the xhubleta, such as the crab. This migration was likely caused by a need for protection, as barbarians and other groups attacked settlements on the coast. The people retreated into the mountains, where the natural barriers could deter would-be attackers (Juka, 2018). The movement to this new region prompted certain stylistic changes to be made to the dress. A necessity was the addition of heavy outer layers. These layers helped the people to weather the colder climate in the mountains (Gjergji, 2004).

Other stylistic changes of the xhubleta could be explained by this migration. In early times, the xhubleta was known for its rich collection of colors. One author described the dress as having more colors than a peacock (Gjergji, 2004). However, as the people moved further into the mountains, they did not have the same materials around them. To adapt to the new location, the dresses developed a muted color scheme that transitioned to a black skirt. A different explanation of this alteration in design is the death of George Castriot, or Skanderbeg. After the death of Skanderbeg, Albania’s national hero, in 1468, the intense mourning of the people may have prompted the dark coloration of the xhubleta (Dukgilaj, 2018). 

When the Ottoman Empire took control of Albania, their influence spread throughout country. The migration into the mountains afforded the highlanders more protection from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans found it near impossible to collect taxes from certain areas of the north, due to the rough terrain and the ferocity of the villagers. Some of these mountainous communities were able to successfully defend their independence from the Ottomans (Library of Congress, 1992). Areas outside of the mountains experienced a greater influence from the empire. This influence was even transmitted through clothing. Some traditional costumes underwent stylistic changes, including making a traditional hat red for a period of time, to match the Ottoman style (Juka, 2018). Since the xhubleta resided in the northern mountains, it was able to better preserve its identity. However, some regions did alter their designs to some degree based on the limited outside influence (Juka, 2018).

In older generations, the xhubleta was the common dress worn by women in their daily lives (Dukgilaj, 2018). The dress held a special significance for the communities in which it is worn, but the women had a direct connection to the xhubleta (Shkurtaj, 2018). All knowledge surrounding the xhubleta was passed down from mother to daughter for generations of women (Shkurtaj, 2018). Traditionally, a woman prepared xhubleta until her wedding day that she would wear into her new life as a married woman (Dukgilaj, 2018). Throughout her life the xhubleta became an extension of the woman. Using symbols and motifs it shared her story to all those that saw the dress (Kadriu, 2010). When the woman passed away and her story came to an end, she would be buried in her most beautiful xhubleta. As a result, many of the greatest works of art are lost to the earth (Dukgilaj, 2018).