Producers of Romania and Moldova's traditional blouse, the ia, hope its recent addition to UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage will boost calls to protect the industry from cheap copies flooding in from Asia.
BUCHAREST -- "What does being Romanian actually look like?"
This was the question faced by many Romanians who emigrated to start new lives amid the economic turmoil of the 1990s.
Andreea Tanasescu, the founder of the massively popular online community La Blouse Roumaine, explained that throughout the '90s, the "Romanian diaspora didn't have a material example of Romanian culture. Everything was too abstract."
Then the Romanian blouse, the "ia," whose meaning and importance had lain dormant for decades under communist rule, was rediscovered.
"Suddenly, we realized that actually we had something very important that was passed down from generation to generation, from mother to daughter and so on," Tanasescu said.
Ia are loose cotton blouses distinctive for their embroidered sleeves. Most ia feature a block of decoration on the shoulder, followed by a contrasting horizontal stripe, then decorative "rivers" that run down to the wrist.
The embroidered patterns each have a specific symbolic meaning, and different regions of Romania and Moldova have their own patterns. Colorful ia are traditionally worn by girls and unmarried young women to highlight their beauty, while wives wear subdued colors and patterns that emphasize dedication to the family.
Since 2013, the blouse has been celebrated each June 24 by diasporas around the world marking the clothing item's own day. In December 2022, UNESCO added the Romanian and Moldovan "traditional blouse with embroidery on the shoulder" to its list of intangible cultural heritage.
But despite -- or perhaps because of -- the slow cultural awakening the blouse has sparked, some Romanian producers of the clothing are now fighting to stay afloat.
Anda Manescu quit her office job in Bucharest eight years ago to found her own business, making ia in her hometown of Breaza. She said that on top of the global economic downturn, "now we have Chinese replicas coming into the country that are very cheap, and we don't have laws to protect [Romanian ia manufacturers]."
In the corridors of Red Dragon, a Bucharest shopping center notorious for tax-evasion scandals, some shops sell ia designs made in India and China that Manescu says were copied directly from her and other Romanian makers that sell for some 100 lei ($22).
A high-quality handcrafted blouse made in Romania sells for around 500 lei.
Some Indian-made blouses that RFE/RL saw in Red Dragon featured English-language labels claiming that the blouses are "unique individually crafted work[s] of of art."
Manescu envisions some form of labeling that could distinguish authentic handmade Romanian ia from foreign copies.
"I wrote one proposal to the government, but I don't think they want to listen to me," the businesswoman told RFE/RL.
Certificates of authenticity that would make copies harder to pass off have been implemented by other European makers of traditional items on the UNESCO list.
Andreea Tanasescu calls the UNESCO listing "a worldwide recognition that is very much appreciated by Romanians" and agrees that market protections will help keep the industry inside Romania. But she believes the tradition as a whole will only stay alive if it can enter popular culture and be widely embraced by young Romanian women.
"Traditions cannot be crystallized," she said. "Culture has to be alive, not a piece in a museum."
That will be the challenge for us, Tanasescu said, "and it's a challenge for every inscription on the UNESCO list. It's not easy for anyone."