Russia: History of Dress

A Russian merchant family in the XVII century - Andrey Ryabushkin

The systematic study of the history of dress in Russia began in 1832 with the publication of a book by the president of the Academy of Arts, Aleksei Nikolaevich Olenin (1763-1843). The occasion for the writing of this book was a decree of the Emperor Nicholas I, who expressed the desire to see a painting with many figures on the theme of the most important event in Russian history: the baptism of the Russian people by Prince Vladimir. The goal here would be to represent all the classes of Russian society in conditions and clothing that approximated as accurately as possible the actual conditions and clothing.

Ninth to Thirteenth Century Russian Clothing

Dress from Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary

Actual specimens of Russian dress from early Russian history and even from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries had not been preserved. The only way to recreate what Russians looked like in that epoch was to examine all the possible sources: the archaeological data, all manner of written documents, as well as works of handicraft and decorative art. The most reliable information that we have concerning Russians dress of the pre-Christian period comes from our knowledge of the materials common to that period: hides and leather, bast, wool, flax, and hemp. The style of dress did not differ from that of the other Slavonic nations. This was determined by constant communication between these nations, by a similar manner of life, and by the climatic conditions. Women wore rubakhi (long shirts) down to their ankles and with long sleeves gathered up on the wrists; married women also wore the so-called ponevu (a kind of skirt consisting of a checked-pattern woolen fabric. Married women completely covered their hair by a povoi or ubrus in the form of a towel, while maidens wore a venchik (a narrow band of fabric or metal) on their foreheads. Maidens of the richer urban families had the resources to ornament themselves with a koruna, which differed from the venchik only by its more complex shape and finish. Men wore narrow porty (trousers) and tunic-like sorochki (shirts) of linen, down to their knees or their mid-calves. The footwear consisted in primitive shoes called lapti woven of bast, while the city-dwellers wore lapti made of raw leather. We also know that men of the upper classes wore boots of fine workmanship. According to the testimony of Akhmet (the ambassador of the Bagdal caliph Muktedir), at the beginning of the tenth century Slavonic men wore cloaks of dense fabrics that left one arm free.

The appearance on the territory of Eastern Europe of the first feudal Slavonic state, that of Kievan Russia, led not only to political and economic advancement, but also to increased trade and diplomatic contacts. At this stage of development, up to the Tatar-Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century, the dress of the upper classes of Russian society corresponded to general European tendencies in the domain of clothing, although it preserved certain native characteristics.

Byzantine Influence on Russian Dress

According to tradition, it was the magnificence and great solemnity of the Byzantine liturgy that led the Kievan prince Vladimir to baptize Russia in 988. Grandiosity and pomp, a magnificent manner of walking, become the accepted ideal of beauty in Russia up until the period of the reforms of Peter the Great at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The short-flap male dress virtually disappeared from the Russian court under the Byzantine influence, although peasants continued to wear it for two more centuries. However, the size and length of the dress were substantially reduced compared with what was worn in Constantinople. There was a prohibition against taking many types of fabrics out of Constantinople, and for this reason the garments of the Russian princes and of those close to them were, for the most part, rougher and less colorful. They were made decorative by an abundance of finishing touches on the collar, cuff, and hem. We know that when Prince Sviatoslav Igorevich (who died in 972) met the Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimisces, he was dressed with emphatic simplicity in a white shirt and porty. The sole luxurious object that he wore was a single golden earring with two pearls and a ruby. It was only by the middle of the eleventh century that dress of the Byzantine type took firm root in Russia. A ceremonial garment to be worn in the court was defined by which members of other classes were prohibited from wearing it. It consisted of a korzno, a small rectangular or round cloak, which was thrown onto the left shoulder and clasped on the right shoulder by a precious fibula. All that remained of the former dress was a round, fur-trimmed hat and various small details of cut and decoration. There was no difference between the woman's hat and that of the man, although the former was worn with a shawl or veil. Of very ancient origin were the poliki and lastovitsy-colored inserts on the shoulders and under the arms, which were both extremely functional and also served as a decoration on the linen shirts that peasants wore until the end of the nineteenth century. Members of the upper classes and rich city-dwellers wore such shirts at home. To garments simple in cut a decorative character was imparted by hanging ornaments: numerous bracelets, beads, finger rings, and small and large kolty (earrings) for women. The dress of this period did not reveal the shape of the body but had a bulky character. As a rule, the clothes were put on over the head and had a small decorative opening in front. Russian dress did not have any draping elements, either in the case of the upper classes or, especially, in the case of the peasantry. Common folk contented themselves with rubakhi of homemade cloth, while members of the upper classes wore a sorochka (second shirt) made of expensive imported fabrics.

Earliest Images of Russian Royalty

One of the earliest images of the princely family is known from the "Collection of Sviatoslav" (1073), which gives an idea of the style of that epoch and which is clearly connected with the tendencies common in medieval Europe. The prince and his son are represented in furtrimmed hats, which promoted the legend of the "hat of Monomakh." The Kievan prince Vladimir (1053-1125) received the name "Monomakh" because he was a grandson of the Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomakh, who supposedly sent the regalia and the hat-crown to the son of his daughter. However, it has been established with certainty that the first crown appeared in Moscow only at the beginning of the fourteenth century and was a sharp-pointed golden hat of eastern craftsmanship, with a cross and sable trim. The subsequent hat-crowns were made in the workshops of the Moscow Kremlin in imitation of this headdress (for example, the crown of Peter the Great, 1627).

Tatar-Mongol invasion

The Tatar-Mongol invasion led to a break in the contacts with Western Europe, and the immediate proximity with Turkic-speaking peoples led to a change in the form of Russian dress. Rashpatnyi clothing with a slit in front from top to bottom appeared, and men wore broad trousers. One must say at once that, even after having borrowed the cut, terminology, and certain elements of this foreign dress, Russians never lost their own national identity when it came to clothing. A good example of this is the caftan, a type of wide-opening garment with a deep wrap-over, worn by both men and women. The old Russian word for this garment is derived from the Persian word. In those cases when, in its fabric and details of cut, the caftan did not differ from the garments of other Eastern nations, it was wrapped over on the right side and belted or buttoned with klapyshi (coral, silver, or bone stick-buttons, which, in the twentieth century, Russian artists began to use once again, this time for athletic dress), decorative braided fabric buttons (uzelki), or circular buttons. The Russian caftan, in contrast to all the foreign types of cut (Arkhaluk, Turkish), was sewn along the waist with straight gathers, and it could be wrapped over on either side. This feature could be observed in pictures of peasants and common folk up until the middle of the nineteenth century. N. S. Leskov, a celebrated Russian writer, characterized such a caftan as having "Christian folds on the leg."

The need to protect their national sovereignty compelled Russians to preserve their national dress by modifying imported types of dress. For example, caftans brought from the East or acquired from neighboring nations were decorated according to the local manner: they were adorned with lace, or a collar sewn with ozherel'e (stones) was attached to them.

Trade Expansion

Starting with the fourteenth century, trade between Muscovite Russia and Europe expanded. Brocade, velvet, and various kinds of silk and wool were brought to Moscow from England, Italy, and France. Russia served as the intermediary in the trade between Europe and Persia as well as Turkey. Clothing made of diverse patterned and bright-colored fabrics acquired an especially decorative character, and details consisting of gold (metallic) lace and precious stones made the garments particularly magnificent. It is well known that, during the reign of Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible, 1530-1584), foreigners desiring to receive an audience in the Kremlin were required to put on Russian clothing as a way to recognize the magnificence of the Russian throne. In order to make a favorable impression, servants were temporarily given fine and expensive clothing from the tsar's storehouse.

It was only during the time of Patriarch Nikon (1605-1681) that foreigners were forbidden to wear Russ-ian clothing, since the patriarch was made unhappy by the fact that, when they were in the presence of the head of the Russian church, foreign guests did not fall to their knees but, by remaining standing in Russian dress, disrupted the usual order of things and could exert a bad influence on the people. At the same time, Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich (1629-1676) made more severe the punishment for Russians who wore European dress or imitated foreign hairstyles.

Boyar Clothing

The boyars wore the richest and most decorative clothing. A distinctive feature of the boyar dress was the gorlatnyi or "neck" hat (a tall cylinder made of the neck furs of black foxes or other expensive fur). Boyars gave as gifts and rewards their sable furs, covered with gold brocade or patterned velvet, but they never parted with their hats, which were symbols of their power. At home, their hats were safeguarded on wooden stands with painted designs. The tsar's everyday dress did not differ from that of the nobles, and during his reception of ambassadors, he was obliged to wear the platno (a long, collarless brocade garment that had broad sleeves extending to the wrists). Instead of a collar, barmy garments covering the shoulders and decorated with precious stones and pearls, were worn. Only the tsar and priests had the right to wear a "breast" cross. During especially important ceremonies, the tsar had to wear a crown (the hat of Monomakh) and the okladen' (a gold chain of two-headed eagles).


The outer formal piece of clothing worn by a nobleman was the feriaz' (broad and with long sleeves) and the okhaben' (with narrow folded-back sleeves that could be tied at the back and with a large rectangular folded-back collar). Women and young girls of the nobility wore the letnik (a garment with very broad, short sleeves with detachable flaps made of expensive fabrics embroidered with stones and pearls). Because of the heavy fabrics and the abundance of precious stones and pearls, the dress of both men and women was very heavy, weighing as much as 44 pounds.


In the middle of the fourteenth century occurs the first mention of the sarafanets (male dress consisting of a long, narrow opened-out garment with sleeves), from which later the main part of the sarafan-a long, sleeveless garment which became the national costume of the Russian woman-got its name. This gender confusion is associated with the fact that the original Persian word meant "honorable dress" and referred to clothes made of imported fabric. Only in the seventeenth century did this term come to apply exclusively to women's clothing. The sarafan was worn over the rubakha (shirt), and became common in the central and northern regions of Russia. The south preferred the paneva, which necessarily was combined with the apron. The sarafans of rich city women were made of silk and velvet, whereas those of peasant women were made of painted domestic linen. The cut of the sarafan differed greatly depending on the place where it was made and on the material: it could be straight, or it could be composed of oblique wedges, kumanchiki, kindiaki, and so on. Over the sarafan was worn the dushegreia (a short, wide jacket).

Diversity of National Dress

Russian traditional costume

The enormous extent of the territory, the diversity of the raw materials, and the conditions of life did not favor the creation of a single national costume in Russia. There existed many different kinds of clothing and headdresses, differing not only from region to region, but even from village to village. In the central and northern parts of the country, the chief decoration of the female headdress was river pearls, while in the south of Russia it was painted goose down, glass beads and buttons, and woolen embroidery. The names of the headresses also differed: soroka, kokoshnik, kika. But one can say with certainty that all the versions of the national costume-from the most ancient combination with the poneva to the later combination with the sarafan-tended toward a general esthetic ideal: a massive, not-highly articulated form and a distinct and simple silhouette.

The men's national costume was more uniform and consisted everywhere of rubakha, porty, and belt.

Reform Era

The reforms of Peter the Great changed the dress only of the upper strata of society. The clothes worn by the common folk changed very slowly and were gradually displaced from the cities to the villages. From this time forth it became accepted to speak not of the national dress, but of the people's dress. The clothes worn by the urban poor and handicraftsmen combined traditional and fashionable elements. Even the rich merchant class did not part all at once with the earlier ideas of dignity. Merchants' wives might have worn the most fashionable lownecked dresses, but on their heads they wore shawls tied in a special way, the povoiniki, and they kept wearing them until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Furniture and the configuration of home interiors changed under the influence of European fashion. Skirts worn on frames made it necessary to replace traditional benches with chairs and to acquire fans, gloves, feathers, and lace to decorate one's hairdo. Together with decrees, which changed the national dress, the tsar instituted measures to establish the national production of fabrics. Female lace-makers were invited from Flanders and taught weaving to nuns from nunnery workshops. If the efforts to establish a national industry came to fruition only at the end of the century, the dress reform was realized in and transformed both capitals (St. Petersburg and Moscow) very rapidly.

Over the course of his reign, Peter the Great (1672-1725; tsar from 1682, emperor from 1721) issued seventeen decrees in his name that laid down the rules governing the wearing of European-type dress, the types of fabrics, and the character of the trim for uniforms and festive attire. This attests that Peter the Great reserved a special role for clothing in the system of reforms he was instituting. Two decrees-On the wearing of German dress and footwear by all ranks of people and on the use of German saddles in horseback riding and On the shaving of beards and whiskers by all ranks of men, except priests and deacons, on the taxing of those who do not obey this decree, and on the handing-out of tokens to those who pay the tax-were viewed as disastrous for the sense of national identity in the nineteenth century polemic concerning the consequences of the Petrine reforms. However, here it was not taken into account that, in Peter's time, the word "German" referred not to the nation of Germany but to foreign lands in general; and what was implied was that Saxon, French, and other elements would be combined to create a European style of dress suitable for solving problems that the reformer-tsar set for himself. As far as the dress for the various military services was concerned, the superiority of the short-flap uniform in the European style was obvious and did not raise any questions. The prohibition against wearing the national dress extended only to the narrow circle of people close to the throne, especially the boyars. In order to institute his new policies, Peter needed new people, whom he enlisted for service to the throne without regard to which class they belonged. The national dress remained a precise indicator of class. Moreover, the consciousness that the peasant's son who wore the armiak (plain cloth coat) had of himself was, even if he was invested with the personal trust of the tsar, different from that of the boyars who wore the hereditary gorlatnyi hat and the brocade-covered sable fur. In forcibly changing the form in which class was manifested, Peter did not meet with any resistance. For the lower classes, the wearing of European clothing made it possible to change their lives, and they did this without regrets. But the boyars, who from ancient times prided themselves on the luxuriousness of their furs, their long beards, and the precious stones they wore in their rings-also were concerned more with preserving the proximity of their families to the throne than with their personal dignity.

In all things the new dress contradicted the traditional clothing. If a man's feet were uncovered, that was a sign that he had not yet reached marriage age; however, the new decree commanded the wearing of stockings and shoes. The former large multilayer garments gave people the appearance of great bulk and were handed down from generation to generation, but the new clothing was cut to the person's figure and was sewn from several pieces. The most troubling consequence of the introduction of the new dress was the change produced in the habitual gestures and behavior. People's manner of walking became less stately; and when the chin was shaved, the need to smooth out one's beard disappeared, and there was thus no pretext to speak more slowly or to be expressively silent. This was accompanied by the disappearance of the kushak (sash), which had customarily been worn beneath the waist; and there was now no place to stick one's hands. Nevertheless, the boyars offered virtually no resistance. Only single individuals, inspired by true religiosity and fidelity to tradition, offered any resistance.

Eighteenth Century Influences on Russian Clothing

The formative element of the European female dress that had been brought to Russia in the eighteenth century was the corset, and it contradicted the Russian ideal of beauty; however, more important for the female dress was a type of headdress-the fontange. The latter was successful in supplanting, if only in part, the traditional headdress of the married woman, which had to cover the hair fully. In combination with heavy silken fabrics, this considerably facilitated the assimilation of the new forms. A. S. Pushkin later wrote: "The aged grand ladies cleverly tried to combine the new form of dress with the persecuted past: their caps imitated the sable cap of the Empress Natal'a Kirillovna, and their hoop skirts and mantillas were reminiscent to some extent of the sarafan and dushegreia." The first to change their dress were the members of the tsar's family; and members of the court followed them. The Petrine period had already seen the appearance of the notions of "fashionable" and "unfashionable" with reference to European-style dress; and this signified that the reforms had borne their fruit.

Nearly until the end of the eighteenth century, European-style dress (as in the past, Byzantine-style dress) signified that one belonged to the powerful classes, whereas the remaining classes of society retained the traditional dress. The process of the assimilation of European fashions was incredibly rapid. The severe and heavy style of the beginning of the century was replaced fairly rapidly by the rococo style, since with the enthronement of Elizaveta Petrovna (1709-1761, empress from 1741), the quotidian culture and life were oriented toward French fashion.

Catherine the Great (1729-1796, empress from 1762), German by birth and having occupied the throne as the result of a conspiracy, considered it necessary to emphasize the national character of her reign by means of dress. She created her own fashion, including elements of traditional dress. She wore round dresses without a train and a wide-opening outer garment with folded-back sleeves; and in contrast to the French style, the coiffures in the Russian court were worn rather low. This was called fashion "in the manner of the Empress," and it was imitated at the court.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Changes

Russian Elegance: Country & City Fashion from the 15th to the Early 20th Century
Russian Elegance: Country & City Fashion from the 15th to the Early 20th Century

Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1855, emperor from 1825), from the first days of his reign, desired to see ladies at the court wearing Russian dress, and in 1834, a female court "uniform" was introduced by the law of 27 February. Contemporaries called this uniform a "Frenchified sarafan," since it combined the traditional headdress and folded-back sleeves with a tightly cinched waist and an enormous train. The gold or silver embroidery on the velvet dresses corresponded to the embroidery on the uniforms of the court officials. This dress continued to exist at the Russ-ian court without modification until 1917. Even men of the nobility who were not engaged in military or civil service were required to wear the noble uniform, and interest in traditional male dress was viewed as ideological opposition to the existing order.

From 1829, industrial exhibitions were held in Russia. The first exhibition of Russian textile articles was held in Saint Petersburg and showed the indisputable successes of Russian manufacturers of textiles, accessories, and shawls. The manufacture of the latter is an important stage in the history of Russian textiles. This marked the first competitive production of fashionable European accessories. The first textile factory for shawls belonged to N. A. Merlina. In 1800, Merlina began to produce reticules (which became fashionable because of the absence of pockets in dresses of the traditional style) and bordiury (vertical and horizontal borders); and in 1804 she began to produce complete shawls. Then, in the province of Saratov, D. A. Kolokol'tsov opened his factory. The last to start operation, in 1813, was V. A. Eliseeva's complete shawl factory, which meant that it used native, not imported, raw materials. Instead of the wool of mountain goats, the owner used the fur of the saigak antelopes of the southern Russian steppe. Prince Iusupov was also engaged in the production of shawls; his factory in Kupavna, near Moscow, produced fashionable shawls for merchant women and city women, which indicates how ingrained the European fashions became in the everyday life of Russians.

Influential Designers

By the end of the nineteenth century, Russian culture, having passed through its period of apprenticeship, had accumulated a vast creative potential, manifested in all spheres of art, including the art of clothing. The best artists of that time, M. Vrubel' (1856-1910), Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942), L. Bakst (1866-1924), and others, created not only costumes for the stage but also everyday clothing for their female relations and female acquaintances.

The First International Exhibition of Historical and Contemporary Dress and Its Accessories was held in Saint Petersburg in 1902 and 1903. In January 1903, the exhibition "Contemporary Art" opened, with an entire section being devoted to dress. The majority of the pieces were based on the sketches of V. von Meck (1877-1932). The interest in the applied arts and in dress in particular was exemplified in the most spectacular manner by the success of Russian stagecraft, justly appreciated by the international community, during the "Russian Seasons" program in Paris in 1908 and 1909, organized by Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929). The European spectator encountered an indisputable innovation in the art of stage-craft: a single artist was responsible for creating the decorations and the dress of all the characters, something unprecedented for either the Russian or the European stage prior to the group of Russian artists associated with the celebrated magazine The World of Art.

Alexander Benois (1870-1960), A. Golovin (1863-1930), and N. Goncharova (1881-1962) had an enormous influence on the Parisian public, and L. Bakst was invited to work with the Parisian fashion houses. The influence of Russian artists on the European fashions of the first decade of the twentieth century was indisputable. P. Poire repeatedly collaborated with Bakst.

Of the professional dressmakers the most celebrated was N. Lamanova, who started her own business in 1885, and in 1901 began her collaboration with the Moscow Art Theater. It was at Lamanova's invitation that Poire, with whom she frequently met in Paris, visited Moscow and Saint Petersburg in 1911. Lamanova continued to work in Moscow, and after 1917 she became one of the founders of Soviet dress: she participated in the publication of the magazine Atel'e (1923), devised programs for teaching the dressmaking craft, and continued her collaboration with the Moscow Art Theater and other Moscow theaters. In 1925, at the Paris world exhibition, Lamanova's collection was deemed worthy of the grand prize "for national originality in combination with a contemporary orientation in fashion." However, shortly after receiving this award, she lost the right to vote because she had used hired workers in her workshop.

Shortly after 1917, the group of constructivist artists who were associated with the magazine Lef-V. Stepanova (1894-1958), Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956), L. Popova (1889-1924), as well as A. Exter (1884-1949)- distinguished themselves in the making of contemporary dress. Rejecting the previous forms of dress, the constructivists proclaimed "comfort and purposefulness" as their main principle. Clothes had to be comfortable to work in, easy to put on, and easy to move around in. The main orientation of their work was the so-called prozodezhda, production dress. The basic elements of this clothing were simple geometrical shapes: squares, circles, and triangles. Particular attention was given to athletic dress; bright color combinations were used to distinguish the various competing teams. The fashion of those years was urban fashion, and the places of action were stadiums and squares, which were appropriate only for young and strong people. Private life, as well as the private person, disappeared. Individual taste was inappropriate. All resources were expended on the industrial production of clothing; here, complicated cuts and intricate ornaments hindered the unceasing operation of the machines.

In 1921, V. Stepanova and L. Popova were invited to the first cotton-print factory in Moscow. Both of them stopped working on machine painting and began to work with great enthusiasm on cotton specimens, preferring geometrical patterns and deliberately rejecting traditional vegetation motifs. The ornaments they created did not have analogues in the history of textiles, and with their bright colors they imparted a festive and fresh appearance to simple cotton fabrics.

The rigid ideological control of all spheres of life in the second half of the 1920s led to a situation in which the creative heritage of brilliant artists was not under-stood, not actualized, and was forgotten for a long period of time. The rulers considered it necessary to rewrite the recent history, expelling from everyday life all mention of the past and, first and foremost, the material incarnation of the revolutionary aesthetic ideal. The administrative system controlled consumption and encouraged the formation of new elites, offering them the possibility of acquiring clothing in special ateliers and stores. Clothes designers were being educated in the arts department of the Textile Institute, but this profession was not considered a creative one, with corresponding privileges. Furthermore, since there was no private enterprise, these designers could find work only at state-owned firms and institutions (design houses, large specialized studios), submitting to the state plan and worrying that they would be accused of being bourgeois degenerates.

All attempts to express one's individuality through dress, to separate oneself from the faceless gray crowd, were thwarted by administrative measures. In 1949, the word stiliaga entered the Russian language and was used to stigmatize lovers of colorful clothing. In each city there appeared a "Broadway" (usually the main thoroughfare of the city, named after the street in New York City); and a promenade on this street could result in expulsion from the Textile Institute or arrest for hooliganism.

The first to legalize the profession and to escape from the administrative captivity was Slava Zaitsev (b. 1938), who established the Theater of Fashions (1980), which later became his fashion house. By this time Russia had more than a few brilliant designers who were also recognized abroad. Irina Krutikova (b. 1936) became widely known as a designer of fur clothing and received the title "queen of fur." She resurrected many old traditions and created new methods for coloring and finishing fur. She opened her own studio in 1992.

The perestroika or great political change of the late 1980s made it possible to organize one's own business, to travel the globe, and to open boutiques of international brands in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and other cities of the former Soviet Union. It also offered great opportunities for both creators and consumers of Russian fashion. This changed the appearance of cities and liberated people from having to expend enormous effort to acquire the necessities of life. Designers appeared who specialized in accessories. Irina Deineg (b. 1961) became known as a designer of both common and exclusive styles of hats. Viktoriia Andreianova, Viktor Zubets, Andrei Sharov, Andrei Bartenev, Valentin Yudashkin, and Iulia Ianina exhibit their collections every year, and at the same they are developing designs for private individuals as well as for mass production, filling corporate orders.

See also Ethnic Dress; Royal and Aristocratic Dress; Traditional Dress.


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Russia: History of Dress