The consensus it that the Russian traditional costume has been developing since the XII c. or so.
There is significant variation between the different areas of Russia, especially in women’s costumes. Men’s costumes tended to be fairly similar over all of Russia.
One detail that has remained constant from the middle ages is that married women were supposed to cover their hair completely, whereas unmarried girls could go with their hair uncovered, even at home. Women braided their hair in two braids and pinned it up, then covered it with a headdress. Girls wore their hair in a single braid, and in some areas did not need to braid it at all.
One theory to explain this requirement was that it was introduced with Christianity – women were supposed to cover their hair in church. But more recent historians speculate that it is a much older tradition, otherwise the stricture would not have been so stringent, or been retained so long. In other Christian countries the beliefs associated with hiding a married woman’s hair are not so strict, so the pre-Christian theory makes sense.
Today, it’s a tradition that has essentially died out. However, you will still see that most older women put on a kerchief when they go out. Women will also be required to cover their head when going into a church (men, or course, will be required to take off their hats). In the West, however, in Russian Orthodox churches, no-one will notice if you’re bare-headed (mini-skirts and –shorts, spaghetti straps, crossed legs, however, will be noticed).
The up side of this stricture is that the Russian traditional headdress has a multitude of variations, from the simple kerchief to stiff kokoshniks to headdresses made of several parts put together.
There are traditional embroidery patterns that are similar all around Russia, with small regional variations. These patterns can sometimes be seen in other folk art.
Shoes were also varied, especially when factory-made shoes became available. Yet until fairly recently, the lapti, or shoes woven out of bast (the inner bark of the lime tree or the willow or the birch; even the (mo;;evel]nik)juniper). These shoes were used all over European Russia, but not in Siberia. They were worn over leg wraps, the whole thing secured by straps.
The shirt was also universal – white, made of homespun linen or hemp cloth, later from factory-made fabrics. It was about ankle-length for women, and mid-thigh for men (with regional variations, of course). It was worn belted almost universally. The side-buttoned shirt is not the most widespread type, even though it is the one used most by stage costumers. Not even the standing collar is standard. But it was made to be pulled on, not buttoned up.
In the winter, furs and felt were used extensively. Felt boots were worn on the coldest, driest days. Melting snow or mud will ruin felt boots and make the wearer miserable with soaked, cold feet. But when the weather was cold and dry, felt boots remained impermeable, and provided warm footwear. Leather boots, of course, were also common.
The costumes that we will speak of have been worn until the first quarter of the 20th c., but might still be worn here and there, in remote villages, for certain celebrations. By the 19th c., it was peasant clothing. You will be surprised to see, however, brocades and fine wools, silks, fancy embroidery, yards and yards of fabric for one garment, pearls (mostly freshwater), gold thread, and other fancy and expensive details. Not all peasants were poor and covered in dirt and tatters. Not all peasants were beggars. Some peasants were prosperous farmers, renowned artisans.
The main types of women’s costume:
- Costume consisting of a shirt, a skirt, an apron (waist-high or chest-high), a belt (not leather), a complex headdress made of several sections.
This type of costume is found mainly in southern Russia.
- Costume consisting of shirt, sarafan (sleeveless, cone-shaped dress), short jacket, a simple headdress, shoes made mostly of leather.
This type of costume is the most widespread.
- Costume consisting of a shirt with turn-down collar, a striped, woolen skirt, a jacket (waisted, waist-length or knee-length), a sash, a simple headdress.
This was the costume of the descendants of government employees sent to the southern areas in the XVI-XVII centuries to provide border safety. It shows a Lithuanian origin.
- Costume consisting of a waisted dress worn over a shirt with wide sleeves, and pants and a knit hat.
This costume was worn by Cossack women from the Don river and Northern Caucasus from the XVII to the early XIX c. It was probably influenced by the costume of native peoples of the northern Causasus.
Men’s costume had much less variations. It consisted of a tunic-type shirt with a side-opening, pants, leather or bast shoes, a had with brim or without. The shirt was usually worn over the pants and belted, although in some areas it could be tucked in. Men wore either woven belts or leather belts (women did not usually wear leather belts).
The fabric used was either homespun (linen, hemp, woolen, wool mix) or factory-made (silk, wool, cotton, brocade). Factory-made fabrics made their way to parts of Siberia only in the late XVIII century. They became more common, overall, by the late XIX c.
Fur was also used extensively, both as decoration on collar and cuffs, and as a principal element in fur coats. It was usually worn with the fur to the inside, and the coat could be covered with fabric and embroidered on the outside.
Of course, all of these costumes had regional variants, sometimes even from village to village: colors, sewing patterns, colors, embroideries.
Variants also indicated the social status or age of a person.
Children younger than 5 or 7 did not wear fancy garments. Their clothes were usually hand-me-downs or made of scraps of old garments or leftovers. Boys and girls were usually dressed in a belted shirt.
From the age of 7 or so, the costume became more gender-specific. Boys began wearing pants. Girls were allowed to wear “jewelry” of a sort: necklaces made of dried berries or seeds, ribbons. On Sundays and holidays, they wore a sarafan or a skirt over their shirts.
Young men and girls of marriageable age usually wore the brightest costumes and the most complex. Their garments were new. The main difference between girl’s and women’s costumes was the headdress, as we already noted.
The elderly wore simpler costumes, often in white and black (colors of mourning).
Old maids were not allowed to wear a married woman’s headdress. They braided their hair as unmarried girls did – in one braid, and wore a kerchief over that.