Dress the Part:
Clothing Styles of Medieval Russia
Western Civ

Research Report
Web Resources


    Fashion in Russia, unlike fashion in most Western European countries, was not dictated entirely by the appearance of the clothing.  Clothing had to keep the people warm and comfortable and this need is reflected in the preferred Russian styles.  In the period between the tenth and eighteenth century, much of Russian fashion also has roots in the various cultures that have dominated the territory over the years.  Many styles changed in the transition between the cultures, but a few basics of the Russian costume remained consistent.  Beyond the clothing, there are other items that must be considered in a survey of the Russian costume, items such as footwear, headwear, and jewelry.  The trends popular among the people do not fully represent the fashion trends seen in the court, therefore the fashion of the court must be considered separately.  The fashion trends that held sway over Russian dress were diverse and many, resulting in a rich history of traditional Russian clothing.

Historical Background

     During the medieval era in Western Europe, Eastern Europe was a series of isolated territories in which power and control changed hands often.  Russia was one of these terrritories.  During the period between the tenth century and the eighteenth century, there were three main political stages, each marked by a change in power.  The first prominent society to develop in Russia was that of the Varangians.  The land had previously been settled by various tribes, predominantly Asiatic.  In 826 AD, the Slavic people accepted the Viking dominion and power was given to Rurik, a Danish prince, who centered his empire in the city of Kiev.  Thus began the period of “Keivan Russia.”  In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a major influential society conquered Keivan Russia, not through warring and domination, but through religion.  The city of Kiev adopted Byzantine Christianity.  With the acceptance of the religion came the influx of culture, which could be seen in architecture as well as clothing styles.  “Keivan Russian was to import more or less en bloc the high stylization and the ornateness of Byzantium…” (Carmichael 31).

    As the twelfth century came to a close, so did the great Keivan Era of Russian history.  The dawning of the thirteenth century brought the emergence of society in Moscow, as well as an invading Mongol horde.  The Mongols, or Tartars as they were sometimes called, dominated Russia for two centuries.  When the Mongol Empire finally dissolved, it left behind a growing power in Moscow that was to become the center of Russian civilization, in a time period known as the Muscovite Era (Carmichael 33).

Research Report

Keivan Russia and Muscovite Russia are the two well-defined landmarks in Russian fashion and dress, with very little happening in relation to fashion during the Mongol occupation.  The majority of Russian fashion during the Keivan period was adopted directly from the Byzantine court.  It was common to see Russians in long loose tunics with tapered sleeves and Byzantine fabrics.  During the Muscovite period, trade began to flourish in Russia and access was gained to sources of fabrics such as silk, brocades, velvets, samits, and satins.  The fabric of a person’s clothes came to signify his or her wealth as those who could afford it, imported and bought finer fabrics.  It also became fashionable this time to wear more and more layers.  Eventually it reached a point where five layers became a minimum for travel outside the house.  The greatest change at this time was in sleeve length.   Sleeves became floor-length and would hang or would be tied behind the back.  Narrow slits at the elbow or the shoulder were included for the arm to pass through the sleeve.

 Contrary to the changes in fashion during the Keivan and Muscovite eras, there are some basic articles that remained central to Russian dress.  The most basic of all, is the Russian blouse-shirt, called the rubakha.  The rubakha usually extended to the knees or lower, with trim on the hem, sleeves and collar (Pavlovicha).  The rubakha has also been called the srachitsa, sorochitsa, or sorochka, and was worn by all Russians regardless of social station.  The rubakha of the peasants were coarse linen and worn as both an outer garment and an under garment.  The upper classes wore rubakhas of fine linen, mainly as an undergarment, with other layers of finer materials on top (la Rus).  The embroidery that was often seen around the neck of rubakhas of the aristocracy, was usually substituted for strips of red cloth by the working class.  The sleeves of the rubakha were longer than the arms so that the hands could be tucked in for warmth.  If the rubakha was without a collar, there would usually be a deep slit down the front or side held with a button (Carroll-Clark).  The collar on some rubakhas was most likely added as a result of the Byzantine influence.

 Another staple of the Russian costume was the coat.  There were numerous styles of coats worn by the Russians, a few of which were gender specific.  The traditional outer garment worn by both sexes was the svita, or svyta.  The svita was an outer coat, added upon other layers for warmth and intended to be worn over the shoulders or left unclasped to reveal layers underneath (la Rus).  The cut of the svita was straight with a gradual widening near the bottom.  The svita in general was loose, but fit more closely around the arms, with tapering at the wrists, and the torso area.  It usually was no longer than mid-calf in length.  The garment was donned by pulling it over the head and then cinched by a wide fabric belt.  The head opening was a slit down to the waist (a common style in Keivan Russia), which could be fastened by three or four buttons. It was made of wool and often lined with fur for winter wear.  The svita was the most common of many Russian styles of coat.

    In Russia, layers were the only way to ensure warmth.  As a result, a cloak was often worn over the svita.  The Russian name for the style of cloak they wear is korzno, which is derived from a Byzantine cloak called a chlamys.  Both the chlamys and the korzno are worn on the left shoulder and fastened on the right shoulder or breast with a large ornamental brooch, called a fibula.  The korzno was made of heavy cloth and lined with fur (Pavlovicha, Carroll-Clark).  It could be semi-circular, as the original chlamys was (Holl), or rectangular and often hung almost to the ground, in wide pleats or gathered with a belt.
Through the rubakha, the svita, and the korzno, one can begin to understand the costume of a male in Keivan Russia.  There are two main articles that comprise the base of the male costume, the rubakha and pants.  The male style of the rubakha was knee length and usually worn untucked and belted on the left (Pavlovicha).  The style of pants most often worn was the porty, which was usually held up by a drawstring that could be of cord or a belt (Carroll-Clark).  The pants usually tapered to the ankles and were worn tucked in to the boot.  Linen was the common fabric used to make the porty.  A poor man would wear nothing more than the linen porty, while the nobility and merchants would add a second pair of wool or silk. (The silk was more common in royalty (Carroll-Clark).)  There was a second style of pants, “poofta,” that may have been popular as well, but information on them is incomplete.  It is known that they were quite comfortable which may have caused their popularity.

    There are various possible garments or accessories that can be worn over the rubakha and porty.  The most common style was to wear the svita over the rubakha, followed by the korzno.  In colder weather, men would wear hats of broadcloth, felt or fur. (Iaroslava)  For ceremonial celebrations during the Keivan period, especially in the royal court, a Byzantine type of tunic was adopted, the talaris.  The Byzantine talaris was a long elaborate tunic, which fit close to the body with a slit on each side, and extended to the floor.  The Russian version was cut shorter and often ornamented with or made from fine wool and silk, sometimes ornamented with woven-in gold or silver thread in intricate patterns.  The expensive fabrics that went into the making of a Russian talaris usually came from Byzantium or other eastern countries and were referred to as pavolok (Carroll-Clark).  For the commoner, who couldn’t afford a talaris, it was customary to don a ceremonial collar on holidays.  The ozherel’e was a form of highly embroidered collar that was attached to the rubakha for ceremonies among the lower classes.

    The male costume in Muscovite Russia was different from that in Keivan Russia in the number of layers and in the length of the sleeves and the overall garment.  The base of the Muscovite costume remained the rubakha and porty style pants, but at this time the kaftan (or caftan) became popular instead of the svita.  The kaftan was a wide garment, fitted and fastened around the waist using cord or lace buttonholes with tassels.  The kaftan had long narrow sleeves, and amongst the wealthy were ankle-length.  The ozherel’e could be attached to the kaftan for ceremonial occasions.  In everyday situation, a homespun knee-length collarless jacket called a zipun, that was narrow with fasteners down the front, was donned over the kaftan.  For those who could not afford a kaftan, only a zipun was worn instead.  Over the zipun was worn some combination of three garments.  First was the odnoryadka, a sort of single-breasted kaftan.  The odnoryadka was an ankle-length unlined jacket with sleeves of the same length worn unfastened and gathered in pleats.  The second article was the okhaben'.  The okhaben' was a long jacket, with a wide skirt and two collars, one standing and the second wide and turned down.  The sleeves of the okhaben' were floor length and narrow with slits above the elbow for the arms.  The third garment was the opashen' which was similar to the okhaben', but it was worn unfastened and cinched with a sash.  The sleeves of the opashen' were folded and not as narrow as those of the okhaben' but also had slits.  The Russians chose to adorn themselves with these garments in various combinations- singly or layered, and the combinations in which they were worn were often dictated by wealth.  The poorer subjects could not afford to own all three types of garment and in that case it was usually the odnoryadka that they chose to wear (Payne, 317).

    The Muscovite era also saw evolution of new ceremonial garments and the development of layers as a fashion trend.  As the talaris went out of style it was replaced by an unbuttoned jacket, called a feryaz.  The sleeves of the feryaz hung below the hands or were gathered into folds.  The feryaz had fur lining and/or trim with hoop fasteners, but no collar.  The feryaz could be worn on top of the kaftan or zipun, common for nobles, or directly on the rubakha, as was done by peasants and traders.  Among the higher social classes, the layers continued.  A narrow long coat that could be donned for everyday or for ceremonial events was a shuba.  The shuba had floor-length sleeves and a standing collar, and the coat was most often made of patterned or decorated material.  The shuba eventually became popular with the lower classes as well.  Over the shuba, the nobility
commonly arranged themselves in a kozhukh, a sheepskin or leather jacket, with fur lining and decorations of pearls and embroidery (Pavlovicha).  The nobility shrouded themselves in layers, while the commoners were arrayed in as many layers as they could afford.  This is true for the men and the women.

    Women's clothing was similar to that of the men.  In Keivan times, the basic article of clothing for females was the rubakha, just like the men, but the female rubakha was longer, reaching the feet, and featured a slightly gathered neckline.  If there was money enough, a second rubakha was worn, referred to as a dalmatic.  Byzantine in origin, the dalmatic was usually made from silk or fine linen, dyed bright colors, and slightly shorter than the undergarment.  The rubahka was always belted, regardless of whether it was being worn singly or in combination with a dalmatic (Carroll-Clark).  The next layer of clothing was determined by a woman's role in society.  A married woman would wear a wrap-around-skirt over her rubakha, called a panova.  The panova consisted of three panels of cloth, usually rectangular or diamond in shape, sewn together at the top only and gathered on a drawstring (la Rus).  The front was usually left open.  An unmarried woman wore a zanaviska or zapona, which was one long rectangular sheet of fabric with a neck opening.  The zanaviska was worn folded in half at the shoulders and belted or pinned on the sides (la Rus, Carroll-Clark).  Another common piece to female's costume, most often reserved for ceremony, was the navershnik, or navershnyk.  The navershnik was a shorter version of the rubakha that only reached the calves, with short wide sleeves and lavish decorations.  The navershnik was not belted, and could be worn over the panova or zanaviska for holidays.  In cold weather, the women covered themselves with a simple cloak, or with multiple jackets topped with a svita and/or a korzno.  The svita and the korzno differed little from male to female styles.

    Female fashion followed the same general trends seen in the male costume as the society transitioned from the Keivan era to the Muscovite period; the sleeves became longer, dresses reached ankle length, and layers became fashionable.  The styling of the dalmatic became reserved for ceremony and was worn with a mantle or a korzno (more rare) over the shoulders (la Rus).  The rubakha grew in length until it fell to the heels.  It developed a round collar and it became fashionable to collect the sleeves in pleats.  Over the rubakha, women worn a sarafan, a woman's fur-lined, sleeveless jacket, which could be either slanted or straight and wide, with the back gathered in pleats.  It often had many buttons or studs, or was held up by straps (Pavlovicha).  There was also a popular version of the sarafan that was straight in cut with floor-length false sleeves that hung down behind the arms (Iaroslava).  A telogreya could be worn instead of or with a sarafan.  The telogreya was a straight and long, padded or quilted jacket, that buttoned to the bottom.  A telogreya was usually sleeveless, but when it had sleeves, they contained slits above the elbows and the sleeve itself could be folded back and out of the way.

    A common garment that became popular in the Keivan era and continued to grow in popularity through the Muscovite era was the letnik, a graceful gown, ankle length, cut long and straight, and put on over the head.  The sleeves of the letnik were bell shaped and extremely wide due to the fact that they were only sewn/joined to the elbow.  The letnik was often decorated with voshvas, pieces of fabric that were highly embroidered, and had a wide round collar attached.  The shuba was gaining popularity during this period and a feminine version was adopted by women who used the long sleeves to carry items.  The female shuba could be single-breasted or wide and donned over the head. (Pavlovicha).

    Clothing trends made up a majority of what comprised Russian fashion, but not all of it.  There were many accessories that accompanied the clothing worn by the Russians that also experienced trends.  Such accessories included footwear, jewelry, and headwear.  Both men and women wore the same styles of shoes.  Peasants would wear simple shoes of gathered leather with foot cloths and cross gartering.  Leather boots were more popular in the cities and amongst the aristocracy.  Boots were of any height between the ankle and knee, and sometimes slanted downward in back.  The toes were usually blunt, but the aristocracy could be seen wearing boots with pointed toes with a slight upturn.  Some wealthy women wore shoes or boots made of fabric (Carroll-Clark).  Leg wraps were another common addition to the Russian ensemble; added in the winter to protect the legs and feet from the cold.  They were bandages of wool, tied on with leather thongs or strips of cloth.  The leg wraps were often left plain as they were rarely seen underneath the rubakha, especially during the Muscovite period when the rubakha was reached the ankles  (Wilton, 365).

    Ornamentation and jewelry, above all other things, were extremely popular among the Russian people.  Prior to the era of Byzantine influence, most jewelry was designed to make noise and scare away evil spirits or ward off the “evil eye” (Pushkareva 97).  Married women wore more ornaments than maidens and maidens more than men.  Metal was the most popular material for personal ornamentation.  Many techniques were employed to produce a wide variety of designs including engraving, filigree, niello, enameling, pearl work, and silverwork.  All clothing, both men's and women's, could be and usually was decorated to some extent.  Embroidery was common, but so was drobnytsi, small metal plates attached to strips of cloth, sometimes with precious stones, and sewn onto the clothing.  The metal used for the jewelry or drobnytsi was determined by wealth.  The peasants usually employed tin, copper, bronze or base silver, while the upper classes preferred silver or gold.  This metal standard applied not only to the drobnytsi, but to other forms of ornamentation as well, jewelry included.

    Necklaces, bracelets, rings, beads and eventually earrings were favorite types of jewelry for the Russian people during both the Keivan and Muscovite periods.  In the style of jewelry, men wore a thick neck ring called a hrvyna, and earrings, though only in one ear.  Women wore a wide variety of jewelry made of an equally wide variety of materials.  Bracelets were usually made of metal, chosen based on wealth, but could also be made of glass.  Earrings for women came into style during the Muscovite period and were not restricted to any certain material or style.  The beads worn by women could be found in various shapes and colors.  A variety of materials were used also; stone or base rock, precious stones (jewels), metal, glass, amber, or ivory, with glass being the most common (Carroll-Clark).

    The three main types of jewelry unique to the Russians were amulets, temple rings, and kolts.  Amulets came in many shapes; crescents, triangles, cruciforms, animal shapes, Celtic knots, and non-functional spoons, keys, and knives, as well as many other shapes.  Amulets could be worn secured to the head by a ribbon, a small chain, or a leather thong, secured to shoulder or belt by a pin, or as a necklace.  Amulets could be worn singly or in sets.  Temple rings were metallic rings that were braided into the hair or attached to a headdress and hung at the temples.  They were almost always worn in sets.  Some rings were slender and plain, while others were adorned with three diamond shaped medallions or beads, still others had seven “leafs” or “rays.”  The kolt was a definitive piece of Russian jewelry.  Kolts were small hollow pieces of metal, usually one to two inches in diameter (more expensive versions could reach two and a half inches) that were worn as pendants or attached at the temples, much like the temple rings.  It is most likely that the kolt was filled with bits of perfumed cloth to combat not-so-pleasant odors that women encountered in everyday life.  Kolts could be made from inexpensive alloys, making them available to the lower classes, or they could be made of silver, or even gold in some rare cases (Holl).

    Headwear was another important part of Russian clothing, as it could serve as another line of defense against the cold winters, or could signify one’s marital status.  Maidens and, occasionally, married women who were childless, wore headbands or braided their hair (Dmytryshyn 385).  The maiden’s headband originated as simple strips of cloth or ribbon with some embroidery.  By the eleventh century, the head bands had become more elaborate. They grew wide with decorations across the top, often make of metal or leather.  During the Muscovite era, the bands were braided into the hair and were adorned with kosnik, a triangle of leather or birch bark that was decorated with pearls, beads and stones, or covered with silk.  Elaborately embroidered headbands, called venets, meaning crown, were also worn.  Ryaska, strands of pearls or beads, hung from the sides of the band, and a podniz’, pearl net, was attached and hung over the forehead (Pavlovicha).  Married women with children always kept their head covered.  The hair was gathered and wound on top of the head, then covered by a povoynyk, or podbrusnik, a hat of thin material.  A net of silk, silver, or gold threads could be worn in place of the povoynyk and was called a volosnik.  The second layer was the ubrus, which was a silk or linen kerchief, usually purple or white, with embroidery at the ends.  The ubrus was approximately two meters long and 40 to 50 centimeters wide.  It was worn draped over the head and shoulders, secured under the chin.  The ends could hang down the sides, or hang with one end in front and one in back.  Sometimes a podniz’ was attached to the povoynyk so that it would show under the ubrus.  Over the ubrus could be worn a kika, an embroidered hat, or a fur hat with earflaps (Pavlovicha, Carroll-Clark).

    The male headwear is a simple derivative of the female headdress, with the males wearing only the outer fur hat, though of a slightly different style.  The hat was usually conical or pointed and worn by all classes – peasants to princes.  If the hat was not made out of fur, it was made out of felt or wool and had earflaps of fur along the sides that could be turned up.  This style of hat was called the kolpak.  During the Muscovite period, men were also seen to wear high, flat-topped hats with earflaps, referred to as murmolks, and usually made of valuable materials.  Around the house men, wore the taf’ya, which was a silk or velvet skullcap, pointed, trimmed with fur, and lavishly embroidered.  When he ventured out of the house, a second hat, the kolpak or murmolk, was placed on top of the taf’ya (Boucher, 297).

    These styles of clothing, shoes, jewelry, and headwear were most common styles seen in the cities and surrounding areas of Kiev and Moscow.  So far, an accurate representation has not been given of the attire in the royal court, or in some of the more distant providences.  The attire of the royal court reflected the fashions of the common people, but were much more ornate.  In the Keivan period, when Byzantine influence was at its peak, the nobles at court strove to copy the Byzantine styles.  Robes were much looser and free flowing than those of the common people.  Intricate designs of gold and silver thread were woven into clothing, or the clothing itself was made of silver and gold.  Richard Chancellor wrote upon the court of Ivan the Terrible in Moscow in 1553.  The “Duke” he refers to is Ivan himself.  "…the interpreter came for me into the outer chamber, where sat one hundred or more gentlemen, all in cloth of gold very sumptuous, and from thence I came into the Council Chamber, where sat the Duke himself… in a long garment of beaten gold" (Dmytryshyn, 290).  Ivan’s garment was of the long styles popular during the Muscovite era, but without embroidery, leaving instead the gold cloth completely unadorned.  Jacques Margeret, a Frenchman, described the styles among court females in 1606.  The length of the sleeves and the loose, straight cut of the garment, as well as the rich fabric used awed him.  "These women are dressed in long gowns, as wide at the shoulders as at the bottom…under this gown they have another dress of silk, with great sleeves more than an ell of Paris wide…if she is a woman she wears a cap embroidered with pearls, but if she is a girl she wears a tall hat of black fox fur… all wear a collar of pearls a good four fingers in width and earrings which are very long.  They wear boots made of red and yellow Moroccan leather…" (Dmytryshyn, 385).  The general trends noted in the clothing styles of the common people and lower nobles were represented in the royal court, but in much more exaggerated forms.

    One specific garment that was seen in royal courts but could not found amongst the peasants or lower nobility was the formal kaftan, called the terlik.  The terlik was a rare style court uniform, stored in the State Treasury and only used for official state ceremonies during the 17th century.  The royal entourage and a select few court officials were allowed to wear terliks.  The terlik was a knee-length style of kaftan with a detachable tight fitting bodice and a wide skirt.  The bodice was fastened with hooks on the in the center and the fasteners were hidden by a broad flap which hooked under the left arm.  The bodice also included a small raised collar.  The skirt was gathered at the waist with hemming that was a wide strip of uncut golden velvet, meant to imitate fur.  The sleeves were comprised of two parts: the upper, which was wide and gathered at the elbow, and the lower, which was narrow, with a reversed cuff.  On the front and back of the bodice of the terlik were identical designs of two-headed eagles with three crowns embroidered in gold and silver thread.  The breast of each eagle bears the shield of St. George, which was the emblem of Moscow (Vishnevskaya).

    Is it easy to see the diverse nature of Russian fashion in which some aspects changed while others remained static over an 800-year span.  Russian fashion acts as an example of Russian culture as a whole.   Over the course of the development of the Russian costume and the history of Russia’s fashion, the changes reflected the political and economic variances in the culture, but the basics of the Russian costume such as the rubakha remained constant.  The territory of Russian has been conquered by and influenced by multiple other societies over the years, beginning in the tenth century, through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Although the conquering nation had control, the Russian people accepted and assimilated aspects of the conquering society while keeping the basis of their own culture.  Russian fashion in the middle ages permeated the full spectrum of Russian life; from peasants to nobles, from the farm to the royal court, and from town gossip to international politics.

References/Works Cited

Boucher, Francois. 20,000 Years of Fashion; the History of Costume and Personal Adornment.  New York, New York. H. N. Abrams, 1967.

Carmichael, Joel. A Cultural History of Russia. New York, New York.: Weybright and Talley. 1968.

Carroll-Clark, Susan. “Dress among the Rus” from the Novgorod Handbook. 1997. Available at http://medievalrussia.freeservers.com/dress-nicolaa.html#rusman; Internet; Accessed April 11, 2002.

Dmytryshyn, Basil. Medieval Russia- A Source Book, 850-1700. 3rd Ed. Orlando, Florida.: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc. 1991.

Holl, Masha Gedilaghine.  Predslava’s Russian History Trivia Page. Available at http://members.aol.com/Predslava/RussianHistoryTriviaPage.html; Internet; Accessed April 11, 2002.

Iaroslava, Lady Seraphima. Russian Garb: Basic Overview the Quick and Dirty Way. Available at http://www.huscarl.com/costume/text/russiandoc.htm; Internet; Accessed April 11, 2002

la Rus, Sofya. Kies, Mka Lisa. Women’s Clothing in Keivan Rus.  Available at http://www.strangelove.net/~kieser/Russia/KWC.html. Internet; Accessed April 11, 2002.

Pavlovicha, Korolevstvo Mikhaila Strannika. Old Russian Costume. Available at http://www.geocities.com/weyland.geo/Znanie/VIEnglish.htm; Internet; Accessed April 11, 2002.

Payne, Blanche. History of Costume, from the Ancient Egyptians to the Twentieth Century. New York, New York. Harper & Row.1965.

Pushkareva, Natalia. Women in Russian History. New York, New York. M.E. Sharpe. 1997.

Wilton, Mary Margaret Stanley Egerton, Countess of. The Book of Costume: or Annals of Fashion (1846) by a Lady of Rank. Lopez Island, Washington.: R. L. Shep. 1986.

Vishnevskaya, Inna I. Formal Caftan: Terlik.  Available at http://www2.sptimes.com/Treasures/TC. Internet; Accessed April 11, 2002.

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