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Russian folk costume

Updated on October 7, 2014

From books and museum collections

Among peasants the Russian folk costume retained its attributes up to the early 20th c. From this point of view the Russian folk costume commands special interest as a national costume. It comprises the traditional forms of peasant dress, the specifics of ornamentation, and manner of wearing it along with other original features. The Russian merchant class and petty bourgeoisie adhered to the Russian style of dress throughout the 18th and 19th cc. finding it difficult to accept European novelties.

The traditional Russian costume was noted for its straight-cut freely flowing lines. The cut was based on the width of the homespun or purchased fabric and accounted for the archaic style of traditional Russian garments: the considerable length of the dress, and especially the long-sleeved women's shirts, worn in some districts. General features included the nature of the décor and the manner of wearing garments intended to produce a "multi-layer" costume ensemble, consisting of several garments worn one over the other. All these peculiarities of the peasant garments reflected the original nature of the Russian costume which had retained its main features from the times of Ancient Rus.


No doubt, sarafan (saraphan) is the most known and popular russian women's costume.. First sarafans were like long dresses without sleeves. Later sarafan became more like long dress with wide skirt and held up by wide or narrow straps over the shoulders.

The "sarafan" ensemble

The "sarafan" ensemble consisted of a shirt, "sarafan", belt, and apron.

Women's costume based on the "sarafan"

The Russian women's costume was based on the "sarafan" (a kind of sleeveless dress). The "sarafan" ensemble became widespread in Russia at the turn of the 18th century and consisted of a shirt, "sarafan", belt, and apron. This costume was especially typical of the northern and central regions penetrating with time into the other parts of Russia where it ousted the local traditional dress. In the 18th century it was already associated with the Russian national costume. The "sarafan" was a daily attribute of peasant womenfolk and urban women belonging to the merchant, petty-bourgeois and other sections of the population.

The earliest samples of national folk dress (in collection of Moscow State History Museum) include festive costumes with "sarafans" of printed silken fabrics manufactured in Russia in the late 18th c. Their characteristic feature are oblique gores inserted between the sides of two straight widths in the front and one central width in the back. The "sarafan" had a long row of buttons in front and was suspended on wide straps. This type became known as the oblique-gore "sarafan".

Another type was a simple affair of straight widths of cloth gathered in the front under a binding, having no buttons and also suspended on straps. It was known as the straight-cut or round "sarafan".

The oblique-gore and straight-cut "sarafans" were genetically linked with ancient-Russian garments such as the "telogreya" (padded jacket) and "nakladnaya shubka" (outer coat). These diverse "sarafan" cuts could be observed in the 19th and early 20th cc. in different provinces of Russia.

"Sarafans" of silken fabrics printed with lavish flower bouquets and garlands were ornamented with golden galloons and metallic lace; silver or gilt buttons formed a decorative pattern along the seams. Such "sarafans" were worn with white shirts ("sleeves") of lawn or muslin heavily embroidered in chain-stitch with white thread, or with silken shirts of "sarafan" fabrics with flower prints. These festive "sarafans" and shirts were dearly valued and worn with care on holidays and handed down.

"Sarafans" were girdled at the waist with narrow belts having long loose ends.

In different localities this attire was supplemented with a short "sarafan"-like garment - "epanechka", also made of silken manufactured fabric and decorated with golden galloon.

On cold days a long-sleeved jacket - "dushegreya" - gathered on the back into tubular folds was worn. Its cut differed from the traditional style and was close to that of civil-type clothes.

The festive "dushegreya" was made of silken fabric or velvet and embroidered with golden thread.

In Russia's northern provinces the silk "sarafan" was worn with a head-dress decorated with needlework, pearls, golden and silver threads and mother-of-pearl plaques. These materials were also used for pectoral ornaments.

In several regions maidens wore belted shirts without a "sarafan". At village holidays, like "first live-stock pasturing", or "hay-mowing" it was customary to go out dressed in a long shirt with a lavishly embroidered hem. This was a demonstration of the maidens' assiduity, taste and mastership.

"Kokoshnik" - headdress for "sarafan" costume

One of the most common type of festive head-dress was the "kokoshnik", a kind of rigid cap worn with the "sarafan". 18th -early 19th century "kokoshniks" were masterfully decorated with pearls, meshwork of pearls and mother-of-pearl plaques, golden and silver needlework, coloured foil and decorative stones. The head-dress was treasured in the family and handed down, and was an integral element of a well-off bride's dowry.

The "kokoshniks" boasted a variety of original forms, from those of a crescent or a peak topped with a "knob", to small flat hats covering the ears, all of them reflecting local customs and aesthetical ideas.

Wedding and festive head-dress worn in northern and central provinces in the 18th-19th cc. boasted a variety of forms and reflected local peculiarities, and age and social distinctions.

Women's costume based on the "poneva"

The more archaic form of dress was based on the "poneva" skirt.

The "poneva" set of Russian garments is represented in the collection by samples of dress dating to the late 19th - early 20th centuries. Serving to underline the multi-layer nature of the Russian costume, the "poneva" was worn over a shirt and topped by a special "zapan" apron, often with sleeves. Over this came the "navershnik" - a tunic-like garment, followed by accessories and ornaments.

This archaic form of Russian garments with a flowing tunic-like cut of its many components was widespread in Russia's southern regions (Ryazan, Tambov, Voronezh and other provinces).

The original nature of such costumes is best observed in the festive Ryazan costume from Mikhailovsky district presented at the Museum. Its main feature is the clear-cut delineation of sizable vertical and horizontal sections, ornamentation based on the well-defined rhythm of horizontal strips, and contrast of colour. Its geometrical structure is continued in the ornaments on the breast and back - "krylya". This costume was worn with a "soroka" (head-dress with "horns"), and white stocking-like "onuchi" (strips of homespun cloth wound around the leg) finished off with blunt-pointed woven bast shoes - "lapti". In this garb a peasant woman's figure became solemn and monumental.

Another Ryazan costume shows the original décor and cut employed in women's shirts, with scarlet inserts and unusually long sleeves in observance of the ancient Russian tradition. The shirts are ornamented with weaving and embroidery depicting geometrical patterns executed in red thread. On one of the shirts home-spun and hand-made elements of décor are supplemented with manufactured ornamentation: patterned bands, sparkling galloons, metallic spangles, buttons and decorative tapes, evidence of the wide-spread nature of manufactured articles in the late 19th - early 20th-century Russian village and their wide use in traditional clothes.

Head-dress for "poneva" set

The head-dress for costumed based on "poneva" was a complicated affair having a rigid foundation - "kichka", and a soft crown - "soroka", supplemented by numerous details.

More about women's headdress

According to an ancient custom common to all eastern Slav peoples a strict distinction was observed between the headdress and hair-style of maidens and married women. Maidens wore their hair loose or made into a single plait. A married woman wore two plaits and was not allowed to uncover her hair in public. Hence the form of the headdress: one covering the entire head for married women, and one leaving the hair open for maidens.

Holiday and wedding head-dress was worn with a shawl.

The festive costume of the northern and central provinces was accentuated with pearl earrings and ornaments of golden and silver needlework and mother-of-pearl fixed into the plait.

Men's costume

Men's clothing was simpler and more uniform than women's. Shirts worn with narrow trousers were commonly in use. Shirts were cotton, silken or woollen. Footwear consisted of semi-highboots, highboots and bast shoes.

Men's wedding costume. Beginning of XX c. Ryazan' region
Men's wedding costume. Beginning of XX c. Ryazan' region

Collection of Moscow State History Museum

19th- and early 20th-century "sarafan" sets are represented at the Museum chiefly by garments of homespun fabric - flaxen and woollen, with printed, woven of embroidered patterns (Arkhangelsk, Vologda, Moscow, and Smolensk provinces). No less widespread were "sarafans" of unico-loured red or blue fabric, indigo printed cloth, and homespun chequered motley cloth. They were worn with flaxen shirts lavishly embroidered and decorated with ornamental weaving, patterned bands, bands of printed calico and other materials.

Some more notes

The southern Russia costume shows a special fondness for the red colour which like in the northern and central provinces prevailed in the festive garments. The word "krasnoye" meaning "red" became identified in the people's minds with "prekrasnoye" meaning "beautiful". Moscow's most beautiful central square is called "Krasnaya Ploshchad" (Red Square). The combination of red and white is discovered in ornaments extracted from ancient Slav burial mounds - beads of rock crystal coral, and cornelian. This fondness for the red colour is observed in the choice of red printed fabrics for garments and shawls. And exception is found in the black-thread embroidery of Voronezh shirts, where a delicate geometrical design is worked into the shoulder sections of the festive shirt and the apron hem.

During the cold season warm garments were worn over the regular dress. The booklet presents women's warm outer clothes from Voronezh province of black sateen with a delicate needlework ornament supplemented with vividly coloured strips of manufactured fabric as a model of seasonal garments. It was worn with a warm brightly patterned woollen shawl.

In distinction to northern ornamental motifs folk needlework from the southern privinces abounded in geometrical patterns which were in tune with the general archaid style of the main forms of the southern Russian costume.

While retaining its traditional forms the Russian costume was subject to gradual changes. The developing textile industry and urban fashions could not help influencing the patriarchal mode of life in the Russian village and the peasants' everyday style of living. This was reflected above all in the development of fabrics and garments: cotton fabrics began to vie with flaxen and hemp textiles; brightly patterned manufactured calico stepped in for homespun linen. Under the influence of urban fashions of the 1880-1890 period there emerged in the late 19th-century village a woman's "parochka" costume - a twin-set consisting of a skirt and a blouse made of the same fabric. A new type of shirt, with a yoke, appeared. The upper part of this shirt, "sleeves", were made of calico and especially red calico. The traditional head-dress gradually gave way to cotton and patterned shawls. Red and indigo shawls and kerchiefs with vivid floral patterns became popular.

In the late 19th - early 20th centuries the Russian costume began to lose its traditional locally coloured forms.


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    • navinjoshi profile image


      8 years ago

      Great Collection ... Wow love it .. Navin Joshi ..

    • svetico profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      @writerkath: You are welcome :)

      Thank you for visiting. I'm glad you liked this lens.


    • writerkath profile image


      9 years ago

      Dobre dien Svetlana! (Best I could figure out phonetically!) :) I really enjoyed the beautiful photos. My mother's side of the family was Russian - My mom was the only one born in the US. I used to have one of my grandmother's handmade dress from when she was a little girl in the late 1800's early 1900s - they were from a peasant village outside Minsk somewhere. And, the men's wedding shirt you showed is somewhat similar to one my grandfather had. I may still have it somewhere (or else I gave it to my sister or brother). This was a lot of fun!


      :) Kath

    • svetico profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      @traveller27: Thank you for visiting :)

    • traveller27 profile image


      9 years ago

      Very beautiful costumes and lens!

    • svetico profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      @puerdycat lm: Thank you for your kind words :)

    • puerdycat lm profile image

      puerdycat lm 

      9 years ago

      Love Costuming, embellishment, and your lens!!! Included you in my new Sochi-Olympics-and-History lens.

    • svetico profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      @fatcat1: Thank you! I'm working now on lenses abour ukrainian costume and about folk embroidery.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Great lens, very interesting.


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