Social Functions of Clothing in Early Rus

by Sofya la Rus, Mka Lisa Kies
Updated 7 April 2007

The functions of clothing in ancient Russian life were various. It not only protected from intense heat and cold, but appeared also as a most important social and ethnic mark, distinguished warriors in battle, and many huge prestige meaning, and fulfilled important functions in various rituals. The well-known saying that we become acquainted through dress, traces its roots in hoary antiquity. By the clothing, on meeting a woman, one could determine from where she originated, whether she is married, peasant or city dweller, rich or poor and even gather if she was taking part in any ritual. All these signs were especially important outside the home, in that domestic, indoor clothing was, in all likelihood, much simpler than outdoor clothing. However, many functions of clothing applied even in the narrow family circle. The hair of married women, for example, could not be “freed” even at home, since, in distinction from men and maidens, married women even at home did not take off their headdress. As concerns ornaments, the full set was worn, in all likelihood, only going out of the house and on holidays. Judging by the depictions in miniatures of the Radzivill chronicle, working outside the home women did not wear loin clothing, ponyovy. Embroidery on clothing, besides purely aesthetic function, had also protective function; it was regarded as a guard. Therefore even at home they went about in rubakhas which were embroidered at the collar, hem, and cuffs. Especially richly were embroidered those objects of clothing which were used for various types of ritual activities. Researchers note that still in the 19th century most richly of all were embroidered, for example, the rubakhas in which they went out to the first mowing. One can think that in antiquity similar activities were extremely more frequent. Analysis of depictions on the bracelets recorded above, worn for rusalka dances, brings the conclusion that clothing of dancers was decorated with embroidery extremely more richly than usual: the helm of the women’s rubakha was covered with many stripes of ornament, as also were the long lowered cuffs of the sleeves. One must say that this manner of freeing sleeves from the bracelets in the time of the dances, letting them down extremely lower than the wrist and dancing, waving them, probably, arose from some magical ritual activity. Judging by depictions on bracelets from old Ryazan, during the rusalia, in drinking from the ritual bowl, women took it over their hanging sleeves, while the men took the bowl directly with their hands. (Rabinovich, 9-13th)

In ordinary times, men and women were in headdress outdoors. But man had to “lomat’ shapku” [remove the hat] in a sign of respect before meeting those of higher social position. Therefore men are depicted in the majority of miniatures in the Radzivill chronicle without hats. Women for reasons stated above, always stayed in headdress. The inviolability of the povoj of married women was preserved, as already noted, by law, the violation of this inviolability was punished with a high fine. (Rabinovich, 9-13th)

The celebratory clothing and regalia of Russian princes - the princely hat, barma and cloak is discussed in the section on Class Distinctions.

In the 13-17th cent., in the family, in domestic situations, men could wear an incomplete set of clothing; embroidered upper rubakha was considered rather proper home clothing even for nobles. Concerning women, they first of all had to, even at home, carefully cover their hair. B.O. Klyuchevskij proposed that all the same, women did not wear all parts of their complex headdress at home: sufficient was, for example, a volosnik [net cap], while the kichka or kokoshnik could be removed. (Rabinovich, 13-17th)

With some such requirement of women’s clothes is connected, evidently, even the family drama of Ivan the Terrible. The quarrel ending with the murder of the tsar’s son – tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich – began from the fact that the wife of the tsarevich appeared not sufficiently dressed when her father-in-law came in unexpected. This is known not from an eyewitness, but from a foreigner who was in Moscow 3 months after the murder, who recorded that she was “in one simple rubashka”. Whether it follows to conclude that the tsar’s daughter-in-law was without only the “vershnitsy” [a type of sarafan?] and sarafan or that literally the rubashka was her only garment, in other words that there wasn’t a headdress, to say is difficult. One way or another, here is reflected the idea about a necessary minimum of home clothing. If we remember that in the time presented, a bareheaded woman could even somehow injure outside men, one could figure that this caused the original irritation of the suspicious/paranoid tsar. (Rabinovich, 13-17th)

In the 13-17th cent., going outside, Rus wore upper dress depending on the weather, their social position and the purpose for which they were going out. As a whole, the quantity and quality of dress indicated the prestige of a person. Not for nothing from long ago existed the saying that we meet by dress. This circumstance even determined the large changeability of fashion in upper outside clothing in comparison with lower and upper indoor clothing. (Rabinovich, 13-17th)

In the 13-17th cent., male peasants and ordinary city dwellers could in warm weather be in the rubakha even outside, women and girls – the the sarafan or poneva. Ancient custom, with which men took off hats in a sign of respect, was preserved in the course of all this period. At the end of the 17th cent., B. Tanner noted that for the appearance of the tsar – all were without hats, even outdoors. On the other hand, celebratory situations required possibly more full (according to the social position of the given figure) costume. Therefore, courtiers had to be in court in formal upper clothing, even in quarters – in shuba and gorlatnaya shapka (under which, was we know, was worn also the taf’ya). Thus a boyar, for example, sat in the Duma. (Rabinovich, 13-17th)

Ivan the Terrible for his whole life remembered that one of the Shujskij princes, in the period of his youth, appeared in court in insufficiently luxurious shuba. If a boyar was dressed in his own clothing, then for dvoryanins and little boyars the luxurious upper garments for receptions, celebratory meetings any ceremony were given out for temporary use from the tsar’s treasury. In the things of the Armory palace were kept much information about preparation of a large amount of uniform clothing for different groups of svity for celebratory appearances of the tsar. In 1680 was issued even a special order “About various clothing in which different ranks must appear on holiday and celebratory days for state excursions”. To boyars, okol’nichi [very high rank in the state], Duma members, stol’niki, courtiers and deacons – velvet gold shuby on sable. (Rabinovich, 13-17th)

In the 13-17th cent., to representation was given great meaning. For example, for meeting an honored guest [gost’] it was necessary to present a formal/festive crowd. A Moscow dvoryanin was required for this to wear “colored’ dress. Is known a case (15th cent.), when a Moscow metropolitan humbled before all the Galich prince Yuri Dmitrievich, seeing he met him “narod” in wool homespun coat. Also was given out from the tsar’s treasury clothing for different types of public ceremony, for example, for the well-known procession for Palm [вербное] Sunday, when I the central squire they imitated the entrance of Christ into Jerusalem, for which in the role of Christ appeared the patriarch. As a special sign, boys threw under the legs of his horse red garments and pieces of material – all given out from the treasury. (Rabinovich, 13-17th)

In the 13-17th cent., in general, the dress even of ordinary city dwellers was dividied usually into 3 categories: working clothing (this in the majority of cases was old, “ragged” dress), clothing for every day [будничная], as we would now say, everyday [повсекневная], and holiday, formal costume. The first clear record about this is in the 16th cent. Domostroj, recommending the servants of rich city home to have even 3 (not less) changes of dress: “ragged” (old) – for work, clean everyday clothing – to wear before the master and better – “in holiday for good people or to the ruler where they are”. Rather often are orders from the church to wear better clothing in confession (one thinks that also in general for attending church). (Rabinovich, 13-17th)

In the 13-17th cent., in a whole series of situations was in order certain clothing. Researchers, in our view, are fair to propose that, for example, the custom to wear better clothing in certain agricultural work (the first mowing, etc.) is extremely ancient. The same can be said about family ceremonies. The Domostroi [in the post-period section?] orders diverse holiday clothing for weddings. In the 1st day of the wedding, when completed were folk and church rites of the wedding ceremony, the bride, matchmaker and possibly even the women in general – participants in the wedding ceremony had to be in red sarafans and yellow letniki; the groom and other men – in colored (as far as possible – gold) dress, necessarily in kaftans (it seems, preferably in terliki). On the 2nd day for certain circumstance at the table could the upper dress remove. (Rabinovich, 13-17th)

Colorful holiday dress contrasted with dress “quiet” – of the same cut and quality, but darker colors – black, clove, cherry, brown, crimson/burgundy, worn for sad situation – as a sign of mourning or (for courtiers) tsar’s disgrace. Quiet dress happened, evidently, for wealthy people, in other times of formal dress. But, judging by later information, a widow had to be always dressed in dark clothing; old women wore head dresses and sarafans of dark colors. In domestic life, the great prince himself, or the tsar, was dressed sometimes not particularly well, as noticed, for example Chensler in the 16th cent.. (Rabinovich, 13-17th)


Military Figures:
    It remains to say a few words about military clothing, about which we have only fragmentary information for the 9th-13th cent. Over chain mail they wore, as visible in depictions on seals and icons, in general, ordinary upper clothing, korzno, votoly, sometimes svita. The clothing of rich and elite warriors was distinguished by expensive embroidery. It is known, for example, that in the 13th century, they tried to seize warriors in such clothing (“ashche budet zlatom oplech’e shito”) alive, in order to receive the ransom (Rabinovich, 1947, p. 95). In military clothing already very early appeared marks allowing to distinguish in battle one from another, thus elements of military uniform. Thus, in 1016, Novgorodians fought against Kievians in a towel-like [полотенчатых] headdress, resembling the eastern turban: before the battle spoke Yaroslav to the druzhina: “mark, wrap around your head your ubrus” (NPL, p. 175). The chronicle, and also the author of the “Lay of Igor’s campaign”, notes the gold helmet as a mark of the prince-commander. Possibly, already in that time served as an attribute of the military leader the gold helmet, gold cloak, and gold belt, which more clearly is reflected in the sources later, 14th to 16th centuries. (Rabinovich, 9-13th)

    We said above that elements of military uniform existed already in the 9th-13th century, as much as this arose from the necessity of distinguishing in battle the fighting sides. Even in the 14th cent such difference, evidently existed. In any case, the Tale of the Mamaev battle says that before the Kulikovskaya battle, in building regiments, the voevody [commanders] “clothed in garments… local”. It was speaking, undoubtedly, about some clothing worn over and distinguishing the different territorial militias with local distinctive features, that made the management of battle easier for commanders. The luxurious clothing of Russian boyars, worn over armor was noted Chensler and Fletcher. Such clothing – nalatnik – a short jacket with short wide sleeves, slanted flap and unsewn sides (so as to form a hole)- kept in the collection of the museums of the Moscow Kremlin. Noticing by foreigners the luxury of the nalatnik (brocade and velvet), evidently, related to distinguishing marks of commanders. We have already written, that a sign of command from old times was the gold helmet, gold cloak and gold belt. In the 14th-17th cent, these signs could be various. Korzno [cloak] was changed to the privoloka [a short, wide cloak]. Later, evidently, over the chainmail (and then even without it) were worn nalatniki with sleeves. (Rabinovich, 13-17th)

    With bringing in of a regular army – strel’tsy – clearly is outlined a military uniform [date? Ivan the Terrible?]. For the strel’tsy this is a shapka-kolpak with narrow fur trim, long (to ankle) kaftan and boots, that is, national clothing as whole. Documents about supply of the strel’tsy regiments speak usually about kaftans “shubnye”, that is, on fur; are met sometimes in this connection the name “kaftan baranij” referring to the fact that here was used sheepskin. Here is a list of clothing sent in 1677 from Boronezh to the Don for the supply of strel’tsy regiments: “shapki sheepskin under different colors of poor broadcloth 100… varegi with galitsami (mittens – M.R.) 100, kaftans shubnye new… 859 (in this number included also the bad 100), good shubnye kaftans… 100, kaftans wool homespun gray and black 315… broadcloth wool homespun gray and black and white 1500 arshin [measure about 28 inches] of them wasted by moths 72 arshins”. We see that here is enumerated by no means a first class fitting-out of uniforms, and frequently they had already former use. They were prepared for the strel’tsy in Tambov and were tested by distant transport and bad storage. But in principle, the uniform of the strel’tsy was practical, comfortable and picturesque (at that time principle of defense [armor? camoflauge?] was still not applied). Artistic were the combinations of colors of kaftan, shapka and boots. E. Pal’mkvist brings information about 14 strel’tsy regiments, each of which were given a basic color of kaftan (and button loops), shapka and boots (for example, kaftan red with raspberry loops, shapka dark gray, boots yellow; kaftan light blue, with black loops and brown lining, shapka raspberry, boots yellow; kaftan ore-yellow with green loops and lining, shapka raspberry, boots green, etc. (Rabinovich, 13-17th)


Ecclesiastical Figures:
    For the 9-13th cent. we’re not concerned here with the clothing of ecclesiastical figures and the ritual clothing of orthodox clergy, because this was Byzantine clothing. A different opinion of researchers is only in that the set of clothes of monks and priests already from the very beginning was penetrated by objects of folk clothing like the recorded above svita, worn on the monks khiton, or the votoly over the vestments of a bishop. (Rabinovich, 9-13th)

    In the 13-17th cent. clerical figures in daily life were dressed the same as their parishioners, but over the usual dress the priest wore first an odnoryadka, and then a cassock [ryasa] with wide collar and sleeves, while a bishop wore also a special mantle of white silk “with many embroidered stripes of white satin in width of 2 fingers” and klobuk [clerical hat], which in various bishoprics the tradition was not identical (for example, in Novgorod the Great – is known “white klobuk”, about the origin of which was composed a legend). About the clothing of monks, Fletcher says briefly that it consisted of white flannel rubakha, mantle with leather belt and cassock. An undercassock [podryasnik] with narrow long sleeves they wore under the cassock, but sub-deacons and in general the lowest parish clergy wore it even as everyday dress. (Rabinovich, 13-17th)

    Until 15-16th cent. the beard and long hair and dark color of clothing was not required even for clergy. (Rabinovich, 13-17th)


Comments and suggestions to lkies@jumpgate.net.
Back to Early Rus Clothing.
Back to Russian Material