Russian costume in the Middle Ages was very different than the costumes worn in western European countries like England, France, Germany and Italy. Russia is a very cold country today, and it was even colder between 1300 and 1700 than it is today. In those days, the Baltic Sea, which is actually part of the Atlantic Ocean, would freeze in the winter. Much of Russia is north of the Arctic Circle. Winter cold kills people who are not adequately protected from it. This cold kept Russia isolated from the west because the huge amount of snow and ice on the ground made travel with the rest of Europe impossible. Manpower was inadequate to keep the unpaved roads from being clear of the huge mounds of ice and snow. Also, medieval Russia was not a unified country until the fifteenth century, when it became unified as an Empire with an Emperor called a czar (pronounced "tzar"). Before this, power was in the hands of many "royal" families who ruled cities and the territories around them. Some of these cities, like Novgorod and Kiev, were very important because they were on or near rivers, which were a major mode of travel for trading purposes. When these rivers froze in the winter people frequently used them as roads, although the pile-up of snow and loose ice on them also created difficulties for travelers. At one point the princes of Kiev were so powerful that the entire region was known as "Kiev Rus". Later on "Rus" became "Russia".

When medieval Russians dressed both men and women put on a garment called a rubakha first. This was a simple tunic with a high neckline and very long sleeves which they could pull over their hands to protect them from the cold. These were made out of heavy wool or linen. These were always worn with a belt in an ancient belief that belts kept evil spirits away from their wearers. They often wore another rubakha over this. Women wore various pieces of clothing over their rubakha. They sometimes wore a shorter tunic called a navershnik over their rubakhas. These might be different colors; the most popular color for clothes in medieval Russia was red because the people loved bright colors. Green and blue were also popular. They often embroidered their clothing with red thread if the garment itself was not red. Women might also wear a panova, which was a skirt of three separate panels of fabric attached to a leather strip, which was used to tie the garment around the waist. Since this skirt opened at the front, it looked rather like a "reverse apron." Another popular garment, mainly for unmarried girls, was a zapona. This looked much like a tabard except for being narrowly stitched at the sides. Men wore tunics over trousers. The next layer of clothing for both men and women was a coat called a svita. Over the svita a cape or mantle might be worn. It was not uncommon to wear all of these clothes inside as well as when they ventured out into the cold.

The cut and shape of Russian costumes were basically the same for all classes. The main difference between the clothing of the wealthy and the peasants was in the fabric. The peasants wore clothing of rough wool and linen; the wealthy wore brocade, taffeta, and velvet, all made out of silk and imported from either Constantinople or Alexandria. On ceremonial occasions, Russian royalty and nobility wore ornate tunics called dalmatiks. This was originally a Byzantine garment adopted by the Russian rulers in the tenth century. Early on, Russian rulers wanted to unite the country into an Empire and rule it with absolute authority, just like the Byzantine Emperors. These garments were worn over a rubakha and another long tunic. Over the dalmatik they would wear a collar, which they called an ozherelya. Both dalmatiks and ozherelyas were heavily embroidered with pearls and precious stones like diamonds and rubies. Dalmatiks and ozherelyas were so heavy that the people who wore them had to be pulled by a servant when arising from a chair! Over this court garb many wore mantles and coats. Russians of all classes wore fur on their clothing. The peasants might wear sheepskin while the nobility wore more expensive furs like sable and ermine. However, the purpose of clothing for both rich and poor in period Russia was the same: keeping warm!


Text: THL Isabelle de Foix (Patricia Hefner)

Pictures: THL Amarath yr Raven (Jean Corbin)


Slavic Interest Group Web Page

Slavianskoe Znanístvo ("Slavic Knowledge") Project

"Womenís Clothing in Kievan Rus", Sofya la Rus (Lisa Kies)

"Rus Male Costume", Peter Beaton