AN OVERVIEW OF PERIOD RUSSIAN GARB
THL Isabelle de Foix
The Russians, along with the Ukrainians and the Byelorussians, make up the Eastern branch of the Slavic peoples, who are an Indo-European group like the Germans and the Celts. The West Slavs include the Poles, the Czechs, and the Slovaks, and the South Slavs include the Serbs, the Croats, the Bulgarians, and the Slovenes. Because of the difficulty of obtaining documentation on medieval Russia for non-Russian speakers, documentation of Russian garb in English can be confusing and even contradictory. Recently more information has become available to us due to the influx of Russian-speakers into the SCA. Still, the documentation situation is confusing. They can read the Russian; I still canít. They say beggars canít be choosers, but you do have to decide which text youíre going to believe!
Russia is a very cold country. If we dressed exactly like they did in the Middle Ages and used the same exact fabrics in layers, weíd have heat stroke in December in Meridies! So you have to make the proper adjustments, like using lighter fabrics for summer wear. The East Slavs have been in the country we know as Russia for eons, but for us, Russian history begins in 862 with the Kiev Rus era. We call this part of Russian history (tenth through thirteenth century) the Kiev Rus period, after the city that dominated the area politically. Thereís a controversy going on over the origins of the word "Rus" but of course we wonít get into that here. The main characteristic of Russian garb of this era was its static, immobile structure. It was long but never touched the ground. It was never form-fitting, although it wasnít very wide. Class distinction showed up mainly in the fabric clothing was sewn in. The lower classes wore coarse linen; the wealthy wore various types of silk imported from Constantinople and Alexandria.
The basic element of Russian garb for both men and women throughout our entire period was the rubakha. The rubakha was a straight garment, sometimes with panels sewn in on the bottom part to make it easier to walk in. Sometimes it had a very high neckline, in which case there would be a slit in the front fastened with a button. The people of Kiev Rus liked garments they could put on over their heads as opposed to garments that had to be laced up. Buttons were made out of either bone or wood. These were almost always white. Men wore trousers under their rubakhas. It was considered indecent to wear the rubakha without a belt. The top of the rubakha would be pulled over the belt so as to not emphasize the waistline. Men wore trousers under their rubakhas. A very early Slavic mensí coat called a svita was often worn over the rubakha. It was cut in one piece, without a waistline, and was worn knee-length. It had a front slit, which was fastened with buttons. During the Kiev Rus period, aristocrats began to use loops instead of buttonholes on their outer garments. These loops were made out of stiff fabric, braid, or purl. These were sewn onto the coat. This would become much more common later in period. Sleeves were made in a simple tube-style, longer than the arm to keep the wearer warm. The svita was made out of wool and was sometimes lined with fur to keep the wearer warm.
Like their western European counterparts, the Russian warriors wore chain mail. During the Kiev Rus period the chain mail garb consisted of a shirt that about two feet wide and thirty to thirty-five inches long. It had elbow-length sleeves. There was usually a slit fastened at the top with a button. The chain mail was worn over stiff linen and worn with a leather belt covered with metal plates. Since chain mail was rather expensive, the ordinary warrior wore an ironclad or armored outfit. This would have been a shirt made out of leather or heavy linen which had iron plates attached to it with wire or riveted close together. This outfit was called a kuyak. The helmets were made out of iron and were onion-shaped, like the church steeples. In fact, their name, lukovitsa, means "onion-shaped") There were also helmets with very high tops. These tops ended in tubes to which a small flag was attached. None of the helmets used in this period had any protection for the face.
Women also wore rubakhas as their basic garment. However, women never left their houses without wearing something over the rubakha. One of these was the paníova, which was a sort of skirt in three stiff separated panels. It was about knee-length. It was attached around the waist with a narrow piece of leather. This was brightly colored, usually with block-printing. The paníova was a very early Slavic garment which continued to be worn until the late nineteenth century. The navershnik was a very simple garment, a knee-length tunic with bell elbow-length sleeves. It had a slit down the front top, which was often attached with a button. The navershnik was a festive garment, often decorated with embroidery, and in the case of the wealthy, precious gems. Then there was the zavaniska ("curtain"), which was basically a tabard. This was belted to hold it in place. The zavaniska was usually worn by young unmarried women. Over these garments the woman might have worn a mantle to protect her from the cold.
The rulers of Russia were great admirers of the Byzantine Emperors. This was because the Byzantine Emperors had absolute power over their subjects, and Russian rulers felt that Russia needed to be governed with an iron fist. So they adopted the clothing of the Byzantine court. This was the dalmatik. The Russian dalmatik was shorter than the Byzantine style. They continued to wear the rubakha under this rather than the tunica of Byzantium. They wore round collars, which covered the chest, shoulders and the top of the back. These were usually made out of heavy gold silk and were heavily decorated with gold beads and gems. . Early on, the dalmatik was so heavily embroidered with pearls, rubies, diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and who knows what else, that the wearers actually had to be pulled out of their seats by servants because the weight of the jewels made it impossible for them to get out of a chair! Russian beadwork designs are incredibly difficult to document, but they seem to have been in geometric shapes and more abstract curvilinear designs. These garments are frequently referred to in Russian in words that translate to "parade costumes". Donít ask me how they managed to march in parades!
Footwear in the Kiev Rus period was usually a bast shoe, which they called lychaky. These were made out of linen, and laced onto the foot and leg up to the knee. Sometimes moccasin type shoes were worn rather than the cloth ones; also, boots were widely worn. Footwear for men and women was identical.
Russian social custom demanded that the married woman wear a hat at all times. In fact, the term "to make a fool of oneself" literally reads "to uncover oneís head"-- i.e, "to disgrace oneself". By contrast, unmarried women did not wear hats. Headdresses varied from region to region. In the Rus period a hat called the venet was popular among the wealthier classes. This was made out of a piece of leather or birchwood, covered with rich gold cloth. Venets had points, the way SCA baronial and royal peerage crowns do. This is why venets are not worn in the SCA. Some Slavic personas in Caid have started a political dispute with the peers and the heralds because they want to wear venets and havenít earned the right to wear pointed hats. There were many other types of period Russian headdresses, but the most popular is the festive headdress of late period Russia, the kokoshnik. This hat is popular in the SCA because kokoshniks are commonly seen in Russian ballets and operas. However, the kokoshnik is period, so donít call it "fantasy" or "show biz"--it isnít. There are basically three kinds of kokoshnik: the pillbox, the mitre, and the crescent. The style of the kokoshnik varied from area to area. The pillbox, a round shape, was popular in the Novgorod area. Further east, a style resembling a mitre was popular, particularly for weddings. These hats remind me of towers! I donít make them because theyíre too much like hennins, which Iíve never liked to wear. Theyíre harder to wear than they are to make! Then there was the crescent-shaped kokoshnik, which was a rounded headdress that fit the head around between the ears. Kokoshniks were often pearled in abstract, curvilinear designs. My advice to the Slavic ladies of Caid? Make yourselves kokoshniks!
The Mongolian invasion of Russia in the thirteenth century left a small impact on Russian garb. Slavic garb had always been symmetrical; the Mongolian garb was not. Buttons and slits were never centered in Mongolian costume; they were always off to the side. However, the Russian dislike of Mongolian rule made them more resistant to change their customs, and this included garb customs. However, the sash and the embroidered skullcap (tafya), both of Mongolian origin, became staples in Russian garb.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Russia became unified as a country, with Moscow as its capital. Fashion trends were set in Moscow. The garb of the aristocracy became more diverse. Class distinctions showed in the number of garments worn. The nobles wore several layers of garments. Usually the aristocrat wore six layers of garb, regardless of the season. Garments that buttoned all the way up the front made their appearance. Some garments were slit as far down as the waist and buttoned up. This was in stark contrast to the tendency in the Rus period to cover up the human figure. This brings us to the "great sarafan debate".
The word "sarafan" itself is found in a sixteenth-century book called the Domostroi. It was also recently discovered in a fourteenth-century document. However, neither one of these sources describe the sarafans of that period. The womanís sarafan seems to have evolved out of a simple A-line dress, but some experts have attempted to trace its origins back to an older dress called a shushun or a sayan. These dresses had "fake" sleeves in the back; they were similar to a known period garment called a shubka, which had long sleeves with arm slits in the top. These people believe that a "sarafan" type garment existed in period, but was called something else. Some researchers claim that it evolved out of a lengthened panieva (what on earth is that?) that acquired straps later, or out of a dress that lost its original long sleeves. Still, there are no surviving pictures, and probably no end to the sarafan controversy. The only thing about the sarafan that is generally agreed upon is that it was the precursor of the modern Russian folk dress. Because of the uncertainty of the form of sarafan mentioned in the Domostroi, sarafans are controversial in the SCA. Is sarafan pattern X period, or is it not? Weíre sort of in the position that the dancers are. They use "The Dance master", a book of English country dance which didnít come out until 1651. However, it is believed that the dances in this book are period. By the same token, sarafan pattern X could date from 1650. Since the Middle Ages did not end in Russia until 1689 with the accession to the throne of Peter the Great, who "westernized" Russia, it is quite possible that pattern X was used in 1650--and 1550, too, because the Russians are a conservative people who tend to resist change. It goes back to the scarcity of documentation for Russian garb available in English. You have to be linguistic genius to acquire a working knowledge of Russian! At any rate, the sarafan was worn by both sexes. If the dancers can use the "Dance Master" text, why canít we wear sarafans? I do!
Tkach, Yuri, The History of Ukrainian Costume, Melborne Bayde Books, 1986
The History of Costume, E.V. Kireyeve, Enlightenment Publishing House, Moscow, 1970
translation by Mistress Tatiana Kokalsevna Tumanova, O.L
Various and sundry notes from Russian-speaking (some are Russian-born, too!) SIG members