Clothing in Early Rus

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

This set of webpages is my attempt to organize my research on early Russian clothing. As such, it is a work-in-progress and the information is incomplete and sometimes contradictory. It is published "on-line" as an invitation for others to share information that I don't have (Thank you!) and to help others who are treading the same ground I already have.

It may seem repetitive at times, when I have a paragraph about an item based on Pushkareva, followed by a paragraph with slightly different information from Stamerov. But I have found it useful to indicate where the different information came from, so I can double check it later or make judgements based on the reliability of the source.

Since the terminology of ancient clothing is often controversial, authors frequently seem to use different terms for the same garment. This is why I set up the "layers" system of organization, so that similar garments being used in similar ways would be discussed on the same page for comparison. The terms svita and shuba are an example of women's garments that have a lot of similarities and may (or may not) be overlapping terms.

Contents of this page: Other pages with more detailed information:

Research Issues:
    The material culture of early Rus that I will discuss here appears in the historical record in the 10th century, and survives with gradual evolution of styles, until Moscow takes control of the Rus lands in the 15th century. This time span covers the historical periods of Kievan Rus and Appanage Rus (or Rus under the Mongols). My primary interest is in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, a time of irritatingly poor documentation it seems. (Hence the use of information from the 10th-15th centuries.)

    The study of the ancient Russian clothes has been conducted mainly by archaeologists. Intact objects of clothing from the 9th to 13th centuries until our time are not preserved, and main sources serve remains of clothes and embellishments, found in excavations of the ancient Russian settlements and burials, and also images on ancient frescoes, icons, princely illustrations that is miniatures, and objects of applied art.  These materials are matched with mentions of clothing in written documents and narrative sources: chronicles, saints’ lives, and various types of reports.  They can give researchers also matching ancient scenes and finds with more later objects of clothing and folk art, in details from embroidery, carvings and murals right up to the nineteenth to twentieth centuries. (Rabinovich re: 9-13th)

    The clothing of Russian population of the European part of our country in the course of four plus centuries, from the second half of the 13th to the beginning of the 18th cent., has been studied unevenly. Best studied of all is the 17th cent., a bit worse, the 16th, and even less the 13th-15th centuries. All together, each of these three periods has not only their own pieces of research concerning clothing of one or another social class or territorial group and separate categories of fabric and dress, but also summary works, devoted to clothing of ordinary peasants, city dwellers and higher levels of society for the whole period (Zabelin, 1862, 1869; Bartenev, 1916; Savvaitov, 1896; Prokhorov, 1881; Bazilevich, 1926). A few of these (Arthsihovskij, B.G.; Gilyarovskaya, 1945; Levinson-Nechaeva, 1954; Gromov, 1977) appeared in the last 3-4 decades. One can say, that on the whole Russian clothing of the 13-17th centuries has been studied sufficiently. And all the same there remains still much that is the so-called blank spot. In the past, not always was managed exact attribution of one or another terms, to give a clear idea of the cut or function of several items of clothing, “to tie in” names found in sources to concrete preserved pieces of costume. Not always succeeded, as will be shown below, even to precisely clarify the origin either of separate items of clothing, or of its whole composition. (Rabinovich)

    Rabinovich says, regarding the 13th-17th centuries: the most reliable sources appear the authentic clothing, preserved until our day in various repositories. Here in the 1st place, the collection of the government museums of the Moscow Kremlin (For Armory Palace and Patriarch’s vestry), the State Historical Museum in Moscow, the State Hermitage and State Museium of the Ethnography of the Peoples of the USSR in Leningrad [now St. Petersburg]. A relatively small number of objects of ancient Russian clothing are kept in regional local museums. The overwhelming majority are clothing, shoes and headdresses of the 17-18th centuries. Very rarely (if one does not consider church vestments) clothing of the 16th cent., however it is possible, that a few objects of civilian clothing preserved in the collections of the 17th cent. were made already in the 16th cent. Exactly dated are only a few objects found in graves: the monastic schema of Ivan the Terrible, the shirts of his sons, Ivan and Feodor Ivanovich, and the shirt of prince M.V. Skopina-Shujskij, and also the shirt, in which was dressed the doll placed in the grave of the divorced wife of Vasilii III, Solomina Saburova (Koshlyakova, 1976; Veksler et al, 1973, p. 182; Vidonova, 1951; Rabinovich, 1965b, p. 284). Known also is the volosnik from the grave of a tsaritsa in the Ascension Monastery and a few other archeological finds, about which we will speak in their turn. We note here, that in the whole, the archeological clothing material gives for examination in this period rather a lot, but all the same relatively less than for the time earlier, for which it sometimes appears to be the only source. (Rabinovich)

    Probably, a more important indication is the various forms of written sources, the number of which increases from century to century. We note that especially great materials about clothing can be found in wills, descriptions of dowries, marriage contracts, and in merchants expense books. The first of these three types of documents enumerate commonly the majority of the set of various garments and with these one can collect rather precise data. In wills and marriage contracts, is mentioned sometimes even a whole wardrobe. Much information is kept in inventories of tsarist property. Considerable value is presented in writings of traveler-foreigners, because in them is preserved often special descriptions of clothing and the general appearance of Russians. The keenness of observation of the foreigners, surprised by the unusual costume of a foreign land, compensates for their weak knowledge of local terms. For all the abundance of information of written sources it is still far from complete for the territorial and chronological relationships. (Rabinovich)

    A special group of sources consists of different types of portrayals – book miniatures, pictures of contemporaries, different forms of papers [?листки], icons, portraits. Researchers long ago showed the reliability of these portrayals (particularly miniatures) (Artshikhovskij, 1944; Podobedova, 1965). (Rabinovich)

    We wish to warn readers of the necessity of somewhat more strict criticism of illustrations in the works of foreigners visiting Russia, where along with very accurate reproductions occur also drawings imprecise and even fantastical. (Rabinovich)

    Great difficulty arises with attempts to compare written, physical and pictorial sources, because not clearly to which item of clothing relates one or another name. Here a great help for researchers is provided, for example, by textbook type of illustrations of primer books, where sometimes directly correlated name of object and its picture. This can be compared with preserved reality. (Rabinovich)

General Notes:
    Clothing in early Rus', as in other cultures, reflected societal norms, and the individual's originality and conception of beauty, and indicated rank, wealth, profession, family status and locality. (Pushkareva97)

    Early clothing styles were influenced by the close connections with Byzantium and other cultures. Cut was simple, free-flowing, full but not too wide, and long but not as long as in Byzantium. Nearly all clothing was put on over the head because it didn't open all the way down the front. The clothing also usually lacked large front closures. (Kireyeva)

    The climate of Rus was quite cold. Long winters and cool summers made closed up clothing with many layers and furs practical. (Kireyeva)

Foreign Influences:

Class Distinctions:
    The class and wealth was indicated in the clothing of 10th-15th century Rus by the fabric treatment, not in the cut. The outer garments were the primary place to display the owner's wealth. (Pushkareva97)

    Peasants, city dwellers and nobles wore identically cut shirts, but for the latter, fine fabrics were used. (Rabinovich 9-13th)

Peasant Costume:
    The costume of ancient Russian peasants in 10-15th cent. was based on the rubakha (sorochka). An obligatory part of the peasant's garment was the belt. (Pushkareva89) The richer a village inhabitant was, the more prominent were all kinds of ornament, the higher the quality of their manufacture, and the more expensive the utilized materials, especially for holidays. (Pushkareva89)

    Peasants wore earrings, beads, priveski, copper bracelets and perstni (finger rings) and porshni or lapti on their feet. (Pushkareva89) and (Kolchin)

    The composition of the costume of ancient Russian city dwellers was more complicated and included greater number of items. The number of garments depended on the season and material circumstances of the family. The clothing of the representatives of the feudal nobility also had more items of each of the types of clothing, and the costume was built of a greater number of components and layers. In the garb of noble city dwellers, royalty and boyars were used expensive, most often imported, fabrics. (Pushkareva89)

    The headdress of city dwellers of all classes (koruny for maidens and kiki with povoyami for married women) in form had much in common with peasants, which were determined by its rural origin, however decorating was complex, intricate. (Pushkareva89)

    In distinction from peasants - city dwellers and the representatives of the ruling class were "all in boots". The leather shoes of the 10-13th cent. - porshni, soft shoes, "half boots" and boots without heel and stiff base - were cut simply and crudely, but then brightly colored. (Pushkareva89)

    In general, the garments of the upper classes had more detail than those of the lower classes. (Pushkareva97)

    Aristocratic ceremonial clothing also demonstrated wealth with multicolored cloth, silver and gold embroidery and expensive furs. One princess owned a red coat lined with fox fur when a single fox pelt worth was more than a silver ruble - a year's pay for a peasant. (Pushkareva97)

Children's Clothing:
    About children’s clothing in the 9th-13th century, information is very little. Judging by what we said about the ponyova and tribal ornaments, rural girls, and possibly also city girls, went about in one shirt [rubashka]. Some later information allows us to suppose that also little boys, until reaching full maturity, did not wear pants (Maslova, 1956, page 555), consequently they also went in one shirt [rubashka]. But a young prince was dressed just as the adults only without the korzna [cloak] (at least so he is depicted on the miniature from the Izbornik of Svyatoslav) (see p. 1 of the colored insert). (Rabinovich)

    One important difference in urban clothing by the 13-17th cent. was the clear evidence of clothing specifically for children. The opinion of researchers about this, is that a unique garment of children of both sexes was a long rubakha, based, probably, on study of peasant clothing of later time and on one statement of A. Olearij. In Ladoga in 1634 this traveler was astonished that “all – both girls and boys – were in short-cut hair, with curls, haing from both sides, and in long rubakhas, such that never were distinguished boys from girls”. About this same says also several depictions about which will discuss ahead. But in written sources of the 17th cent., we find not only “rubashki child’s” or “child’s” [ревачьи vs детинные], but also “two kaftantsa valuable children’s”. And “shuba sheepskin child’s new” and even “tafejka [skullcap?] childs broadcloth red”. True, these records are rare and usually related to wealthy families, but all the same, one must think that if children of peasants and the urban poor darted about in one rubashka, that for children of nobles and generally wealthy people were sewn clothing in general the same as for adults. Regarding shoes, one can say more definitely, because finds of children’s shoes among archeological excavations are frequent. For children were sewn the same boots as for adults, but obviously, smaller in size. In excavations, therefore, one can find, for example, the front of a large men’s boot, from which was cut out a small child’s sole. (Rabinovich)

    Childrens clothing was recommended by the Domostroi to sew for growth: “the edges [кроячи] turn up a vershok [about 2 inches] or two or three at the hem and along edges and along seams and along sleeves, and as grows out the years 2 or 3 or 4, opening the seam of that garment and turning it out straight again becomes good”. (Rabinovich)

Fabrics and Furs:
    The primary fabrics used were wools and linens (including hemps), as with the rest of Europe in the middle ages. (Kireyeva and Stamerov)

    The holiday costumes of peasants and everyday clothing for nobility were made of linen fabrics with printed patterns and from multi-colored cloth. (Kireyeva and Stamerov)

    Fine imported fabrics (pavolok) were reserved for outer garments and festival costumes. The main imported fabrics were taffeta, brocade, stamped velvet, golden velvet (velvet embroidered with gold thread). (Kireyeva)

    Fur was used extensively. Winter clothes were lined with it, and trims and edgings were made of it. Peasants used wolf, fox, bear, rabbit, squirrel and especially sheepskin. Nobility enjoyed beaver, otter, sable, and marten. (Stamerov)


Ornament and Jewelry in General:
    Natelnaya odezhda, next-to-the-skin clothing, is a somewhat difficult topic for re-enactors. We have difficulty thinking of doing without our accustomed modern underpinnings. But I have been able to find little information about any parallel items in early Rus.

    In discussing this topic for the period of the 9th-13th centuries, Rabinovich says that the term "rub" while indicating a piece of fabric, also apparently referred to the set of ordinary clothing consisting of the shirt and narrow pants. He concludes that this ancient Russian root gave rise to the "rubakha", a next-to-skin garment that survives today. The rubakha or sorochitsa were for many the only object of clothing. (Rabinovich)

Changes over time:
Selected References:

COPYRIGHT (c) 1997-2007 by Lisa Kies. You may make copies for personal use and to distribute for educational purposes but only if the article remains complete and entire with original authorship clearly noted.