russian folk costumes

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Ellis Island Immigrants
ca. 1905–14
Photographer: Augustus F. Sherman (American; 1865–1925)

A Chuvash woman in traditional clothing with an ama wrapped around her


The Chuvash have lived over the Volga region of Russia since ancient times. They are considered to be successors of ancient Turkic, Finno-Ugric and Iranian cultures. The Chuvash formed the core of the powerful medieval state - Volga Bulgaria. 

The ama which is one of the most common accessories worn by Chuvash women is made of bands of silver coins, and worn around the body in a way that resembles the armor of a soldier. As in many cultures of Eastern Europe, Western Asia and Central Asia silver coins are used in the traditional clothing of the Chuvash as talismans against the evil eye and malevolent spirits. The ama derives its name from a pre-Christian goddess of fertility worshiped by the Chuvash in past generations. 

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 Russian costumes are not only beautiful, they are also convenient in wearing because they were created for work without restricting freedom of movement. The variety of colors for traditional costume displays love for beauty. The Russian word “beautiful” (krasivyi) comes from the word “krasny”, the Russian for “red”. Ethnic Russian clothes include kaftan, kosovorotka and ushanka for men, sarafan and kokoshnik for women. Sarafan is a traditional Russian long, trapeze-shaped jumper dress (pinafore) worn as Russian folk costume by women and girls. Chronicles first mention it under the year 1376, and since that time it was worn well until the 21st century. Plain sarafans are still designed and worn today as a summer-time light dress. Russian women from the upper and middle classes stopped wearing traditional Russian costume in the 18th century, during Peter the Great’s modernization of Russia, apart from the kokoshniks as part a court dress (although the clothing style of Russian aristocrats differed greatly from those of commoners). It is now worn as folk costume for performing Russian folk songs and folk dancing.

Russian costumes differ a lot from each other. Each province had its own traditional costume. For example, black embroidery was traditional for the Belgorod Region (southern Russia), whereas costumes of peasant women in the Ryazan Region (central Russia) were embroidered mostly with red. The Cossacks of Southern Russia have a separate brand of culture within ethnic Russian, their clothes including papakha, which they share with the peoples of the Northern Caucasus.




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This object is from the collection of Natalia de Shabelsky (1841-1905), a Russian noblewoman compelled to preserve what she perceived as the vanishing folk art traditions of her native country. Traveling extensively throughout Great Russia, she collected many fine examples of textile art of the wealthy peasant class. From the 1870s until moving to France in 1902, Shabelsky amassed a large collection of intricately embroidered hand-woven household textiles and opulent festival garments with rich decoration and elaborate motifs. The Brooklyn Museum holdings include many fine examples including the majority of the garments. Portions of Shabelsky’s collection are also housed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Cleveland Art Museum, and the Russian Museum of Ethnography in St. Petersburg.

Depictions of the goddess are common in Russian embroidery, traditionally associated with fertility. Birds are associated with goddess worship for their proximity to divine beings through their home in the sky. A smaller daughter or minor goddess often accompanies the great goddess in embroideries intended to represent reproductive fertility. This language of visual motifs originated in Pagan times and continued to be used in embroidery after the Christianization of Russia. Later depictions of the goddess are very stylized, resembling a plant or tree of life, as in this example.