Women's 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 notes on early Russian clothing. As such, it is a work-in-progress and the information is often 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 carefully 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. (I've noticed that Russian researchers tend to be splitters rather than lumpers.)

Contents of this page: General Notes
Ideal of Beauty
Class Distinctions
Basic Women's Clothing
Ceremonial and Clerical Costume
Ornament and Jewelry Overview
Changes in 14th-15th Centuries
Selected References
Other pages with more details: The first layer. - chemise
The second layer. - short overgarments
The third layer. - long, wide-sleeved overgarments
The fourth layer. - long, narrow-sleeved overgarments
The fifth layer. - cloak-like garments
Hair and Headdresses.
Examples from Stamerov
Examples from Kolchin

Fabrics and Furs
Colors and Dyes
Garment Construction
Decoration and Ornament
Collars, Cuffs, Voshvy, Borders
Belts, Purses, Gloves, Mittens
Relevant Notes on Muscovite Rus

General Notes: 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.)

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)

Rus had close political, economic, and cultural ties with the Byzantine empire which had a noticeable (but fiercely debated) affect on the form of clothing in Ancient Rus, particulalry for the upper classes. At the same time, Rus was not isolated from Europe, the controversial Viking origin of the Rus rulers, the interaction with Finnish neighbors in the north, and trade with Western Europe meant that clothing in Rus was not completely isolated from styles in the rest of Europe.

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

Ideal of Beauty: Folklore indicates that the Russian ideal of beauty was tall, stately, serene, fluid in movement "as though sailing" or "like a swan" - a woman was supposed to hold her head up proudly but cast her eyes down modestly - unless she was a noblewoman. (Pushkareva97) and (Kireyeva)

Thinness and pallor were signs of illness, mean behavior, bad habits or depravity. The similarity between blednost (pallor) and bliadstvo (harlotry) was noted in ecclesiastical texts. So, in contrast, Russian women wished to have bright red cheeks "like the color of poppies", white skin "like white snow", clear lustrous eyes "like a falcon", and black eyebrows "like a sable's tail". (Pushkareva97) and (Kireyeva).

A woman's inner dignity and emotional restraint were emphasized without restricting freedom of movement. Depictions of period women showed them to be stately and filled with inner tranquility and confidence. (Pushkareva97)

Class Distinctions: The class and wealth was indicated in the outerwear of 10th-15th century Russian women in fabric treatment, not in cut. These outer garments were the primary place to display the owner's wealth. (Pushkareva97) Peasant Costume: The costume of ancient Russian peasants in 10-15th cent. was based on the ankle-length rubakha (sorochka) and "nabedrennoe" clothing (poneva). An obligatory part of women's peasant 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)

The most conspicuous part of costume of peasant women of the pre-Mongol period was the headdress (venets for maidens and kika for married women), and also its ornaments - temple rings, whose form could be used to identify the origin of its owner. (Pushkareva89)

Peasants wore earrings, beads, priveski, copper bracelets and perstni (ring with stone) and lapti on their feet. (Pushkareva89)

City-Dwellers: The composition of the costume of ancient Russian city dwellers was more complicated and included a greater number of items. Over a long sorochka/rubakha they wore one or several gowns of straight or widening cut and a open-down-the-front (raspashnoe) over garment. The number of garments depended on the season and material circumstances of the family. (Pushkareva89)

The outer dress was made shorter than the lower garment and had wider sleeves. The hem and cuffs of the lower garment always were visible, forming a stepped silhouette. As in the costume of peasants, a belt was added. (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. Kolty on ryasnakh ("duckweed" chains) served long as ornaments of headdresses of city dwellers, while the necks of city dwellers were surrounded by metal grivny and necklaces of beads. Boyarinas and princesses wore massive folding silver bracelets over their sleeves at wrist and forearm; city dwellers a bit more poor were content with different-colored glass. (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. including porshni, soft shoes, "half boots" and boots without heel and stiff base, were cut simply and crudely, but then brightly colored. (Pushkareva89)

In the garb of noble city dwellers, princesses and boyarinas were used expensive, most often imported, fabrics. Of velvety aksamite were sewn open-down-the-front (raspashnye) clothes of a type of dress with a clasp on the right shoulder - part of the holiday clothes of princesses. (Pushkareva89)

In general, the garments of princesses and boyarinas had more detail than those of the lower classes. (Pushkareva97) The clothing of the representatives of the feudal nobility also had more items in each of the types of clothing, and the costume was built of a greater number of components. (Pushkareva89)

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)

The garments of representatives of the priviledged class, even those not intended for celebratory situations and holiday appearances, were richly decorated. Several examples are found in a miniature from the Izbornik of Svyatoslav of 1073. One princess wears a loose straight dress with wide long sleeves, supplied with naruchami [cuffs]. The dress is belted; conforming in color to the naruchej and the belt appears to have been "zatkan" (woven) with gold embroidery. The bottom of the dress is decorated with a border (kajma), and the top - with a round turned down collar. A dress with a shoulder collar (ozherl'ya-oplech'e) with such decoration can be seen in other miniature portrayals, and in a 1270 Gospel. (Pushkareva89)

Fabrics and Furs: The primary fabrics used were wools and linens (including hemps), as with the rest of Europe in the middle ages. Linen ranged from coarse to fine woven. Coarse, homespun wool (sermyaga or seryachini) was used for peasant clothes and also for the undergarments and everyday clothes of the merchant classes, and even boyars. (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)

Color: The clothing of Rus was very colorful. The raw color of unbleached linen predominated in peasant clothes. White would appear in various parts of the costume. Linen could be dyed, especially if intended for the nobility, and called “krashenin”. Colors included blue, green and red. Imported pavalok fabrics generally had Byzantine style ornamentation in dark-red (cinnabar), crimson (carmine), purple and azure. (Stamerov)
Layer 1 - the shift/rubakha/sorochka. All Russians wore a loose shift as the basic piece of clothing, usually made of bleached linen. Peasants would wear one coarse linen "rubakha" as both under and outergarment. The more wealthy would add an outer rubakha cut a bit larger and made of more expensive fabric. (Kireyeva)

The rubakha seems to have served as the only underwear for women, although 19th century peasant women reportedly wore simple undertrousers. So perhaps medieval Russian women did also, although I have seen no discussion of it in my references so far.

More information about the rubakha

Layer two - Short over garments: the panova/skirt, the zapona/zanaviska, (the navershnik), "jackets". The panova was usually worn by married women over the rubakha. This "wrap-around" skirt was adopted from the steppe nomads and was made from three equal panels of fabric sewn together only at the top and gathered on a drawstring (gashnika).

The zanaviska or zapona was worn by maidens over the rubakha, and was even more ancient than the panova. It was a type of linen "naramnik" which was a long rectangular length of fabric folded in half at the shoulders and with a round neck-opening. It could be various lengths, but was shorter than the rubakha worn under it. (It looks much like a tabard.)

The navershnik was even older than the zanaviska. It was a calf-length tunic with short broad sleeves. On holidays, the navershnik was worn over the zapona or the panova. Compare with the dalmatica and letnik below.

Neither the panova, the zanaviska, nor the navershnik were required components of ancient Russian costume. The rubakha was often the sole attire of a peasant woman.

"Jackets" - Over the rubakha and the wrap skirt, and under their coats or cloaks, women could wear garments of various lengths and styles, made of wool, cotton, or even velvet (for the rich), short and wide to the waist or long in front with narrow wrist-length sleeves.

More information about the panova and zapona.

Layer three - Wide-sleeved long overgarments. Princesses, noblewomen and their entourages preferred long, unbelted robes (the dalmatika) topped with an open cloak. The dalmatika was essentially a longer version of the navershnik.

Under coats or cloaks, women wore jackets of different types, short and wide to the waist or long in front with narrow wrist-length sleeves.

Later in period, women started to wear the graceful, wide-sleeved letnik. This garment, particularly in its earliest forms, strongly resembles the dalmatika.

The kortelya was a fur-lined version of the letnik.

More information about the garments in layer three.

Layer four - Narrow-sleeved long overgarments. The svita could serve as light outer wear, pulled over the head. The svita was made of wool and lined with fur for winter wear. (Kireyeva) and (Stamerov)

The shuba is possibly the same as the svita.

Some of these garments were (somewhat) fitted to the waist, others started widening/flaring outward just under the arms.

The odnoryadka and opashen were worn later in this period and had sleeves that were as long as the hem of the garment. There were slits in the upper part of the sleeves to let the arms out. Such garments could, thus, be worn over the letnik.

More information about the garments in layer four.

Layer five - cape-like (plashevidnoj) garments Many types of outerwear, including the svita and other garments in "Layer 4", were designed to be worn over the shoulders or unfastened to reveal the clothing underneath. (Pushkareva)

The nobility often wore a small Byzantine/Roman-style cloak called a korzna. It resembled the chlamys and was rectangular or semicircular in cut. It could worn fastened by a fibula, brooch or buckle on the right shoulder or in the middle of the chest (a "cloak-mantiyu) and hung down to the ground in wide pleats, sometimes gathered at the waist with a belt.

More information about the garments in layer five.

Ceremonial Costume: Ceremonial Costume Over the rubakha was worn a long tunic reaching to the ankles with narrow sleeves, then over that a dalmatica with wide straight sleeves shorter than the sleeves of the tunic. The dalmatica was considerably shorter than the tunic reaching approximately the calf, and it was belted at the waist. Over the dalmatica was often worn a mantle (fastened in front) or, more rarely, a korzna (fastened on the right shoulder). The headdress was the nachil'nik (diadem) or venets (or fur hat) for maidens, and the povoinik, veil and hat (venets, kokoshnik, fur hat) for married women. (Stamerov) or (Kireyeva).

The cloak-cape was long preserved in the costume of ancient Russian women in celebratory clothing. Comparing the Radzivillovski Chronicle with frescos of Sophia Cathedral of Kiev, indicates that the over garment was loose and long, consisting of a straight, usually belted, dress (the so-called dalmatica?), supplemented with "raspashnym" clothing (robes open-down-the-front, often worn over the shoulders like a cloak), a collar, a "podol" (hem) and a "styk" (joint?) of fabric which was otorocheny (edged) with a border (kajma). On frescoes of St. Sophia's in Kiev, the women were dressed in just such dresses and edged cloaks (plashi). Sometimes, that edge or border was sewn on as a wide silk braid, embroidered with gold. Galloon/braids of such type are found in burials. (Pushkarva89)

Clergy: Differed from male religios only in the headdress, which was a long head covering, thrown over the head and fastened at the sides, so that the greater part of the brow was covered. It hung in free folds on the sides and back, from the shoulders to the upper back. Nuns (and monks) wore the rubakha-khiton reaching to the feet with narrow sleeves over the hands and a wide belt. The cloak-matiyu reached somewhat below the knee and fastened in the middle front. Bast shoes or boots were worn on the feet. Black wasn't compulsory at that time. Khitons could be dark brown, grey and midnight blue. Mantles were dark - dark brown and crimson. (Stamerov) or (Kireveya)

Coarse wool fabric was called "vlasyanitsy" (hairshirt); monks and nuns wore it directly on the body as a form of self-torture. (Pushkareva89)

Ornament and Jewelry in General: Married women used ornament more than maidens. The jewelry on heads, hands, necks and waists displayed wealth and served as amulets agains the "evil eye." To this end, much of the early jewelry was designed to make noise, the better to scare away evil spirits. (Pushkareva)

At the beginning of the 10th century especially, noble costume was ornamented with kolti, beads, nachilniki, and sequins. (Stamerov) Earrings were not particularly common from the 10th-13th centuries, but bracelets, rings, beads and necklaces were. The majority of jewelry was made of metal. Peasant jewelry was of copper, bronze or low-grade silver. Noble jewelry was of silver, and sometimes gold. (Stamerov) Jewelers techniques included pearlwork, silverwork, filigree and enamel. (Kireyeva)

Small embossed coins, engravings, stampings, castings, zern (solder for making tiny metal grains), filigree, and black and partitioned enamel were among the techniques mastered in Kiev. (Stamerov) Tin sequins of various forms were sewn in ornamental bands and stripes on the yoke, etc. of clothing and frequently had gems attached to them. (Stamerov)

Jewelry was often designed for individual commissions. Gold and silver jewelry with precious and semiprecious stones was often passed down for many generations. (Pushkareva97)

Jewelry Page


Changes in 14-15th Centuries: In the 14-15th cent. the loose stepped silhouette of clothing, emphasizing the "grace" (statnost') of Russian women, endured little change. Innovation affected the attire of rural inhabitants least of all, although temple rings (evidence of ethno-tribal characteristics) or, for example, noise-making priveski (sign of proximity with Ugro-Finnish tribes) gradually disappeared from the headdresses of peasants. (Pushkareva89)

For noble city dwellers, boyarinas, princesses instead of the gown (dalmatika?) appeared letniki, "koreli", "opashni". In cold autumn or winter day they wore kozhukhi and shuby ("sheepskin coat" and "fur coat"), which in rich families now lay beneath bright expensive fabrics. (Pushkareva89)

In the 15th cent. cloaks and capes were used more rarely, and together with changes of form clothing was changed and also the set of its traditional supplements/additions. Fibuly became also a completely rare ornament. But the belt remained a necessary accessory of women's clothing. (Pushkareva89)

The shoes of Marfa Boretski and her noble contemporaries (end 15th cent.) became significantly more complex in cut and design with openwork appearing, along with composite manufacture. Porshni completely went out of use; everyday shoes became more comfortable in construction. In the 14-15th cent. half boot and boots with little composition leather heels on a stiff base gained the widest spread as the favorite shoes of city dwellers and princesses and boyarinas. (Pushkareva89)

Brief Notes on Muscovite Rus Clothing.

Selected References:
  • Kireyeva, E.V. Translated by Tatiana Nikolaevna Tumanova. The History of Costume. Enlightenment, Moscow, 1970.
  • Kolchin, B.A. and T.I. Makarova. Drevnaya Rus, Byt i Kultura. (Ancient Rus, Life and Culture) Publishing House “Nauka”. Moscow, 1997. [ISBN 5-02-010174-5. Shelf # fDk72 .D737 1997 at U of Iowa.]
  • Pushkareva, Natalia. Partially translated by Lisa Kies. Zhenshchiny drevney Rusi. (Women of Ancient Rus.) 1989.
  • Pushkareva, Natalia. Translated by Eve Levin. Women in Russian History. M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, New York, 1997.
  • Rabinovich, M.G. Partially translated by Lisa Kies. Древняя Одежда Народов Восточной Европы. (Ancient Clothing of the Peoples of Eastern Europe.) "Nauka". Moskva. 1986.
  • Stamerov, K.K. Translated by Tatiana Nikolaevna Tumanova. An Illustrated History of Costume. Avenger, Kiev, 1978.
  • Voyce, Arthur. Art and Architecture of Medieval Russia. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK. 1967
  • Zhargon. On-line Russian Encyclopedia. //www.zhargon.ru.

  • 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.