Notes on Women's Clothing in Muscovite Rus

by Sofya la Rus, Mka Lisa Kies

Information about Women's Clothing of Muscovite Rus that may apply to Kievan Rus
(or at least provide inspiration and insight)
Makeup: 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" - a fully painted beauty in accordance with Muscovite use of cosmetics. Foreigners noted this fondness for makeup, but thought its application clumsy, unskilled and crude. Despite this, the 16th and 17th century Muscovite fashion required women to hide their natural beauty under heavy powder, bright rouge (often derived from beets), eyebrows and eyelashes darkened with antimony, eyelids shadowed in blue up to the temples, and drops in the eyes to dilate the pupils (like belladonna used in Western Europe?) and give them depth and expression. According to Czech missionary Jiri David, Muscovite women "pluck their eyebrows... with some sort of powder, and then draw them back on with black paint in a semi-circular shape" higher than the natural brow so that their hats "almost touch their eyebrows". (I. David, "Sovremennoe sostoianie Velikoi Rossii," Voprosy istorii, 1968, no 4. p.14.) Some cosmetics were, of course, bad for the health and damaging to the skin. Court physician Samuel Collins recorded the use of mercury compounds, ochre, bismuth, and soot (mixed with water to outline eyes and brows). (Pushkareva97)

Interestingly, Eugenia Tolmochoff proposed that this heavy use of makeup was for modesty, corresponding to the Oriental use of the veil to conceal the face. She also notes that, according to Ivan Zabelin, the fashion for makeup was brought to Russia from Constantinople by Princess Olga in the 10th century. (Tolmachoff)

In contrast, folk healers provided numerous creams and concoctions to preserve youthfullness and freshen the complexion and descriptions of these treatments are preserved in period herbal manuals. Ingredients included oatmeal, honey, curds, oil, rosin, and herbs. (Pushkareva) Even peasant women worked to enhance their beauty and hide age. When visiting or dressed for holidays, they applied powder (from flour), rouge (from beets) and eyeliner (from burned cork). (Pushkareva)

Headdresses: Colorful and imposing headdresses were worn by women of all social classes. (Zabelin, Domashnii byt russkik tsarits, p. 467) The thin, light scarf was meant to set off fair complexions, especially with pearls and silver thread. The headdresss itself was often red to harmonize with rouged cheeks and was tall for married women, and a wreath or fillet for unmarried girls. They were often decorated with real or imitation semi-precious stones. In winter, women wore hats bordered with fur, beaver or sable for boyarinas and princesses. The hats sat low on their foreheads with the dark fur complementing eyebrows and lashes. Women did not remove their headdresses even at home. (Pushkareva97) Rubakha/shift: Women's underdress remained the straight shift, similar to the Kievan style. The collar and sleeves were richly decorated as before. The embroidery and beadwork could be "three or four fingers broad." (Giles Fletcher, Of the Rus Commonwealth, p 153; Dzh. Fletcher, O gosudarstve russkom (St. Petersburg, 1906), p 126) Everyday shifts were made of course linen, as other types of cloth were imported and expensive. (Pushkareva97)

Wealthy women wore a second, fancier shift over the "plain" underdress. It was longer, made of striped or patterned silk. It had very long sleeves up to five yards in length and was worn belted, symbolizing virtue and piety. It was indecent to go without a belt, even at home. The outrage his daughter-in-law provoked by going bareheaded without a belt in the terem led Ivan IV to strike down his eldest son, according to some stories. (Pushkareva97)

Outer Garments: The sarafan was the most popular outer garment - a widely cut and loosely fitted coat, which became the essential item of bridal dress. It was cut from a single rectangle of cloth with an opening for the neck. The sides were fastened under the arms leaving the rich embroidery of the undershift visible. The lower section of this coat was often made of heavier brocade or velvet fabric in a textured pattern. The coat was worn over the sarafan, visible underneath. Winter coats were composed of multiple layers of cloth and were lined with fur. Both summer and winter coats were adorned with embroidered panels and collars, passed down from generation to generation. (Pushkareva97)

Eugenia Tolmachoff discusses the following women's garments:

    Sarafan - sleeveless dress with a low neckline.
    Dushegreia - hip-length full jacket worn over the sarafan for extra warmth.
    Letnik - wide-sleeved long robe, NOT open all the way down the front, similar to robes of Byzantine princesses.
    Opashen, ohaben - another type of letnik, but opened down the front with long narrow sleeves. Worn as early as the 15th century.
    Telogreia - just like the opashen, but with an opening at the top of the sleeves to pass the arms through.
    Shouba - just like the opashen, except the sleeves were only wrist length.
    Kortel - a fur coat for winter cut much like the letnik.

As an alternative, a woman might wear a coat that was waist-length in front for ease in walking, but long in back with extra-long sleeves and with slits halfway down. Another coat with similar sleeves was long in front but open. Women might also wear a short jacket cut wide at the hip length hem (the dushegriya). All of these could give a straight or A-line silhouette. Many were decorated from top to bottom with tiny buttons, but these were purely decorative. All were worn open to reveal the garments underneath to display the multiple layers of costly fabrics, but still revealed nothing of the woman's figure. (Pushkareva97)

On ceremonial occasions, noblewomen wore a mantle with a long train over all these layers, including the fur coat in winter. The mantles were made of silk and were either red or white with gold and silver embroidery. (Pushkareva97)

Furs: As before, a wide variety of furs were used in winter clothing. The fur coats with their silver lace decorations impressed foreigners. One merchant's daughter had 5 such coats - one was even made of ermine. (Starinnye akty, sluzhashchie preimushchestvenno dopolneniem k opisaiu g. Shui i ego okrestnostei (Moscow, 1853), pp. 185-88 (no. 103, dating to 1663).) Such luxurious furs were not worn on a daily basis, however. Even coats of cheaper furs could be quite expensive - 20 rubles, as much as the entire property of a family of serfs. Women who could not afford to make or buy fur coats wore coats made from multiple layers of wool broadcloth - "fish fur." The fur coats could be accompanied by fur mittens or muffs, but more often women simply pulled their long fur-lined sleeves down over their hands. Gloves with separate fingers were rare, even for tsaritsas. (Pushkareva97) Shoes and Stockings: Well-to-do women preferred leather shoes, sometimes with uppers of velvet or brocade, richly embroidered with gold designs and ornamented with filigree and leather and metal appliques. Such shoes were decorative, rather than functional. For holiday wear, all Muscovite women chose high heals. (Pushkareva97)

For much of the year, women went bare legged. Peasant women wrapped their feet in strips of cloth (onuchi). Some wealthy city women had stockings of soft cloth, but since there were no garters or elastic, these tended to slide down around women's ankles. Only the tsaritsa reportedly had two pairs of knitted stockings of "azure silk with silver" imported from Germany. So even the tsaritsas usually wrapped their feet in cloth strips. (Pushkareva97)

Jewelry and Ornament: Much of the jewelry of the period was recast in the early 18th century. But we still know that types of jewelry were used to set wearers apart by gender, age, social position and family status. Olearius pointed that all little girls wore earrings, and that that was all that distinguished them from the little boys. It was the custom to pierce girls' ears at the time they began to walk. Lower class women wore jewelry of a more modest sort. Instead of gold and silver, it was made of bronze and other alloys, but the workmanship was not necessarily inferior, and the simplicity of the pieces added to their aesthetic appeal. (Pushkareva97)

Country women continued to adorn their clothing with amulets and embroidery motifs reflecting pre-Christian beliefs. Peasant women's clothing was less elaborate and pretentious in form and fabric. Comfort and functionality were of primary importance. Elite women, of course, heeded no such notions in their impractical urban styles. (Pushkareva97)

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