Russia: General information

Russia (officially the Russian Federation) is the largest country in the world by surface area 17,075,200 km² (6,592,800 miles²) and extends across Eurasia. It is the ninth most populous country, with over 144 million people (March 2016). The European western part of the country is much more highly populated and urbanised than the eastern; about 77% of the population live in European Russia. Russia is a multi-national state with over 185 ethnic groups designated as nationalities; the populations of these groups vary enormously, from millions (e.g., Russians and Tatars) to under 10,000 (e.g., Samis and Kets), meaning that the traditional clothing also varies greatly throughout the country.

1) East Slavs


Finno-Ugric peoples lived in the European part of Russia in the prehistorical period. In classical antiquity, the Pontic (Ukrainian) Steppe was known as Scythia. Beginning in the 8th century BCE, both Ancient Greek and Roman influences affected this area. In the 3rd to 4th centuries CE; a semi-legendary Gothic kingdom of Oium existed in Southern Russia until it was overrun by Huns. Between the 3rd and 6th centuries CE, the Bosporan Kingdom, a Hellenistic polity which succeeded the Greek colonies, was also overwhelmed by nomadic invasions led by warlike tribes, such as the Huns and Eurasian Avars. A Turkic people, the Khazars, ruled the lower Volga basin steppes between the Caspian and Black Seas until the 10th century.

The ancestors of modern Russians are the Slavic tribes, whose original home is thought by some scholars to have been the wooded areas of the Pinsk Marshes (one of the largest wetland areas of Europe situated in Belarus and Ukraine). The East Slavs emerged as a recognisable group in Europe between the 3rd and 8th centuries AD. They gradually settled Western Russia in two waves: one moving from Kiev toward present-day Suzdal and Murom, and another from Polotsk toward Novgorod and Rostov. From the 7th century onwards, the East Slavs constituted the bulk of the population in Western Russia and assimilated the native Finno-Ugric peoples.

The medieval state of Rus arose in the 9th century. It was founded and ruled by a Varangian warrior elite and their descendants. In 988, Rus adopted Orthodox Christianity from the Byzantine Empire, beginning the synthesis of Byzantine and Slavic cultures that defined Russian culture for the next millennium.

Rus ultimately disintegrated into a number of smaller states; most of the Rus’ lands were overrun by the Mongol invasion and became tributaries of the nomadic Golden Horde in the 13th century. The Grand Duchy of Moscow gradually reunified the surrounding Russian principalities, achieved independence from the Golden Horde, and came to dominate the cultural and political legacy of Kievan Rus.

By the 18th century, the nation had greatly expanded through conquest, annexation, and exploration to become the Russian Empire, which was the third largest empire in history, stretching from Poland in the west to Alaska in the east.

Following the Russian Revolution (1917), the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic became the largest and leading constituent of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the world’s first constitutionally socialist state. After World War II, the Soviet Union emerged as a recognised superpower. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, fifteen independent republics emerged from the USSR: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Russia reconstituted itself as the Russian Federation and this very varied history of this massive country has led to it having over 185 ethnic groups as stated above.

2) Boyars (Russian nobility)

Traditional clothing

I certainly do not wish to deal with all 185 ethnicities in one go (I also do not have dolls from them), so I will concentrate what is considered to be Russian clothing. Russia is a big country with diverse climate zones: from subtropical to arctic. In addition, Russia has been divided into administrative districts (oblasts) since the early Empire. As a result, different styles of clothing have emerged in every region. The costume that is designated as “Russian” comes especially from Archangelsk, Orlov, Ryazan, Tambov, Tver, Vologda, Voronezh and Yaroslavl. Nowadays, Russian traditional costumes are worn on special holidays, carnivals and even as casual wear.

As with other cultures, traditional Russian clothing was designed not only to protect the wearer from the weather but also to decorate. The traditional clothing could tell a lot about a person: where he/she came from, how rich or how old he/she was, and especially for women, their marital status.

Historians suppose that traditional Russian costume started taking its shape in the 12th—13th centuries. Up to the 18th century, it was worn by all layers of Russian society: tsars, boyars, merchants, craftsmen and peasants. A radicle change then occurred in Russian dress as the Russian tsar, Peter the Great (Peter I; 1672—1725), issued a decree during his reign that prohibited the wearing of traditional Russian clothing in favour of foreign clothes. (Europeanisation). It was the outward manifestation of all the innovations introduced by Peter I. The Russian nobility and city dwellers changed their style of dress but the peasants were not affected by this decree. As in many other countries, the Russian peasants were conservative, who rarely made any changes in their clothing, which was mostly homemade. The clothing traditions were therefore handed down from generation to generation until the 20th century.

Despite Peter I’s decree, clothing traditions were also preserved by the Cossacks (East Slavic people living in Russia and the Ukraine), Old Believers/Old Ritualists (a form of Russian Orthodox Church) and other strata of Russian society.

Since the 17th century, the southern regions of Russia had an influx of Ukrainian settlers who influenced the local costumes. The Ukrainians love of colourful costumes led to polychromatic garments becoming popular. The chemise of girls and young women had full billowing sleeves decorated with geometric embroidery in red and black. The top sleeve panels were gathered at the top and a gusset made of red calico was inserted in the underarm area. Many sleeves ended in large frilly cuffs trimmed with fabric and lace. The chemise for festive occasions was decorated with gold threads, sequins, beads and ribbons.

An upper garment (navérshnik) was worn over the chemise or skirt and chemise or dress. This trapezoidal sleeveless garment was made of linen and embroidered to harmonise with the chemise.

With industrial development and the resulting reduced prices of fabrics and garments, urban development had an impact on traditional Russian clothing. Gradually, among the conservative peasants women’s clothing items such as a skirt and blouse combination and even a dress began to appear. Such changes occurred faster in the central regions of Russia, near the big cities, and far more slowly in the remote villages.

3) Red and white embroidery

Traditionally, Russian clothing has two main colours: white (the natural colour of the material) and red. The Russian for red — krasny — is the same word that was used in the olden days to call anything beautiful. Interaction with other nations led to emergence of new colours in Russian clothing: yellow, gold, blue, etc.

Embroidery was often used on the clothing. For the southern regions of Russia, plant and geometric patterns were common, while for the Russian North – geometric patterns, zoological patterns and those associated with human life (the figures of peacocks, leopards, horses; the tree of life, crosses, complex diamond shapes and so on) were typical.

Festive clothing had to be new or newish, not too worn. The number of items used in the festive attire was usually bigger than every-day clothing as people tried to impress each other and not lose face. Festive clothing was made from more expensive fabrics, and sometimes even purchased rather than homemade. Festive attire was decorated with ornaments and embroidery. Rich peasants had several sets of festive clothes: a “Sunday” set and set for various holidays. Some well-off peasants used expensive purchased fabric and trimmed their clothes with fur and natural pearls.

The costume was paid special attention to on important events in the life of Russian peasants; e.g. weddings and funerals. For example, wedding shirts could have very long sleeves, in which there were sometimes slits for the arms. It is possible that the symbolic meaning of long-sleeved shirts was that the person who wore such a shirt did not have to work. Sometimes poor peasants preserved their wedding clothes for decades so they had something special to be buried in.

In contrast to festive clothing, day-to-day clothing was made of simple and, most importantly, durable fabrics. Such clothing was also much less decorated. An exception to this was the reaping shirt as harvest time was quite a sacred period in the annual cycle of the Russian peasant, when all the worries, all hard work and difficulties of the season ended with reaping the harvest, the “gifts of nature”.

The main articles of clothing are discussed below.

4) Rubakha

Women’s clothing

Traditional Russian women’s clothing almost completely hid the female figure and focused on the face with the help of a headdress that completely hid the hair. Although the traditional dress varied from region to region, the main women’s costume was based on the rubakha, a long or short linen chemise (shift) originally from the southern regions. The parts intended for public view (collars, sleeves and necklines) were highly decorated with embroidery, silk lace, golden thread and sequins. The long version when worn by itself was belted. An understated version was worn on its own by young girls. Married women wore rubakhas that were highly decorated and intricate in their construction. A married woman could only wear the chemise on its own when they were doing the harvest, otherwise, they wore a skirt or a sarafan for propriety.

The embroidery consisted of geometric designs including ancient propitious signs or zoomorphic motifs. These not only were supposed to protect the wearer but also ensure their fertility. Embroidery stitches done in red placed at vulnerable areas (e.g. wrists and neck) acted as talismans against evil spirits entering the body. The colour red is used ubiquitously to symbolise the life spirit in folkloric embroidery.

By the early 20th century the most widespread women costumes were of two types: the Southern Russian one with a poneva (ponyóva), a homespun woollen skirt (see below), and the Mid-Russian one with a sarafan, a kind of sleeveless caftan-style dress (see below). A pinafore-type garment (perednik) was sometimes worn over the poneva. This was either left open at the back or fastened. A variation of this garment is the zabórnaya zanavéska, which was long in the front but short in the back, ending just below the shoulder blades. Everyday perednik were plain (white or white and coloured fabric) but they were highly adorned for festivals. Otherwise a short jacket-like garment (shushpan) derived from ancient Russian dress was worn over the poneva. It was made of coarse white linen and was neither closed at the front nor belted. It reached to the knees or was shorter. Highly decorated shushpans were worn by younger women for festivals, though widows and old women worn them edged with black braid.

At every age of her life, a Russian woman had a particular set of clothes. Usually, for girls before puberty (13—15 years) the only piece of clothing was a long shirt of white (natural) colour. Older girls already started to wear a skirt or sarafan. There were differences between the clothing of young women, married women and older women. Girls usually wore a variety of accessories, for example, jewellery such as earrings, various belt accessories, etc. The clothing of older women had fewer ornaments and was made in darker hues.

5) Sarafan


Sarafan dresses

The sarafan — a long trapezoidal pinafore dress — is the most common traditional dress for Russian women. These dresses have a rich range of colour, though red was considered the smartest colour

Most forms of sarafan consist of a slightly flared dress with wide or narrow straps. The front of the sarafan could be unadorned or a button-front opening that ran the length of the garment. A woven or plaited belt was placed just under the bust line. The sarafans were made of simple cotton for daily use, though more luxurious materials were used for festive versions. The colours and material used for the sarafans of North Russia varied according to region.

The origins of this style of dress are uncertain and it may have originated from the ancient apron-like garments used in the region (just like the poneva). However, the word sarafan itself is Persian in origin, but it has become synonymous with Russian culture over the years. Previous names for this dress include feryaz and klinnik. Chronicles first mention the sarafan under the year 1376, and since that time it was worn until well into the 20th century. It is worn today as a folk costume for performing Russian folk songs and folk dancing. Plain sarafans are still designed and worn today as light summer dress dress. The outer layer of a Matryoshka doll is traditionally depicted wearing a sarafan.

A long-sleeved linen or cotton blouse/chemise (dunyasha) was historically worn together with a sarafan. The blouses were decorated with symmetrical stylized patterns or embroidery. Over the sarafan was worn a sleeveless or long-sleeved garment called the dushagréya (“body warmer”). It was open at the front with a closure at the top. The back could be flounced or gathered in barrel pleats. When fur-lined it would have been very warm. A dushagréya is an important part of the peasant wedding dress in the Northern provinces. A conical garment was also worn over the sarafan, the epanech’ka. This is suspended from the shoulders by wide-set straps, with its lower edge at waist height. Like the dushagréya, its back is often pleated or folded. However, the front is completely closed. Again, the epanech’ka can be plain or richly decorated.

6) Poneva ensemble

Poneva combination: shirt with a skirt and a headdress

This combination was popular in the southern regions of Russia. The woman wore a long linen shirt (chemise or shift) and a skirt in the third style of poneva (see below). The poneva often was worn with a multi-coloured belt made of woven wool. . In the front she wore an apron. The women always wore a traditional headdress (soroka), which completely hid the hair.

It is believed that the poneva is derived from the Neolithic forms of dress. The most basic form, an apron-like garment, was made of black or blue wool cloth woven with a striped or checked pattern. Unadorned it was suitable for older women, but young women decorated the back and lap of theirs with vividly coloured cascades of rosettes of ribbons, beads and bells. There were three styles of poneva: (1) Three rectangles panels of cloth that were either sewn together or hung separately from a cord around the waist. A fourth panel (often highly decorated) was inserted or hung over the front to form an apron. (2) This style uses the same panel structure but the rectangles did not just hang to the floor but were hitched and draped around the wearer’s backside, by opening and lifting the front edge of the side panels and tucking these into the waistband. (3) The four or more panels were sewn together to form a skirt.

7) Dushegreya over a poneva ensemble

Women’s shirt with a sundress and kokoshnik

This combination was common in the northern regions of Russia, the Volga region, the Urals and Siberia. The woman wore a sundress over a long shirt. On top of it, she wore a bodice with straps (dushegreya). As in the south, married women wore a headdress completely hiding their hair (kokoshnik).

8) Girl with wreath by Orest Kiprensky (1782—1836)


Hair was considered to have magical powers in Russia and it could attract evil spirits that would harm women and children. In order to avoid any misfortune, a woman’s hair had to be carefully hidden and so the headwear of married women fully covered her hair. Even nowadays, the Russian word oprostovolositsya [to tousle the hair] means “to disgrace oneself”.

Girls and women dressed their hair differently. Unmarried girls plaited their hair as the plait was considered the main aspect of a girl’s beauty. The hair was parted in the middle and plaited low on the back of the head. If a headdress was worn, it left the crown of the head and the plait visible. Unmarried girls also tied their scarves to leave the back of the head free to advertise that they were unwed. Married Russian peasant women usually made two plaits and arranged them on their head or they wore their hair in a bun.

One of the most ancient girls’ headdresses in Russia was a wreath. The wreaths were initially made by twining field and meadow flowers together. Later, the flowers were fixed on a birch bark or metal headband and richly decorated with beads, gold or multi-coloured ribbons. Centuries ago, flower wreathes were an important part of every pagan rite a young girl was participating in (herb picking, jumping over a fire, etc.). In one ritual, young girls used to drop their field flower wreaths into water. The girl, whose wreath would be the first to reach the other river bank, would be the first to get married among her friends.

9) Wooden diadem

As a later variation of the wreath, young Russian girls wore leather or birch bark headbands, covered with cloth and richly decorated (with beads, embroidery, river pearls and precious stones) formed a diadem. The diadems could also have three or four “teeth” and a removable front part, the so-called otchel’e.

10) Headband with rings

Even later, they wore narrow metal headbands with temple rings and other decorations.

11) Wedding koruna

For her wedding, a young woman wore a special wreath, the koruna (very similar word to the “crown”). Headdresses were generally passed from mothers to daughters to keep the memory of their ancestors.

12) Soroka

The soroka is one of the oldest Russian headdresses worn by married women. According to archaeological data, women already wore the soroka in the 12th century. Since that time, it has been used throughout Russia. Every peasant woman knew how to sew a soroka. This headdress was usually composed of several elements: a kitchka, a posatylnik, a nalobnik and a shawl. The soroka itself was a long fancy length of woven or embroidered fabric, fixed on the kitchka (see below) and falling down to the back and shoulders. The temple hair was concealed with the posatylnik (a cap of tiny, coloured glass beads). The front and the temples were then covered with an embroidered ribbon, the so-called nalobnik. The shawl was tied over the soroka. In the early 20th century, this complex headdress was replaced nearly everywhere by the povoinik (a type of soft cap of various shapes) or the kerchief.

13) Horned kichka

The kichka (from the word kitchet meaning “swan”) was first mentioned in a document as chelo kichnoe in 1328. This type of headdress was influenced by the Finno-Ugric settlers in the southern regions of Russia in the 10th to 13th centuries. It was, therefore, worn primarily in the southern provinces, such as Kaluga, Orel, Riazan, and Tula. The kichka proper, a small round cap, was made of canvas and covered the hair. It had a stiff panel on top in the form of horns (in Ryasan, Tula, Kaluga, Oryol regions), a spade or hoofs (in Arkhangelsk and Vologda provinces), a circle or oval, etc. The panel, which was sometimes quilted, had pieces of birch, linden or elm bark or small boards inserted into it. Behind the kichka proper was the pozatylnik.

14) Kokoshnik

Nowadays, a form of headdress in the shape of a tiara, the kokoshnik, is a standard part of Russian traditional costume. They are usually handmade and skilfully decorated. Such tiaras became popular in 18th century Russia. They come in a great variety of designs and styles. The best known kokoshnik has a high front shaped like a crescent with rounded edges. The front of a kokoshnik is embroidered with golden thread and pearls. Expensive kokoshniks were always worn with scarves, the lower ends of which were tied under the chin.

The word kokoshnik was first mentioned in the documents of the 16th century. Unlike the daily headdress (a soroka or a shawl), the kokoshnik was initially a holiday, even a wedding headwear. It is no wonder that the kokoshnik was an element of a bride’s dress: its shape resembles the domes of Russian churches, where the wedding ceremony always took place. The kokoshnik was decorated with individual river pearls, pearl meshwork, golden and silver needlework, coloured foil and decorative stones. The head-dress was treasured in the family and handed down, and was an integral element of a well-off bride’s dowry.

Province women used to wear kokoshniks of different shapes and decorations. Women from Central Russia preferred triangular-shaped kokoshniks, looking like a half-moon. Northern women used to decorate their headdress with river pearls. Kokoshniks were made by special artists in towns, villages or convents and were sold at fairs. In the 18th century some kokoshniks could cost ten times more than a good horse.

15) Pavlov posad scarves

In winter, woman wore the traditional Russian knitted shawls and beautiful woollen Pavlov Posad scarves to keep their heads warm.

16) Russian peasant clothing

Men’s clothing

In contrast to women’s clothing, Russian men’s clothing was extremely simple and almost the same throughout Russia. Men wore trousers (porty), a long shirt (rubakha or kosovorotk) with a stand-up collar fastened at the side and cinched at the waist with a belt (poyas or kushak). The shirts were decorated with similar but more modest embroidery like the women’s clothing. The most common version of a man’s shirt (kosovorotka, see below) had a slit placed to one side of the neckline, which was fastened with a button. Russian men also wore caftans.

They wore hats made of felted wool – in an infinite variety of shapes. Gradually, the felted hat was replaced by a cloth hat or a leather cap under the influence of the urban style. A cap (kartuz) came into being in the late 19th century and was decorated with a flower.

17) Kosovorotka shirt

Kosovorotka shirts

The Russian shirt, kosovorotka, has a long history and has kept its style since the olden days. It is straight-cut, has an elongated body and long sleeves and ornate embroidery. The kosovorotka is worn with or without a belt, and has a buttoned or unbuttoned collar.

A plain version of the Russian shirt is called the tolstovka, after the famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who at the end of his life was always seen in a simple folk shirt. Some people even call it a Tolstoy shirt.

18) Klobuk with rounded crown


The Russian fur hat (klobuk) originally had a pointed crown with a fur trim, which then was replaced by a soft hat with soft rounded crown. These were signs of status and wealth.

19) Murmolka

Another type of hat worn by nobles was the murmolka, a high hat with a flat crown made of velvet or brocade with fur cuffs, which were fastened to the hat with loops and buttons. Murmolka was often decorated with feathers and pearls.

20) Gorlatnaya (men in front)

The murmolka was replaced by the gorlatnaya; it was a fur headpiece of the boyars (Russian nobility). The hat was a wider on top fur cylinder, layered at the top with velvet or brocade. The height of the hat was a length of a Russian elbow (54 cm). Such hats were trimmed with fox, weasel or sable fur. The fur was taken from the throat of animals, that is, making just one hat was very, very expensive. The name gorlatnaya hat came from the Russian word for “throat” (gorlo). Common people were strictly forbidden to wear these hats, even wealthy common people.

21) Treukh

Traditional warm men’s hats used in winter had flaps to protect the ears from cold. The treukh had three “petals” – on each side –to cover ears – and in the back – to cover the back of the head and the neck. If at the front, the treukh had a fur trim, it was not unfolded like a visor unlike the ushanka (see below).

22) Malaika (closed)

Malakhai is another type of Russian fur hat but with four cuffs. The shorter front cuff was folded up and was lowered on the forehead during severe frost or snowstorms, or when on the road. Wide side and rear cuffs covered the back of the head, ears and neck from the cold. Straps were attached to the side cuffs so that they could be tied up on top in warm weather.

23) Malaika (unfurled)

Malakhai hats were common all over Russia – from the European part to Siberia. It is easy to see in the malakhai the prototype of ushanka hat, which about 1.5-2 centuries ago began to gradually replace the malakhai.

24) Ushanka

The ushanka (derived from the word ushi – ears) is the well-known Russian hat worn nowadays all over the world where the weather gets really cold and when made of sable is a fashion accessory for the rich and famous.

Clothing for both genders


A belt (homespun or leather) is a mandatory part of traditional Russian clothing for both men and women. Clothing was cinched at the waist with either a belt or sash. The belt was considered to have protective powers and acted as an amulet.

Girls wore a pocket on their belts (lakomki), while women wore purses for money and other little things on their belts. Women either tied their belts under their chest or under their belly. Men wore smoking accessories on their belts.

Outerwear for the transition period (spring and autumn)

Surprisingly, the outerwear was the same for both men and women: caftans, homespun coats, peasant overcoats, etc. The main similarity of these pieces of clothing was a deep fold on the left side. The outerwear was decorated on the outside.

25) Man in shuba

Winter clothing

Winter clothing for men and women was also similar: sheepskin or hare-skin coats, half-length fur coats (shuba) – all with the fur worn on the inside. The outer side of the winter coats was decorated with embroidery.

26) Rich woman in winter coat
27) Lapti bast shoes

Traditional Russian footwear

As with the outerwear, the shoes were the same for men and women. The most commonly worn shoes were lapti, which were worn all year round. They were made of birch bark using special Russian wickerwork (bast). Their soles were reinforced with hemp rope. Inside the lapti, Russian peasants wore onuchi (rectangular clothes of different materials depending on the season), that were held together using special ties. Nowadays, the standard of beauty is considered to be an elegant lady’s leg. In the olden days, sturdy legs were considered beautiful and girls purposely wore several pairs of woollen stockings to give an impression of thick calves.

28) Porshni leather shoes

In addition to lapti, people also wore leather shoes – porshni, koty — or boots. Unlike lapti, leather footwear for men and women had different styles. In the winter, woollen stockings or socks were worn inside the leather footwear. In winter, Russians also wore felt boots – valenki, while in the north of the country shoes made ​​of fur were the norm.

29) Valenki felt boots


Condra Jill (2013) Encyclopedia of National dress. Traditional clothing around the world. Volume 2. ISBN 978-0313-37635-8


1) East Slavs –

2) Boyars (Russian nobility) –

3) Red and white embroidery –

4) Rubakha –

5) Sarafan –

6) Poneva ensemble –

7) Dushegreya over a poneva ensemble –

8) Girl with wreath by Orest Kiprensky (1782—1836) –

9) Wooden diadem –

10) Headband with rings –

11) Wedding koruna –

12) Soroka –

13) Horned kichka –

14) Kokoshnik –

15) Pavlov Posad scarves –

16) Russian peasant clothing –

17) Kosovorotka –

18) Klobuk –

19) Murmolka –

20) Gorlatnaya (men in front) –

21) Treukh –

22) Malaika (closed) –

23) Malaika (unfurled) –

24) Ushanka –

25) Man in shuba –

26) Rich woman in winter coat –

27) Lapti bast shoes –, CC BY-SA 3.0,

28) Porshni leather shoes –

29) Valenki felt boots –



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