Saturday, December 18, 2010

CYL: Fashion from the Land of the Tsars

Maria Alexandrovna in a court dress with traditional kokoshnik

Privet! Today we'll be visiting the land of the Tsars and looking at the clothing citizens of Imperial Russia wore, which is only appropriate since for much of the world cold weather is here! For the purpose of simplicity, we will only be covering the territory that would be modern day Western (European) Russia. The Caucasus (this includes the Cossacks, as awesome as they were), Siberia, and the Central Asian countries will be examined in separate articles. Without further ado, here is the wardrobe of the wealthy, some ostentatious masquerade outfits, and the clothes of the masses...

Historical Background
Russia during this period was (and in many cases still is) a land of duality- the opulence of the rich against the harrowing existence of the poor. The industrialized cities teeming with people in contrast to the pastoral countryside in which you can go miles hundreds of miles without seeing a settlement. In our period, Russia was in the midst of a game of catch-up with the rest of Europe to industrialize. Railroads were being built to link the far reaches of the empire with the factories and farmlands in the western regions of the country and for the first time since the 12th century the rural peoples were able to move (thanks to Tsar Alexander II having the cajones that previous emperors lacked). The Romanovs were reaching the twilight of their three-hundred year reign (which was duly celebrated with a masquerade in 17th century costumes) which would end in the Russian Revolution in 1917. But first, let's look at (my dorky costumer's hypothesis of) why this conclusion came about, and of course what people were wearing.

Two gentlemen in St. Petersburg enjoying some tea from a samovar.
The Aristocracy: Why We Can't Have Nice Things
Since Peter the Great decided to have his hissy fit over beards and kaftans back in the 17th century, Russian fashion for the elite closely followed those of Prussia (particularly under Peter and Holstein-descended tsars), Austria, and France. Over time court dress became a standard of military dress uniforms for men... and 25 pound (estimating from the sheer weight of the velvet, embroidery, and beading/jeweling) behemoths for the ladies...

The court dress of Maria Feodorovna courtesy of the Hermitage Amsterdam: also the real reason there was a revolution, methinks.
These behemoths were a result of years of mainstream Europe fashion-watching interbreeding with the traditional Russian addiction to ornamentation and embroidery. Then add a train and tightly-fitted bodice. It became so cutthroat that ladies (not even the Imperial Majesties) would spend 1500 rubles a dress (for reference, an Imperial Faberge egg would cost Tsar Nicholas II 1800 rubles... ) just so they wouldn't be caught in the same fabric, embroidery, or train style as another lady. Furthermore your ornamentation varied according to your rank per certain courtly norms, although most ladies just tried to look as magnificent as possible.

This court dress for both men and women was an outright competition in the Age of Steam of a combination of who could look the most mainstream European, who could do so while attracting as much attention to themselves as possible, who could embellish the most, and who could do this all without incurring the ire of the Imperial family.

The dress uniform of Tsar Alexander I, trimmed in bullion braid and fox fur.
The Other Half... er... Majority
For the people that didn't live in one of the larger cities, were not a part of the genteel frock-coat wearing society that spawned many of the great Russian Novels, and furthermore were not privy to the styles of the rest of Europe (basically 90% of the population)- life and clothing styles carried on in a similar fashion to how it had for centuries. Farmers used the new steel plows of the Industrial Revolution, but did so wearing the same shirt, trousers, and dresses of prior times. While a lot of "European" countries during this time were adopting the standard uniform of the Victorian period, Russia held on to its folk clothing until mid-way into the 20th century!

The shirts, which are ubiquitous of Russian peasantry, are called kosovorotka. Typically they were made of linen with a long cut, which would be helpful while farming or working. The kosovorotka earned its name from the way the collar overlaps in an asymmetrical fashion (it translates as "askew collar" from Russian). Often more formal shirts would be embroidered or trimmed (reds and greens were popular). These were typically worn with trousers and layered with woolen vests or jackets in colder weather.

Russian peasantry (c. 1900) wearing kosovorotka, soft boots, and visored caps.
 Women had a blouse similar to the kosovorotka that was often covered in embroidery (particularly on the sleeves and collar) which they wore with a colorful, jumper-like dress called a sarafan. The skirts of the sarafan were very voluminous to allow ease of movement while working while the bodice was fitted a little higher than natural waist- although sometimes they were corseted. Most women had two sarafan; one made of rougher cloth for daily work and one in bright (red was very popular), ornamented fabric for formal occasions. Embroidered shawls or headscarves were also worn.

Three Russian girls by Prokudin-Gorskii (1909). The middle one is wearing a sarafan.
The formal headgear for the sarafan dress was the kokoshnik- a circular headdress that crested over the head. For peasants these were typically made out of stiffened and embroidered fabric- however this very same headdress was recreated and scaled back as a cultrally Russian version of the tiara for ladies of the court.

Variations on the kokoshnik. Yeah, George Lucas ripped this one off as well.
Both genders wore bast shoes (or lapti)- slipper-like footwear made from woven plant fiber and bark that were a symbol of poverty. Since these shoes weren't the most durable, woolen boots were also worn- and leather or suede varieties for people who had a little more money. Headgear ranged from a simple kerchief tied under a woman's chin, to visored caps, to the ever-popular duo of Russian fur caps: the ushanka and the kubanka.

Know Your Furry Hats!
Say privet to the kubanka-  basically it's a cylinder of fur and typically topped off with leather or a similar fabric. It was mainly worn by cossacks, but was later introduced to Russia during the 1800s.

Two Russian troops from WWI wearing kubankas
This is a ushanka (say privet to the ushanka too, or it might get jealous)- it has flaps that are lined in fur that can be tied up or down to protect the ears, back of the neck, and/or forehead from the cold. It's been very popular amongst militaries since the early 1900s for this convenient feature.

Ushanka on Red Army troops in 1917
Kubanka = cylinder of fluff. Ushanka = earflaps. There will be a quiz.

So, now that you've seen some of the dress of Imperial Russia, here's a few ideas of how you can integrate these into your steampunk.

-Kosovorotka- these shirts are iconic. Wearing one with any steampunk ensemble will make people think "Hey! Russian!" They also have the ability to dress up or down, depending on material or what it's paired with. Try one in a different color than white, add some trim, belt it or just leave it loose under other layers. There are a ton of options!
-Sarafans are a great way to add color and texture to an ensemble. You could also easily adapt one from a jumper or dress from the thrift store by adding accent edging and a few extra triangular panels of a similar fabric in the skirt for fullness. They make fantastic working woman's dress and would layer well with a cute blouse or trousers underneath.
-Ushankas and kubankas not only add a cold-climate flair to your outfit, but are also very warm! Also you could probably tuck tools or other accessories into the flaps of a ushanka.
-Kokoshnik are visually interesting and could be steampunked up with pieces of metal or working parts (someone make a clockwork kokoshnik please...)
-Court gowns also have great steampunk potential in what ornamentation or materials are used to make them. A metallic fabric or gear/clockwork embellishment would look interesting (if you have the ability or means to get your hands on one... as much as I would kill for one, two months of rent for a dress is a little bit out of scope for most of us).
-Visored caps were staples of the working or industrial class, so why not don one? The higher profile of the cap means you could also put your goggles on it (if you're into that sort of thing).
- Also wouldn't it be a scream if someone made a steampunk Faberge egg? Just saying...

Another beautiful dress uniform belonging to Alexander I

Print of a woman in a sarafan and apron

A collection of 1880s soldiers
A gathering of town elders- or mir. They wear a long jacket similar to a kaftan.
A sarafan with polychrone embroidery

It's from the 20s, but it's such a fantastic kokoshnik!
Helpful Links:
-The Hermitage Amsterdam's Announcement of an Exhibition of Imperial objects.
-A place to get kosovorotka for under $50-
-A pattern for a kosovorotka (no instructions, but fairly straightforward)-
-An article about an exhibit of Imperial objects at the V&A museum, London-
- Another place to get a kosovorotka-

Ushankas are furry- know what else are? Llamas! Remember that our charity drive to send livestock to needy families is still underway- chip in what you can if you can!


  1. I just love Russianwear. It's so... unique. Maybe I need a Russian outfit too...

  2. Wanting all of Tsar Alexander's dress unis. Am I a girl? Yes. Would I rock them anyway? Bet your best stripey socks!

    Thank you for this article, it was inspiring!

  3. "There is no problem wearing dress uniforms as a girl, particularly awesome dress uniforms."

    So sayeth Miss Kagashi, as she sells hatpins to the people.

  4. Those headdresses are to die for! I adore the one in the last picture.

  5. I've been working on a steam-cossack outfit since World Steam Expo. What I've put together so far is not only nifty looking (including kubanka (and a pilotka for summer wear) and dress boots) but is also really practical for the sometimes harsh midwestern winters.

  6. Man, I wish I'd had this when I'd been writing my NaNo. Awesome article!

  7. This definitely made my day! As someone who has a full blown fetish with, erm I mean a historical fascination with pre-revolutionary Russia, this definitely strikes my fancy.

  8. Does anyone know the colors of Anna Pavlova kokoshnik? Or, is there a picture of the actual kokoshnik she wore anywhere online in color? Thanks