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Section: Ethnography
Siberian Old Believers: History in Costume

Siberian Old Believers: History in Costume

A good dress is a card of invitation; Fine dress helps to impress… It is no problem to find evidence supporting this proverb. Clothes can tell a lot about their master: for example, his or her level of income, tastes and habits, education and views… If our modern dress is so telling, the more so is traditional costume whose every detail has been sifted through the ages. Simple or intricate, folk costume is the essence of both material and spiritual life of many generations. Its language, however, is only understandable to a historian and ethnographer… This publication about the costume of Siberian Old Believers is the first in the series of articles dedicated to the ethnographic exhibits of the Museum of History and Culture of Peoples Inhabiting Siberia and Russian Far East with the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The core of the Museum's rich ethnographic exhibits is collections made in compact communities of indigenous nationalities and Russian settlers on the initiative of Academician A. P. Okladnikov in the 1960s-1980s

By the beginning of the 20th century Russian population of West Siberia varied a lot in terms of origin and culture.

Among the Siberians descending from the first settlers of the 17th to the first half of the 19th century the most wide-spread ethnographic group were Chaldons, who had no memory of the localities they had come from. Nevertheless, these well-to-do old residents associated themselves with the Don Cossacks and Siberia’s first conqueror Ermak.

Old Believers occupied a special place among Russian Siberians – these included latest settlers of the early 20th c., mainly coming from the Urals and Volga (Dvoyedany, Kurgany), and old settlers (Kerzhaki, Poliaki, Semeiskiye).

The Altai “Poles” (Poliaki) were descendants of Russian Old Believers who, in the late 17th and early 18th c., escaped religious persecution from various areas in Russia to lands that at that time made part of Poland. In the 1760s they were exiled by Katherine II to a designated area in the Southern Altai, where they came to be called “Poles” by their former place of residence. Another group of old-believers settled in Zabaikalie (Trans-Baikal region) and was referred to as Semeiskiye (“Family people”) because of their reported way of settling by families (Bolonev, 1992).

These specific features of ethnic and cultural composition of Russian Siberians did not fail to influence their material culture, which in the 19th and early 20th c. was a unique blend, or coexistence, of various Central European regional traditions.

A clear demonstration of this fact is ethnic costume, a true center of people’s artistic taste and their spiritual, religious and mental principles. We will support this statement by the example of folk costume of Siberian Old Believers, the Poliaki and Semeiskiye.

After the image of Christ

An original part of the male costume of Poliaki was ritual (wedding) linen shirt. Their tunic cut became archaic as early as in the 19th century. Shirts of this kind were worn with trousers of the general Russian cut made from rectangular or trapezium-shaped cloths, tied round the waist with tasseled woven belts.

The main feature of this shirt is a composition of the rich decorative embroidery on the left side of the front, whose elements make up a cross-like figure, as well as two vertical red cotton braids sewn along the seams keeping the central and side linens together. The braids were decorated with “meanders” (patterns of continuously repeated twisted spirals), squares embroidered in blue and white thread, contrastive to the red cotton. Along the two sides of the braids geometrical ornaments were embroidered, which organically included the braids into the composition.

Decorative red cotton braids of Poliaki’s ritual shirts fulfill a specific artistic task: they bring out the shape and cut so that the shirt’s abundant ornaments are not perceived chaotically. What is of interest, however, is when and how these outstanding decorative elements appeared in the Russian dress.

It should be noted that by the 19th c. the tradition of sewing decorative braids over the seams had been preserved only for some kinds of Russian women’s clothes (Kouftin, 1926). Also, in southern Russian provinces seams of men’s festive shirts still used to be decorated with embroidery and red cotton but on the whole their role in decorative design was modest.

As for the earlier time, the restored shirts of Russian aristocracy (16th and early 17th cc.) kept in the Archangel cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin and in the State History Museum have seams decorated with braids and bands, though these are much more narrow than the red cotton braids ornamenting the shirts of Siberian old residents (Коshliakova, 1986). Besides, their shirt-fronts had no rich patterns.

And if we go another century back? Ancient Russian manuscripts such as the 15th-century Radzivill manuscript contain depictions of clergy from Chernigov wearing ankle-long tunics decorated with contrasting trimmings around the collar, sides of the hem and sleeves. All these garments have two vertical braids going from the shoulders to the lower hem. The “manuscript” shirts, however, are considerably longer than the Old Believers’ shirts, have round epaulets and no front embroidery (Rybakov, 1976).

By the 8th and 9th c., a strong iconographic tradition had been established in the Orthodox Church. As for the costume of Christ and saints, it had to be a white tunic with two vertical braids and red and blue meander ornaments. Similar garments can be seen in the Byzantine and, later, Old Russian icons. It was this costume approved by the resolutions of the Byzantine Councils that the Orthodox clergy wore since the 6th c. (Komissarzhevskiy, 1910; Kibalova et al., 1986). Supporting this fact are, for example, depictions on the well-known mosaic in the church of St. Vitalius, in Italian Ravenna, which used to be the western capital of the Byzantine Empire.

Let us now fix our eyes on the West. We will see that back in annalistic times tunics with vertical braids were common for clergy garments and clothes of upper aristocracy of Western Europe (Yastrebitskaya, 1978). The embroidery round the collar was divided in several columns, similarly to that of the Old Believers’ shirts. Garments with braids can be found on the 2nd- to 4th-century Roman frescos showing Mother of God, on the cult portraits from the Roman province of El Fayum, on the statues and frescos in Parfia, and on samples of Coptic clothes (Kibalova et al. 1986; History of Ancient Rome, 1982; Schlumberger, 1985).

Evidently, it was Roman influence that made these garments spread both in Byzantine and Western Europe. Originally, tunics with narrow purple braids had distinguished the noble knight estate - braids of senators’ tunics were broader. Some time later the tunics became a Christian cult attribute.

So such is the long story told by two red cotton braids from the shirts of Siberian Old Believers. Understandably, the tradition to highlight seams with decorative braids and to trim collars with cross-like embroidery came to Russia when it adopted the Greek-Byzantine version of Christianity. These clothes met the aesthetic requirements of the feudal world and reflected the well-spread principle of conforming with the image of a “true” Christian both internally and externally. It is not by chance they were preserved by Siberians coming from the Chernigov, Briansk, and Gomel provinces, which used to be a true “reserve” of traditional Eastern European culture.

Testifying to how persevering these traditions have proved to be is another interesting fact: alongside the clear Christian attributes, Old Believers’ shirts carry much more ancient symbols. The front cross-shaped embroidery consists of overlapping squares with crooks or without them, and these are typical pagan elements, normally interpreted as signs of fertility. Confirming this are samples of embroidery found on Poliaki’s shirts, supplemented with ears of wheat. Such combination of Christian and pagan semantics was typical of the Old Russian costume of the 12th and early 13th centuries (Rybakov, 1981).

Aprons, drake feathers and amber

The visiting card of a sort of another Old Believers’ ethnographic group – the Semeiskiye from the Trans-Baikal region – is the surprisingly smart and colorful women’s festive clothes. Their function is underlined by the choice of material (light silk fabrics), a smart shawl, and abundant decorations: amber bead-necklace, tinsel, and headgear embroidered in golden thread.

The women’s shirts of the Semeiskiye had a cut common for all the Slavs, with pleated rectangular insets on the shoulders and the body consisting of the upper and lower parts (chekhlik and stanushka, respectively). The upper part was made from expensive purchased fabrics like silk Persian fabric, velvet, or Chinese satin; while the lower part was made from cheap fabrics like cotton, printed cotton, or fustian. The shoulder insets of festive shirts were decorated with applications of multi-color fabric braids and ornamental seams. According to residents of the town of Bichura, ancient chakhlatki shirts had sleeves two linens wide, with cuffs. The stand-up collar was turned down, and the collar was fastened with brooch-links.

They used to put on light cotton skirts over the shirts to make the hips seem broader; winter skirts were made from woolen cloth. “It’s more fluffy this way”, the Semeiskiye explained to ethnographers during the expedition of 1977.

Straight pinafore dresses with shoulder straps were characteristic of central Russia. They spared no fabric to make a dress: the front part was made from two linens, and the back part from four. All in all, it took six meters of fabric to make a pinafore dress! The front lower hem was decorated with braids. Older and aged women did not use to wear braids as this was considered sinful and immodest: after a certain age, this ornament was unpicked.

Round the waist, pinafore dresses were tied with a belt woven from purchased Berlin wool, silk, or cotton. In the 1970s peasant families still kept a variety of hand-made woven belts, and elderly women weavers agreed readily to demonstrate their skills.

By tradition, the pinafore dress was worn under a zapon (an apron), which was always made with a bodice. In the old time, when pinafore dresses were long, zapon’s were also long. “My mother used to wear a zapon that covered the ichigi (kind of home-made shoes)”, an inhabitant of the town of Bichura recollected.

The Russians brought to Siberia their primordial trades: husbandry together with domestic cattle breeding and poultry industry. Processing raw materials developed into trades: tanning, sheepskin coat making, production of wool and felt boots, weaving, timber trade, etc.
Products of women’s craft work, weaving, and household things were often not just handy–they were real works of applied and decorative arts. For instance, beliefs related to birds transformed into artistic depictions that proved to be extremely tenacious not only in folklore but also in the ornamentation of women’s crafts products and designs for distaffs. Chiseled shapes, excellent proportions, and pleasant colorful ornaments created a festive mood in peasants’ homes.

Maids used to wear one plait whilst married women wore two plaits crossed at the crown and then covered with a kichka (headgear) whose hoof-shaped front part was rigid. On top of the kichka they put a case embroidered in golden thread, a kokoshnik. The back of the hair was covered with a rectangular stripe of fabric embroidered with gimp and beads. On top of this complicated headgear they made a turban from a rolled satin shawl, which was decorated with flower bunches, brooches and kucheri (drake feathers). According to the story told by an aged resident of the town of Bolshoi Kunalei, as late as at the beginning of the last century old people prohibited local fashion-mongers from wearing brooches and pins, considering the habit sinful.

On holiday they used to put on amber bead-necklaces, which were valued highly and handed down from mothers to daughters. We were shown necklaces purchased in the Russian North that had been kept in the families for five or seven generations.

These women’s clothes of the Semeiskiye, descendants of settlers who came from the western territories of the Russian Empire, have formed as a result of intricate interaction of various regional variants of Slav folk dress. The typical northern Russian base (the pinafore dress) was transformed under the Byelorussian and western Russian influence. The latter showed itself in the names of the clothes’ articles (for example, chekhlik, brooch-link), complicated way of tying shawls in the shape of a crown (typical of the Slutsk region of Central Byelorus), turned-down stand-up collar, bright and colorful trimmings, which were not typical of the Russian costume.

As a result, quite an original tradition of festive women’s costume came into being, which lasted practically without change till the mid-20th century. As late as the 1970s many women still kept in their trunks authentic Semeiskiye dresses, one of which the author of this article was honored to wear.

Today, an important source of various ethnographic data is clothes preserved in museums.

Thus, exhibits of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS representing costumes of two Old Believers’ branches relocated to the Altai and Trans-Baikal region have given us the opportunity to track the relation between the two groups, the Poliaki and Semeiskiye, as well as their connection to the population of the localities in Belarus and Ukraine they have come from.

Traditional costume, however, can not only be found among museum exhibits. Picturesque clothes of Siberian Old Believers have become a sort of benchmark in folk dress for folk groups, singers of folk songs, and fans of relics of the past – thus leading a new life in urban surroundings.

Bolonev F. F. Semeiskiye: Historical and Ethnographic Essays.– Ulan-Ude, 1992.
Kibalova L., Gerbenova О., Lamarova M. Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fashion.–Prague, 1986.
Komissarzhevskiy F. F. Costume.–St Petersburg, 1910.
Mertsalova М. N. Costumes of Different Times and Peoples.–Moscow,1993.–V. 1.
Russian Folk Costume.–Leningrad, 1984.
Shvetsova М. V. Poliaks of Zmeinogorsky okrug // Notes of the West Siberian Department of the Russian Geographic Society. 1899. Book 26.

The editors and author are grateful to Candidate of History I. V. Salnikova, head of the Museum and Source Studies Section of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS, for her help with preparation of the present publication

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