Garments of Steppe Nomad Women

In the old times, clothes of a woman gave an immediate understanding of her social, family and age category, judging by the color scheme, shape of the headdress, and decorations.

In women's clothing, imported varieties of fabrics were widely used, such as cloth, silk, brocade, velvet, ornamented with amazing national patterns, and hand embroidery with woolen, silk, silver, and gold threads or cantle. Such embellishments as pearl, mother-of-pearl, coral, and turquoise beads were masterfully implemented, and embroidery covered both homemade canvases, leather, suede, and felt. Fur or leather, complemented with jewelry, accessories, and chest amulets, decorated costumes of wealthy women.

Far not every woman could afford expensive fabrics and jewelry, but all the female representatives in all social strata have expressed the national color in clothing clearly and distinctly.

A special breastplate  represented an interesting piece of clothing for girls before marriage. It was worn on a dress and embroidered with braid, beads, threads, trimmed with fringe or sewn on with coins—in general, an unusually beautiful and feminine item. The chest part of the headdress played the same role for married women.

By the end of the 19th century, women’s dress, earlier straight and one-piece cut, became sectional-cut, and since then on this form has embodied the Kazakh national costume, coupled with a bright national ornament and fitted camisole. An impeccable look of a headdress with its purity, and perfect condition at any time of the day and season was another characteristic and attractive feature in the decoration of Kazakh women. Unlike clothes, which, unfortunately, were sometimes forbidden to change due to religious reasons (for example, during the time of mourning).

Camisoles had either short or long sleeves, everyday dresses were comfortable to wear with sleeveless jackets up to hips or waist. Women's bathrobes differed in the vividness of coloring and a colorful border. “Chapans” were sewn specifically for holidays: from expensive fabrics, decorated with strips of fur, embroidery, and braid.

The marital status of a Kazakh woman predetermined the choice of a headdress. Unmarried girls wore skullcaps. Bright velvet skullcaps were embroidered with gold threads in an original way, and the same fabric was attached to the crown part, covering the entire top and dropping down, thus allowing to obtain an exquisite female headwear. Prosperous girls could afford warm hats with a fox, otter, or beaver trim. As a talisman, eagle owl feathers were attached to the crown of the hat, which gave it elegance.

Until the age of 30, women wore bright clothes, and their favorite color scheme included all shades of red: cherry, purple, orange, as well as variegated cheerful and romantic colors. After thirty years, this color choice was already considered indecent—the tone of clothing should be more modest and dark. Decorations and embroidery used to become simpler and more restrained, without bright stones and glitter. However, as before, clothing and jewelry made amazingly thin and gentle accents in the image of a woman of any age and social status.

Exciting beauty and gentleness were given to Kazakh women by headdresses, decorations, and garment designs for every significant event. And even simple clothes that were exclusively feminine, in no way resembled men’s, or our modern clothes, which are now sometimes called “unisex”, that is, clothes suitable for everyone, regardless of gender. Women’s clothing that belonged only to females, was a unique and amazing part of the exclusively female part of Kazakh people, in all its national glory due to femininity and originality.

A wedding was undoubtedly the most significant event in the life of any Kazakh woman, and preparations were made nearly from the very birth of a girl. The wedding suit confirmed this event to be the culmination of a girl’s life. Wedding headdress of a rich bride, “saukele”, was distinguished by an unusual shape and an abundance of jewelry. High, up to 70 centimeters, saukele was made long before the wedding, decorated with gems, pearls, and corals, temporal pendants. First, the master sheathed the saukele frame with fabric and inserted nests with precious or semi-precious stones, then created a sculptural image of a fish on the back of the head, meaning prosperity.

A wide ribbon of expensive fabric descended the back from the saukele. Craftsmen in cutting, embroidery, jewelry, casting, chasing, stamping, and filigree took part in manufacturing of such wedding headdress. They could handle one saukele for a whole year. For the brides not so wealthy, saukele was trimmed with fringe, ornaments were made of various small coins and semiprecious stones. Long pendants (“zhaktau”)  complemented saukele, sometimes waist-long, in which case they were tucked into special pockets on the chest.

This magnificent headdress was worn for about a year after the wedding and then put on only on major holidays for about five years. After this a married women wore a simplified version of saukele–“zhelek”. And a women who has given birth or reached the age of 25–30 used to wear a headdress made of white fabric. Its lower part, “kimeshek”, was put on the head, and the upper turban was wrapped on the top. Some older women in Kazakhstan still wear this beautiful headdress, sometimes married women wear kimeshek, tight-fitting head and covering their neck, chest and shoulders.

And only shoes in previous centuries did not have big differences by gender, only by age: young people preferred boots with heels up to 10 centimeters, and elders wore shoes without heels. Light boots “ichigi” from soft leather, elegantly fitting the leg, were worn with “kebes galoshes” which people used to take off before going inside the house.

It seems that the clothes of the steppe nomads should be concise, comfortable, and simple. But our ancestors paid great attention to the attire of a person, since a thing decorated with expensive stones served a sort of an investment. The nomads had no houses and permanent place of residence, and therefore had to wear all their wealth with them. And from this point of view, a daughter played a significant role in the family. Since a girl’s family began to decorate clothes nearly immediately after her birth —long before her marriage. The richer a family was, the more luxurious their daughter's wedding dress turned to be. Thus the bride's outfit served as some sort of a bank account.

  1. National costumes
  2. Source: ©
  3. Kazakh traditional culture in the collections of the Kunstkamera. I.V. Stasevich.

National costume - Almaty, 2008.- p.224

Author: Madina Kurbanalieva, @madina_kurbanali

Translator-editor: Chingiz Smakov

Photo: from the archive of the ANTIKA gallery

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