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A waistband is a must-be part of a traditionlal Russian clothes. It proves a wearer is a human, and he/she belongs to Cosmos, not Chaos. Despite its pagan origin, a symbolism of a waistband was deeply incorporated into Russian Orthodox Christianity. For a true Orthodox, it was totally forbidden not to wear a belt for any moment of her/his life. The only exception was a ritual interaction with spiritual reality of pre-Christian beliefs: winter-solstice divination, or a ritual trick-or-treating for Kolyadki and Maslenica celebration, etc.

Symbolically, a belt is a border between Inside and Outside. Those In and Out could be thought in any sence: physical, spiritual, or social. So, when a person moves from one "world" (social group, physical condition, etc) to another, it is nesessary to let him/her "go out" from a previous situation (by untying his/her belt), and then to accept her/him into a new "life", by making a new knot (or, sometimes, even tying a new waistband) on his/her waist.

A moment of a birth has been counted as the first transition between worlds. But, the exact time of changing status from "a certain spirit" to a human being was defined differently in different parts of Russia. In some regions, a newborn baby started to be thought as a human immediately after cutting of its cord. A medicine woman tied a red woolen thread around its belly as the first belt (that thread must be spun by a mother during pregnancy). In other counties a baby got the first waistband right after its baptism (in Russian Orthodox Church, a baby should be baptized in two or three weeks after birth). And in some villages, a period of a complete embodiment of a soul was counted as forty days after birth. So, a belt was allowed to a baby only from its forty-first day of life.

Another "change of a world" was marriage. And, a belt played a significant part in village wedding rituals. For a groom, a belt was a symbol of his fertility. So, a groom's waistband should be made extremely colorful and fancy. For a bride, a complex and large knot on her belt was a sign of her virginity. A ritual untying of that knot symbolized obedience (both sexual and spiritual). Moreover, in some parts of Russia a bride took off her "bachelorette's waistband" and passed it to her younger sister as a talisman, along with her venec ("a crown", a girl-style headdress).

Village funerary rituals included a belt's part too. A belt for a deceased person was made of blue or black colors (these dark colors symbolized weakening and fading, in contrast to red- a vital energy, and white - a higher reality and eternal life). Such a belt was not tied around a dead body. It was just wrapped about without any knot, or simply put in a coffin. However, there were some "black-magic" rituals of knotting a belt on a dead. Those knots prevented an interaction of a soul with a widowed spouce's life (for instance, if he/she wanted to marry again).

In ancient Russia (in a period between the 9th and the 16th centuries), a decorated waistband was thought as a sign of a high social status. For instance, a title "a golden belt" meant a member of a city council for the 14th century's Novgorod. Also, an expensive belt as a part of a legacy was not just a thing, but a sign of a Heir of the title and power. In villages, width, length, brightness and a technique of making signified an age and a social group of a wearer. For instance, kid's waistbands must be twisted or braided only, not woven. Women's belts were narrowed than men's ones. Ritual waistbands were decorated with archaic symbols of fertility and success. A head of a family's belt had to be woven and wide (up to 10"). A young bachelor's belt could be knitted, with embroidered sentences and good wishes. Such a differentiation existed in Russian villages until 1870s.

A belt should be worn on a waist, or under a belly. It was allowed to twist it twice around a body. As a rule, they made a knot on a left side. However, in some regions of Northern and Central Russia a left-side knot was appropriate for women only. Men supposed to tie their belts on the right. In Southern Russia one more type of a waistband existed. It was called kushak (a Turkish word for a belt). Kushaks were much wider than regular belts. They were worn wrapped about a waist, with ends tucked into a wrap - without any knots.

A fabrics used for belts depended on a purpose of a belt. So did colors. Belts for special occasions were made of bright red, green, yellow, blue wool with silken and golden thread. Their ends were decorated with tassels, pompoms, and beads. Everyday belts were woolen with a weft made of linen or hemp, their colors were modest. Leather belts were allowed to men only. They could be decorated with metal pendants or plaques. Metallic (silver) belts were worn by Cossacs women only (see a kubilek-type woman's outfit).

A belt was aslo used as a talisman. It was considered as a wish of luck to give a light whip with a belt. A red belt woven by a wife protected her husband during his foreign trip. To rend someone's belt was counted as an insult. Human hair should be used for making the most powerful ritual waistbands. Pregnant women wore their husbands' belts to protect an unborn child from any supernatural danger.

People wore belts with both dresses and overgarment. It was allowed to wear several belts at the same time. In that case a ritual belt was put right on a skin, and a decorative one was placed according to a costume. Women put on a belt on their sarafans (dresses), but under an apron. At the end of the 19th century, in Southern Russia women started to wear belts even under a dresses, on an underwear.

In contrast to any other Russian traditional crafts, a belt-making is alive nowadays in Russia. There are a lot of individuals and folklore centers in many cities who make traditional waistbands, teach classes, and publish books and manuals in different techniques of a belt-making.

Sources (in Russian)
  1. O.Lysenko, S.Komarova "A Cloth, A Ritual, A Human (Weaving as a Ritual in Eastern-European Slavs' Culture)"
  2. "Russian Traditional Life" (encyclopedia)
  3. D.K.Zelenin, "Ethnography of Eastern Slavs"
  4. I.Kremleva, "Russians: A Family And Social Life"
  5. T.Bernshtam, "A Farewell to a Girlhood Ritual"
  6. T.Listova, "Notes of Russian Wedding"
  7. "Russian Children: Bascis of Traditional Pedagogy" (a directory)
  8. B.A.Rybakov, "Paganism of Ancient Slavs"