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Color code of a traditional outfit had two meanings:

it marked an age group and a social category of a wearer. In earlier times it also signified that this person belonged to a certain tribe.
colored parts worked as "graphic spells".
These two functions were blended, so we can say "this color meant this and that (social meaning) because (spiritual meaning)".

Symbolic language of colors was formed many years (centuries, perhaps even millennia) ago. At that time people colored their cloth in primitive conditions, and used natural dyestuff (minerals and plants) only. It happened that the most ancient pigments were red and black. Therefore, main "words" of "color dictionary" are: white (natural color of linen and wool), red, and black.

1) White (creamy-white).
Again, it is a natural color of wool and linen (both bleached and unbleached). Bleaching of linen took a lot of time, work, and money. So, bleached linen, as an expensive cloth, was a sign of a high social status of a wearer. But, symbolically, unbleached creamy linen was counted as "white" too.

People wore white clothes during any period of transformation of their social role. Russian people believed that during any life transition (childhood/teen age, or single/married status) the border between material and spiritual world becomes thin and transparent. A light of Heaven ("Eerey" in Russian) shines upon a person-in-passage. The people who must wear white (pure white, without any decoration) were:

  • children before age of 7-8
  • seniors (after 60)
  • brides (a couple of hours, right before a church ceremony)
  • military recruits
Besides, white color was a symbol of motherhood (and of a married woman), in contrast with red - a color of a young girl. In accordance with village point of view, a healthy married woman should give birth to one child per year. So, she did not experienced her periods this time - she was "white" symbolically. Of course, married women wore red color too, but only as a small decoration (not as a main color of an outfit).

So, white represents:

  • a light of Eerey (Heaven)
  • a world of spirits
  • a mature woman and motherhood

2) Red.
Red was the first color people used for coloring cloth. They started to use it as early as in Paleolithic Period, first for ritual purposes. Certain herbs (Rubia tinctorum) and minerals (hematite) can give red color to cloth and tread.

It is obvious that red color symbolically means blood and fire. As a symbol of blood, it shows energy flow between nature and human being. In ritual harvesting costumes you can see long red stripes - "streams of energy" flowing from woman to a grain field. Everyday clothes has protective "fire" trim around neck, wrists, and bottom (both in men and women outfits).

Besides, according to pagan Russian beliefs, gods of Fire and Sun were men. So, red color symbolized Male Power (productive, fertile, defensive) - both in spiritual and physical (practical) aspects. Young just-married men worn red shirts decorated with ritual signs of fertility. Also, In Russian, a lot of words describing fertility, fitness, health, beauty, are derived from a root "KRAS" (red). Village people thought physical beauty ("KRASota") as readiness for childbearing. Therefore, a red color was also a symbol of a young woman, who is ready to be a mother. That's why a bride's costume in Russian villages was red.

So, red is:

  • blood (physical power)
  • fire (defense)
  • a mature man
  • a young woman ready to be a mother

3) Black and other dark colors: dark-grey, dark-brown.
They are natural colors of wool. Also, several plants, which contain Acidum tannicum, can color linen and cotton into black.

These people wore black costumes:

  • seniors of "second stage of aging" (after 70 years old)
  • spinsters
  • monks and "self-proclaimed-monks" (a specific category of people, mainly women, who lived as regular farmers but decided to keep celibacy)

Black color signified a distance between a person and a world (and especially an omission of having children). Married people tried not to wear black. But, after separation of Russian Orthodox Church in 1666-1667 years ("raskol"), the most orthodox part of Russian Christians ( "old believers") started to use black color for women's sarafans (dresses).

However, an exception exists. In Voronezh region (South Russia) people used black color even for wedding ritual costumes. Voronezh-style black embroidery looks astonishingly noble and elegant. Scientists stay that Southern Russians accepted this "black" style from their neighboring Polovtsy - nomads of southern steppes.

So, black means

  • old ages
  • disability (or omission) to have children
  • a great "no" to the outside world

Before 1850s, Russians used yellow, blue and green for their cloths only as tiny decorative details. These colors were expensive and difficult-to-make.

4) Yellow.
Some minerals can give yellow, yellow-brownish, golden-brown colors to tread and cloth.

5) Blue and 6) Green.
According to archeological data, Russian farmers added these three colors in their clothes even in the 15th century. However, until 1700s, blue and green were not base colors of a clothes. Only after establishing a trade with Iran, these colors became affordable not only for nobility, but for village people also. In some regions, blue outfits started to be a token of a wealth and respect. Rich married women after five or six years of marriage were allowed to wear blue dresses (sarafans). Blue shirts signified a wearer as a head of an extended family. At the same time, blue was symbolically understood as "already not red, but not yet black". Therefore, seniors (especially these who had grandchildren) worn blue too.

Sources (in Russian)
  1. I.M.Kolesnitskaya, L.M.Telegina "Folklore and Archaic Beliefs"
  2. B.A.Rybakov "Paganism of Slavs and Pre-Slavs"
  3. A.M.Sokolov "Russians: Dyeing of Wool" (issued in 1900, re-issued in 1997)
  4. V.A.Shchavinsky "Art Techniques and Coloring Technology in Ancient Russia"
  5. S.N.Bibikov ""Mother-Goddess of Paleolithic Farmers of South-Eastern Europe"
  6. N.Sosnina, I.Shangina, Russian Traditional Costume (a directory)
  7. "Men and Women (male and female in traditional Russian culture)" (a directory)
  8. B.Dm.Pokrovsky, memoirs (a manuscript).