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As a traditional clothes of any other people, Russian traditional outfit was very practical. At the same time, every detail of it had a ritual explanation of shape and color used. Also, a decoration, cut, and a cloth type (silk, cotton, hemp) pointed out to a wealth and social status of a wearer.
(we comment an outfit of each age group from three points of view: practical (p), social (s), ritual (rit)).

0-8 years old: baby, toddler, kid.
A baby got his/her first piece of cloth right after birth. It was a waistband. A waistband should be tied around baby's body immediately after cutting a cord. Symbolically it meant a protection from spiritual dangers (a waistband makes a circle - the most ancient sign of protection in any mythology - around a body). Baby's waistband was a thread, which was spun by the mother during pregnancy. Baby's diapers were made of parents' clothes. For a girl people used a mom's dress, for a boy - a father's shirt.

Baptismal shirt for a baby of a noble family.
Moscow region, 17th century. A shirt copies an adult man's shirt of that time.
In Russian Orthodox church they baptize a baby on the 8th day of it's life. A ritual requires to make a brand-new baptismal shirt for a baby. Centuries ago people decorated such shirts with golden embroidery and colored trim. "Regular" embroidery wasn't allowed by church because of its "pagan" symbolism.

Toddlers and kids (both boys and girls) wore mid-shank-long white shirts with a waistband. They wore such type of clothes until 7-8 years old (depended on a region).

A boy in an everyday shirt
Ryazan region, Kasimov county, Uvyaz village, 1914
A girl in an everyday shirt
Voronezh region, 1908

Kids of that age didn't wear any pants (boys) or skirts (girls). Their only clothes (shirt) was altered from elder siblings' outfits.

  • Kids grow fast. Also, they wear their clothes carelessly. So, it isn't practical to make something fancy and expensive for them each couple of months.
  • (s) "Uncomplete" kid's outfit reflected kid's social immaturity.
  • (rite) A light of Heaven ("Eerey" in Russian) shines upon an innocent kid. Also, spirits of ancestors don't forget him/her yet, and, consequently, take care of their descendant with no any additional reminder. So, a child doesn't need colored talismans on his/her clothes.

Kids of that age had no any warm overgarment (coats, jackets, hats, boots). If in winter a toddler or a kid wanted, for instance, to run across a street to his/her friend's house for a playdate, he/she simply put on an elder sibling's coat and valenki (warm woolen boots).

7/8 - 14/15 years old: otrok (pre-teen and early teenager).
A clothes of otroks started to reflect sexual difference between boys and girls. Boys got their first pants (porty) and hats (kartuzy). Girls switched to dress-like shirts (longer and more decorative than previous ones). Also, they got necklaces (a necklace was counted as a talisman too - because it is a circle, like a waistband). Both pre-teen boys and girls had balakhon - a light long coat made of cotton or hemp canvas.

A farmer with sons.
Ryazan region, Kasimov county, Bolshie Peksely village, 1910.
"Village Kids in Meadows", painted by A.G.Venecianov, 1820.
Girls are wearing balakhons.

Otroks worn basic embroidered talismans on their clothes. Symbolically, people thought that spirits of ancestors already forgot these kids, and talismans should be a reminder. Talismans were red "fire lines" on a hemline, sleeve cuts, and around a neck. Red color symbolically depicted blood and fire. So, if any evil spirit would try to harm a kid, it would be burnt by these "fire lines". For girls, red shoulder parts (paliki) were required at this age.

Dress of pre-teenage girl (10-12 years old), replica.
Yaroslavl region, 1850s.
Made by Irina Zhoukova
more info >>>>
"A Village Boy", painted by A.G.Venecianov, 1823

At teen ages, boys got red armpit details (lastovica) on their shirts. Lastovica protected arms, and any work made by arms. Also, they got footwear (leather or made-of-bark boots, depended on family wealth, and a local tradition). Girls, in addition to lastovica, placed ritual embroidery at their dresses' bottom. This embroidery, on one hand, attracted Mother Earth's energy of health and fertility to the girl. On the other hand, Earth was thought not only as Mother, but also as a dwelling of dead people and evil spirits. So, embroidery "filtered" and "cleared" energy flow going from the Earth to a girl. At the same age, girls participated in the "Jumping Into a Skirt" ritual of maturity. In Northern Russia they got their first sarafan after the ritual. Such a sarafan was made of hemp or cotton, and it was of modest colors.

  • (p, s) Fancy clothes of younger siblings allowed elder sisters to demonstrate their skills in sewing and weaving. Also, a new clothing style signalized to a kid him/herself: it is time for you to learn adult's rights and responsibilities.
  • (rit) "Heavenly guardians" forgot a kid at that time. So, earthly protection became necessary.

From 14/15 years old to marriage (or, until 25 years old): a groom-to-be/a bride-to-be.
The beginning of the age of marriage. Young people's cloth was as expensive and fancy as possible. It should be made extremely bright and up-to-date. A young adult's outfit included a lot of extra items in comparison to married peoples' clothing. Such extravagancy should reflect a surplus of vital energy of a groom/a bride-to-be.

Young men wore red shirts decorated with complex embroidery and/or a golden trim, and wide pants. A fabrics used for shirts and pants was expensive and fashionable. Waistbands for grooms-to-be were extra-wide and bright. They carried symbols of fertility and fire. A head-dresses changed from modest kartuzy to a high, flower-decorated hats. Moreover, young men must include a lot of "urban-style" stuff to their outfit : vests, umbrellas, watches, canes.

KrAsota vocal group, Novosibirsk.
Costumes are replicas of traditional Baykal Lake region's outfits.

When two families got an agreement to marry their children, a groom-to-be started to wear white shirt. White color symbolized a transition from one social role (a bachelor) to another (a married man). Russian people believed that in a moment of any change in a human being's life a border between physical world and Heaven becomes thinner. So, the light of Heaven shines upon a person in transition, as it does in childhood.

Young bachelor's shirt, a replica.
Altay region, 1850s. Made by Irina Zhoukova.
more info >>>>

  • (p) In this period of a young man's life, practical reasoning conflicted with social behavior. Each young man must participate in a vataga: a sort of a gang, (actually, a degraded form of a squad defended a village in earlier times). Everyday life of a vataga included martial arts training, wrestling, fights, and sometimes a misbehavior. When two vatagas of different villages met each other at fairs or parties, they must fight. An important part of fighting was to tear up an opponent's clothes. It was thought as humiliation. A young man should have several shirts, and, on the other hand, protect his clothes during a fight strongly.
  • (s) A family had to make a bachelor's outfit as expensive and fancy as possible. This demonstrated wealth of a family. Sometimes people made such a costume part-by-part, in two or three years. The more details a young man's costume included, the older a bachelor was.
  • (rit) Spirits of ancestors should see a family's ability to support a new branch of a family. A bachelor himself showed he was ready to change his life. His high hat symbolized sexual maturity and readiness to produce offspring.

Girls of this age were titled as slavnica ("honored ones"). They also included urban-style fashionable details in their costumes: gloves, umbrellas, and even galoshes (even in dry hot weather, just for fashion). However, the base of their outfit was traditional: a shirt, a sarafan, and a headdress allowing to see girl's hair. A fabric for slavnica's costume was bright and expensive: bleached linen, brocade (in Northern Russia) or silk (in Siberia and Baikal Lake region), manufactory-made cotton (in Southern and Central Russia). Tradition required to make a bride-to-be's outfit mostly in red tones.

Girls in festive outfits.
Arkhangel region, Arkhangel county, 1902
"Brides. A Holy Trinity Day", painted by E.A.Yeliseev. 1907

Headdresses of slavnica-girls looked like small crowns. They were made on a hard base (birch bark, leather, or a hard paper). A base was covered by silk and brocade with golden embroidery, pearls, and beads. Designs for girls' headdresses were full of fertility symbols (Tree of Life, Ladies of Fertility). Such designs persisted on girls' headdresses till the beginning of the 20th century.

A girl's "crown", a replica.
Made by Tatiana Val'kova

  • (p, s) Girls started to make slavnica-type costume for themselves from 8 years old. Such a costume took a lot of work, and demonstrated girl's skills as a taylor and crafter
  • (rit) Symbolically, a red color is connected with fertility, especially with woman's ability to give birth to babies (a human being's beauty was thought as a readiness to propagate, as a visual sign of fecundity and strength). So, a lot of red color in girl's clothes meant she is ready for motherhood.

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Sources (in Russian)
  1. "Men and Women (male and female in traditional Russian culture)" (a directory)
  2. M.M.Gromyko, Everyday Behaviour of Russian Village in the 19th Century
  3. "Russian Traditional Life" (a directory)
  4. "Russian Children: Basics of Traditional Pedagogics" (a directory)
  5. "Chudesnye Mgnovenia" (Wonderful Moments, a magazine), iss.#1, 2002.
  6. V.Ya.Propp, "Theory and history of folklore" (translated into English)
  7. B.A.Rybakov "Paganism of Slavs and Pre-Slavs"