The Sarafan. Russian Court Dress.

Sarafan, costume, Russia, Leitch Ritchie
Russian court dress

N°. VII.

The Sarafan.


This dignified and graceful costume, the national dress of Russia, was introduced at court by the present empress (Alexandra Fjodorowna 1798–1860). It consists of a chemise with white sleeves, and a sarafan, or robe without sleeves. The head dress is a lofty crown, ornamented with pearls and jewels, from which hangs a large transparent veil, sometimes streaming behind, and sometimes, as in the specimen before us, covering both shoulders. From the latter circumstance we presume the lady to be a matron.

The peasant girls, court ladies and women in the villages of northern and central Russia, as well as in the Volga regions of Great Russia, wear the sarafan, finely relieved by the snowy sleeves of the chemise; but, by a strange perversity of taste, the girdle with them (although their waist is not much too short) is above the bosom. On holidays, they display over all a short silk mantle, sometimes bordered with fur, or down; and for ear-rings, instead of the large, imitative drops before us, they wear small real pearls, strung in a triangular form.

The word sarafan most likely goes back to the Persian word serp (meaning “expensive fabric”) and originally described expensive clothing in general. The sarafan was designed in the early 14th century and worn until the mid-20th century. It originally belonged to the wardrobe of noble men of the Tsar’s court, but in the 16th century it also found fashionable appeal among women. The upper classes stopped wearing it during the dress reform of Peter the Great in the early 18th century.

Sarafan, Peasant, costume, Vladimir, Great Russia,
Costume of a wealthy peasant from Vladimir, Great Russia (oblast region, western Russia).

It was initially considered unisex (i.e. worn by both men and women) and soon became a women’s fashion that could be worn only in public. Today, sarafans are only worn for traditional festivities such as dance and theatre performances. It is worn without a shirt and in a more modern version as a summer dress and is accompanied by a kokochnik for celebrations or a simple scarf on the head as a headdress.

A sarafan consists of a long robe reaching to the ankles in several, often bright colours, worn over a loose shirt or blouse. It has shoulder straps but no sleeves or waist. Sarafans were always hand-sewn in the past, and the fabric was very dense and strong. The earliest models emphasised a woman’s femininity; later, with the rise in power and influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, the cut of the costume was kept more and more wide until it concealed female curves.

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russia, girl, Illustration