A walk through history
Archaeological sites, frescoes, terracotta figurines, miniature paintings illuminating ancient manuscripts and the diaries of Silk Road travellers give us a fairly clear idea of the clothes worn by the ancestors of modern Uzbeks and allow us to trace their evolution through the ages. The development of clothing is closely linked with the appearance of weaving and archaeological discoveries show that even two thousand years ago, weaving was well-developed in this region. Frescoes in Afrasaib, Varakhsha and elsewhere portray wealthy citizens clad in silk kaftans while poorer folk wore simple cotton gowns. Rare examples of medieval garments found in the Fergana Valley confirm this. Finds include a long silk dress with a decoratively stitched hem and long slits up to the waist which women would have worn with a waist band or scarf. The girls’ dress is a little shorter, with flowers embroidered on the hem, cuffs and breast area, while the boys’ costume featured a thigh-length silk shirt with a straight collar. By the late Middle Ages, fabrics had developed significantly, with gold brocade and striped cottons appearing. The exquisite miniature paintings produced in Central Asia in the Middle Ages provide invaluable clues to the custom and costumes of the day, too, clearly showing that a person’s dress reflected his or her religious, marital and social status; striped fabrics, for instance, were generally worn by the poorer sectors of the population.
The arrival of the Mongols in the fourteenth century brought new fashions from China, such as complex headdresses topped with feathers. The basic cut of women’s dresses changed to include the very long flaring sleeves common in China, and an open neckline, while men of the day wore short-sleeved tunics.
Under the Timurid dynasty the sleeves changed again, as both men and women now wore a double layer of shirts or dresses so the top layer had shorter sleeves to show off the colour of the underlying garment.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the development of regional styles, many of which are still evident today even though the advent of the sewing machines and factory fabrics revolutionised the clothing industry in the nineteenth century, replacing handwoven silks and cottons. Under the influence of European fashion, ladies now wore more complex dresses that emphasised their figures, and stand-up collars became popular in urban areas.
Recently, however, there has been a swing towards traditional handmade fabrics, and sumptuous silks are once again rolling off local looms to be made into a dazzling array of garments for both everyday and festive wear.
Although women’s costumes are highly ornate and varied, we can recognise several basic components:
- one or more shirts or dresses;
- an outer garment (munisak/mursak);
- paranja veil;
- robe or cape;
- a variety of scarves, skullcaps and headdresses.
Soft-soled ichigi shoes were worn in summer while sturdier leather galoshes were worn in bad weather.
Garments differed in beauty and elegance, and items of jewellery served as an excellent addition. Generally, festive costumes included the same basic elements but were tailored from more expensive fabrics and stood out thanks to their rich embroidery. Throughout most of present-day Uzbekistan, headscarves were a must for all women, and were worn by girls from the age of nine. They became a beautiful way to express individuality, as well as kinship, marital and social status. Headdresses varied greatly from region to region.
The fertile oases of the Fergana Valley were ideally suited to growing cotton, flax and the mulberry trees needed for breeding silkworms, so a vibrant textile industry was thriving here by the Middle Ages. Traditional motifs included the Tree of Life, while an ingenious detachable collar decorated with appliques of brightly-coloured local silk in red, lilac or blue matched the hem, cuffs and trouser bottoms to complete the outfit.
Women of the region wore particularly elegant veils although, overall, costumes here were more restrained, in muted blues or greens devoid of embroidery or with simpler, smaller patterns. Jewellery was less significant here, too, with simple strings of coral necklaces and earrings decorated with mirror inserts popular in the nineteenth century. This rather subdued fashion probably reflects the prevalent religious morality and ethics of Islam which favour modesty.
Urban Fashion - Samarkand, Tashkent, Bukhara
By the fifteenth century, Samarkand was a bustling urban hub, a fashion trend-setter influencing other major cities such as Tashkent and Bukhara, much as London and Paris develop in tandem today. Samarkand was a renowned centre for weaving, exporting textiles to Syria, Egypt, Byzantium and beyond. Its famous raspberry-coloured velvets were particularly sought after. Local women, however, adhered to a colour code when choosing materials: reds (symbolising love, fertility and festivity) for young girls; blues for married women; pale blue for older women, and white (symbolising cleansing before passing into the other world) for the elderly. Motifs included circles, squares and rhombuses. Lilac or violet hues were more prevalent in the Bukhara school.
Whatever the fabric, the cut was of paramount importance. In Samarkand, the basic dresses were slightly tapered while in Bukhara they were much wider to show off the colour of the garment underneath. Traditional necklines were low and deep, fastened with a button, but in the 1890’s these gave way to high collars which developed into ruffs at the turn of the century.
The muniskat robe was gathered in folds under the sleeves and although it was originally worn on festive occasions, by the end of the nineteenth century it was reserved for funeral attire.
Headdresses in the cities were simpler than those in rural areas. Archeological discoveries suggest a turban-like headdress was once common, but skullcaps and scarves had taken over by the nineteenth century. Russian influence can be seen particularly in Tashkent, where two shawls were worn over the head, one folded diagonally on the top of the head while the other was tied over it around the forehead.
Jewellery was a glittering status symbol in the cities, and craftsmen from Bukhara were particularly famous for their fine work. As well as many pendants set with precious or semi-precious stones such as pearls and turquoise, silver or gold filigree and openwork necklaces were also popular, creating a light, airy aura. Earrings and bracelets completed the outfit, and many items of jewellery were worn as talismans by brides and young women to ward off possible curses.
Rural Costume - Kashkadarya
Kashkadarya was an ancient cultural centre, a melting pot for various ethnic groups, including the predominant Turkic tribes. Although largely a rural area, by the nineteenth century towns here were governed by the Bukhara Khanate and so local urban fashion was influenced by the ruling elite while rural areas remained conservative and preserved their distinctive traditions.
As elsewhere in Uzbekistan, the most popular fabrics were cottons, silks and semi-silks, including the famous adras and atlas textiles. The predominantly red, yellow, green, blue and white material was richly ornamented with geometric designs. Dress cuffs and hems were a notable feature, with the pattern of wavy or zigzag lines and astral symbols, circles or flower buds adorning the cuffs repeated on the hem in a bright, eye-catching design, while decorative braiding ran the whole length of the dress both left and right, tastefully framing the central panel which often featured a repeated bird motif symbolising joy, happiness, love and a whole world of poetic allegories. Women here would often wear multiple dresses to show their status.
Headscarves in this rural region often featured the local ‘tamga’ or tribal emblem, denoting which tribe the wearer belonged to. Young women and girls wore traditional skullcaps with either horizontal patterning or designs spiralling out from the crown. These replaced a more ancient and much more complex headdress consisting of ten scarves folded s to protect the wearer from the scorching sun.
Nomad Style - Surkhardarya
Located in the extreme south-east of present-day Uzbekistan, this region is home to Tajiks and semi-nomadic Uzbek tribes. Even today, traditional dress here retains many original ethnic characteristics.
Everyday wear is usually sewn from locally-produced cottons or semi-silks. Striped fabrics are common, with bright reds for young women and muted, darker hues for older women. The embroidery here is striking, mainly centred around lifelike plant motifs of tulips, bouquets and palmettes. In some areas embroidery is reserved for the collar and features zoomorphic designs particular to each tribe.
But it is the headdresses here that are the most remarkable element of the nomads’ national costume. Married women wore extremely complex high cylindrical hats, the front of which was decorated with braiding of multi-coloured silk threads and featured the tribal tamga emblem. Three to five metres of red fabric was then wound around this solid base to form a kind of turban-like headdress which was topped with a myriad of colourful shawls folded in layers. A woman could sometimes wear up to 25-30 of these shawls! The whole apparel was then covered with a large cloak-like shawl which reached down to the wearer’s knees. The local Tajik women wore much simpler headdresses, and these later gave way to the more ubiquitous skullcaps.
Jewellery also denoted ethnic, marital and social status. An item common to many nomadic peoples of Central Asia, including Turkmen and Karakalpak, is a massive breastplate known as the silsil. It is made of large diamond-shaped plates decorated with large inlays, often of coloured glass. In some areas this is only worn by girls aged 7-12, but among Uzbeks it is reserved for newlyweds. The most common type of earring in this region consists of golden rings with 5-7 pendants dangling from them.
Ancient Roots – Khorezm
Over two thousand years ago, peoples met and cultures blended here in Khorezm, north-western Uzbekistan, and today we can recognise several distinctive features in the costumes worn here, as well as certain north-south variations. Embroidery is largely absent here, colours are restrained and monochrome fabrics prevail, though young women wear attractive pink or lilac dresses. The basic dress has a particular cut, with long flared sleeves covering the hand and ending in a diagonal cut. Unlike elsewhere, only one dress is worn but this is covered by a khalat gown, traditionally striped and quilted, with tapering sleeves. The gowns are trimmed with bright red or pink braid. In the north of the region, women wear chapan gowns that are similar to those worn by their menfolk.
But as in Surkhardarya, it is the headdresses that are most striking here. In the north, long flowing shawls are attached to the back of high hats and can measure up to 170 m. In contrast, girls in the south wear very simple headdresses made from a single scarf but supplemented with jewellery made of hexagonal silver plates or pendants. A distinctive conical cap, quilted to increase its height, is an integral part of bridal costume.
Mothers have their own particular headdress, too. A complex affair, it consists of several shawls wrapped around the head and tied under the chin, topped by a long, fringed scarf made of local silk which is wound around them and hangs down the wearer’s back. The headdress is held in place by filigree fastenings which feature two balls and two cases for attaching bird feathers. Older women wear a white headdress.
We can see, then, that costumes here have developed over the ages in a living pageant of colour and culture, a bright testament to the bright, joyful spirit of Uzbek peoples.