Something a little lighter this week. I generally like to have a vivid mental picture of events and places and people before I describe them in my writing. Pinterest helps with this, and I often spend a lot of time scrolling through images of historical reenactors or paintings of fantastical or historical interest.
Clothing is generally neglected as a detail in novels these days. Most readers don’t like too many specifics about the cut or manner of dress (except maybe in some historical fiction). But even if I don’t go all out with the crazy details of embroidery or buttons or golden filigree, I still like to see the clothes fit the characters.
The kaftan in particular is something that keeps popping up in my visual research for the male characters. I found an article in Russian, called “Everything you Need to Know about the Kaftan.” I thought it was interesting, and there’s a few nice pictures, so here’s my translation. If you want to have a more exact mental image when you read my first novel The Song of the Sirin (on sale on July 1, 2017), read on.
The kaftan is the cornerstone of a truly Russian wardrobe. Nearly all versions of male outwear in Rus were versions of the kaftan.
In the tenth century, the Variags (Scandinavians) who were asked to rule over the warring tribes of Rus introduced the fashion to the Russians. The Scandinavians themselves got the fashion from Persia. At first, the kaftan was exclusively worn by princes and boyars, but eventually it “trickled down” into the wardrobes of the rest of society. Even priests wore kaftans.
The rich made kaftans out of light silk, brocade, or even satin, and there was almost always a fur trim. Next to the fur trim, at the edges, cuffs, and hems, gold or silver lace would be attached.
The kaftan was a very comfortable garment, and it minimized the “insufficiencies of figure” proper to a good lord. People of lower orders wore kaftans because it made them look more regal, solid, and majestic.
This version of the kaftan had a wide hem, up to three meters wide, with long sleeves that would hang all the way to the ground. Thanks to the feryaz, the Russians have a saying, “To work by lowering your sleeves.”
It was worn both in frigid winters and in hot summers. Summer feryazes had a thin lining, while the winter version was lined with fur.
The rich made their feryazes out of brocade or velvet, while peasants sewed theirs out of canvas or cotton. The rich wore their feryazes on top of other, thinner kaftans, while the poor wore them directly on their shirts. The “budget version” of the feryaz was tied with a cord, and it had only 3-5 humble buttonholes. The “exclusive version” of the feryaz had seven expensive-looking buttonholes that were secured with tassels. These could be tied together or buttoned.
The opashen’ looked similar to the feryaz, only less majestic. As a rule, it was used either as a dustcoat or a summer cloak. It was sewed of cloth or wool, with neither lining or decoration. Sometimes it did not even have buckles or ties. The sleeves were also long, reaching the hem, but they were only sewed on the back. The front part of the armhole and the sleeve cap were worked with stitches or webbing. Basically, the opashen’ could be worn like a vest. The arms, already covered in the sleeves of another kaftan, reached through the armholes, and the sleeves of the opashen’ hung on either side or were tied in the back. When it was cold, you could wrap your hands in its sleeves.
This was a minimalist, lightweight version of the kaftan made from homespun cloth. It had no decorations or excesses, such as a standing collar (sometimes found on other kaftans). This made it very functional—it did not limit movement. Zipuns were mostly worn by peasants and Cossacks (see my previous post on Cossack family values). Cossacks even called their trade “campaigning for zipuns”. Highwaymen were known by the name “Zipun-wearers.”
To read more interesting historical and cultural tidbits that I pick up as I do research for my novels, check out my post on the Honor Code of a Russian Officer, the fascinating obsession that medieval Europeans had with the Kingdom of Prester John, or the heartwarming story of how a Siberian hunter brought Tsar Nicholas a personal gift.
If you liked this post, and if you’d like to read more about Russian history and traditions, be sure to join my Readers’ Group. You’ll be the first to know about my novels’ release dates, giveaways, and contests. As a special thank you, I’ll send you an extended preview of my new novel, as well as a complete anthology of SFF stories. Just tell me where to send them: