Are Sarafans Period?

By Paul Wickenden of Thanet

One of the questions that seems to vex my wife (and probably quite a few other people in SIG) is the question of what people wore in period in Russia. In particular, what pieces of 19th century folk costume (such as what one finds so often in books about Russian costumes) existed in period? For example, we know that the masculine sarafan is a period piece of costuming, but what about the feminine equivalent?

Now, I am not terribly interested in costuming myself, but the question of the period sarafan has always sat in the back of my mind. While working on the article on bird bynames (see below), I idly decided to look up the word sarafan in the same dictionaries I was looking for birdnames in. As expected, I discovered the 14th century reference to the masculine kaftan-like robe that is recorded in the Nikitinskii manuscript (and which has been used to date the clothing to period) but I also discovered a fascinating reference to a possible mention of a woman's sarafan.

It took several hours to track down the source of the citation, but at last I found it in Akty solovetskogo manastyria: 1572-1584 [Acts of the Solovetskii Monastery: 1572-1584] (Leningrad: Nauka, 1990), pages 101-2. The act in question (#645) is the will of Ovdot'ia Ivanova doch' Goluba and is dated to 1577. In this will, Ovdot'ia gives various sums of money to her servants, gives lands that she owns to her son, and then gives a detailed inventory of clothing items to her granddaughter Mavfa Agafonova doch'. This inventory of items includes a pair of earrings, 20 buttons, 13 rubashkas, a shapka of crimson damask linen, two "boiaress's" shubas, and two sarafans "decorated and quilted in white."

Having just discovered this document last week, I honestly have not had sufficient time to examine it fully, but hope to do so before the next Slovo. But what does it tell us? We now know with near-certainty that there was a woman's garment called a sarafan in 1577. We do not know what it looked like and we do not know how long it had existed prior to this date. Was it a common garment or something extraordinary? The answers to these and many other questions await!

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