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Fashion like a Russian: Kokoshnik, a Traditional Headdress

Russian headdress. Konstantin Makovsky, Russian Beauty, 1902, Private collection.
Konstantin Makovsky, Russian Beauty, 1902, private collection. Gallerix.

Fashion

Fashion like a Russian: Kokoshnik, a Traditional Headdress

We all know the proverb Clothes speak for men. In the Russian national costume, a headdress called Kokoshnik played a significant role: it completed a festive women’s costume, multi-layered and monumental. Women put on a Kokoshnik only on the most solemn occasions and often passed it down in the family. This Russian headdress is also an inspiration for many modern fashion decisions. We welcome you to the world of beauty!

Russian headdress. Ivan Argunov, Portrait of an Unknown Woman in Russian Costume, 1784, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.
Ivan Argunov, Portrait of an Unknown Woman in Russian Costume, 1784, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.

What Does This Funny Word Even Mean?

The name comes from the Old Russian “kokosh” – it is associated with the shape of a bird’s scalp. We do not know when exactly the Kokoshnik appeared in the Russian female costume. The use of this word was first recorded in the 17th century.

Already, by the 18th-19th centuries, the item had become one of the most common Russian female headdresses. In Russia, both peasant and city dwellers, who belonged to the merchant and bourgeois class, wore a headdress for festivities, in church, and on major holidays.

Russian headdress. Konstantin Makovsky, Girl with the Pearl Necklace, 1880-1890, Private collection.
Konstantin Makovsky, Girl with the Pearl Necklace, 1880-1890, private collection. Wikiart.

Peter I, who wanted to modernize Russia and model it after the countries in Western Europe, forbade this headdress. But the Kokoshnik survived in the peasant environment as an attribute of festive or wedding clothes.

During Catherine the Great‘s era, interest in Russian history and Russian antiquities were revived. The female costume of Muscovite Russia during the 17th century- which consisted of a court dress reminiscent of a sundress, complemented by a Kokoshnik and a long, gathered shirt- was in vogue.

Russian headdress. Franz Krüger, Portrait of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, 1830s, State Historical Museum, Moscow, Russia.
Franz Krüger, Portrait of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, 1830s, State Historical Museum, Moscow, Russia.

In 1834, Nicholas I issued a decree introducing a new court dress, complemented by a Kokoshnik. It consisted of a narrow, open bodice with long sleeves and a long skirt with a train. The order for wearing these dresses remained until the abdication of Nicholas II in February 1917.

Do Not Let It Fool You

Russian headdress. Russian headdress, Early 19th century, Collection of Natalia de Shabelsky (1841-1905), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.
Russian headdress, early 19th century, collection of Natalia de Shabelsky (1841-1905), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

In ancient times, only married women had the right to wear a Kokoshnik. Despite the glorious look, the Kokoshnik’s main feature was that it tightly covered the woman’s hair, braided in two braids and laid with a wreath or bun. The ancient custom of covering the hair of a married woman has been known to all Slavic peoples of Eastern and Western Europe and is associated with pre-Christian religious beliefs.

Nine Tailors Make a Man

In this case, craftswomen make a woman. Kokoshniks were usually made by professional craftswomen called “kokoshnitsa”, who had the necessary skills of sewing with pearls, beads, and gold thread, and the ability to handle expensive, beautiful factory fabrics like silk, satin, velvet, and brocade.

Russian headdress. Back of the Russian headdress, 19th century, Collection of Natalia de Shabelsky (1841-1905), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.
Back of the Russian headdress, 19th century, collection of Natalia de Shabelsky (1841-1905), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

The Importance of Image

Ornaments that adorned the Kokoshnik had a particular value. In the middle, as a rule, there was a stylized “frog” – a symbol of fertility. On the sides – S-shaped figures of swans – symbols of marital fidelity. A stylized bush was traditionally embroidered on the back of the Russian headdress, which symbolized the tree of life, each branch of which is a new generation. And on this “bush”, there were birds, fruits with seeds, and many other symbolic signs. Thus, the Kokoshnik was also a talisman.

There was a very original variety of Kokoshnik with pearl cones. These unique decorations symbolized fertility. There was even a saying, as follows: How many cones – that many kids.

Russian headdress. Abram Klyukvin, A woman in a Toropetsky pearl headdress and a scarf, Private collection, beginning of 20th century
Abram Klyukvin, A woman in a Toropetsky pearl headdress and a scarf, beginning of 20th century, private collection. Artchive.

The costs of some Kokoshniks made for the royal family were enormous. Kokoshniks were considered a great family value. People carefully kept them and passed them on as an inheritance. Often, several generations of women used them.

Russian headdress. Konstantin Makovsky, A Boyar Wedding Feast, 1883, Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, Washington, USA.
Konstantin Makovsky, A Boyar Wedding Feast, 1883, Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, Washington, DC, USA.

Of course, nobody did spinning or cleaning in Kokoshnik and a fancy dress. This lady is probably waiting for guests to come and think that she considers housekeeping a major event!

Russian headdress. Konstantin Makovsky, Boyar woman by the window, 1885, Private collection.
Konstantin Makovsky, Boyar woman by the window, 1885, private collection. Wikiart.

Modern Approach

Members of the English royal family still wear Russian headdress-like headbands for weddings and important events. Both Princess Eugenie of York and Meghan Markle married in such diamond tiaras. And Kate Middleton wore a variation of the Kokoshnik at the christening of Prince Louis.

Russian headdress. Elena Mrozovskaya, Princess Olga Konstantinovna Orlova (nee princess Beloselsky-Belozwersky) wearing a Kokoshnik for the 1903 Ball in the Winter Palace, 1903, State Hermitage Museum, Saint-Petersburg, Russia.
Elena Mrozovskaya, Princess Olga Konstantinovna Orlova (nee princess Beloselsky-Belozwersky) wearing a Kokoshnik for the 1903 Ball in the Winter Palace, 1903, State Hermitage Museum, Saint-Petersburg, Russia.

On the runway, Kokoshniks were extensively rethought by Karl Lagerfeld. They appeared in 2009 at the Chanel “Paris-Moscou” show. And Jennifer Lopez posed in a traditional Russian headdress in 2014 for the cover of the Russian Harper’s Bazaar. Today, many fashion brands offer their own versions of the Kokoshnik: classic and reinterpreted – in the form of pretty, minimalistic headbands.

Russian headdress. Russian headdress, 19th century, Collection of Natalia de Shabelsky (1841-1905), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.
Russian headdress, 19th century, collection of Natalia de Shabelsky (1841-1905), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

By the way, Queen Amidala’s “refugee outfit crown” from the second episode of Star Wars is also inspired by this traditional Russian headdress.

Russian headdress. George Lucas, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, Still from the movie, 2002.
Still from Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones by George Lucas, 2002. Costumevault.

Read more about fashion in art:

A Russian historian herself, Elizaveta has a soft spot for Art (and not only the native one). Based in Moscow and trying to get as many people as possible to become Art lovers in every city she goes to.

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