Clothes of the Past

Up until the Soviet drive for cheap standardised mass-produced garments, the clothes of Khorezm remained unchanged for centuries. Men, women and children wore loose, flowing garments of a similar style with different clothes for different occasions.

'Modern dopa'

In summer men made allowances for the heat by wearing a thin cotton shift although they refused to part with their shaggy fur hats, as Vambery observed,

'The Uzbek in his high round fur hat, great thick boots of leather, walks about merely in a long shirt, in summer a favourite undress. This I myself adopted afterwards, as I found that it was not regarded as indecent, so long as the shirt retained its whiteness, even to appear with it in the bazaar.'
Vambery 'Travels in Central Asia' 1864

'Men's khalats'

Over this men would wear a long khalat (robe) with slits in the side to allow them to stride around, sit comfortably on the floor and ride a horse. Khalats were usually made from cotton or silk and quilted with extra cotton for winter-wear. At one time, Khiva was the centre of khalat production in Central Asia and its bazaar was crowded with male khalat- makers who made everything from the ordinary rough woollen khalats to the more elaborate silk and cashmere versions commissioned by the wealthy. Often the khans would order a decadent one-off khalat to wear themselves or to give away as a gift to a guest or worthy employee. These would all be handmade by the khalat-makers who specialised in cutting, sewing or quilting using the simple tools of a needle, thimble, iron and ironing board. Padded winter khalats were made more effective against the freezing winter weather by rubbing egg white into the fabric with a flat stone and so producing a water and wind resistant sheen.
As well as being pleasing to the eye and serviceable, Vambery noted how a good khalat was distinguished by a rustling 'tchakhtchukh' sound.

'Some designs for men's khalats'

'It was always an object of great delight to me to see the buyer parading up and down a few paces in his new Tchapan (dress), to ascertain whether it gave out the orthodox tone. All is the produce of home manufacture, and very cheap.'
Vambery 'Travels in Central Asia' 1864

It was also necessary to have very long sleeves which totally covered the hands. Far from being impractical, covering the hands conveyed respect to elders and such long sleeves were considered essential in the areas of bargaining and nose-blowing. As Lady Macartney noted of the Kashgar citizens who had very similar practices to those in Khorezm,

'The khalat on the left has been made water resistant'

'The Kashgaris of both sexes wear their sleeves quite six inches below the hands, and to do anything these sleeves must be rolled up to get the hands free. It was very funny to see two men make a bargain to sell and buy a horse or cow, or anything that meant a big deal. They went up to each other, holding out the right hand which they put up each other's sleeve. Then some mystic sign, such as putting out the number of fingers that would indicate the price offered, or tapping each other's arm so many times, passed between them. I never could quite discover what they did. But these two stood linked together, gazing into each other's faces and solemnly shaking or nodding their heads, until the price was decided upon. Then they withdrew their hands, stroked their beards, and after a little money had passed between them, the transaction was complete...

'An ordinary cotton khalat'

'A khan's opulent khalat'

'Water and wind resistant material'

'Old-fashioned dopa'

The long sleeves had many uses, as a muff in cold weather, as a handkerchief, or a duster, and when a Kashgari wanted to show contempt, or disgust, he put his nose into the opening of the sleeve. Once or twice women have done that in passing us, but not often, I am glad to say...
To keep hands covered is a sign of respect and one should never show one's hands before a superior unless they were being used.'
Lady Macartney 'An English Lady in Chinese Turkistan'' 1931

Men's clothes also included comfortable baggy trousers which tapered slightly at the ankle and cloth belts to which a knife sheath was sometimes attached. Since it was shameful for men to have their heads uncovered, a fur hat or a turban was a must. Turbans could be striped or plain and were kept in place by a cloth hat which was in turn worn over a white skull cap to absorb the sweat. The shape of the cloth hats or 'dopas' changed during the Soviet period from being round or conical to the square black and white hat that has become a sign of Uzbek identity today. The modern dopa is decorated with one of two white repeating patterns in the shape of an almond or a pepper and varies in style from region to region.

Women's domestic clothing was generally similar to that of men with slight variations in style in that their baggy trousers were embroidered at the ankle and their khalats had no collars. However when leaving the house it was essential for a women to be fully veiled. The veil or 'chedra' only covered the woman's face and neck and was made from heavy black horsehair to ensure that no man could catch a stolen glimpse. Over this was worn a long ankle-length robe called a paranja. This was not worn with hands in the sleeves but as a cloak which went over the woman s head and draped to the ground with the sleeves hanging down the back, loosely tied together in a symbol of respect towards her husband. The overall effect was a little unnerving for the uninitiated, rather resembling a tall headless person.

'Woman wearing a paranja and veil'

'It all astonishes me; the narrow, stone paved streets, labyrinthine, the number of veiled women, in the stiff, unbroken lines of their paranjas, looking like silhouetted upright coffins, with some package or basket balanced on every head. It is nonsense to call them veils: trellis work is far more to the point, so dark and rigid is the horsehair which scarifies the tips of their noses, and which they pinch in their lips when they bend down to see what quality of rice is being offered them, for their sight is only able to filter through when the chedra is hanging straight down in front of them. Where the mouth has wet it, a damp circle remains when the woman stands again, quickly powdered by the floating clouds of dust. When old, the chedras look rusty and full of holes as though moth-eaten.'
Ella Maillart 'Turkestan Solo' 1933

Traditional women's fashion proved too much for some of the male travellers to Khiva.

'This becomes, after a while, one of the most disagreeable features of Khiva. Men's faces, nothing but men's faces for weeks and months, until you long for the sight of a woman's face, as you do for green grass and flowers in the desert.'
JA Macgahen 'Campaigning on the Oxus and the Fall of Khiva' 1874


As the Bolsheviks took control of Turkestan, they were keen to liberate women from the veil. However it was not only local men that resisted this idea, but sometimes the women themselves, as Nazeroff noted in 1919,

'Note the paranja sleeves hanging down the woman's back'

'When, not very long ago, the Bolsheviks, in their desire to free the Eastern people and emancipate the Eastern women, started a campaign, they found themselves up against a very stern resistance on the part of the natives themselves. The Soviet government of Turkestan had recruited a certain number of would-be Bolshevik Comrades from Sart (Uzbek) women, who had been corrupted by them. The Bolsheviks dressed them in semi-military men's uniforms and sent them into the native houses to preach the emancipation of women, the first step towards it being the uncovering of their faces. The Mussulman women saw in all this a great personal insult, and very soon afterwards it was discovered that these preachers of freedom had been quietly cut to pieces, in spite of the fact that they, as communists, had been allowed to carry and use revolvers.'
EM Turner (ed) 'The journal of Paul Nazeroff' 1980

'View through a paranja'

The veil was not dispensed with overnight and even in the forties and fifties, paranjas were worn on some of the villages of Khorezm.
However among themselves and within the safe confines of the female quarters of a house, women could dress up and show off their beauty.

'When the women went to pay a visit, they arrayed themselves in their best silk chemises which were carefully kept folded away in trunks' They wrapped their feet and legs in strings of partianki, and then put on high boots made from soft goat skin. They dyed their eyebrows into a straight line with black powder extracted from the juice of a plant called in Latin isatis tintoria, this being the native idea of female beauty.'
EM Turner (ed) 'The journal of Paul Nazeroff' 1980

Children wore similar style of clothes to their parents. It was the rich aristocracy with their fine silks and gold embroidery and the educated elite who dressed totally in white with turbans and long robes with short sleeves who really stood out from the crowd.

Today, although the effects of globalisation and russification have left their scars on Uzbek fashion, it is still possible to see remnants of the rich and colourful clothing worn by the peoples of Turkestan. Old men in Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva remain resplendent in their khalats, turbans, boots and hats, and have survived the onslaught of fake western brand clothes.