Archetypes and Aesthetics of the Karakalpak Costume of the XIX Century

Issue #3 • 113

Zafara Alieva,
Art Critic

In the light of the archaic traditions of the Karakalpaks (women’s home weaving, tailoring of the tunic-like garment and wide pants), it is curious to analyze the perception of textile material for clothes making, combined with their manufacturing process. For example, prior to weaving a canvas, they collected wool (spring shearing), treated it, spanned the fiber, and dyed the yarn; treatment of the elastic stems of the kendyr plant growing wild in the floodplains was also taking a long time (2). The seamstresses were revering the yarn, and the finished canvas was considered sacred, which determined the logic of the zero waste (israpsyz) tailoring of clothes. This is confirmed by the tradition of decorative patchwork (kurak).
Structurally the cut of the upper clothing (dress, shirt, robe) and trousers was based on the width of artisanal fabrics and proportions of the human figure that met the living environment (climate, custom to sit on the floor, horse riding). For example, seamed tunic used to be cut from a single canvas (in two lengths) with no shoulder seam. According to ancient ideas, the wholesome cloth protected the vital centers of the body (chest, belly, spine). Diagonal details (gussets, gores) were designed taking into account the rationality (unemleu) – a rectangular piece of canvas used to be cut with a knife straight and diagonal. Thus the canvas was fully used, and the cut of the tunic had a pronounced meaning.
The Karakalpaks originally used the handmade wool for tailoring clothes (shal, more rarely – tuyejun-gezleme) and kendyr (torka), fur and leather. In the XIX century the local varieties of artisanal cotton fabrics were used (undyed – boz, monochrome – shanjala, striped – alasha, checked – ak-atba, printed – shyt) and silk (jipek-alasha – with thin stripes, torka – colored weaving on white weft). Typically, the fabrics of alasha type used to be polished. The fabrics manufactured in Bukhara were widely used – kanaus, ikat, velvet, Turkmen silk, and since the mid-nineteenth century the factory-made cloth, cotton, tick, plush, etc.
The decoration consisting of embroidery, jewelry and beads (seed beads, cowry shells, etc.) was a must, especially for women’s and children’s clothes. First of all, it concerned the open parts of the multi-layer outer garments, which were covered with patterns-charms. Obviously, the meaning of decoration methods initially was not so much in “decorating”, but rather in “protection” – patchwork patterns, embroidery, and jewelry of Karakalpaks were often used for sacralization of the combat armor, their rethinking and transformation in the decorative motifs. For example, the first dress of an infant (it-koylek) used to be sewn with an outside seam and untrimmed hem (in order not to cause discomfort to the delicate body of the child). According to the belief, the outwards seam guarded from the evil eye, while untrimmed hem promoted fertility of the mother. The dress used to be made by the relatives (they were collecting the pieces of cloth from seven families with numerous children) and were giving that dress for a dowry prescribed by custom. It-koylek used to be put on the infant during the period of 40 days from his birth – shille. Undoubtedly, the term it (the dog) is an echo of totemism and indicates the antiquity of this ritual. Another archaic form of children’s clothes (under 3 years of age) is a quilted tunic gurte – is similar to the protective shirts of nomadic warriors – guppy (armor). There is no doubt that gurte and it-koylek would serve the purpose of armor, their decorative patchwork inserts were called kalkan (shield, armor) and saut (chainmail). As the basis of the patchwork mosaic was always used an amulet in the form of the the eight-pointed star (ancient symbol of the Great Mother) well known in Eurasia.
The Karakalpaks had a variety of men’s robes – dukhat, morely-shapan, syrylgan-guppy, the most popular among them was a cloak – an archaic shekpen. It was made of homespun cloth (camel wool) with collars and hems decorated by woven braid and the collar rim dressed by the silk tassels. Similar robes (chekmen, chekpan, chakman, etc.) were common among many Turkic tribes, which indicate their ancient genesis. Shekpen unfailingly had applique amulet jaurinsha sewn on the back in the form of the embroidered triangle (top down), the vestige of the cult of the Mother Goddess (the womb, the water). A priori the location of triangle was determined by its function “to protect” the sacred rear (shamanism). According to beliefs, porhan (shaman) was communicating with spirits by means of arka (the back), practicing fortune-telling on the mutton shoulder blade. Although the term jaurinsha could only reflect the location in the interscapular area of the robe, this triangle was sometimes called ayshik (Moon), tumar (amulet), which confirms its animistic sense. Appending textile and silver charms were similar to jaurinsha, while the latter could be displayed a top up (fire, arrowhead).
It is noteworthy that the maturity of young men used to be denoted by the wearing of the belt, i.e. girding the men’s clothes was mandatory. This tradition traced back to the early nomadic culture in the Central Asia (VI – III centuries), which were using the combat composite belts with the symbols of the status of freedom and magic protection (3). The status significance of the belt with Karakalpaks was defined by the ancient ritual of initiation of the disciple into the master. The status of freedom (and wealth) were confirmed by the belts – kamar and gudary (made of leather), pota (of velvet) – with hanging arms, purse, and jewelry plates in the shape of a shamrock (symbol of Umay – the patroness of warriors and hunters), with massive buckles decorated by zoomorphic motifs (tiger paws or heads, “scenes of tearing prey to pieces”). There was a combat belt as well – kayis (similar to the old Turkic shoulder belt made of narrow leather belts), to which the following items used to be appended: sheath, whip, snuff box, embroidered tea bag (shay-kalta). When hunting, kayis was containing the powder flask, bullet boxes, flint, etc. A silk scarf or waistband served as a typical male belt. Being a bandage fastening, the belt has always been characteristic of the semi-nomadic women’s outfit. So, Karakalpak women going on holiday or on journey girded themselves with an elegant sash.
The relics of ancient Oghuz can be traced in the footwear of the Karakalpaks of the XIX century. For example “the sandals” of the shepherds, reapers and boaters – sharyk (Oghuz – charyk) that were made of raw cowhide. The high-heeled shoes were traditional as well (they were invented for riding to enable the rider to deftly keep the stirrups): men’s boots from farrow skin with sharp, curving up toes (4, p. 32), and rigid shoes with embossed pattern – bashpak (Oghuz – bashmak). The elegant women shoes of “Oghuz” shape on high-heels were distinguished by the applique made of the pebbled leather on the instep and heel. There were the archaic male boots of tanned leather on high lift – baykem-etik (Oghuz – bukyum-etuk), and the patterned felt stockings – uyik similar to the “boots without soles” of the Altai Scythians of the first centuries BC. By the end of the XIX century the “Muslim” galoshes and ichigi have become common.
The richness of decoration of the female costume was expressing a wide range of meanings. For example, a costume was communicating about the craftsmanship of a girl and her appurtenance to certain tribe, the costume of a married woman could identify her status, the number of the tribes of the clan. The semantics of the costume expressed the ideas of protection associated with fertility cults, totemism and apotropaic spells. Moreover, the women’s costume was notable for consistency of traditions, since it acted as an attribute of ritual ceremonies. After the marriage, birth, and marriage of children, the color of the clothes and the composition of the jewelry of the women were changing; the age-related differences in the costumes were getting sophisticated starting from childhood until childbearing age, and were getting simplified at old age. In other words, the costumes were differentiated into the groups for brides, young females, mothers and matrons. The color palette of clothes (ranging from red to white) was encompassing a woman’s whole life; it was especially relevant to the head-dresses and capes. Richly colored embroidery, lots of jewelry made of carnelians, coral, “jingling” pendants in the clothes of young women contrasted with the white clothes and jewelry without inlays of gray-haired women preparing to “ascend to heaven”.
The girls’ costume was concentration of the armor modifications associated with the echo of the images of warriors, depicted in Karakalpak epos “Kyrk Kyz” (Forty Maidens). For example, kok-koylek – the tunic of Indigo color, which girls wore from the age of the main female character of the epic Gulayim (15-16 years old). Originally this dress was made from durable and lightweight fabric torqa (in ancient times it was used to make a shirt – foundation of the ring-mail) and it was embroidered by the “chain mail” pattern – saut nagys (5, p. 17). The girls wore a helmet-like silver skullcap – gumis-tahia, or the gold plated tiara – tobelik (resembling the Scythian crowns). The brides and the young women on holidays were putting on “the helmet” – saukele (as the second personage of the epos – Sarbinaz), resembling the armor bracers jengse, bracelets kos-bizelik, and the brouch ayshik.
Kok-keylek of the girls was a festive dress to be worn during their wedding, but later this tunic did not lose its value. The young women wore it before giving birth to their firstborns, and then kept and passed them to their descendants as a heritage. In the canonized decor of the kok-koylek, apart of a mesh pattern of the chain mail the motifs of diagonal stripes were persistent; they were forming the corners (top down) on the central field of embroidery. In our opinion, it was an expression of the idea of fertility.
Appurtenance to the age groups was defined by the cut of the dress. Ordinary girl’s dress had a horizontal incision on the shoulder (similarly to the children’s and men’s shirts). Collar of the women’s dress was vertical, supposing a breastfeeding of a baby. However, on holidays the girls were allowed to complement their dresses with false embroidered collar (ongirshe) decorated by jewelry pendants, imitating the women’s tunic. Women’s dress with vertical cutout was necessarily complemented by the headdress kiymeshek, which was attributed to the public ethics and protective magic. Kiymeshek was protecting from the evil eye by covering the head, neck, shoulders, chest, back, and long hair braids of women. Essentially, this headgear represented a ritual veil of a married woman, for the first time being put on the wedding day and symbolizing her final transition into a new cycle of life.
Probably, kiymeshek dates back to the Kipchak headgear (6, p. 73). Mixed-age types of kiymeshek were recorded only with the Karakalpaks. They varied in material and decoration, but were identical in cut and functions – red kyzyl-kiymeshek for women of childbearing age, and white ak-kiymeshek – for older women. We will briefly mention that the breast-collar kyzyl-kiymeshek used to be made from the factory manufactured red and black cloth. Its rich embroidery (chain stitch) contained apotropaic text made of combinations of the most ancient fertility symbols (swastika, cross, zigzag, lozenge, horns). The back of kyzyl-kiymeshek (made from the square Bukhara ikat fabric pash-shaye) that was designed in a way to make one of its corners hanging down to the heels of a woman. The perimeter of the back was hemmed by the embroidered cloth and fringe of twisted silk. Zoomorphic and floral motifs dominated in the embroidery. Ak-kiymeshek used to be made of white homespun cloth and embroidered (by half-cross) chest-collar. Judging by the materials and technique of embroidery, the red kiymeshek was a modification of the more ancient white kiymeshek (later turned into a piece of dress exclusively of older women). Embroidery of the ak-kiymeshek by red threads was indicating its belonging once to the costume of a young woman (7, p. 72).
Structurally kiymeshek could be worn only under the saukele or turban – bas-orau. Young Karakalpak women on holidays wore bas-orau made the cloths of different cotton fabrics (3.5 m long, possibly up to 5 pieces of cloth), red cloth – kyzyl-shyt, motley cloth – aydynly) and silk scarves (madeli turme), leaving one end to fall freely down on their backs. Older women wore turbans of white cloth in the red check (ak-atba), while the older females wore pure white turbans. The turban has long been regarded as a symbol of motherhood (8, pp.134-135), it was worn by married women of all ages, changing its color as their children grew older. However, the information of the beginning of XX century indicates the existence of girlish bas-orau, where we see the historical background: in the complex for Karakalpaks period of the XIX century, the turban could drive out of the use the expensive gumis-tahia, tobelik, and saukele, wich already in the XVIII century were used as customary headwear (9, p. 28-33; 126-131).
Women’s dress was combined with a fling robe jegde – a type of burqa, but without chachvan (Karakalpak women did not cover their faces). While jegde could be replaced by kiymeshek. Functionally jegde was a kind of cloak (protecting from the scorching sun, wind and rain), it was worn not only by married women. Girls starting from the age of 15 and women under 40 years wore jipek-jegde made of the polished pinstriped red silk. The collar of the cloak used to be decorated by the embroidered cloth (chain-stitch) and silk tassels. After 40 years of age the women wore elegant kestely-jegde entirely covered with colored embroidery (cross-stitch and chain-stitch) ornamented by the lozinges, swastika, zoomorphic and floral motifs, and tribal marks – tamga. The ornament on a white field symbolized the status of a woman – “mother of mothers” – and expressed the idea of the tree of life – Bay-terek (existence of grandchildren). Older women (over 60 years of age) wore white ak-jegde, which were covered by the lapidary mesh of geometric ornament kereghe-koz (the grill of the yurt – nomadic tent) made of the red and splashes of pale green threads. Otherwise, the patterns on the ak-jegde were composed in the arrow-shaped stripes top end up, which is interesting in comparison with embroidery of the kok-koylek (see above). The hem was embroidered by the totem pattern of garga-tuyak (crow’s paw), but often the hem was not embroidered (as a symbol of transition in the passive age group). The elderly women wore unembroidered ak-jegde. Kesteli and ak-jegde used to be sewn from the homespun fabric – boz.
The wedding dress was crowning the age separation, it was a representative of the bride-daughter and the woman-mother (as a measurement of wealth of the father and the husband), and as an attribute of the ritual of assimilation of the bride to the queen and the woman-bird Kumay (Turkic Umay – patroness of the hearth, new mothers and newborns, warriors and hunters). Jewelry of the bride was tracing back to archaic cults of the celestial bodies, the water elements, totemism and the partial magic (10, p. 103-125). For example, the images of Pars pro toto: Sun (jewelry jiga, shar-tuyme), Solar Ram (anshyk), Lunar Bull (haykel), frog (baka-tuyme), serpent and tiger (bilezik), dog or wolf (anshyk), “scene of tearing prey into pieces” – attack of the eagle on the ram (kiran). In general, the semantics of the costume of the bride was equivalent to the ancient hymn to the goddess of fertility (11, p. 71-74).
Thus, the aesthetics of the Karakalpak costume of the XIX century was a part of the culture of the Turkic steppes, but was rooted in the depths of the collective consciousness of Scythian Massagetae of the Southern Aral. The costume’s decoration was connected with materials and design of the apparel, as well as the concept of beauty determined by certain social vision (archetypes, animism, mythological meanings). The combination of natural geographic factors, economic structure, and manufacturing techniques has contributed to the conservation of artistic archetypes with a characteristic system of sacred objects and patterns (mostly astral and zoomorphic motifs). The ethnic isolation have contributed to the preservation of the centuries-old indigenous unique culture of Karakalpak people.

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