As the Kyrgyz are an animal herding people, their clothes tend to be made from the wool and leather of livestock animals they raise. Traditionally, men have worn robes; and women have worn skirts. People in different parts of Kyrgyzstan wear different types of clothes. In southern Kyrgyzstan, people tend to dress more conservatively in accordance with Islamic traditions. They also dress in more colorful clothes than people from the north. In cities of Kyrgyzstan, people wear any clothes they want like jeans and T-shirts. Russian women are known for wear revealing clothes whereas observant Muslim women dress more modestly. Sometimes Kyrgyz clothes have distinctive features peculiar to individual tribal and territorial groups. There are, for example, many variations of the standard hats.
In villages you will see women wearing traditional clothes like long skirts, kerchiefs, etc. In cities they are less traditional and more modern. As for male clothing, most men wear pants more often than they wear jeans. Shorts are worn rarely, and by city folks mostly. But is not frowned upon for women to wear them. The predominate style in the cities is dressy casual. Sometimes it seems dress up to much for everyday things and work (especially women), but underdress for special occasions. It is not unusual to see men dressed in three-piece suits for a football match, or men wearing jogging suits for concerts at the Music Hall. Occasionally you see women wearing see-through blouses and high heels to work during the day. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
The summers often get very hot in Kyrgyzstan. That is why many people, including government officials and even the Prime Minister himself, don't wear suits to work from May through August. A shirt and a tie for men, and a summer dress for women in an office environment in the summer are perfectly acceptable. Another thing about clothes in Kyrgyzstan deserves mentioning. In western countries people tend to wear different clothing everyday. But in Kyrgyzstan it is common for people to wear the same clothes two or three days in a row. It does not mean that they do not have enough clothes, or they put on dirty ones. It is just not their custom to wear different clothes every day.
In Kyrgyzstan you can find coats and hats and other items made with the fur of wolves, ermines, rabbits, hares, marmots, foxes, squirrels, sables and minks. There are good buys on leather goods, cashmere sweaters and lambskin and sheepskin coats and vests.
Traditional Kyrgyz Clothes
The Kyrgyz have traditionally been nomadic animal herders and this is reflected in their traditional clothes. The first thing that needs to be taken in consideration is the cold temperatures of the mountainous regions where they dwell. Therefore their clothes are usually thick and made of warm materials like wool and sheep-skin. Clothes made from the fur and skins of wild and domestic animals and woolen-burlaps are also widely used. [Source: kyrgyz.net.my, official Kyrgyzstan tourism website]
In the winter, many Kyrgyz wear is felt covering with sleeves — a kementay — and white felt boots. A “chapan” coat with a high collar is popular among the men and women. The most common footwear among the Kyrgyz are boots with high tops and narrow, slightly turned-up noses, often worn with paypaq, thick felt stockings.
Male’s traditional apparel consists of coarse top and wide trousers paired with a sleeveless jacket, boots and a special hat made of white wool, known as “ak-kalpak” – the Kyrgyz national hat. Whereas, the women clothes consists of a long and wide A-line dress, long and wide trousers paired with a camisole and a special head-dresses (worn according to age groups and relationship status) called 'Elchek' 'Tebetei' and 'Shokulo' . Married women wear skirts with broad belts, brights colors, and rich ornamentation.
Describing Kyrgyz nomads in northern Kyrgyzstan, Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “ There is one thing more expressive than a Kyrgyz yurt. And that is a Kyrgyz woman. Men dress like they’re perpetually on their way to a funeral. Women are Kyrgyz works of art. Atop their heads are tall, cylindrical caps draped with giant head scarves—red for unmarried women, white for married—that flow behind them like superheroes’ capes. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, February 2013 <=>]
“They wear long, bright-red dresses, usually with red vests over them. Attached to this vest is an amazing mosaic of bling. Plastic shirt buttons are sewn around the collar by the dozens. There are sun-shaped brass brooches and leather pouches containing verses from the Koran. I spotted coins, keys, seashells, perfume bottles, and eagle claws. One woman had seven nail clippers pinned to her chest. Every movement by a Kyrgyz woman produces a jangling, wind-chimey tone. Their hair is styled in two or more long braids affixed with silver ornaments. They wear multiple necklaces and at least one ring on every finger except the middle ones, even the thumbs. Bracelets galore. Dangly earrings. One watch is rarely enough—two or three are better. I counted as many as six.” <=>
Embroidery has always been a female craft. Many embroidered items are intended for practical use a well as for decorating a yurt or home. Embroidery is used to decorate fabrics, mats, clothes felt carpets and wall hangings, household articles and various sacks and bags. Techniques have traditionally been passed on from mother to daughter. Girls are taught to embroider at a young age. Every girl learns embroider but only a few become skilled craftswomen, or saimachy. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
Patterns are usually created by talented needle women. The outline of the pattern is first laid on a cloth and then the pattern is embroidered. Very skilled needle women embroider by memory without initially laying down a pattern. They improvise and sometimes vary patterns taken from other articles. The arrangement of pattern, color, materials and embroidery technique all play a part in creating beautifully textured and embroidered articles.
Kyrgyz women embroidered with wool and cotton threads on felt, leather, velvet, cotton and woolen fabrics, and homespun cloth. Felt, leather, woolen cloth and wool threads are the most ancient Kyrgyz embroidery materials.
Kinds of Embroidery Stitching and Patterns
Embroidery techniques are diverse. The most frequently used stitch (ilme) is made with a needle. In northern parts of the country this stitch is called shibege and is made with a special hook called a shibege. A chain stitch is used in different ways to make a unique textures on the embroidered surface. Completely filling in elements of a pattern with stitches is characteristic of older works. In this type of embroidery a chain stitch winds along the outline of the pattern, then curves inside the pattern like a spiral, with each stitch close to previous chain, until the whole shape is filled in. Sometimes a space inside of a shape is left blank. Sometimes these spaces are filled in with a contour pattern.
The chain stitch is one of the most ancient stitches. It is the main stitch of Turkic people in the Near East, Central Asia, and the Volga river area. In addition to the chain stitch other stitches called ilmedos and tuura saima are very popular in the south of Kyrgyzstan. Ilmedos stitches are laid in zigzag manner. Tuura saima stitches are laid in straight parallel lines. The background may be slightly seen through interlace of stitches, making the embroidery appear laced.
Kyrgyz embroidery is distinguished by it simplicity and a precise and clear rhythm revealed in the succession of shapes and colors. Most Kyrgyz embroidered articles use a contrasting combination of a black background and bright silk threads. Red white, yellow, blue and green threads are frequently used. Older works have soft colors as their threads have been dyed using natural materials. Narrow stripes completely filled in with embroidery are used for bordering edges and round rosettes and for dividing a work into sectors. The stripes are filled with bright triangles and crossing lines that highlight the beauty of embroidered items.
The names of different embroidery patterns are mainly derived from the nomadic life style. Some patterns owe their names to their resemblance to animal body parts, birds, or household articles. For example karga tyrmak means crow's claw; kochkor muyuz is translated as a sheep's horn; and ko'okor is a container for koumiss. Some pattern names are borrowed from plant life including gul, a flower. Other names, such as aichyk, the moon, reflect the ancient cosmogony ideas of Kyrgyz people. There are many embroidery patterns which are similar to patterns used in other kinds of applied arts, though the same patterns look different then compared to the patterns placed on felt carpets or wood carvings. There are also patterns which are used only in embroidery including badam, or almond. In general, embroidery patterns are more diverse than the patterns found in other art genres.
Characteristics of Kyrgyz Embroidery
Kyrgyz embroidered items have large patterns with plain and clear outlines. Kyrgyz needle women determine the proportions of their motifs in accordance with the size of the patterned surface. They skillfully and harmoniously balance the separate parts of a composition, combining the pattern and background.
Kyrgyz embroidered articles have definite pattern arrangement rules peculiar to Kyrgyz craftsmanship. A large number of compositions and separate motifs have patterns arranged along two axises crossed at a right angle. They often add two axises going through the same center and divide the right angles in half. In this way a symmetrical four pointed or eight-pointed composition is made. Other compositions have motifs of similar patterns and color diagonally opposed to each other. Still other patterns are arranged on stripes or edges by using a winding or interrupted stem. Separate motifs or motifs branching from the stem are placed within twists of the stem.
The pattern motifs of Kyrgyz embroidery are marked by soft and rounded shapes due to the type of stitches used. Nevertheless, angular geometrical patterns dominate in narrow patterned bands of cloth, breastplates embroidered in satin stitch and on women huts (Kep takyia).
Kyrgyz Men’s Clothes
Nomadic Kyrgyz men have traditionally worn trousers of tanned leather or suede, which had several names, including chalbar, kandagay, zhalgak. In the winter, some older men still wear long sheepskin coats and round fur-trimmed hats called tebbetey. Herders are often decked completely in black and wear hats with earflaps. Men who dress this way and have Fu Manchu mustaches resemble Genghis Khan.
Traditional men’s clothes includes loose trousers made of cotton or leather, high boots, an embroidered white round-collared shirts trimmed with lace and a qiapan (a knee- length robe that has long sleeves) made of sheep wool, camel felt or cotton cloth and has a leather or embroidered cloth waistband. Young lads wear narrow trouser with embroidery patterns on the cuffs, fronts, and borders of their clothes. Most men's clothes are black or white; blue and brown are also worn by young men. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]
Some men wear camel wool fabrics with the sleeves in fringed black cloth. Normally, a rawhide belt is worn at the waist, attached to which is a knife and a flint for making fire. Some sport jackets with a standing collar and front buttons. A characteristic Kyrgyz shoe is made of rawhide. Throughout the year, all men, old or young, wear round corduroy caps in green, purple, blue or black and covered by a high, square-topped animal skin or felt hat with a rolled-up brim. The inside of the animal skin hat is bordered with black velvet. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
Kyrgyz Women’s Clothes
Traditionally-dressed Kyrgyz women wear a one-piece dress and high embroidered boots. Over the dress they wear a tight sleeveless jacket made of gold silk pile or a loose collarless jacket with silver buttons down the front. The long, pleated skirt is bordered with fur. Some wear dresses with the skirt pleated in the lower part, and covered with a black vest. Young women like red dresses and skirts, red velvet round caps or red otter skin hats decorated with pearls, tassels and feathers. While young women prefer red or green scarves, the elderly ones like white kerchiefs.
Traditionally dressed Kyrgyz women wear flowery skirts and white head scarves. Married women wear a loin skirt — a beldemchi — with flaps converging in front. Sometimes they wear an completely embroidered shirt called a “zhaka”.
Sometimes Kyrgyz women wear a qiapan when they go outside. Married women wear jackets, coats and short skirts. Old women favor white, black and blue, while young ladies are fond of red, green, yellow and brown. Bracelets, earrings, necklaces and rings are made of silver. Girls in some areas wear on their chests round silver pieces carved with patterns. *|*
The most popular cap worn by Kyrgyz everywhere is the kalpak a traditional white felt hat with an upturned brim. It resembles a Robin Hood or leprechaun hat and often has designs on it. Many old Kyrgyz men wear it. The tebbetey is a fur-lined hat worn in the winter. Kyrgyz men in China have traditionally worn red, green, blue, purple or black cap made of corduroy; and on top of that cap they would wear another leather cap or pelt cap when needed.
Kyrgyz men wear the kalpak all year around. The top is ridge-shaped and the short cap brim is folded upwards. A stripe of black cloth is inlaid inside the cap brim; the black border is very conspicuous when the cap is turned inside out. On the both sides of the cap brim there is a nick that separates the brim into two parts. When the two parts are rolled up simultaneously, the brim offers good protection from snow and rain. If the front part is rolled down it can protect the face from the sun. If the two parts are rolled together, they offer a shield against wind and sand.
Kyrgyz identity is often expressed with a kalpak (also spelled calpack, calpac, kalpac, or qalpaq). Kyrgyz cherish it and call it a "holy cap". When taken off, it is hung up or put on a quilt or pillow. People never casually throw it down, step on it or play with it—actions which are regarded as taboo or near-taboo breaches of etiquette. The kalpak has a long history. There is even a sage associated with it. In ancient time, according to one legend, there was a wise, smart and brave Kyrgyz king, who found that various colored caps, horses and clothing affected his army. Before a major campaign, he ordered his ministers to prepare unified caps for his army and civilians in 40 days. In accordance with the king’s criteria the caps had to be bright like a star, beautiful as a flower, white as an iceberg and green as a summer mountain, plus repel rain, snow, wind and sand at the same time. After 39 days, 39 ministers were killed because they could not produce a hat that pleased the king. At last, the wise daughter of the 40th minister devised the kalpak and the king was satisfied. And the cap was passed to now. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]
Kyrgyz Women’s Headgear
According to Islamic custom many Kyrgyz women wear headscarves but few cover their faces with veils. Unmarried ladies sometimes wear little red plush round caps with a colorful top. During special occasions they sometimes wear a big round cap decorated with pearls, tassels and feathers. Young married women prefer red or green headgear, while middle-aged women wear white. Unmarried girls wear their hair in many small plaits, reduced to two after marriage. The pigtails are decorated with silver chains, coins or keys interlinked with a chain of pearls.
Kyrgyz women sometimes wear a traditional conical hat like that worn by Kazakh women on ceremonial occasions. Sometimes older women wear "wimple-like" turbans with the number of raps indicating their status.
In 2009, the Kyrgyzstan government banned head scarves banned from schools. Reuters reported: “Kyrgyzstan, a predominantly Muslim country, has banned head scarves from schools to protect children from religious influence, an official said. “We are a secular state,” the official, Damira Kudaibergenova of the Education Ministry, said. She added that some pupils were missing their Friday classes because of prayers. [Source: Reuters, March 3, 2009]
Jewelry-making and metal artistry is one of the most ancient genres of Kyrgyz arts. In ancient times Kyrgyz silversmiths (kumush usta) were highly respected. They were regarded as a special people, skilled creators and, sometimes, shaman-like figures mysterious powers over fire and iron. Kyrgyz women have always worn jewelry: rings (shakek), earrings (iymek) and bracelets (bilerik) decorated with various precious stones, cutting and engraving. A special and rigid restraint and the primordial integrity of metals and design are found in these articles. Smiths and jewelers have traditionally been men who passed their skills and secrets from generation to generation within families or from master to apprentice. Sometimes women were also involved in making jewelry. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
Kyrgyz jewelers have traditionally used silver coins, iron and silver from traveling merchants as their basic raw materials. They used various technical methods including forging, stamping, cutting, embossing and engraving and made niello, lace, plated filigree and grain patterns. In order to diversify their designs, smiths and jewelrey makers often combined various methods of decoration. For example, engraving was combined with niello, or mother of pearl and coral were inserted into filigree and grain patterns.
Ornamentation motifs found on women's jewelry are diverse and are differentiated by origin. Shaded triangles, intersecting circles, zigzags and four-petal rosettes are the simplest and oldest patterns. Other ancient patterns include various radial and starry rosettes, bracket forms, and a "running wave". More modern designs include winding lines with sprouting scrolls, and cross-like shapes with horn-like scrolls.
Antique rings and bracelets tend to look restrained while breast jewelry called soiko jelbyroch, are more elaborate and ornate. Breast jewelry has traditionally been made to order and passed from one generation to another. Brides are supposed to wear it for their wedding days. Also the most respectful and beautiful woman of the tribe wore it during seasonal migrations from winter pastures to summer pastures. This was supposed to personify the tribe's wealth and hope for a safe passage.
Only skilled silversmiths could create soiko jelbyroch. This splendid piece of jewelry is a quarter meter long and made from a combination of engraved conical pendants, differently shaped plates, plentiful annulated chains, and patterned petals arranged into clusters and fringe. A winding silver chain, corals and cornelian create a delicate harmony of colors and make the shapes soft and melodic. Silversmiths also use different methods of embossing, cutting and engraving to make men's belts (kemer kur) and employ of variety of decorative materials — metal plates with niello or embossed patterns, engraved plates, flat silver-plate brasses with colorful stones and corals — to decorate leather.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016