CLOTHES AND FASHIONS IN TURKMENISTAN
Silk or cotton is worn in the summer and wool is worn in the winter. The soft, curled grey black or brown wool of the Karakul breed of sheep is used to make Turkmenistan traditional clothes, hats and carpets. The symbols used in Turkmen women's clothes consist mainly of plants representing fertility. The images on men's clothes are mainly animals and birds. Flying cranes symbolize the desire for a man to be " Be free as a bird!" — meaning the freedom of spirit and the aim of a real man to be strong, confident and independent.
Traditional clothing includes tight-fitting black or brown trousers tucked into knee-length boots; grey, black, brown or white long-sleeve shirts with a round neck and an opening on the right side and embroidery; and a knee length robe ( khalat or chapan), made of cotton or silk and displaying striped patterns indicating the village the wearer is from. Shirts are often worn outside the trousers with a brightly-colored sash tied around it. Some older men still wear long pleated coats.
There is great variety of shoes in Turkmenistan. Low shoes with turned up toes and camel skin soles. Heelless indoor boots made of soft goatskin. Horseman’s high-heeled boots. Yellow women’s boots made of pebbled donkey skin and horsehide. The left and right shoe for children are often the same so children don’t get them mixed up.
Turkmen men have traditionally believed that a shaved head was good for ones health. In villages, hammans (public baths) often have earthen floors and benches. Patrons wear wooden sandals, Women have traditionally worn their hair in two long plaits.
Many Turkmen women have gold teeth. Men do too but les so. Gold teeth has traditionally been a sign of status. Saparmurat Niyazov, the former President of Turkmenistan outlawed gold teeth for women, beards for men and long hair on young people. Gold teeth were he’d denounced as unhygienic.
Some Central Asian clothing styles feature large patterned coats and heavy accessories. In the late 1990s, fashion designers such as John Galliano and Kenzo Takada released collections that were influenced by the clothes of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
Some clothes are designed for everyday wear and some are designed for special occasions. In the Soviet era, the richly-colored and patterned locally made cloth of Central Asia was in many cases replaced by dull, utilitarian Soviet-made cloth. Many skilled textile makers worked on collective farms and had to produce traditional textiles secretly. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been rebirth of traditional textiles and crafts as the Central Asian nations have strived to re-establish their identity.
Turkmen Women’s Clothes
Many Turkmen women still wear the traditional long satiny Turkmen dress. Turkmen women have traditionally worn loose, heavy, brilliantly-colored, ankle-length silk or velvet caftans with baggy trousers underneath with contrasting colors and decorated bands. The caftan has a stand up collar and a center opening covered by a decorated braid or embroidery. The sleeves are full and gathered at the wrists. Popular colors include red and maroon. Caftans for special occasions are elaborate and decorated, Sometimes they are worn with a knee-length coat studded with metal discs.
Turkmen women wear different depending on their age. For girls, clothing has traditionally been considered part of their education, teaching them about family values and motherhood. A teenage girl wears a traditional dressing gown made from dark fabric richly embroidered with bright spring flowers that convey beauty, health and fertility. [Source: advantour.com <=>]
The dressing gown of a middle age woman is yellow in color — the color of autumn and a symbol of the sun at its zenith, warming the land and the entire woman's family — her parents and children — with its rays. This dressing gown is embroidered with " oak leaves " symbolizing strength and longevity.
The third kind of a dressing gown is worn by a woman who has passed " Mohammed's age " (63). It is white and its embroidery brings to mind desert plants. As years go by more and more space is left without embroidery. This represents "the space of life " intended for new generations.
Turkmen men are recognizable by their distinctive Afro-like sheepskin hats ( telpek) of white, black or brown. They are worn year round over a skullcap, even on scorching hot days. Black ones are worn everyday and white ones are usually only worn on special occasions. Men also wear deftly wound turbans.
Women wear a variety of headgear. Many tie their hair back and wear a headscarf tied on the back of the head. Some wear a little round hat with a dome ending at a metal point. Older women wear a special hat over their head. Aristocratic women traditionally wore tall, fez-like hats covered by a veil. A tall hat indicates she is married. Single girls wore caps. Belled caps signified they were from fairly wealthy families whose father demanded a high bride price.
Ajap Bairiev, a Turkmen ethnographer, wrote: “Head-wear is one of the most interesting elements of the Turkmen national costume...The hats' big diversity, their strict functions combined with old symbolic meaning and bright decorative nature, symbolic and magic meaning of the ornaments attest to their ancient origin...A variety of production technology was applied in making Turkmen hats. They differed in external properties (cloth, color, form, size), quality (lightness, firmness, softness, beauty, ability to preserve warmth) and way of wearing. Hats were made for holidays, for a show or casual wear, for young djigits (riders), aged men and elders. They were made of good gray or golden astrakhan fur, or from fluffy marten fur, otter fur, fox fur or muskrat fur. Long wool hats were made of skins of special sheep with silky and curly wool and from goat skins of angora breed. They were expensive and rare and were used on special occasions. Fine curly lamb fur was used to make hats that were usually worn during holidays. Black thin astrakhan skins are noted for the highest quality. Astrakhan fur was a symbol of a high secular or religious rank. As a rule, hats were put on above small Turkmen skullcap tahya. [Source: Ajap Bairiev, ethnographer, Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005 ^*^]
“It goes without saying that serving as an indicator of prestige and the degree of social status of a hat's owner, they were expensive. Therefore, no time and money were spared for their manufacturing and buying. In the past, few people could afford such exquisite headwear. For instance, the price of a fashionable high hat from astrakhan skins with long curly wool was equal to that of a camel or a cow with calf. The form of hats was also diverse in Turkmenistan, ranging from the smallest to very big in size. In the remote past, rich and noble Turkmens used to put on hats up to half a meter in height. All hats had quilted lining and could stand strong saber blows. Light and elegant hat is adapted in the best way for riding a horse and military campaigns.” *^*
Turkmens have always had a special attitude towards hats. They took care of them, looked after them and guarded them by covering them with a shawl. To prevent theretention of fur and a hat's deformation, hats were put on a special block made of mulberry tree. The hatmaker Orazdurdy Bekniyazov told Bairev: "If you have the head, you should wear a hat", jokes Orazdurdy and adds, "A hat is worn not for keeping head warm, but for the honor. A Turkmen never leaves a hat. If you have no one to speak to, talk to a hat".
Telpeks: the Big Hairy, Turkmen Hat
"Don't they feel hot in such hairy hats in the summer?" foreign tourists ask with surprise on seeing old Turkmen men wearing their big hairy hats in the midday heat. They are even more perplexed when their question is answered with what seems to be a joke: "A hat is a vacuum flask for the head". Yet, it is not a joke. [Source: Ajap Bairiev, ethnographer, Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005 ^*^]
For many generation, Turkmens have worn clothes that were adapted to being out in the open air. Special attention was paid to the quality and practicality of headwear as Turkmens had to cover long distances in the desert and steppes when they change their camps. Climatic, historical, and social conditions demanded that a hat should be universal and perfectly utilitarian. Thus, a fur hat, "telpek", came into being. A special microclimate is created under such, which at first sight looks heavy, but is in fact quite light and block the sun in the summer and provides protection from the cold in winter. ^*^
There is more to the "telpek" than simply being functional. Ajap Bairiev writes: “It plays a great role, considerably increasing the level of prestige of the clothes and serves as a measure of beauty of the men's gaunt frame. "A fur hat, a headwear of Turkmen men, is an embodiment of strength and courage. It is light and stylish", famous ethnographer Arminiy Vamberi wrote sharing his impressions about his journey to Central Asia over 200 years ago. Indeed, the lofty telpek personifies pride and nobility. It helps develop good looking bearing and non-hasty grace of movements. Turkmens are very proud of their headwear and treat them with care. ^*^
Making Turkmen Hats
Ajap Bairiev wrote: “Traditionally, only men used to manufacture hats in Turkmenistan. The trade was inherited, and masters of this art were much valued and were respectable people in their villages. Our interlocutor, Orazdurdy Bekniyazov is one of such masters. They are called "telpekchi". His workshop reminds both an artistic saloon and a museum. In one of the rooms, curtained with dense cloth (so that the light does not penetrate), high and fluffy hats of different colors, sizes and cuts were scattered around. There were different shades of black fur hats, red or cornelian fur hats with the coloring of burned terracotta, white as swan hats and grey hats with grayish-black strings reminding us of the marble picture. They reminded us a small herd of thin fleece sheep, lambs, goats with thick, wavy and tender wool. Fluffy hats seemed heavy at first sight, but on taking them in hands, we realized how soft, light and silky they were. [Source: Ajap Bairiev, ethnographer, Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005 ^*^]
“Before becoming "telpekchi", Orazdurdy Bekniyazov was a shepherd, bred famous astrakhan sheep of different breeds and color, and learned to select the best ones. Like old masters, he knows the secrets of hat manufacturing enabling him to improve the quality of articles. "To produce a hat, not only the exact cutting but special instruments and threads are needed," says Orazdurdy. "^*^
“To manufacture one hat of tender silky fur, the fell of one 1.5-2 month old lamb is required. Two hats are manufactured from a fell of three month old sheep. The "telpekchi" have never dyed wool. They use its natural color. If the skin of fur fells grew somewhat coarse and lost its elasticity, it can be restored by moisturizing it with a solution of vinegar and table salt. To make fur acquire special luster, it should be rubbed through with a duster slightly saturated in vinegar. When currying, fur rye flour is dispersed all over the wool which is dubbed with kefir. It adds firmness to the product and increases hats' longevity. If a hat is slightly big, a round padding from twisted threads is made along the lining inside it. Having pulled the thread, the hat's size can be diminished. It is advisable to keep hats in a dark place at low temperatures so that fur is not dried out, and the skin doesn't become coarse. Wet fur should not be dried near a fire, so that a hat doesn't lose the form. ^*^
Talhya: Traditional Turkmen Skullcap
A traditional Turkmen skullcap is called a takhya. It not only a form of head wear but also a symbol of Turkmen identity and tradition. Many of the ornaments on a takhya have a magic meaning. In the old days, Turkmen believed that takhya could protect the owner from troubles, jinxes, illnesses, bad luck and the evil eye. According to ancient customs even an old takhya can’t be given to another person or thrown out. Beyond its magic properties, a takhya protects its owner's head protection from the scorching sun. Takhyas can be round, oval, low and high. They can be made from various fabrics, both expensive ( velvet , silk) and simple (sateen and printed cotton). Often a beautiful expensive fabric called “keteni” is used and embroidered with patterns. [Source: advantour.com, Ajap Bairiev, ethnographer, Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005 ^*^]
Soft quilted takhya made from linen fabric have traditionally been put on a boy 's or a girl's head few days after birth. Old men used to wear caps sewed from white coarse calico and men wore their takhyas on shaved heads. Girls and young brides wear soft, embroidered takhya with colored silk threads and silver decorations. These takhya emphasize the blossoming beauty of a girl, and embroidered flowers on them symbolize beauty and virginity. Not wearing takhya is regarded as a loss of chastity. ^*^
A man's takhya is distinguished from a female’s one by its simplicity and restrained patterns. They often feature triangle ornaments that symbolize the unity of Turkmen riders ready to fight off the enemy by standing shoulder to shoulder. After Turkmenistan became independent in 1991, takhya wearing has experienced a rebirth. It is worn by both adults and children with traditional and modern outfits as form of Turkmen identity and serves as an example of the exquisite art of embroidery. Turkmen carefully preserve their traditions on the takhyap. Takhya patterns have remained the same for generations and have been preserved by skilled craftswomen. ^*^
Ajap Bairiev wrote: “At first sight, tahya seems simple in terms of the form and ornament and easy to make. It is not so. The process of making tahya is very labor consuming. To cut out and sew a small cap one needs great patience, diligence and time. For instance, two women plait a wide silk braid "jahek" framing tahya and all their fingers are engaged in this process. While sewing traceries and ornaments, women cover the surface of a scull-cap with such dense needle-work and do it so skillfully that inexperienced eye will not see the color of the basis.” ^*^
Talhyas and Turkmen History, Weddings and Traditions
Evidence of people wearing skull caps has been found in Central Asia in rock inscriptions dated to the 13th century. In Central Asia, skull caps are worn by many different ethnic groups, whose caps differ in size, style and, primarily that give clues to the identy of the wearer. In the the old days, the tahya often served as a base for more complex head-wear (Turkmen elders wore it under their woolen hat, for example), nowadays it is worn in its own right. [Source: Ajap Bairiev, ethnographer, Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005 ^*^]
Ajap Bairiev wrote: “Girls and brides put on soft tahya embroidered with colored silk threads with silver wear and small silver dome "gupba" on the scull-cap. Bird feathers that were believed to protect from bad eye were inserted in the pointed top of the dome...The red color possessed magic properties and protected from evil forces.... Girls wore tahya in such a way that others could see their combed hair parting in the middle and plaited into four braids. Two braids thrown over the shoulder covered the bosom as if protecting it from indiscreet looks of outsiders. *^*
“The girl parted with tahya after the wedding party, during the "bashsalma" ceremony. At the groom's home, the girlish head-wear was put off from the bride, four braids were re-plaited in two and thrown over the shoulder on her back, and fastened together by a beautiful heart-shaped piece of silver "asyk". A married woman could continue wearing her girlish clothes. However, some elements of the clothes, including the girl's head-wear, were prohibited forever. She could never put on colorful tahya and spread her braids. *^*
The bashsalma — the ceremonial of changing of the unmarried woman’s takhya, for the one of a married woman — is one of the most interesting and complex elements of the Turkmen wedding ritual. The ritual is both solemn and cheerful, and is characterized by noisy symbolical scramble between women and girls for the bride. The bride's friends stand in a circle around her trying to you defend her, This playful fight is inevitably won the bride’s friends. Then a bridle made from woven colored lace — an aladzha — is flung over bride's wedding cape. The groom pulls the bridle three times as if trying to remove the maiden headdress. After that the bride 's head is covered with a big white kerchief presented by a respectable woman having many children and the takhya is passed to the youngest sister of the groom. Behind this is the idea that the former takhya owner should pass her good fortune to another girl and she in turn will get happily married and give birth to many children. The takhya is passed along with the wishes: "Sanada toi etmek nesip etsin!" ( "May thee have a wedding!"). <=>
Jewelry in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan is also famous its jewelry. For nomads, jewelry was a way of keeping wealth small and portable so you could carry it with you when you were on the move. It also contained clues on the tribe, family and social status of its wearer. .
Families have traditionally kept much of their wealth in the form of silver jewelry, often hidden somewhere in the house and only brought when women wear it at weddings and other events. When Turkmen brigands raided villages and camps their aim was often to make of with the jewelry of their residents.
Silver jewelry was traditionally made by jewelers and their apprentices from melted silver coins fashion into rings, bracelets, necklaces and brooches. They are often set with red carnelians, which Turkmen believe wards off eye disease. At weddings and feasts interlinked rings are hung with bells and precious stones.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; “Although nominally Sunni Muslim, the Turkmen kept many of their pre-Islamic customs and beliefs, which were often embodied in the jewelry they made and wore. Turkmen silver jewelry carried deep symbolic meanings and often marked an individual's passage from one stage of life to another. From a very early age, a woman started wearing jewelry whose shapes and materials were believed to ensure her ability to bear healthy children later in life. The amount of embellishments a girl wore increased as she approached marriageable age. Once she had had her first children, and her fertility had been established, the amount of jewelry she received and wore decreased. In addition, silver jewelry believed to ward off evil and illness was worn by men, women, and especially by children. [Source: Department of Islamic Art. "Turkmen Jewelry", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 2011 ==]
“Jewelry was a significant financial investment, as it was handcrafted from precious materials. There were cases when, in times of dire need, a woman would part with her jewelry in order to help the survival of the tribe. Significant in size and weight, Turkmen jewelry objects were made of silver, decorated with semi-precious stones, and sometimes gilded for an added color effect and value.” ==
Turkmen Jewelry as Works of Art
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; “Common shapes found on Turkmen jewelry include mountains, animals, horns, and plants. The mountain motif is part of the Turkmen creation story and is significant for its ancestral and heavenly connection. Each Turkmen tribe holds a specific mountain in their region sacred and only that tribe can ascend it. The mountain ram is a sacred animal to the Turkmen and its horns are frequently used in rituals. The double leaf and two-leafed flower motifs are connected to the growth of human existence, and are part of a long-established decorative tradition. [Source: Department of Islamic Art. "Turkmen Jewelry", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 2011 ==]
“In addition to the shape and theme of the silver metal itself, the semi-precious stones that embellish the jewelry are also imbued with protective powers. Pieces of carnelian, a bright red colored stone, are popular because they are believed to protect the wearers from illness and death. Turquoise is less commonly used among the Turkmen, but serves as a symbol of purity and chastity. In some cases, less expensive glass beads of the same colors are used instead of semi-precious stones.” ==
The holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Department of Islamic Art include a fine collection of nearly 200 Turkmen silver jewelry pieces and other decorative objects donated by Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf. The Wolf collection is rich in amulets, armlets, belts, dorsal plates (hung from the hair onto the back, headdresses, and pectoral ornaments (hung from the neck onto the chest.”
Books: Diba, Layla S. Turkmen Silver: Jewelry and Ornaments from the Marshall and Marilyn Wolf Collection. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011; Schletzer, Dieter, and Reinhold Schletzer “Old Silver Jewellery of the Turkoman: An Essay on Symbols in the Culture of Inner Asian Nomads, “ Berlin: D. Reimer, 1983.
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