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Circassians Costumes & Accoutrements
Amjad Jaimoukha June, 2009
The North Caucasians have always been known for their vigour, good health, physical strength and longevity. Circassians paid great attention to enhancing the beauty and symmetry of their children’s physiques. This cultic preoccupation with physical perfection meant that for male children of princely and noble descent, a rigorous, almost severe, martial training regimen was part and parcel of the formative years. The use of leather straps and other devices to contract the middle area produced the ideal shape in the folkloric ethos of a lean torso and wide chest. A slender waist for both males and females was at a premium. Costumes were designed to enhance and highlight the beauty of the body according to prevalent ideals. The Circassians were the fashion trend-setters in the Caucasus. Their reputation for beauty and elegance was captured in the famous saying, ‘Dressed like a Kabardian.’ However, the Circassians donned their most dilapidated apparel when they did battle. According to John Longworth (1840, vol. 2, p51), ‘in general the Circassians, when taking to the field, put on the worst and coarsest attire they can find; but many of their young heroes, out of emulation, a spirit of bravado or aspiring to the honours of martyrdom, render themselves conspicuous by wearing an entari [cherkesska] of the gayest colour.’ However bad the attire of a mountaineer was, his arms were always kept in perfect condition. One of Lermontov’s Caucasian, Kazbich, was described thus, ‘His beshmet [quilted jacket] is always in tatters, but his armament is in silver.’ Circassian costumes, etiquette, dance and other distinctive cultural traits were borrowed by the other peoples of the Caucasus to varying degrees. Even the
Cossacks adopted Circassian dress modes, dancing and the Circassians’ flair for horsemanship. Edmund Spencer (1937), a British traveller to Circassia in the year 1836, left a vivid description of the Circassian male costume:
... the natives of every clime are taught by experience the dress best calculated to protect them against its influence; and, certainly, the Circassian costume, besides being elegant, is, in every respect, well suited to the country: the lambswool turban preserved my head from the vertical sun; and by enveloping myself in the ample folds of the chlamyde, and covering my head with the capuchin on the approach of evening, I was protected from the nightly dews so pregnant with ills to the frame of man... The usual dress of a Circassian warrior of all classes is a tunic resembling a military Polonaise, without a collar, closely fitted to the body, and descending to the knee, secured around the middle by a leather girdle, ornamented, according to the wealth or fancy of the wearer, with gold or silver, in which are stuck a pair of pistols and a poniard: the latter is a most formidable weapon in close combat; during an attack they hold it in the left hand, and from its breadth and length, reaching to the elbow, it serves every purpose of a shield. In addition to this, the Circassian is armed with a light gun, slung across the shoulder, and a sabre suspended by a silk cord in the Turkish fashion; attached to the belt is a powder flask, and a small metal box containing flints, steel, gun-screws, oil, and, not infrequently, a small hatchet. Hence, a Circassian, whether on foot, or on horseback, is at all times completely armed. Sometimes he carries a javelin, which he uses with singular dexterity and effect, hurling it to a considerable distance with an aim that never errs. The latter weapon is also used as a rest for the rifle, having a groove at the top expressly for that purpose. Bows and arrows are now very rarely used, except in cases where it is necessary to arm the whole population.
On either side of the breast of the coat are the patron pockets, made of morocco leather, usually containing twenty-four rounds of ball cartridge: these not only add to the military appearance of the soldier, but in some measure protect the breast, and are extremely convenient: a round fur cap, with a crown the same colour as the ammunition pocket, is the covering for the head; and cloth trousers, in the eastern fashion, complete the costume. Princes and nobles are alone entitled to the privilege of wearing red; and the Circassian, like the natives of most other eastern countries, shave the head, and are never seen barefoot. When marching, or on a journey, they always add a cloak made from camel or goat's-hair, with a hood which completely envelopes the whole person – this is called a tchaouka [щIакIуэ] – and no Mackintosh was ever more impenetrable to the rain; rolled up in its thick folds, it forms the only bed during their encampments, and serves, besides, to protect them against the scorching rays of the sun... On entering the strangers’ apartment, to which the, prince had the courtesy to conduct me himself, his squire, according to the general custom of this people, divested me of the whole of my weapons, and hung them up on the walls of the room with those of his master, except the poniard, which a Circassian never parts with, being considered a part of his costume. How like the warriors of ancient Greece!
And now with friendly force his band he grasped, Then led him in within his palace halls; His coat of mail, and glittering helm unclasped, And hung the splendid armour on the walls; For there, Ulysses’ arms, neglected, dim, Are left, nor more the conqueror’s crown will win.
The Cossacks adopted their male costume, arms and dances from the North Caucasians, especially the Circassians. In his book Russia: A Social History (1931) D. S. Mirsky (Prince Dmitry Petrovich Svyatopolk-Mirsky) observes that ‘not the least curious feature of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus was that it
led to the adoption of a number of Caucasian, mainly Qabardi [Kabardian], cultural traits—dress, arms and dances—by the Russian Cossacks and Georgians.’ Terek and Cossack regiments donned Circassian costumes. It was also used in the Russian army, especially in the black Sea and Line Armies, and later a variant was used in the Soviet cavalry. Cossacks also followed Circassian cap styles. The shapes of their papakhas, or tall hats, reflected the fashion of the mountaineers. There appeared types of caps such as the kabardinka, broadening to the top, and the kubanka, with a flat crown. In addition, the Cossacks were influenced by the Circassian dignified customs and style of life, which in many respects were superior to their Russian counterparts. According to Paul Henze (1992, p72), ‘Cossacks... intermingled with both Circassians and Nogay Tatars, adopting to a large extent their customs and style of life, which was in many respects of a higher quality than the Russians had attained at the time.’ It is quite ironic that the costumes and dances of the Circassians had come to be more readily associated with the late adopters than with the originators — to the victor, all the spoils, including fortune and fame. Even the elegant Georgians were not immune from Circassian influences. The celebrated Georgian State Dance Company had adopted Circassian dress styles and choreography in its colourful repertoire.
Circassian costumes of the Adigean State Academic Folk Dance Ensemble ‘Nalmes’
in full blaze and glory. Established in 1936, ‘Nalmes’ sees itself as ‘the collector, guardian, and interpreter of Adigean folk music and dancing’.
Circassian Female Costume The elegance and beauty of Circassian women were boosted by exquisite costumes and magnificent ornaments. The outer coat, which could be either long or short, was made from a variety of fabrics and it was lined and generally wadded. A non-wadded version was called ‘tsey’ (цей). The bghe’wlh (бгъэIулъ) (or sch’i’w [щIыIу]) consists of a false shirtfront of velvet or silk with (up to) 12 silver or gilt pairs of plate-like buckles, which when seen from a distance impart a beautiful lustre, and other ornaments. The dress has velvet sleeve pendants, embroidered in gold and silver threads. Flaps adorned with embroidery and fringes were used for effect. A loose light silk or cotton chemise with long and wide sleeves extended almost to the floor covering the footwear. This gives the impression that Circassian women glide along the floor when they dance in full costume. The upper classes wore coats made from various kinds of furs and covered with brocade, silver or cotton fabric. It was trimmed with fur strips about 9cm wide. However, it was considered unseemly for girls and young women to be seen wearing them, even in freezing weather. Commoners and the poor had to make do with sheepskin coats. ‘ЩIыIу’ or ‘бгъэIулъ’ (‘sch’i’w’, ‘bghe’wlh’; ‘БгъэкIыIу’ or ‘кIыIу’ in Adigean) is part of a Circassian woman’s national costume. It consists of a false shirtfront of velvet or silk with (up to) 12 silver or gilt pairs of plate-like buckles, which when seen from a distance impart a beautiful lustre, and other ornaments. Women and girls wore wide trousers made from striped fabrics, but the chemise wholly covered them. The underwear was made of silk with folded sleeves that narrow at the top. The waist was girdled with red-morocco or leather belts, which were adorned with gold, silver, strings, balls, and silv