Saturday, March 31, 2012

The "Golden Horde" Costume

Last summer, I started writing a blog post about an article in Issue No. 52 of the Archaeological Textiles Newsletter that consists of a detailed discussion of a 13th century clothing find in Central Asia.  Because the article is so interesting, I decided to complete that post and share it with my readers. So here it is.

The article in question has nifty color photographs of the actual brocade fragments found in the grave, and discusses in detail a much more complex costume than the Gnezdovo costume I recently wrote about. The article in question is about a Central Asian woman of approximately the 13th century CE, which the authors refer to as the "Golden Horde" period; the full citation reads:
Orfinskaya, Olga and Lantratova, Olga. Female Costume of the Golden Horde Period from Burial 93 of the Maiachnyi Bugor I Cemetery in the Astrakhan Region of Russia. Archaeological Textiles Newsletter, No. 52, pp. 48-63 (Spring 2011).
The red "corset"

I have reproduced a few of the line drawings from the article here, to give the reader a better idea of the complexity of the costume.  The woman wearing it was clearly buried during the winter, as her costume features four layers of underwear and three layers of gowns, some of which were padded.  The sketches showing the three gown layers appear below and to the right.
Reconstruction sketches of Gowns
(from top to bottom, Gowns 1, 2, and 3)

The very first clothing layer, worn next to the woman's skin, consisted of a loose pair of knee-length silk underpants and an odd red silk garment that the writers say looked like a "corset".  They describe this garment as being made in layers, with a "warmth-keeping lining made of plant fibre and fragments of underlining of cotton fabric" as well as having "parts of sewn-on leather appliqué details ... found on the inside of the garment."  (p. 48)  The sketch to the left from the article shows its reconstructed shape.

To be fair, the authors admit that the function of this garment is not clear:  "The width, shape and multilayer structure of the article enable us to surmise that it is either a maternity belt or corset for a very plump woman helping to distribute pressure at the waist evenly."  (p. 48)  However, the fact that the garment does not seem to have been boned and closed with only three ties indicates that it did not constrain the torso much.  To me, that suggests that it was designed more to keep the belly warm than anything else.

The authors are quite serious about the woman being very large.  The height, top to bottom of the garment, based on the remains of it, is given as 70 cm (about 27 inches) and the width of this "corset" is given as 290 cm (about 114 inches).  She also wore a pair of trousers, the maximum width of which was 160 cm (about 62 inches) at the hips. Although trousers may be very wide even if the wearer is not, the fact that both the corset-like garment and the trousers are extremely wide argues in favor of her being of substantial size.

In addition to the corset-like garment and the trousers, the woman wore three silk blouses underneath her three gowns sketched above. Most of these survived only in a fragmentary condition, but one of the gowns had sleeves that ended in cuffs. 

The three gowns were made from different brocades and used contrasting brocades as trim. The gown worn directly on top of all the underwear ("Gown 1", the calf-length gown shown above) was of a red silk brocaded in gold and was trimmed with a brown silk, also gold brocaded.  The long gown, worn directly above it ("Gown 2"), was of a brown silk brocaded in gold and was trimmed with a brown silk with gold brocade and a red-brown silk with gold brocade.  The short, jacket-like gown worn on top ("Gown 3") was also of a brown silk brocaded with gold.

It's noteworthy that the different brocaded fabrics show up on portions of different garments.  For example, the brown brocade that was the main fabric for Gown 2 was also used as trim for Gown 3, and the main brocade used for Gown 3 was used as trimming on the innermost gown, Gown 1.  Gown 1 and Gown 3 were lined with cotton taffeta and also had a filling of cotton (cotton wool, in the case the outermost gown, Gown 3).

In addition, the woman lay on a mattress covered with silk brocade and wore a close-fitting, "balaclava-shaped" cap which covered her head and neck, and a headdress made of black silk gauze, neither of which are pictured in the article.

These details suggest three things to me.  First, that the woman was buried in the winter, since she is dressed for cold weather.  Second, that she was wealthy, because all of her clothing layers (as well as the mattress she was buried upon) were brocaded in gold.  Third, even the wealthy did not waste or casually use gold brocaded silk, because the same brocade appears in different garments.

The article is too long and detailed to give more of the details here, and I am reluctant to reproduce all of the photographs here.  I commend the article to your attention, however.  Even if you cannot afford to purchase this issue of ATN now, eventually it will be available to download free from the ATN website. 


  1. you know, I keep looking at that red undergarment and can't help but think it would give some moderate bust support, like a tankini or camisole with a shelf bra. Over in China at the same time there was a type of bust support that was halter over the neck and tied behind the back.
    (I'm busty myself and always looking for bust support in pre-modern times when thinking of a costume)

  2. Hi! Welcome to my blog.

    I have an easier idea with your idea that the red garment provided some bust support than I do with the idea that the garment performed any of the functions associated with corsets. To be fair, the authors of the ATN article suggest in the alternative that the "corset" might have functioned to make other garments rest better over the body. But in light of the obvious concern with warmth (the multiple layers of clothing, at least two of which had added insulation), I think that additional warmth was the major concern--particularly if the woman was pregnant.