In her Eurovision performance, Russian singer Manizha (of Tajik origin) wore a dress richly decorated with traditional Tajik chakan embroidery. This embroidery can be traced back to early medieval ornamentation of the fifth-seventh centuries.
Guzel Maitdinova, Doctor of Historical Sciences, is a Professor of the Department of Foreign Regional Studies and Foreign Policy of the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University (RTSU) and Director of the Center for Geopolitical Studies of the RTSU.
In this interview, Professor Guzel Maitdinova reveals in detail the origin of the beautiful Tajik dress. The colorful dresses—made of materials ranging from Pamiri wool to zandanechi silk—can tell us about the lives and beliefs of the ancient people who lived in the vast lands of Tokharistan.
Your first work was dedicated to Tokharistani costume (Costume of Early Medieval Tokharistan: History and Connections, 1992). It was followed by a two-volume monograph (History of Tajik Costume, 2 volumes, 2004). How did you develop this interest in the history of clothing?
Back in the 1970s, when I was graduating from Samarkand State University, I wrote a final thesis on the history of the material culture of pastoralist tribes of the Bronze Age. One chapter of the thesis was dedicated to the reconstruction of clothing based on materials from burial complexes. I was passionate about the topic, and upon graduation from the university, I decided to continue research on the history of costume, especially since at that time there was no integral monographic study. Fundamental studies of the general history of costume did not even mention Central Asian clothing. Meanwhile, intensive archaeological work in the region in the second half of the twentieth century had discovered material and pictorial sources that shed light on the history of the costume of Central Asia. These included the famous Afrasiab painting of the seventh century, the picturesque masterpieces of Penjikent and Balalyk-tepe, and the coroplastics of Sogd.
In the early 1980s, the Cultural Foundation of the USSR invited Alla Konstantinovna Yelkina and me to participate in a project restoring Kurgan clothes of the fourth and fifth centuries at the settlement in Old Termez. These were the first finds of well-preserved authentic cotton garments from such an ancient period, which were found to be very similar to the dresses from the paintings. At that time, many researchers were skeptical about pictorial sources, believing that painting was characterized by elements that were alien to the local culture and that these sources “are not photography nor they are documentary.” Comparative analysis of archaeological originals and Central Asian historical fine art has proved the authenticity of the costume. Among the archaeological finds, we find similar adornments to the ones portrayed in the painting of Afrasiab and Penjikent and in coroplastics.
My monograph The Costume of Early Medieval Tokharistan: History and Connections was the first comprehensive study to analyze the entire costume: construction and design, jewelry, headgear, shoes, hairstyles, cosmetics
My monograph The Costume of Early Medieval Tokharistan: History and Connections was the first comprehensive study to analyze the entire costume: construction and design, jewelry, headgear, shoes, hairstyles, cosmetics. I used archaeological materials, pictorial sources, and written data, along with the original clothes of the early Middle Ages found in Central Asia.
As part of material culture, the costume reflects history, social relations, cultural preferences, religious beliefs, and aesthetic norms. Let’s talk about how Tajik men and women’s dress reflected the three most important aspects: culture, history, and society.
The history of Central Asian dress is long. Dress in the pre-Islamic period was different from the clothing that formed under the influence of Islamic culture. Yet even Islamic dress contained some archaic elements associated with the distant past. Local traditions, ethnic history, and the interaction of various civilizations all matter. The territory inhabited by Tajiks is divided into several isolated areas, each of which has different archaic traditions passed down from generation to generation in almost their original form. The dress reveals the wearer’s clan, tribe, and other local identity in every particular: the form of the headdress, the way of wearing it, the color of clothing, and decorative details.
For example, the Bactrian fashion of the Achaemenid period was adapted from the Persians’ ankle-length, pleated dresses with pleated or bell-shaped sleeves, but with the arrival of the Greeks in Central Asia, local fashion returned to its old traditions, borrowing only external stylistic features from the newcomers, in particular a fashionable silhouette—with the help of belts under the chest, like the girdles of the Greek chitons—and the wearing of capes.
The next stage of influence was the powerful impact of the nomads in the Kushan period. There was critical assimilation, refraction, and adaptation to the tastes of the new dominant stratum: nomads who carried different ideas about beauty.
In Sogd and in Xinjiang (Turfan), the bodices of dresses are decorated with or made entirely of zandanechi silk (its name comes from the Zandanii area, near Bukhara, where such polychrome silks patterned with large dots were produced). In Penjikent painting, women in similar clothing wear headgear with a sharp top, like the Chinese “putou.” These can be traced to the monuments of the Bronze Age. This shows how the local, ethnic, and cultural ties of the peoples of the region are intertwined.
There was a symbiosis of the clothing of sedentary tribes and pastoralists. For example, the ritual funeral clothing of Tajiks contains elements of antiquity: a tunic-like cut of shirts with side inserts and sleeves narrowed to the wrist, pointed hats (lachak), and cloth stockings cut as in antiquity. These garments are similar to the archaic garments of the Bronze Age. The turban-shaped headdresses of the Samarkand, Nurata, and Pamir Tajik women have roots in the clothing of the settled agricultural population at the beginning of our era.
Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, Tajik dress looked a lot like an ancient dress. It maintained the same outfit: outerwear (such as a caftan, or robe), a tunic-like shirt, trousers with an insert, and a pointed headdress or tight-fitting cap with a rounded top, which were common among many Eurasian peoples. This costume was characteristic of the population of a wide area already in the 2nd millennium BC, and likely formed in the previous period.
This look appeared in its entirety for the first time in the clothes from Zagunluk and Subeshi (Xinjiang, China) 4,000 years ago, although tunic-like shirts were found even in the materials of the more ancient Konchi-darya. Archaeological materials record the ancient Iranian garment kandiz (a cape with false sleeves) as part of an ensemble of clothing from Subeshi and Zagunluk in the second millennium BC. Since the seventeenth century, kandiz has been supplemented with a hair net and is worn over the head (paranji).
Can you tell us about the symbols that decorate these dresses?
One of the most ancient symbols reflected in the Tajik costume is the image of the world tree. It is displayed as ray-shaped stripes made of semiprecious stones sewn on women’s clothing from Sarazm (third-second millennium BC). These stripes conveyed the idea of fertility and the world tree. The symbol of the “tree” can be traced to the Kushan costume of the first century (crown from the Tillatepa necropolis). Traces of embroidery of six “trees of life” can be seen on clothes from the Ittifok burial ground in South Tajikistan (third century).
In Tokharistani, Sogdian, and Fergana textile art, it gets a different interpretation, as a more complex cosmogram. Solar symbols—as integral attributes of the “tree of life”—appear in the clothing of the peoples of Central Asia and decorate headdresses and jewelry in the paintings of Afrasiab and Penjikent (winged crowns and mother-of-pearl, rosette-shaped earrings).
Here is an interesting story. The remains of embroidery of the second-third century from the Ittifok burial ground of the Farkhor district of the Khatlon region, upon discovery, were a puffy bundle of grayish fragments of cotton fabrics. A skillful restorer, Alla Yelkina, was able to separate one layer from another and reveal about a dozen fragments the size of a palm and smaller. It was a “tree of life” in its classic form, embroidered with brass wire and purple silk. In the upper part of the “tree,” birds were embroidered on both sides. The composition was crowned with three clouds. The sewing that fills the flowers and leaves inside was done in an unknown technique: the purple thread followed exactly the course of the weft thread. Perhaps embroidery adorned the hem of the garment and the edges of the head cover. Yelkina was able to trace a similar embroidery technique on cotton fabric in the materials of the Jetyasar burial ground in the north of the region, which indicates the prevalence of such decoration in Central Asia.
Embroidery traditions were widespread throughout Central Asia, but there were local ornamental and color features. The motives of the famous early medieval zandanechi silks can be seen in the embroideries of the population of southern Tajikistan, Khojent, Samarkand, Bukhara, etc.
It is known that, for example, in the nineteenth century, ordinary men girded their robes with cloth belt-scarves, while the wealthy had velvet or leather belts richly decorated with gold, silver, and precious stones (kamarband belts). Interestingly, women wore a cloth belt (futa) in mourning attire. This long blue or white belt was worn in Central Zeravshan, for example. What was the role of this belt? Why did women wear it specifically for mourning?
The belt was endowed with sacred power—giving strength to a person. Currently, in the traditional funeral ritual among northern Tajiks, it is a sign of mourning, a tribute to the deceased. They first appeared at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. To mourn an elderly person, men would wear a white, black, or dark blue belt. To mourn a young person, they would wear a dark blue, dark gray, or purple belt or scarf made from ikat (abr) fabric. For the first three days after death, women could also gird themselves with men’s scarves. In Darvaz and Karategin, the mother of the deceased tore her dress from top to bottom and women girded with men’s scarves. Even now, northern Tajik women in the first three days after the death of a loved one or in the first week of mourning, as well as during the commemoration, are girded with scarves.
Travelers visiting Central Asia left descriptions of the appearance and clothing of the peoples of the region. For example, in the thirteenth century, Marco Polo wrote of the highlanders of Shugnan and Badakhshan that they dress in animal skins and that both men and women wear wide paper-cloth pants (Book of Marco Polo, 1955). In the nineteenth century, Count Aleksey Bobrinsky described the front veils (ruband) of Pamir brides in his work. Tell us about the clothes of the Pamir Tajiks in a period closer to ours. Do the wide pants, furs, and face veil still exist? Who wore them and what was their utilitarian/symbolic purpose?
Among the Pamir population, men were usually engaged in weaving, but women made yarn. The Pamirians produced thick and thin wool mixed with silk for clothing. Loincloths—straight trousers with an insert—have been found in the archaeological sites of Central Asia since the third millennium BC.
As a rule, the length of men’s and women’s pants is relatively standard – about five, sometimes even six, quarters (the distance from thumb to little finger with spread fingers); depending on the height of the person, the width is about 3-4 quarters. They are wide enough. Previously, in the Pamirs, loincloths were more often sewn from woolen fabrics and less often from cotton textiles. It depended on the availability of raw materials. Back in the 1920s, in mountainous Tajikistan, ordinary people were forbidden to wear silk, adras, and other semi-silk clothes (it was only possible to use silk textiles in children’s clothes). In Karategin and Darvaza, the bride’s face was sometimes covered with a special embroidered front veil (ruband), which had a purely ceremonial nature. The purpose of such embroidered scarves was to protect the bride from the “evil eye” and to bring happiness to the newlywed.
Could you comment on the Tajik costume elements of the singer Manizha, whose performance on the Eurovision stage was one of the brightest, not only because of the singer’s vocal skills, but also because of her colorful and exquisite outfits?
Manizha’s costume was decorated with traditional Tajik chakan embroidery with large rosettes. These rosettes date back to early medieval ornamentation (fifth-seventh centuries), to Sogdian and Tokharistani polychrome silks ornamented with large dots. Manizha also wore an embroidered robe without lapels, similar to those seen in Central Asian monuments that date back to the second millennium B.C. This robe is still used in traditional female and male Tajik costumes to this day.
 Tokharistan (formed from “Tokhara” and the suffix “-stan,” meaning “place of” in Persian) is the Early Middle Ages name given to the area known in Ancient Greek sources as Bactria.
All illustrations from the book Guzel Maitdinova,”History of Tajik Costume”, 2004 (https://rusneb.ru/catalog/000199_000009_002670739/)