The Costumes of Armenian Women
By "Hai Guin" Society of Tehran
Among the earliest cultural values of the Armenians was the high status of women both as productive members of the economy and as homemakers.
Formal authority rested with the men, but women developed what has been aptly described as "rule by silence." Constant struggle with outside forces who sought Armenia as a prize of conquest led to strong family bonds and the need for the most effective possible participation of women in sustaining the home:
Armenian society developed a strong tradition of respect for elders and their secure place within the family structure, along with the moral authority of women in the regulation of social and domestic behaviour. It may well be that the Armenian home in all of its social, cultural, and economic nuances has been the largest single factor in the survival of the Armenian people and their repeated cultural resurgence.
Historic Armenia has been an important bridge between the cultures and economies of East and West, while through all the millenia of cross-fertilization of ideas and skills, retaining its own traditions, sustaining a high output of its own creations, and maintaining an indomitable sense of self identity. The pride in being Armenian essential to the preservation of their self identity, is most clearly apparent in the costumes of Armenian women.
Into Armenian clothing went the skilled weaving, spinning, dyeing, cutting, fitting and needlework of Armenian women. The wool taken from the sheep grazing on the mountains, the cotton and linen from the farms in the fertile valleys. Some of the cloth, such as silk, came from China. Examples of Chinese silk, dating from 750 B.C., among the very oldest known, have been found near Van in ancient Armenia. Mulberry trees and silkworm cultivation was introduced later.
During the Arab overlordship of Armenia a major item of annual tribute was 500 lengths of highly prized Armenian striped silk. Leather tanning, the making of boots, sandals, gloves, and other items of clothing was an ancient art, including portable Armenian leather bath-tubs, highly favoured by the Emperors of Byzantium. The furs of various animals found in Armenia were used for mantles and fur trim, including the stoat, whose greatly prized winter fur is ermine, a term which derives from the word Armenia,
for it was an item of trade identified with Armenian merchants offering their wares to the royal courts of Europe. And from the hills and valleys of Armenia came the herbs and animal dyestuffs, most notably an aphis that fed in the autumn on the roots of plants on Mount Ararat, which was the source of the famous Armenian crimson, a distinctive colour traded by merchants far and wide, following from Ararat the same Silk Route to Europe.
The Armenian woman and her attire were one and indivisible. Her clothing was the repository of the crafts, values, and tastes expressed in her society. There was a reciprocal influence between Armenian and other Asian as well as European clothing styles, especially in the movement of basic fashion ideas. Some social conventions in women's attire she developed on her own, some of her neighbouring origin she absorbed voluntarily, and some were the imposition of conquerors. She was expected to be modest and virtuous, her bearing and attire attesting to these qualities. The common characteristic of all Armenian costumes is the expression of modesty within the social ideal of feminine virtue.
Her attire included serious attention to the hair, which was dressed in various styles, but as an obligation allowed to grow to luxuriant length, often braided, sometimes the ends gathered in a heavy wooden comb to keep a pattern of braids in place. To cut the hair meant degradation and no punishment was stronger for a woman than to have 'her braids cut, a sign of immorality. Yet facial make-up and the use of scents were part of every woman's beauty treatment and coquetry, as were the use of jewelry and ornaments.
Through the conventions of each era and each region, her clothing was a style that expressed her own taste, the product in part or wholly of her own hands, and an extension of her sense of beauty, understanding of quality, and respect for tradition. The clothing of the Armenian woman is in a profound way an intimate history of the Armenian people.
Armenian women excelled in embroidery and the making of lace. Whereas in many nations lace and embroidery were luxuries adorning only the dresses of ladies of the court or the otherwise very wealthy, it was in Armenia part of the pride of every girl. Samples of exquisite work in silver belts, gold filagree rings, necklaces and other costume ornamentation and jewelry, are seen on most rural costumes.
From ancient Urartu down through the centuries Armenian women were masterly in the weaving of carpets and cloth, embroidery, crocheting and the making of bone lace. Lace was worn in every sector of the society virtually every day, and ornamented even simple dresses, was part of the national costume, and integral to the "kot" or headdress of Armenian women.
Making lace was part of a girl's education, and often when all else was lost, property and possessions gone, the Armenian woman might thank God she still had her hands. In the thimble and needle of the woman was a skill that endured every change of season and of fortune, enabling her not only to make a living but to re-express in a continuing thread the splendour and beauty of life.
Patterns that were shaped in wood stone, stucco and bone carvings were also expressed in lace. Even patterns that once adorned ancient Urartian shields, etched into the metal, or patterns found in masterworks in silver and gold would be repeated in lace. Thus in lace, many basic designs have been preserved through generations.
Clothing must be designed for various functions and meet a variety of needs. There is the need for protection against the elements. The winters of Armenia are snow-bound and often bitterly cold. In ancient times, for four months of the year, sleds rather than wheeled vehicles were used in the Armenian uplands, while the horses wore large bags on their feet as snow-shoes. Spring and Autumn are temperate and cool, while the summers can be very hot. Thus the clothing must be adaptable to extremes of winter and summer. The more beautiful the dress, even when simple, the more it increased the self confidence of the Armenian woman. The more it exhibited her artistic skill and personal inventions with the needle, the more it asserted her taste and social outlook. It was this assertion of personal taste and social outlook which carried forward through the ages the Armenian traditions of women's attire.
Continuity of tradition was assured through the trousseau. This was an essential part of the dowery of the bride. The girl started on it early, but as the time of her marriage approached, it was usually a joint effort between generations in the same house, and sometimes between relatives and neighbours. Thus, grandmother, mother, and daughter would work on the same trousseau, sometimes calling in the outstanding needlework of a neighbour, an aunt or a cousin. The' bed spreads, pillow cases, towels, table linen, curtains, and wall hangings had to be made. In some areas the dowery might also include carpets woven by the bride. Armenian carpets were held in high repute well beyond the borders of Armenia. But of all the necessary house furnishings and clothing, the masterpiece, of course, would be the bridal dress upon which was lavished the most tender care.
A whole day was normally set aside for everyone to see the trousseau on exhibit. This was the occasion to evaluate the bride. Her beauty, her brains, her laughing eyes might be considered on some other occasion, but on this day she would have to face, for the skill of her needle, the scrutiny of the visitors. She would have to meet or excel very exacting standards while attempting to balance conformity to tradition and natural desire for personal self expression within acceptable bounds.
If the trousseau and the social conventions attached to it assured continuity of clothing styles for the women, the men, on the other hand, were freer in their choice of style of clothing. In areas where Armenians were a minority, it was often necessary for the men to adopt the prevailing style of attire. Thus, the strongly visual Armenian identity in clothing often rested squarely on the woman. Consequently, the attire of Armenian women grew to embrace the strongest values of national identity, becoming the living expression of the homeland and the continuity of Armenian culture
The costumes of Armenian women through the ages depicted on this page were prepared by the "Hai Guin" Society of Tehran, Iran. In preparing these dresses, a careful work of research was accomplished. Documents were studied for the selection of prototypes from every era of Armenian history authenticated by scholars from various parts of the world.