Headdresses from the collection of the Russian Museum of Ethnography

The feather in your cap

The feather in your cap

(Headdresses from the collection of the Russian Museum of Ethnography)


The exhibition presents a unique collection of headdresses, belonged to the peoples of Eastern Europe, Far North, the Volga region, Siberia, Central Asia and the Caucasus, and dated from the middle of the 17th - 20th centuries.           

If we ask a specialist in history of costume which of the details of traditional clothes contains the maximum volume of information about a certain individual, it can be taken for granted that the latter will name a headdress. Up to the middle of the 20th century, which brought a new type of civilization based on annihilation of boundaries, ethnic and cultural distinctions, every headdress was a source of information about ethnic background, occupation and social status of its possessor. In traditional societies the social position of every individual in a greater degree depended on his/her sex and age. Therefore, it was the principle of sex and age stratification that formed the basic of the concept of the exhibition “The feather in your cap” from the collection of the Russian Museum of Ethnography. The exhibition includes the following sections: “Children’s headdresses», “Headdresses of unmarried girls”, “Wedding headdresses”, “Headdresses of married women”, and “Male headdresses”. The only exception to the rule is the section “Ritual headdresses”.

Place of honor belongs to the section “Children’s headdresses”. One can easily trace in these headgears their physiological, magic-protective and aesthetic functions. Notions of special vulnerability of a child to evil forces and the necessity to protect him, especially in the first months and years of his life, manifested in the very structure of these headdresses, which have common features among many peoples, no matter their real ethnic distance. For example, the most accented part of a headgear among almost all the peoples is the detail covering the fontanel, which is considered the most vulnerable place of infant’s body. It is also worthy of note that among many peoples the headdresses of boys and girls under the age of 6-8 are quite identical.

 The next section “Headdresses of unmarried girls” introduces a visitor to the fascinating world of headdresses, worn by girls and young childless women.  Among many peoples the distinctive feature of maiden headdresses was that they left the hair uncovered in contrast to headgears of married women. In a great degree this feature determined their form and construction. The main types of such headgears wide spread among Slavs, Baltic peoples, Finno-Ugrians of the Volga region, and some peoples of Siberia were fillets and forehead bands. The uncovered top of the head was a symbolic sign of maiden state. Among the Turkic peoples of the Volga region, and also of the peoples of Crimea, Central Asia and the Caucasus (except Daghestan) various soft or tough caps were widely used. In ornamentation of the cap special accent was on its top, which was decorated with bundle of feathers (Turkmen), string of beads (Chuvashes), small plumages (Kirghiz, Kazakhs) or long braids with  tassels.

The section “Wedding headdresses” invokes no lesser interest. A bridal headdress as well as a wedding costume as a whole symbolized the flowering of a young girl’s beauty, and her complete readiness for marriage and child-bearing. During the wedding both headdress and hairstyle were changed. The maiden headdress was replaced by the married woman’s one, which covered the hair of the girl that reflected traditional ideas of changing the social status of newly-wed. . In the same section one can see saukele – a headdress of Karakalpakian bride decorated with a great number of silver details and coral pendants, a headband of Ukrainian newly-wed made of many-colored feathers, Kabardinian “golden” caps, Russian pearl forehead bands and kokoshniks. Different nuances of red, golden and silver colors typical of wedding headdresses create inimitable effect of brightness, corresponding to general festive and cheerful atmosphere of wedding ceremonies.

Headdresses of married women displayed in the next section are also varied greatly in shape and color spectrum but unlike maiden’s ones they entirely covered woman’s hair. The significance of the head covering may be related to ancient beliefs shared by many cultures about a dangerous magic power of woman’s hair in the period when she becomes a mother and protector of the home. Not without reason that in folklore of many peoples the untidy hair is regarded as indispensable attribute of mermaids and witches.

As for men's headdresses, represented in the following section, they did not have such a marked age differentiation, but unlike young men, old men’s headdresses were usually darker and had not so many ornaments. As a rule, male hats were made of felt. Festive headdresses were decorated with ribbons and feathers or with fringe and colored buttons. Special headdresses were worn by hunters and warriors: the exhibition represents an Aleutian hat made of wood and whale bone, which was used to protect a hunter from sun specks and water drops during sea-hunting and Iranian helmet, a real masterpiece of art produced by the gunsmiths of the 17th century.

A special place at the exhibition has a section “Ritual headdresses” where a hajji’s turban and yellow cap of lama are placed near a headdress of the Tuvinian shaman. The importance of headdress as a marker of the adept of a certain religion manifests itself in the names of the latter. For instance, adepts of Lamaism, the northern branch of Buddhism, are known as “yellow caps” according to the color of their headdresses. Ritual headdresses are often considered as receptacle of magic powers, which allow their possessors to fulfil their duties. For example, headdresses of Evenk and Tuvinian shamans shown at the exhibition include the elements connected with their helper spirits.

Variety of forms and high skill of headgears craftsmen captures the imagination.  Kokoshniks, veils, hats, caps and turbans decorated with beads, woolen, golden, silk and cotton threads, pendants of coins, corals and cowry shells, pearls, semiprecious stones – almost each of these items became an ethnic symbol of the people, to whom it belonged.