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Embroidery has been at the heart of Russian court, domestic and
ecclesiastic traditions for centuries.
In most large towns, prior to the 16th century, monasteries and convents were centres of weaving and embroidery, working in the
Byzantine tradition. Even icon painters were involved in producing
printed cottons of the kind that often line kokoshniki (see lot 260)
Designs were drawn from various traditions, including the middle east, Turkey, Persia and Italy.
By the 17th century, embroidery was not only used for ecclesiastical
vestments but had become an integral part of the Russian noblewoman's
wardrobe. Indeed, noble households began to have needlework studios
which produced magnificent hangings and embroideries for the Church.
Domestically, gold, sequins, pearls and silks were used as borders and trimmings, and were continued to be used into the 20th century. It was in the 17th century that the kokoshnik became important as a symbol of a married woman's status, her origins and her wealth. With a plentiful supply of fresh water pearls and the availability to the well-to-do of Oriental pearls and silks, kokoshniki became the showcase for
needlework skills of the highest order. Embroideries became so valuable and precious that they began to figure in wills and testaments and were handed down from mother to daughter.
With the edict from Peter the Great in the 17th century that the court should wear European style dress, that is to say a hooped skirt and low cut bodice for the ladies and a suit consisting of a long coat (kaftan), breeches and waistcoat for the gentlemen (see lot 262), a division between national and court dress was established. National
costume was worn by bourgeois wives, merchants' wives and the
well-heeled in the shape of the kokoshnik, the sarafan and a festive scarf for formal occasions. These garments not only showed the wealth of the wearer, they also showed her regional roots as each area had its own characteristic patterns and traditions.
This rich vocabulary is recorded in the many portraits of both noble
and bourgeois women in their national dress. To the contemporary
viewer, the dress spoke volumes. The crescent-shaped kokoshnik told
the viewer that the sitter came from Central Russia (see lot 262) the
velvet conical pill box headdress told of Moscow Province (lot 255) and ladies of Tver Province in unfeasibly frilly and festooned caps were
unmistakeable. This collection of scarves, sarafan and kokoshniki can
therefore take the modern connoisseur straight back into history.