Sunday, March 7, 2021

Armenian costume of the Lake Van region - Vaspurakan and Turuberan, part 1 Women


Hello all, 

Today I would like to talk about Western Armenian costume from around Lake Van. In old Armenia, the area adjoining the western shore of the lake was the province of Turuberan, and the area east of the lake was the province of Vaspurakan. The image above is of the Armenian singer Sirusho, who is wearing a headdress and jewelry from Vaspurakan. [The red lace top is not traditional.] The study of Western Armenian costume is made difficult by the genocide and expulsion of Christians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915. This is sometimes called the "Armenian Genocide", but in fact, Greeks, Assyrians / Chaldeans, Yazidis, and others were also affected. The motto of the time was "Turkey for the Turks!". In practice, other Muslim groups were tolerated, but non-Muslim groups were all targeted. [Even Armenians and Greeks who had converted were mostly left alone.] Besides being a historical tragedy, much cultural material has been lost. 

This article is based on artifacts found in Museums around the world, mostly Russia and Armenia. I have been able to piece together the general costume of this area from these items. We are indebted to travelers who made it a point to collect these items. There are localities within this area which had unique costumes, but I will not address those in this article.

Women's Costume

On top of the undergarments, the first item to be put on are baggy pants, called ghanavuz or tiumban. The lower parts were often made of more ornate material, and the parts which are covered by other garments of plain material. The two legs were joined by a square gusset, and the waist was secured by a drawstring. 

Here are a couple of examples from Bitlis. 

On top of this was put the chemise, shapik. This was often of a red color, red being considered to be a powerful protection. The older chemises had open sleeves and no collar. 

Here is an example from Bitlis, front and back. There is no shoulder seam, the sleeves are sewn in at right angles, and there are gussets and gores set in under the arms to provide fullness. Note the narrow ribbon sewn on top of the seam. This was also often considered to provide protection, especially if it was yellow. 

Another couple of examples. 

The strings may have been to hike up the hem by tying them around the waist, thus making it easier to work. This can  be seen in some old drawings, like this one by Arakel Padrik of a woman from Gavash on the south shore of Lake Van. 

On top of the chemise was worn a kaftan, zpun or anteri, often more than one. This generally had a low cut neckline in front, and was open down the middle and up the sides to the waist. These were made in many colors, using many different materials, common to very expensive. They were usually striped or had some sort of design in the fabric. Gussets were placed under the arms and gores to widen the bottom hem. 

Here is an example from Bitlis. 

Here is another example from the Van area. This kaftan was obviously meant to be worn under another one. This is indicated by the shoulder, upper back and upper sleeves being made from a cheaper material, areas that would not be seen when layered. Also the extra long sleeves which are slit up to the wrist. These would dangle from the cuffs of the kaftan worn over it. I believe that the reason that Armenian women were so fond of these dangling sleeves is that they flutter with the movements of Armenian dances, which are full of arm movements. In Vaspurakan, even the men sometimes had embroidered streamers attached to the cuffs of their dress shirts, for the same reason. 

Here is another example from Bitlis. 

Note that this one has ties connected to the corners of the two front panels, which means that they would often have been tied up towards the back, like wings. If we look again at the drawing of the woman from Gavash by Padrik, it appears that her kaftan is also tied up in this manner. Here is another of his drawings, showing a woman from Van from the back.

Another kaftan, this time from Alur, which the Turks call Alaköy, in the Van region. 

Here again we see signs that this was meant to be worn under another garment. In this case, it was likely worn under a jacket, kotchik. This one was collected in the same location. 

Here is another drawing by Padrik, showing a woman from Van in a fancy jacket. Note that she also has a long fluttery undersleeve. 

When a more dressy effect is desired, a dickey, krtskal or srtanots may be worn over the chemise and either over or under the kaftan. This has a strap which goes around the neck and fastens on top, and may have two straps attached to the bottom corners, which tie around the waist. It may be made of a fancier material, or be embroidered. 

The embroidery in this case is a mix of zigzag stitch, appliqued cord, and brick or bargello stitch. This example shows some of the same motifs that appear on the aprons and head scarves. 

The focal point of this costume, as you can see from Padrik's drawings, is the apron, mezar or gognots. Here is an example of an ensemble from Vaspurakan. Here we can see the chemise, dickey, two kaftans, a necklace, a sash, and an embroidered apron. 

When I first saw images of these aprons, I thought that they must be tapestry woven, but close examination leaves no doubt. Here is a closeup of a half apron with a design close to that shown above. 

And another example.

These two examples seem to be entirely executed in cross stitch. the second with some white beads sewn on top. Other examples also show the use of brick or bargello stitch, as in this example from Turuberan, the area around Moush. 

And a look at the entire ensemble. Here you can see that the upper part of the apron was made of unembroidered red cloth, and was ornamented with sewn on cowries and buttons, some of which have been lost.

These aprons were held in place with long narrow sashes, goai. As is usual for real sashes, they were a minimum of 2 m long, and wrapped around the waist at least twice. This one looks like it broke in the middle. 

A second type of apron was also worn, also called mezar, whether in some localities or for less dressy occasions, or at a later date, i am not certain. This consisted of a length of cloth which was hung around the neck and covered the entire front of the outfit, much like a Russian apron. This example is from Alur [Alak
öy] and is made of flower patterned wool with a cotton lining. There were likely two straps attached to the upper corners which tied under the arms. 

Padrik has a drawing of a woman from Timar village in Vaspurakan. Today the Turks call it Gedikbulak. The word Timar refers to a specific type of fief granted by the Ottoman Sultans. 

I believe that this drawing is of a young married woman. She is fully veiled, and yet wears a great deal of jewelry. You can see the pants, two layers of garments, one red and yellow striped which is either the chemise or an underkaftan, an overkaftan in red trimmed with yellow and green. The undergarment sleeves show at the cuffs, as well as at the hem. She is wearing this type of apron, a fez covered with kerchiefs, and jewelry around her neck, on the forehead over the fez, and on top of the kerchief covering the fez. She is wearing a white kerchief on top of a red one. 

Here is an old photograph of a married woman in this outfit from Vaspurakan. Her chemise is apparently white, with a dark colored quilted kaftan over it, and a floral apron of this type. It clearly is not belted at the waist. She is wearing a minimum of jewelry, and it is clear that she is wearing a fez, a colored kerchief and then a white one on top. 

A similar photo to the one above. Another studio photo, and indeed the woman on the right may be the same woman as in the photo above. 

Another photo of this costume from Van, this time of an unmarried girl. She is not veiled, and wears much jewelry. She still wears the fez, however. The pants are visible, as are two layers of kaftan, note the cuffs, and this style of apron in an elaborate print. Again, the apron is clearly not belted. I am not sure what she is holding in her lap. 

A couple of photos of women working from around Van. In this first image, you can see side views of this apron, especially the woman on the right. The corners of the apron are clearly tied around her body under the arms. Also note the sleeve covers on the forearms to protect the garments. 

And just one more old photo from Van. This time it is of a group of women, four of which are veiled, clearly married. The others wear varying quantities of jewelry. Four of them wear a great deal of jewelry, which must mean that they are of marriagable age. Two of them are seated on either side of their mother?, and are displaying embroidery on their laps which are to become wedding shirts for their prospective husbands. Again they are wearing this outfit, pants, kaftans and the loose hanging apron. 

Here is an ensemble in a Russian Museum with this apron. They have mistakenly dressed the mannequin with a sash on the outside of the apron. 

I wish to address one more type of apron found at least in Turuberan. Here is another drawing from Padrik of a woman from Moush. She is wearing this same outfit. The chemise is indigo, showing at the chest and cuffs, which are buttoned in the modern style. She wears two kaftans, as was common, and a single paneled apron. The apron is resist dyed in indigo, the white design having been drawn onto the cloth with paste, after which the cloth was dyed, and the paste removed to leave a white design on the cloth. This technique was used in many places, from Japan to Germany. 

Compare with this modern Turkish costume from Adiyaman. The same type of apron, and most of the rest of the costume is similar. 

The technique is widespread, and was apparently used by Armenians at least in Moush. 

As in most places, women often went barefoot in the villages. Stockings were made by hand looping - twining wool yarn around a wooden last. This technique was also known in Ukraine and other places. 

By the 19th cent. this technique had generally been replaced by knitting, which was introduced from northern Europe, where it had been used for many centuries. I do not have information as to whether mens' and womens' socks differed. 

These would have been worn inside moccasins made of leather. These would be tied up with cords around the ankle and leg.

Depending on location and circumstances these may be replaced by cloth or leather shoes.
These would have depended on financial circumstances as well as availability of materials. I believe that these images of mens' footwear, but they give you an idea. 

Here are a couple of stills from an old video of a Vaspurakan dance troup. The men are wearing moccasins with corded tops, and the women slippers with cloth uppers. I am not sure how old this is, or how traditional the footwear. 

Traditional Armenian headdresses for women were very complicated, as is the case for all traditional attire. They were composed of multiple pieces, tied and fitted on top and around one another, not, as is the case today, made of one piece which is simply placed on the head. There are also many variants.

I will present some of the pieces, but I do not really understand all the details. 

A cap is the foundation of many versions. It may be highly ornamented in itself. This type is called arakhchi. This example is from Machkon near Bitlis. 

Sometimes the cap, glkhark,  is plain and has ornament added to it, as in this example from 
Shatakh, where the front is covered with velvet and then has metal ornaments sewn on. 

In Moks, the front of the cap, here called glkhadzhard, is heavily sewn with beads and other ornaments. 

These caps above are meant for married women, as only the fronts are ornamented, because they wrap or pin a scarf or veil over the back. Another ornament used by unmarried girls is the tasak, a metal plate with dangling ornaments all around which fits onto the top of the cap, fas, [from fez] which is worn without a veil. Here is an example from Bitlis.

These are often made of precious metals, and could be very costly.  Here is an example from Vanakh, between Bitlis and Zgerd.

Here is one from Van.

Here is an extraordinary example. It appears that a girl could not afford to buy a tasak, and so made her own from materials that she had access to. 

A woman's headdress may be based on a plain fez, or even a hoop of wood or bark which was covered with cloth. 

In this case, a wrap would be used to cover it. A. Here is an example of a wrap that would be tied around the cap. The metal ornaments would hang over the forehead and the beads would frame the face. 

A silk scarf might be rolled and wrapped around the cap over the metal ornaments. Other accessories might be added or not depending on the occasion. A small veil would be tied or pinned on over the various pieces. Here is an example based on a wooden hoop, with no cap. This type of headpiece is called katyk, and this example is from Shatakh. 

The wide wooden hoop was covered with fabric, then had metal ornaments sewn on. The short veil that covers the back of the head has a fringe of glass beads sewn onto it. There are many other possibilites. Temple pieces might be hung from the sides of the cap, like these from Van.

Many other pieces of jewelry were worn, rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and items that English has no word for, diadems hanging from the top of the cap over the forehead, braid pendants, ornaments that hook on either side of the chest, chains that pin or hook to the back of the veil, etc. I do not have the time or knowledge to go into them all. 

When all the ornaments that she chose to wear that day were in place, the woman would then attach the underveil. This would hang from the top of the cap or hoop and cover the back of the head. 

Here is an example from Alur. The yellow gallon is on the underside and is meant to shape it. 

Some of these were embroidered, here are a couple of older examples. The first two from Mokyus, and the third from Shatakh. 

In Van, these kerchiefs, glkhashor, were embroidered on the corner which hung down. A fringe of beads and tassels was also added. Here are some examples. 

This last item is unidentified in the text, but the embroidery is similar. This next item is an embroidered corner of a boy's neck kerchief. In both cases the embroidery is very similar. 

When going out, a veil, or another kerchief, or more than one, would be worn on top of the headdress, in some cases it would be wrapped around the neck, or even over the mouth, as we saw in the old photos above. 

One piece of jewelry which I have not yet mentioned is the shamshik. These hang on either side of the breast, pending from the collar area. They consist of a number of dove shaped figures in metal, with various ornaments hanging from them. Here is a pair from Van. 

Here we see a dickey with shamshik attached. This one would clearly have been worn on the outside of the kaftans

Here is a drawing of a woman from Moks wearing shamshik. Compare the ornamentation on the cap with the ones above. The costume is otherwise very similar to the Van costume except for the lack of an apron. 

I would like to examine the aprons of the town of Bitlis. They are a single panel in two parts, [top and bottom] as are the old embroidered aprons of Van, but the embroidery is significantly different. Here is an ensemble from a Russian Museum. 

The red chemise is visible, a striped kaftan has the front panels pulled back and tied, showing the dark lining. She is wearing a srtanots on the outside of the kaftan, several kerchiefs tied around a hoop on her head, and the distinctive Bitlis apron. 

Here are a couple of these aprons from the collection. 

And one more, with minimal ornament.

Just a couple of old photographs from Bitlis. With embroidered apron, of a somewhat different style, it seems that each apron was expected to be different. The woman on the right is wearing two garments with sleeves, rolled up. The woman on the left has oversleeves to protect her kaftan, and both are wearing srtanots on top of their kaftans. 

These women are wearing plain aprons of the same cut, both are wearing plain white srtanots, and the girl on the right is wearing a fez with tasak.  

And one more image of what must be this costume. 

Back to the general outfit, here are some ensembles in the collection of the Museum in Yerevan. 

Vaspurakan. In each of these displays we see a necklace, embroidered srtanots under a kaftan, and an embroidered apron tied with a narrow sash.

And some from Turuberan. 

Here we see an embroidered srtanots, worn under a kaftan, shamshik hanging from the front of the kaftan, long pointed sleeves on the chemise hanging out of the kaftan sleeves, and embroidered apron tied on with a narrow sash. 

Here we see essentially the same outfit, but without the shamshik and with a different apron. [and the srtanots turned upside down]

Here we see a long sleeved red chemise, striped kaftan, srtanots, embroidered apron and inkle woven sash. 

And a photograph, also from Moush. A beautifully patterned kaftan in ikat, embroidered apron and srtanots, inkle woven sash and highly ornamented headdress. 

And one last drawing from Padrik of this costume. This is an unmarried girl in a fancy fas from Van.

An old photo of women working at preparing for a wedding in Van. The aprons are visible, but not well. The other parts of the everyday costume can be seen. Note the various materials used for the kaftans. The woman seated in the center has an impressively embroidered srtanots. 

I like to encourage people to make things based on traditional pieces. To that end I here include as many good images of these aprons as I can. These are embroidered on somewhat coarse even weave black cloth, usually in two panels, top and bottom, in cross stitch, brick or bargello stitch, and maybe a couple of others. It would be fantastic to start seeing Armenians making aprons like these and using them for dance. Do not copy exactly, but use the different elements within the traditional format, and have something unique. Most of these images can be enlarged if you click on them. 

This completes my article. I will close with some relatively successful modern replicas of Vaspurakan costume. They are simplified, and many use plain colored cloth, some of which is obviously polyester. Some use motifs in inappropriate places, like cross stitch designs on the fas. The cloth should have patterns, stripes, etc. Plain brown would never have been chosen. The embroidery on the aprons, srtanots and kerchiefs is not bad, however. Comparing these to the originals, the difference is obvious. 

The bare arm here is incorrect. There should be another sleeve underneath. 

The srtanots here has been sewn onto the garment, this would never have been done. 

Thank you for reading, I hope that you have found this to be interesting and informative. I hope that this is of some help to those who wish to accurately represent Armenian culture. 

Roman K


Source Material:

Nazik Avagyan et al, 'Armenian Costume 18th - 19th centuries', Yerevan, 2014

L.S. Gushchan et al, Treasures of Western Armenia', St. Petersburg, 2015

Arakel Patrik, 'Armenian National Costume from Ancient times to Our Days', Yerevan, 1967

Julia Mutlu, 'Traditional Armenian Costumes', Istanbul, 2011

Tatyana Razina et al, 'Folk Art in the Soviet Union', Leningrad, 1990

Mehmet Oezel, 'Turkish Folkloric Costumes', Ankara, 1992

O. O. Hasiuk et al, 'Khudozhne Vyshyvannia', Kyjiw, 1986


  1. The ladies must have positively shimmered, what with the fluttering sleeves and the chains and dangles! And I am most grateful for the many clear closeup pictures - very inspiring. Thank you for another excellent post. Charlotte in California

  2. Wow! This is just what I needed! I am trying to make a reproduction, and it is sooo hard to find pictures of original garments. So far I am a bit more than halfway through hand embroidering the apron -- I have made a lot of the rest of it, but not the caftans or the sash. Thank you so much for the fantastic pictures and summary!

  3. Thank you this is great. Can you tell me, if you were standing in the street in 1914 how would an Armenian look different from a Turk? Less face covering? Hair braided, but shown? Did Turkish women wear an apron? Or was it the colors? Were the Turks darker or lighter?
    Thank you

    1. Hello Sandra, I am sorry that I cannot help you. Turks were not common in this area, however. Besides the Armenians, most people were Kurds. There were also Yezidi, Assyrians, Chaldeans, etc. I do not know of any general rules about dress. Certainly in any particular locality they would be able to recognize each other by many details, but these would vary from place to place. I have read that the facial veils worn over the lower face covered the nose for Turks, and did not for Armenians, but I have seen photos that did not follow this rule. Generally Green was only worn by Muslims. I do not have much information on Turkish costume, except for upper class Ottoman Costume, but that was commonly copied by many city people. I do not think that there is a short easy answer, but varied by region.

  4. Also, sorry to be a pest, but how many layers would they wear if it was hot outside?
    Thank you

    1. I do not have information on this, however, bedouins and other modern people wear full garments when out in the sun. They seem to regard their clothing as being portable tents, providing shade.