Suited to nomadic life, traditional costumes reflect not only the climatic conditions of Kalmykia but also the history of interaction between the Kalmyks with their neighbours. Unlike other Mongolian groups, the Kalmyks – who have lived in a unique environment among the Russians, Cossacks, and various nationalities of the Caucasus – wear unique hats, boots, and belts decorated with interesting ornaments and designs. Having said this, Kalmyk costumes still display similarity to those of other Mongolian peoples not only in terms of design but materials used such as skin, felt, wool, furs, and textiles. In the past, Kalmyk costumes were class, gender, age and season specific. The aristocracy, for example, used bright colours and expensive textiles. Their winter coats were often decorated with valuable skin and fur of such animals as sables, beavers, squirrels, lambs, foals, and others. The clothes of ordinary shepherds, by contrast, were simpler and darker in colour.
Women’s traditional dress consists of two layers, tsegdg and terlg. Tsegdg, which is worn over terlg, is a long sleeveless garment made of durable cloth and abundantly decorated with embroidery. It has a V-shaped open collar and two crooks for napkins or purses on either side at the waist. By contrast, terlg is a long robe with wide sleeves narrowing towards the wrists. It has a small standing collar meeting at the front. Both tsegdg and terlg can be made from textiles of various colours, except for yellow and red, which are colours reserved for the Buddhist clergy.
Unmarried women or brides, who had not yet given birth to children, wore a hat called kamchatka, which was sewn from fabric with the same name and embroidered with gold or silver patterns. By contrast, the traditional dress of a married woman was complemented with a special festive hat called khalmg. In everyday life, women wore several types of simpler hats called jatg and buslyach, as well as robes called berz and khuvtsn. The hair of a married woman was divided into two braids, each clad in special hair bags called shivrlg, which were the main markers of her marital status.
Bushmud is a traditional man’s robe with long wide sleeves narrowing towards the wrists. Usually sewn from dark fabric, linen, or silk, bushmud has a V-shaped open collar. A plastron, or a false shirt-front decorated with embroidery, is worn underneath. The robe was always worn with a leather belt, usually decorated with silver plates and ornaments. The most popular kind of belt was the so-called ‘reed belt’ (khulsn bus), which consisted of plates that resemble the reed in terms of shape. Another belt variety was ‘chest belt’ (avdr bus), which has quadrangle plates resembling a chest/drawer in the Kalmyk yurt. Hence, the name. The most expensive belt, beloved by the aristocracy, was the so-called ‘Cherkassy belt’ (Cherksh bus) consisting of small and large buttons that are protruded but hollow inside. Kalmyk men wore pants called shalvr which were of two types: syarsn shalvr was made from cowhide and kenchr shalvr from cloth. Men also carried a knife in a scabbard made from silver or leather on the left side of the belt and a flint on the back. In the past, tobacco pipes and whips were also attached to the belt. Men, both young and old, wore a hat called khajlg.
Traditionally, toddlers and babies did not have clothing peculiar to their age group. They usually wore simple and unisex clothes made of old garments belonging to their parents or even grandparents. Children started to wear gender-differentiated garments when they participated in household chores.
When boys were about 8 years of age, their garment already resembled that of grown-up men. Teenage boys wore trousers (shalvr), a shirt (kiilg), a robe (bushmud and lavshg), a belt (bus), and a hat (khajlg).
At around 14, girls also wore distinctly female clothing. Biiz is a dress for girls made of colourful materials. Underneath they wore a plastron embellished with gold and silver threads. Girls were also supposed to wear a special corset called jilyatg over their underwear. It was intended to tighten the breast, which was believed to make horse riding easier. A belt made of cloth was an essential item in traditional girls’ clothing. By contrast, married women’s dress was loose and without a belt. Kamchatka and toortsg are traditional hats for girls and young women alike.
Alena Lidzhieva, Devl
Alena says that her paternal auntie sewed traditional robes called devl. Her auntie also made winter coats out of animal skin. In the past everyone wore traditional dress. Trousers were also made of skin. It was usually men who wore such trousers. The poor did not have many clothes. The wealthy had Russian boots and winter coats.