Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!

Kyrgyz Traditional Dress

The most visible feature of traditional Kyrgyz clothing as worn by men is the distinctive white felt hat, the kalpak, which tells, without any shadow of doubt, that the wearer is a Kyrgyz. This felt trilby worn by many Kyrgyz men, young and old (but generally older) is made up of four panels of white felt with a tassel dangling from the top. Traditional patterns in black are stitсhed to the panels in decoration, which are highly stylised and echo the sort of ancient designs that are seen in shyrdaks.

In normal use, the brim is turned up all the way round, but there are great variations in the way that kalpaks may be worn, which range from the rakish to the comical. Despite its awkward shape, Kyrgyz men who sport kalpaks tend to keep their headgear on without trouble even in challenging circumstances, such as climbing into a small car or galloping at speed on a horse.

The traditional four-panel kalpak, which is said to resemble the shape of Khan Tengri peak in the Central Tien Shan, is by far the most widespread, but in recent years variations on the kalpak theme have emerged in which the same traditional designs have been adopted for brimless skullcaps (the traditional shape is quite hopeless for performing standard Muslim prayer rituals) and even baseball caps.

The traditional Kyrgyz headgear is certainly practical - it provides shade in hot weather and warmth in cold - and is such an icon of Kyrgyz culture that a number of traditions concerning the wearing of them have permeated Kyrgyz folklore. In fact, the hats are so iconic that in Kyrgyzstan even bus shelters are sometimes constructed in the shape of a kalpak. It is said that you should never kill a man who is wearing a kalpak - certainly sound advice - and that, like bread, they should never be placed on the ground. At night they should be removed for sleep and placed beside the head, never next to the feet.

The traditional coat worn by the Kyrgyz - the chapan - is no longer as commonly worn as it used to be, having been replaced in the main by leather jackets and Russian- style sports gear for many younger Kyrgyz. It is, however, quite commonly worn by older men in rural areas. The chapan, designed for warmth and comfort whilst on horseback, is a type of three-quarter length coat that is padded like a dressing gown. In some cases a felt cloak is worn over the top of it, while underneath an open, cotton shirt called a jegde is worn, with baggy trousers that are sometimes fur-lined in winter (during which season the customary kalpak is replaced by a fur hat called a tebetey or a telpek). Light leather boots are worn on the feet, over which rubber slip-on over-boots are pulled on, to be removed whenever a dwelling is entered.

Women's dress tends to consist of long dresses in rich dark colours such as maroon, although the colour of preference varies from tribe to tribe. Most married women wear headscarves, which in summer at least is tied at the back of the head to expose the neck. The traditional Kyrgyz woman's costume of a tall headdress and white veil that surrounds the face and neck is now only usually worn on special occasions, such as horse sports and folklore events staged for tourists, and sometimes at weddings.