A group of 4 women wearing the traditional Kygyz costumes

Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in Central Asia

Welcome back to another week of the anthropology in fashion series, where we look at the various traditional dresses from a region in the world every week. This week we discover the cultural outfits of the region of Central Asia.

Central refers to the area between the Caspian Sea and China from east to west and, between Russia and Afghanistan and Iran from north to south. It consists of the five former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Today’s post will discuss the various factors that influence clothing in Central Asia, the history of clothing in the area and the common items of clothing among the five states. Finally, we’ll individually look at the traditional clothes of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The clothes of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan will be discussed next week.

Factors Influencing Central Asian Clothing

The clothing in this region is based on its rich history, indigenous customs and traditions and, most importantly, on its climate. This is because the Central Asian climate can only be described as extreme. The country has an arid to semi-arid climate, facing freezing winters and scorching summers with minimal rain or snowfall.

Historically speaking, the region has been a crucial part of the Ancient Silk Road, bridging China to Europe. There were frequent cultural exchanges happening in the era, such as the exchange of ideas, knowledge, technology, religion, materials and more.

This had a huge impact on the clothing, particularly in the way the fabric was made and the materials used for them. Silk, for example, was introduced to countries because of this legendary route. These exchanges are what facilitated the development of the textile industry in the region.

Although dresses have evolved over time, fragments of history can be spotted even in today’s clothes, in the colours, patterns and designs.

But evidence of clothing has been found even before the time of the Silk Route. It is believed that clothing in this region was invented to protect the inhabitants from their extreme winters. The earliest evidence of tools such as needles made of bones and teeth were found dating back to 40,000 BC. And, the first evidence of fabric, which was made of wool, dates back to 3000 BC.

a collection of neolithic needles made of bone and ivory varying shapes and sizes
A collection of neolithic needles made of bone and ivory. Image Credit: Sapiens

The nomads then entered the region around the 7th century BC and their lifestyle is what practically gave the traditional clothes of Central Asia their design. The influences of the Scythians and Cimmerians tribes, the dominant group of nomads, were definitely the highest.

The nomads, who were the ancestors of the major ethnic groups in Central Asia today, would live a migratory life, herding livestock and pitching tents in areas most suitable for survival. They would use horses as transportation as they were and still are abundant in the area. This sort of lifestyle required garments that would facilitate riding and that would provide protection against the extreme climate. As such, they would wear trousers, long-sleeved tunics reaching the knees or ankles and robes. And, as a symbol of their clan’s identity, they would don a hat.

Note: The said nomads are the ancestors of all Turkic ethnicities. Therefore, elements of these garments can be found in Northern and Western Asia as well.

Wearing trousers in that era was definitely not the norm in other parts of the world and that’s why it would capture the attention of foreign travellers journeying through the area.

The tunic, trousers, robe and hat are the fundamentals of all Central Asian clothing that is worn today. However, they are not all the same. They have certain elements that are solely unique to their respective nations. Let’s look at them in detail.

Common Elements of Clothing around Central Asia

Before moving on to discuss the different clothes in the Central Asian countries, let’s talk about the components that are common among them, to avoid repetition.

As mentioned earlier, they all have four articles of clothing.

The tunics are all traditionally long-sleeved or, they at least extend to the elbow. For men, the garment reaches the knees or slightly below it, whereas women’s tunics reach the ankle.

A pair of loose fitted trousers, commonly known as the salwar is worn underneath the tunic. They are loose, pleated and almost balloon-shaped near the drawstring that is used to secure the pants tightly and, tighter or cuffed at the ankle. Only part of the ankle is visible as the rest is covered by the tunic.

The coats all have varying lengths and are usually of two types; the chapan and the khalat. The more commonly worn coat is the chapan. The robes are open at the front and are traditionally tied with a type of belt. In the olden days, the type of belt worn would indicate loyalty towards the king.

a purple chapan with traditional ikat dyed patterns and a red patterned interior
A typical Central Asian chapan or outer robe made of ikat resist-dyed fabric. Image Credit: Pinterest

The headgear sort of acts like the identity card of a clan. It is the most crucial part of the outfit because it distinguishes one tribe from another. So, even if there are similarities in the patterns of the other garments, the design and patterns on the hat will be unique only to one tribe. It usually consists of two parts, a skullcap that is fitted to the head and a wrapping fabric wrapped into a turban over the skullcap. The turban, however, isn’t found in all Central Asian cultures.

The women in some of these cultures veil their face and body. However, it is a relatively newer article of clothing. It was supposedly never mentioned before the 18th century in the area.

Now, let’s move on to explore the clothes of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan individually.


Kazakh clothes are straightforward and conform to the basic structure of Central Asian clothing, consisting of a tunic, salwar, chapan and hat or headgear. Men and women wear the same type of clothes. They do, however, differ in the way they are cut and decorated.

Horsehair, felt, goatskin, camel wool, sheep wool and rabbit hides are some of the local materials used for textiles. Cotton and silk are imported. Camel wool is rare and highly valued and is only used to make more festive clothes. Felt, sheep and goatskin are used for everyday clothes.

Sand coloured rare camel fur
Camel fur. Image Credit: 123RF

The clothes in Kazakhstan have geometric motifs with patterns like the horns and hooves of animals such as deer, goats and sheep. These animals are specifically associated with the Kazakhs who still lead a nomadic life, with Kazakh folklore and ancient nomadic beliefs. They are considered holy and prosperous. Therefore, they would either be herded or sacrificed to the Gods. The zoomorphic patterns also symbolize people’s dependence on them, whether for food, hides, fur or rituals.

Traditionally, it is common for Central Asian clothes to use colours that are predominant in nature. For example, if the landscape contains lush green grass, red flowers and blue sky, the same colours will be found in the clothes made in those areas. The clothes made in more barren areas will use darker or earthy tones.

Common colors used in Kazakhstan are yellow, gold, blue, green, red, brown, white, and black. All of these colours represent the Kazakh way of seeing the world.

Blue signifies freedom, like the limitless sky, future and power. It also represents water, an important and limited essential resource.

Green means achievement, purpose, willpower and confidence, spring, nature, fertility and nourishment.

Red signifies beauty and warning. This is why usually younger women wear red in Kazakhstan.

Yellow means intelligence and eternity, change or movement.

Gold signifies the sun, energy and happiness.

Black is tied with negative sentiments and suffering.

White represents positive sentiments, kindness, innocence and purity. This is why the Kazakh bride and groom wear white and golden clothes at their wedding.

The colours also determine which tribe or clan one belongs to. The wealthy would wear velvet and silk, the expensive and imported fabrics.

Both men and women dress in layers because it helps keep them warm or cool as needed. Layering is convenient for the Central Asian climate. The embroidery, colours and motifs differentiate the clothes of both genders.


Zhegde is a light tunic made of cotton or silk which acts as the first layer. Over the tunic, Shalbar, loose fitted trousers are worn. This is also made of a lighter, less weighted material.

Over the two articles of clothing, there are various types of chapan that can be worn. Before the chapan however, usually an inner robe, jacket or vest is put on.

A few types of coats and jackets:

  • Zhargak is a type of Kazakh jacket made of fur worn over the tunic.
  • Zheyde is a double under vest worn over the tunic but under the shapan.
  • Shapan is the Kazakh name for a chapan, which is a long outer robe, worn over everything. It has an upright collar as well. A thicker version of this chapan is known as syrmaly. This coat has an inner lining of fur, which is why it is worn in the winter.

Blue is a common colour for the chapan as the wealthier people would wear it in the early days. Today it is worn on special cultural occasions.

a dark blue kazakh shapan, a long blue robe like coat
A dark blue shapan with golden and silver embroidery at the edges and fleece on the interior. Image Credit: Allbiz

A belt made of leather is used to close the robe. It is tied at the waist and usually has metallic buckles or ornaments at the centre. These ornaments would act as a sign of status and grace.


Women’s clothes indicate their age and social status. For example, the young wear red, the middle-aged wear blue and black. The materials that the clothes are made of, suggest social status.

Unmarried women and girls wear a koilek. More than a tunic, it is a long dress that reaches the ankle with long sleeves. The sleeves are slightly puffed at the forearm and they gather at the wrists. It even tightens at the waist, highlighting the shape of the body. The lower part of the dress even has layers of frills normally found on skirts. The dresses are made of light fabric and have decorative embroidery at the neck. Older women wear a simpler long-sleeved tunic.

The trousers underneath the dress are made of slightly heavier materials such as sheepskin. This is also called shalbar.

kazakh womans attire. White koilek and decorated red half sleeved jacket with golden embroidery
Kazakh woman’s attire. Notice the frilled koilek. She also wears a hat called a borik. Image Credit: Pinterest

Like men, women also wear a chapan over the shalbar and upper garment. Darker colours are preferred, usually a shade of blue. The more festive chapans are made with velvet and decorated with metallic embroidery. The ton is another type of robe but it is more popular in winter as they are padded with animal fur.

Occasionally, a sleeveless kamzol or vest is worn under the chapan and over the dress or tunic.  The headgear indicates the marital and social status of the women. Unmarried wear a skullcap with fur at the rim. The wealthier women wear skullcaps made of velvet decorated with embroidery.

Women who’ve given birth wear a turban called kimeshek. They continue to wear it till their death.

The brides wear a conical hat called a Saukele. It is usually around 70cm tall, it is made of satin and decorated with pearls, beads and silver. Tassels can be found at the pointy end of the cone. A cloth is attached at the back of the cone, which extends to cover the woman’s back. This hat is only reserved for brides for their weddings. It is, in fact, specially made for the event and is the most expensive piece of clothing. They are often passed on to future generations as heirlooms. They are said to originate from the pointed caps that the Scythians would wear.

woman wearing a very tall and high ornamented saukele hat
A woman wearing a very high saukele. Image Credit: Pinterest

It is commonly believed that the height of the cone indicates the bride’s respect for the groom and his family. The higher, the better.

Common Hats

The earliest evidence of headgears in Kazakhstan is from the 15th century.

Men and women both wear a few ordinary hats. Such as takiya and borik.

A takiya is a round hat made of lighter fabric that is slightly conical at the top. A borik is a round cap with fox fur on the rim. Feathers are stitched on them, usually that of an owl acting as a lucky charm. This is a very warm hat, so it is preferred on colder days. Another type of winter hat is called a tymak. This one has ear flaps on it.

a slighly conical kazakh skullcap called takiya
Takiya hat for Kazakh men. Image Credit: Weproject


Clothing is given a lot of importance in Kyrgyzstan. It is a representation of their nationality, culture as well as a person’s importance. The better the dress, the more important the person is assumed to be.

Clothes are also given a lot of respect. It is considered rude to step on a coat or a hat. They are usually kept in a way or in a place that avoids accidentally stepping over them.

Kyrgyzstan has mountainous terrain, and experiences cooler weather in winters and warm summers. However, areas at lower altitudes can get really hot. Being mostly a high altitude zone, it is more important to keep warm. This is why Kyrgyz clothes wear relatively warmer clothes made of fur and thicker fabrics. Apart from climate, the clothes are also influenced by indigenous heritage and nature. The patterns are inspired by the local flora and fauna.

Like the other Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan also reaped the benefits of the historic Silk Route. However, it seemed to benefit the most in terms of skill. As a result, the Kyrgyz people became experts at handicrafts and the production of textiles. Common materials used are wool, cotton, silk, leather and felt.


The men wear a tunic called a koinok, similar to the female’s but flatter and less designed. A dark leather salwar called terishym is worn underneath. Sometimes women also wear these trousers, especially while migrating from one place to another.

Covering the salwar and tunic is the chapan, the open front robe with upright collars. This is closed with a leather belt with silver ornaments called kemer or kur.

an elderly man wearing a black chapan and the kalpak hat
An elderly man wearing men’s attire in Kyrgyzstan, including a kalpak hat. Image Credit: Guy Shachar

The traditional headgear is called a Kalpak. It is the hat worn by males after they reach the age of six. It is a skullcap with a slightly raised cone on top.  This hat made of felt is usually white, with black embroidery and borders. The kalpak along with a chapan is usually gifted to special guests.


Like the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz women also wear a koinok, a long dress reaching the ankles with long sleeves. It is usually white in colour and the lower portion of the dress have layered frills. Underneath they wear a salwar of a contrasting colour. This can barely be seen as the koinok is so lengthy. Over the koinok, they wear a sleeveless red jacket that is more like a vest. Over this, they can wear a long coat padded with fleece. This is the chapan.

Over the skirt of the koinok, women can wear a beldemchi with a decorated skirt or wraparound with a slit in front. It is made of luxurious material such as velvet or silk and it is heavily embroidered. This is usually worn on special occasions and cultural events.

Women wear different types of headdresses.

One is a skullcap decorated with ornaments, precious stones and metals sewn onto them. At the top, a bunch of feathers are sewn at the centre. This hat is called a topu.

Another one is a tebetei, which is a warm skullcap with thick fur borders.

kyrgyz women wearing the elechek and topu
Women wearing two types of headgear. The one on the left is wearing an elechek while the one on the right wears a topu. Image Credit: Twitter

Lastly, there is the elechek. This is a white turban covering the ears and the neck. There is also a strip of decorated coloured fabric at the top of the turban completing the look. This is only wrapped for special festivities. Otherwise, older women wear this as a symbol of being the family matriarch.

Summary of Central Asian Clothing so far

To conclude, we found out that Central Asian clothing is based on practicality and comfort more than anything else. They are well suited to their nomadic lifestyle and climate. Through their clothes, they express the identity of their tribe and display the legacy of their ancestors. Though there are common aspects to the clothing, there are little nuances that differentiate the garments of each country.

I encourage you to register to stay tuned for part 2 of this post. Next week we shall look at the traditional garments of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

In case you missed the last four posts in this series, here are the links below:

1. Anthropology of Clothing in Culture: From Prehistory to Present Day

2. Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in the Middle East

3. Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in Southeast Asia

4. Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan

5. Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in South Asia

Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below and click here for more articles like this.


Ibañez-Tirado, D., 2016. Gold Teeth, Indian Dresses, Chinese Lycra and ‘Russian’ Hair: Embodied Diplomacy and the Assemblages of Dress in Tajikistan. : The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, 34(2), pp. 23-41.

Koc, F. & Koca, E., 2011. The Clothing Culture of the Turks, and the Entari (Part 1: History). folklife: journal of ethnological studies, 49(1), pp. 10-29.

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