Buryat Traditional Clothing

This page is a picture essay on traditional Buryat clothing. Buryat clothing reflects a greater Central Asian and Siberian tradition of ethnic costume and it is no coincidence that it resembles Mongol, Manchu, Tuvan, Altai, Tungus, and Yakut traditional dress.

Buryat clothing most closely resembles Mongolian traditional dress, which is no surprise since the Buryats are a Mongolian people. Mongolian dress consists of a long robe, known as a deel, which is worn over trousers. The Buryat word for this robe is digil, which is the ancient Mongolian word for this item of clothing. The digil is perfectly adapted to the Siberian and Mongolian climates, which has below freezing temperatures at least at night for all seasons but the summer. It is also well adapted for riding horses, which is the reason why it was traditionally worn with trousers by both sexes. In order to further conserve warmth in cold weather, the digil fastens at the right shoulder so that there is a double thickness of cloth (and fur in the winter digil covering the vital organs of the chest and belly.

At the above right are a pair of traditional Buryat dancers from Mongolia, wearing summer costume. Note that the woman wears a vest over her digil, while the man wears a behen, sash. Note that the man’s digil has the triple bars of blue, black, and red across his chest. This is one of the hallmarks of traditional Buryat clothing, especially in men’s robes, and it has a shamanic meaning. The bars represent the three worlds of shamanic cosmology, blue for the heavens (upper world), black for the earth, and red for the lower world. In some costumes the colors of the bands may vary, but it is a distinctive Buryat design. A detail of this pattern is shown at right on a uhetei digil (fur-lined digil), in this case also called a hurgan digil (lambskin digil), which is traditional winter dress.

Above is a woman in traditional winter dress lined with lambskins. The very richest Buryats once lined their winter clothing with wild animal skins, but generally these skins are now only used for hats, such as the mink which lines this woman’s hat. Note the cuffs on the end of the sleeves, these are known as nudarga and are also found on summer clothing such as the dancers are wearing at the top of this page. These cuffs are often said to symbolize horse’s hooves because of their tapered shape; yet they have a very practical function. In the wintertime they are turned down to add extra length to the sleeve so that the hands may be warmed inside them much like Europeans use a muff. The turned down nudarga may also be used like a mitten to pick up cold objects such as chunks of ice. In the winter the vest which women usually wear over the digil is not worn.

Above is an example of Buryat women’s summer dress. Note the similarities and differences from the winter costume further up the page. One thing which is similar is the tailoring of the sleeves, which is unique to Buryat folk costume. The segmenting of the sleeve represents the thumb. Imagine the main part of the digil as the palm of the hand, then the puffed upper part of the sleeve is the puffed part of the hand directly below the thumb. The two bands of fancy material in the sleeves represent the base and middle joints of the thumb. The origin of this symbolism is unknown. Note how the summer dress for women depicted on this page shows both long and short hantaz, vests. Traditionally Mongolian women did not wear a sash, behen, but rather wore the vest in order to secure the digil around the chest and waist during the summertime. In fact, a Mongolian and Buryat traditional word for “woman” is behegui or busgui, which means “sashless.” On the other hand in the winter and in some country areas, as well as in Mongolia, Buryat women do wear the behen, such as the grandmother below. Her digil lacks the banding on the chest and resembles the Mongolian deel.

In the picture below are Buryat men and women in traditional dress. Note the long vests worn by the women here, in contrast to the short ones worn in the pictures above. The long vest is more typical of the western Buryats, and similar vests are found among the Kalmyks, Oirat Mongols, and some Mongolian groups in Inner Mongolia. The long vest was typical of women’s dress from Chinggis Khan’s time and is preserved among some Mongolian groups. Also note the sashes worn by the men. Among some Buryat groups the behen is multicolored, such as worn by the old woman above, while others wear solid colors like other Mongols. A characteristic of the sash worn by Siberian men is that the ends are left hanging down, such as the men below, while other Mongols tuck the ends in, such as the Mongolian Buryat dancer at the top of this page.

Please note the pointed conical hat worn by most of the Buryats on this page. The conical hat is the ancient headdress of Mongols, as is attested to by drawings of Mongols from Chinggis Khan’s time. Buryats say that the conical shape represents the connection of the individual with Tenger, Father Heaven. It has much the same symbolism as the oboo, which is discussed elsewhere in this web site. Woman traditionally wore finely crafted silver ornaments and chains as pendants from their malgai, hat. The women’s hats that appear cylindrical still have the pointed top but the peak is obscured by the tall brims decorated with coral and amber.

Here are some men competing in the Surharban, the traditional Mongolian games held in Ulan-Ude in the early summer. This shows the great variation in digil length and styling among various Buryat groups. The man at the left is probably a western Buryat, for he has a long robe with a very fancy border. This kind of digil is also found in certain parts of Inner Mongolia. The man in the middle is wearing a digil not too much different from those worn in Mongolia, which is fairly plain. The man on the right is wearing a short digil, which is often worn by the Hongoodor Buryats living in the eastern Sayan Mountains of southeastern Buryatia.

Buryat traditional footwear is the gutal, thick soled leather boots lined with felt and animal fur. They are very warm and protect the feet even in harsh weather of -40 or more. The soles are thick in order to prevent loss of heat through the bottom of the feet, and are usually layered with leather and felt. The foot of the boot is usually lined with animal fur. The part of the gutal covering the shin may be lined with either thick felt or fur. The toe is turned up slightly, but is not as curled at the tip as the traditional Mongolian boot. The turned up tip is said to be designed so that the toe will not gouge the sacred Mother earth while walking. More likely it is an adaptation for sliding into stirrups easily. Buryat gutal are so warm they are popular as winter wear in Mongolia as well. Buryats also like to wear the Yakut or Evenk style boot in the wintertime, which is made of caribou skin with fur inside and out with the tops decorated with a band of ornamental beadwork made of tiny seed beads. Those boots closely resemble the traditional boots of the Athabascans of Alaska. Unfortunately there is no picture available of this type of gutal.

The picture below shows a yohor dance at the Ethnographic Museum outside Ulan Ude and shows costumes from Buryat groups from several different regions.