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Turkmenistan: Moscow Designer Eyes Turkmen Fashion, As Locals Vie With Strict Dress Code

Designer Zaitsev on the runway (AFP) On a visit to Ashgabat this month, Russian fashion designer Vyacheslav Zaitsev professed his fascination with traditional Turkmen clothes, and announced plans to create a new collection featuring elements of traditional Turkmen costumes.

Zaitsev, who was in the Central Asian republic to take part in the Turkmen Textile Exhibition, said the collection would mostly consist of casual wear, including jeans, and would be made exclusively from Turkmen cotton. He added that the designs would also feature Turkmen embroidery, which had captured his imagination.

Zaitsev’s Fashion House in Moscow hopes his many customers in Russia and beyond will welcome the new line, like the designer’s other creations.

Zaitsev’s new collection is unlikely to be in high demand in Turkmenistan, however. Women there are still strongly encouraged to wear traditional costumes -- long dresses covering ankles and a traditional hat called a “takhya.”

Uniforms are compulsory in schools, and girls’ uniforms are entirely based on national costumes. They include bright green, ankle-length dresses decorated with embroidery. Male and female students must wear takhyas. Girls sport two long braids, and those with short hair attach fake plaits to their takhyas to meet the requirements.

Farid Tuhbatulin, head of the Turkmen Initiative Group in Vienna, says some students, especially non-Turkmen, are unhappy with the strict dress code imposed under late President Saparmurat Niyazov. In a report on human rights in Turkmenistan, the Turkmen Initiative Group wrote earlier this year that female teachers and university students, regardless of ethnicity, are forced to wear national costumes.

"In the beginning, when the dress code was introduced at universities, some students [who did not want to wear national costume] were deprived of their stipends, and others were threatened with possible expulsion from university," Tuhbatulin said. "This way, students were forced to accept university administrations’ requirements.”

Moreover, many families cannot afford the pricey school uniform, Tuhbatulin says. “Students are required to wear national costumes made from expensive fabrics, including a variety of types of velvet," he said. "The collar of the dress has to be decorated with specific embroidery. It costs a lot of money. Besides, during official ceremonies all students are required to wear almost identical clothes with the same color and style.”

A Sartorial Island

Many foreigners visiting the country note that the first thing they notice is that most of the women on the streets wear traditional costumes.

Some link it to a lack of choice in the country, kept in isolation for nearly two decades by its eccentric former president. It was difficult, if not impossible, for many Turkmen to travel abroad, while traveling to Turkmenistan was equally difficult for foreigners. At the same time, foreign publications were banned and many Internet sites blocked.

Turkmen women in traditional dress at a festival in Ashgabat

Nevertheless, many Turkmen women say they choose to wear boldly-colored traditional costumes because they are proud of them. Red, purple, and yellow are among the most popular choices of colors for the dress, which is decorated with red and gold handmade needlecraft on its front, collar, and sleeves.

In spite of the limitations, Turkmen women love dressing up. Some Turkmen even say that many women would invest their last pennies on clothes rather than on food.

Fashionable urban women have created their own new style, mixing traditional dress with European elements. The traditionally wide Turkmen dress has become considerably tighter in the waist. Long sleeves have become optional and the neckline plunges quite low, while the collar has almost disappeared.

It’s a mix that Russian designer Zaitsev, in his new collection, would do well to draw upon. Just don’t expect Turkmen women to be sporting his new clothes any time soon.

For now the state still dictates what they can wear, even if many Turkmen women would clearly rather make their own fashion decisions.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service contributed to this report

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.