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Women's Handkerchiefs in Doukhobor Culture

Pretty well every aspect of culture in general, and Doukhobor culture specifically, stems from some original point of practical necessity, and/or a contemporary consensus of appropriateness or "political correctness" for a given time period in the past. Once the practice is instituted it becomes accepted "tradition" or "custom" and is practised, more or less universally, over a period of time, until it is affected by some new version of the above process. Quite often, as you know, the original purpose of any particular custom or tradition becomes lost in the mists of time...

It would seem that the custom of women holding a handkerchief, stems from the actual basic purpose of a handkerchief ! While men's clothing, such as trousers, often included a pocket or two (in which they could keep a handkerchief or whatever), women's clothing generally didn't include a pocket. In addition to its obvious use for hygenic purposes, for the woman herself or for a child, the handkerchief sometimes even served in place of a handbag or purse, in which a morsel of food (again, possibly for a child), a candy, or a coin or two could be carried, with the clever use of a fold or a knot or two. I'm sure we all recall instances where grannies would wet a corner of a hanky and wipe the face of a child, or give a knotted hanky with a mint inside (or some cloves) for a teething infant to chew on, to keep them from fussing at a sobraniye...

Talking about a "sobraniye", we are all also aware that the hanky that is carried or held in the hands, would be an impediment during the custom of bowing at a "moleniye", at which time a corner of it would often be tucked behind the skirt of a female attire, or behind the "zanaveska". We have all seen this done, as well as the more latterday custom of sticking it up a sleeve. (It seems that "traditional" female attire does not allow for pockets, even today!)

From the original practical purpose for carrying a handkerchief (and there may well be more to that than I've mentioned here), it became the "style" or "custom" or "tradition", and as such, gradually acquired a decorative purpose also, much as with other aspects of the female attire, with various embellishments in the whole range of textile arts. I have personally seen, live and in photos, a fairly wide variety of decorative embellishments, including embroidery and even crochet types of designs.

Eventually this became an "essential" aspect of the total complement of female attire, and no self-respecting Doukhobor female would consider herself ready to be in public, or, all the more so, in a photo(!), without this aspect also included. Thus, a handkerchief held in her hands is even now an important part of "dressing" a deceased Doukhobor woman in her funeral coffin...

It is almost certain that the basic "custom" of carrying a handkerchief predates the origin of the Doukhobor identity, as we are all familiar with hankies being carried by Russian and Slavic women in general, as well as those of many other cultures.

It is also a certainty, that carrying a handerchief has no specific religious or ideological significance, as far as Doukhobors are concerned, although we all know that various "symbolic interpretations" are sometimes attached to pretty well every aspect of Doukhobor customs. In the sense, however, that the Doukhobor female was traditionally subject to a more burdensome share of manifesting meekness, modesty and "humbleness before God", with the wearing of the "caps" and/or head shawls (shades of male chauvinism, as in the Moslem burkas?), and was also "required" to hold her hands together in front (more so than the men, who are often seen in photos, etc., with hands by their sides), the handkerchief held in front with both hands may have facilitated this "modest" female pose.


"Unofficial" historical information - by Dmitri (JIm) Popoff, 2010


Unknown Doukhobor Girls, early 1900s  -  Photo courtesy of the BIRCHES Publishing, all rights reserved


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