THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

20 March 2019

Documenting Georgian Costume in the 19th Century

Interest in the Caucasus increased considerably in Europe and especially in Great Britain in the 19th century. A number of scholars, travellers and adventurers were attracted to this mountainous region by the Black Sea. As a result, several works were published about the Caucasus and about Georgia. Of these, Robert Ker Porter’s Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia during the years 1817,1818, 1819 and 1820 remains one of the most impressive.

Sir Robert Ker Porter was a man of the most varied talents. He was justly described as distinguished alike in the arts, in diplomacy, and in literature. He published the record of his long journey, which extended from Georgia to modern-day Iran, in 1821. It is a substantial work in two volumes, full of interest and illustrated by the author himself with drawings of the landscape, people, buildings and antiquities.

Georgian costume Ker PorterEngraving of a portrait of Sir Robert Ker Porter by George Henry Harlowe, from Porter’s collection of manuscript sketches, ‘From Travels in the Caucasus, Georgia, Persia, Armenia, ancient Babylonia, etc., with notes, maps, plans, surveys, views, and other drawings of interesting objects’. Add. MS. 14758

The British Library is fortunate to hold not only two copies of Porter’s Travels, but also a large number of his original sketches, some of which were not reproduced in the published book. The British Museum acquired them after his death when they were offered for purchase by his sister Jane (who also pasted the above portrait into the album). Several sketches in this manuscript depict people in Georgian national costume. One of the portraits is unfinished, two show ethnic minorities living in Georgia and another depicts the dress of a Georgian living in Persia. These sketches combine ethnological accuracy with a talented artist’s eye for detail, character and even emotion. They portray people from different social classes, different regions, males and females and show the variety of Georgian national dress.

One portrait, the ‘Immeretian Prince’ (Imereti is a province in western Georgia), depicts traditional Georgian male dress, the chokha, the most typical garment worn in the Caucasus. Together with the sketches, Porter’s description provides us with a complete image of Georgian men’s attire in the 19th century:

The vest, which is cloth also, of a different colour from the shirt, has sleeves to it, sitting easy to the arm; and over this is the tunic or upper garment, coming down as low as the knees, but opening before; and bound round the waist with a cloth sash, universally white; to which is attached the wearer’s sword. The skirt of the tunic meets the termination of the full short trowser or breeches, which descend no lower than the knees; the leg being covered with a sort of stocking, and a close-laced half-boot, usually black or scarlet, with a very pointed toe. All these various garments are of cloth, of as various hues; and, frequently, very handsomely ornamented with gold lace or embroidery’ (Travels…, vol. 1, p. 134).

GeorgianCostume2 The ‘Immeretian Prince’ (MS. Add. 14758, vol. 2, fol. 186r.)

Porter also provides an important record of the attire of Georgian women:

The dresses of the Georgian ladies bear a full proportion, in point of cumbersomeness and ornament… A bandeau, round the forehead, richly set with brilliants and other costly stones, confines a couple of black tresses, which hang down on each side of a face, beautiful by nature, as its features testify, but so cased in enamel, that not a trace of its original texture can be seen; and, what is worse, the surface is rendered so stiff, by its painted exterior, that not a line shows a particle of animation, excepting the eyes; which are large, dark, liquid, and full of a mild lustre, rendered in the highest degree lovely, by the shade of long black lashes, and the regularity of the arched eye-brow. A silken shawl-like veil depends from the bandeau, flowing, off the shoulders, down the back; while a thin gauze handkerchief, is fastened beneath the chin’ (Travels, vol. 1, p. 135).

GeorgianCostume3
 ‘A Georgian lady’ (MS. Add. 14758 vol. 2, fol. 187r.)

Frescoes, sculpture, tombstones and the illustrations of other travellers to the region also preserve a record of Georgian costume. However, the images created by Porter constitute the first scholarly attempt to document traditional dress in full detail and with scientific accuracy. Porter's legacy, both in text and image, remains of a great importance for the study of Georgian life in the early 19th century.

Professor George Kalandia, Director of the Art Palace of Georgia
Anna Chelidze, Curator, BL Georgian Collections

References/Further reading:

G. Poulett Cameron, Personal Adventures and Excursions in Georgia, Circassia, and Russia. (London, 1845) 1425.e.7

Laurence Oliphant, The Trans-Caucasian Campaign of Turkish Army Under Omer Pasha. A Personal Narrative (Edinburgh & London, 1856) 9077.d.30

Robert Ker Porter, Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, ancient Babylonia… during the years 1817, 1818, 1819 and 1820 (London , 1821-22) 1786.d.11 

John Buchan Telfer, The Crimea and Transcaucasia… being the narrative of a Journey in the Kouban, in Gouria, Georgia, Armenia... and in the Tauric Range. (London, 1876). 2356.g.10

Christopher Wright, ‘Painting Persepolis’, consulted 04/03/2019.