Written by Ehshig, Visiting Fellow to the Mongolia Institute (2019-2020).
Traditional Mongolian costume is very rich both in design and colour. Different regions have their own local designs and characters. While the Halha, Üjümchin, Harchin and Barga dresses have elaborate decoration and ornaments, the Sünid, Dörbed and Chahar costumes are simple in comparison. The regional differences reportedly developed during the Qing Dynasty (1634-1912) because the Manchu court not only divided the Mongols into Banner systems and restricted the movements of people, but also designated different colour codes to each banner. There were 49 Banners in Inner Mongolia alone, not including eight separate Chahar Banners. Both Mongol men and women wear deel for winter or terleg for summer and both are equally colourful, but the men’s dress is a bit simpler in design and ornamentation.
Like all Mongolian costumes, Chahar costume not only adapts well to the environment and climate, while meeting the various needs of nomadic production and life, it is also known for its well-matching colours, accompanying accessories and exquisite workmanship. The Chahar costume has its own character, but also absorbed characteristics of costumes from other regions, due to Chahar’s central location amongst the Mongol banners. The Chahar region is located in today’s central Inner Mongolia at the crossroads between east and west, north and south. It was not only the geographical centre but also used to be a cultural and political centre across Mongol history. The Chahar region is centred around the famous Xanadu, Khubilai Khan’s summer residence and home to the last Mongol Khan, Ligden, who was defeated by the Manchus.
In the past, outfits worn by officials and wealthy people were covered with brocade and the hems were made from silk ribbon. The buttons were mostly made of copper or silver, while the tunics donned by herders were made from cotton. Winter deel were made of sheep wool or fox pelts. Today, there are two types of Chahar tunic, or caftan, either with or without nidurga, a semicircular ‘sleeve-extension’ with narrow cuffs attached to the end of the sleeves. Due to its shape resembling a horse’s hoof, in Chinese it is called matixiu (hoof-shaped sleeves). Traditionally the Chahar tunic had straight and rather narrow sleeves, without nidurga, but was possibly influenced by official’s fashion in the Manchu court to then add the nidurga. The nidurga come in different sizes and are usually be rolled up. They can only be elongated during the cold season, or while in mourning. The nidurga of summer robes are small and made of softer fabrics, while for winter nidurga are made of otter or fox pelt, or lamb’s wool, designed to keep the hands warm. Some local Chahar still don’t like wearing an outfit with nidurga because they think that the Chinese term ‘horse-hoof-shaped sleeve’ was discriminating against the Mongols, essentially referring to the Mongols as livestock.
Chahar family in winter deel.
During some festivals, married Chahar men and women wear waistcoats (ooj or oguji) over their deel. The sash is an indispensable and important part of the Mongolian costume, made of cotton and silk. When the man ties his sash (bus) around his mid-riff, the coat is lifted slightly to make it comfortable for riding, while at the same time making the rider look lean and smart. A sash is not only a decoration but also acts as protection against the strong chilling wind of the grassland steppe. For men, the sash not only holds the deel tight around the waist, but has both practical and decorative functions: to hold a Mongolian knife, a fire striker and a colourful rectangular-shaped cloth pocket (with a snuff bottle inside). When unmarried women tie their sash, they should pull down the dress neatly so that a woman’s figure is evident. Like women in other regions of people with Mongolian heritage, Chahar women do not wear a sash after getting married, so they are called ‘busuguei’, which means ‘person who does not wear a sash’.
Headwear and chest ornaments are worn only on important occasions. Traditional Chahar women’s headdresses were highly ornamented, the most typical of which was bridal head gear. Chahar women’s headdresses were luxurious and beautiful and the most eye-catching part of Mongolian costumes. The headdress could include a bun inlaid with rubies and red corals and a forehead hoop made of pearl greenstones, a fine coral pearl chain and other precious or semi-precious stones. These were further embellished with a pair of large gold or silver earrings and with a necklace made of pearls, agate, amber, or coral.
Chahar bride with headgear, a sleeveless long waistcoat over the deel.
The Chahar costumes not only constitute the epitome of artistic craftmanship, but also play important social functions. For example, Chahars have the custom of giving each other traditional outfits to express their good wishes. In addition, in the eyes of the Mongolian people, the Mongolian tunic is very sacred. Traditionally, the expected etiquette was that when people wear Mongolian dress, they should also wear a Mongolian hat and boots (at least riding boots), and tie a sash around the waist.
Modern Chahar clothing, however, is a mixture of traditional and modern styles. Chahar Mongolians usually wear sheep-tailed leather hats in spring and winter. In recent times, more Mongolian men from Chahar wear Western style hats, while women wear small domed hats, while men wear runners instead of riding boots and an increasing number of young women wear high-heeled riding boots. Chahar women no longer wear ancient headdresses and exquisitely-made long waistcoats and robes, nor do men wear waistcoats, fire sickles or knives. There are people of Chahar heritage, however, who are keep the traditional Chahar women’s headdresses and men’s outfits and accessories as an important part of their cultural heritage.
Modernized Mongolian costume worn by a Chahar woman.
Ming Rui. 2013.”The costumes of Chinese Mongolian.” Yuan Fang Publishing House, Inner Mongolia publishing group, Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.