Twelve Russian fashion rules

“Good clothes open all doors.” This saying perfectly illustrates how much clothes mean to Russians. It is the clothes that offer a first impression of a stranger, signifying his or her social status, as well as emotional and psychological condition. If you are new to Russia, we would like to warn you of a few sartorial pitfalls and tell you how to avoid them.
You’re not a horse, are you?

What is the most popular attraction for foreigners in Moscow? Red Square, of course. But this is one of the few areas in the city where the old cobblestone paving has been preserved. There are no sharp cornered stones, but think twice before walking on the uneven pavement of Red Square in Christian Louboutin heels. This is fraught with the potential for dislocation and major stress. Nor should you be wearing summer shoes with wooden heels like clogs – the clattering of your shoes (like the clattering of horseshoes) against the pavement will be louder than the chiming of the famous clock on the Kremlin’s Spassky Tower.

Dressing for the theater

Unless you are invited to a reception of oligarchs’ wives who flaunt their designer clothes and diamonds, emulating the scene from Pretty Woman in which Julia Roberts goes to the opera will make you look like a joke. Floor-length gowns are not very popular in Russia, and you wouldn’t want to sweep the theater staircases with your dress, especially in the dirty Russian fall or winter. If you go to the theater in winter, take your shoes and put them on in the cloakroom. Or come in high heeled boots. Rugged winter boots or Uggs would be out of place. A dress or smart suit, heels or boots and a clutch bag will do nicely. For example, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones and her husband Michael Douglas, who were recently sighted at the Mariinsky Theater, both dressed well for the occasion: She was wearing an elegant knee-length black dress, shoes and carried a clutch bag; he was in a grey suit and a tie.

Don’t tease Jupiter


Some Russian oligarchs like to pose for the cameras in casual clothes, sweaters and jeans, flaunting their democratic style. But, as the Latin saying goes, Quod licet Jovi non licet bovi: “What is permitted to Jupiter, is not permitted to the ox.” In the Russian tradition, a professional who works in an office – even a top manager – is not allowed to come to the office in running shoes. Jeans are acceptable, but only on Fridays. It is believed that people should be dressed correctly, from shoes to tie, and according to circumstances: a business suit for work, sports clothes for the gym, and your birthday suit for the bathhouse. So, please choose comfortable but elegant shoes for the office.

Are sandals OK?

Although Moscow is called the city of seven seas, you will find seawater only in a few expensive sports clubs or imitations in the bathroom of a rented flat. There are several beaches, but most are covered with grass, as they are located on river banks or near fresh water lakes. So, sandals are out of fashion here. Besides, the warm season is rather short. In the office, even in the most democratic offices, sandals and flip flops are regarded as a display of bad taste and something not quite decent. For women in a large Russian city, the best footwear in hot weather would be flats, moccasins or platform shoes, but not sandals. For men: moccasins and summer shoes.

Where’s your hat?

Do you think Russians invented fur hats just to look funny in Hollywood films? Have you ever waited in biting frost for a bus that got stuck in Moscow’s notorious traffic jams? In such a situation you would be happy to pay your last dollar for a traditional fur hat. And that’s to say nothing of Russia’s northern cities where temperatures drop below -40 C. All Russian children know that walking without a hat can cause meningitis, which can lead to dementia or death. Therefore, caring parents always buy their children hats, mostly fur ones. If an icicle, overseen by a negligent caretaker, suddenly falls off the roof, a fur hat will cushion the blow, offering some chance to survive.

Ice or anti-freeze, what’s worse?

Alternating freezing and thawing during Moscow winters often leads to ice build-up on roads. While downtown roads are treated with de-icing chemicals, some roads in the suburbs turn into real skating rinks. Even girls in Uggs fall a couple of times every winter. Of course, you can march through the city in alpine boots, but such footwear will look quite strange in the city center. Many Russians buy winter boots and go to the nearest shoe repair shop to have special anti-slide soles glued to their new footwear, or buy anti-slide sprays. However, don’t be surprised if coming in to a restaurant to meet with clients, you suddenly see white blotches on your boots – these attractive stains appear because many roads are treated with de-icing agents. Waterproofing sprays will help save your boots, provided that you clean and treat them regularly.

Don’t dress too warmly

Though Russians joke about their climate, saying that the winter lasts for six months and the rest is autumn, in reality all four seasons are clearly expressed. Spring is awaited eagerly: With the first warm days, Russians take off their winter clothes, shifting to spring coats. Russians keep different clothes for each of the four seasons, buying additional clothes for transitional periods. So, get a waterproof coat, greet the spring and don’t wear your down jacket longer than Russians do. If you happen to be in St. Petersburg, Russia’s “northern capital,” prepare to tackle the city’s unstable climate, which keeps changing every day and even every hour. Indeed, weather there can change as often as three times a day, whether in winter or in summer. In St. Petersburg, people dress in layers, taking something off if it gets too warm and putting something on if it starts raining. Here, you will need all your cardigans, sweatshirts, jackets, and coats.

Uggs are for winter only

Uggs, which have conquered the entire world, have many admirers in Russia too, but here they are recognized only as winter boots. Russians cannot understand strange Hollywood stars who wear Uggs in the summer with shorts. Here, if you put on your Uggs and go for a walk and it’s not winter, you will catch strange glances from passers-by, and your friends will ask: “why are you in boots?” Also, it is a bad idea to buy Uggs in Russia: There are many fakes and the real ones will cost two to three times more than in Europe or America.

How to dress for church

If you walk into an Orthodox church dressed like the women in Sex and the City at the funeral of a fashion designer, you will be shown the door. You should dress modestly, and wear comfortable shoes as the services can be quite long and you will have to survive them standing. There are no pews in Orthodox churches; there may be a few benches along the walls, but they are for invalids and the elderly. If you are invited to attend an event in an Orthodox church, such as a baptism, wedding or funeral, you should think about your clothes in advance. With men, it is simple: Don’t wear shorts, a vest, a track suit or trendy, tight jeans. Men should wear ordinary suits or trousers and a collared shirt, and they must take their hats off as they enter the church. Women will have to take more care: They are expected to cover their hair with a scarf or headscarf (hats and hoods are only acceptable if you don’t have a headscarf with you); trousers and jeans are also unwelcome, and it’s best to wear a long loose skirt and a high neck top, as low-cut blouses are also unacceptable. And don’t wear lipstick when you go to church, or you will put yourself in an awkward situation by leaving a bright lipstick kiss on the cross or an icon, or on the paper band placed on the forehead of a dead person. It is also unacceptable to stand with your back to the altar.

If you are invited to a private home

Don’t be frightened if you come for a visit, and the host suddenly “dives” into the closet after greeting you. No, he is not going to drink vodka with you right in the doorway, he is just looking for slippers to offer you. With very few exceptions, Russians wear slippers at home and sometimes in the office as well. In the summer, employees may wear the same shoes the whole day, but in winter they keep another pair of shoes in the office. Even the most beautiful feet will smell unpleasant if kept in winter boots in a heated room. Closer to the winter, “Please wipe your feet!” signs appear on the front doors of many offices. Please comply with this request. Winters in Russia can be quite snowy, and your boots can track a small snowdrift into the office that will melt into a dirty pool.

How do you dress for the banya?

If you are invited to a banya (bathhouse), don’t reject the invitation. In a way, it’s the final test for foreigners, or an opportunity to discuss your problems with your boss or a top official. But there are special traditions here, too. All you need to take with you is slippers and a bath hat. Leave your swimming trunks at home, you won’t need them. In the bath house they get hot and contract, which is both unpleasant and unhealthy. If you appear in your swimming trunks, the hosts will remark tactfully that “we are all equal in the bathhouse,” that is, naked. In a public bathhouse you will be given clean sheets to cover your shame if you want. If you are invited to a private bath, you will get two towels: one for lying on in the steam room and for wrapping around your torso and the other for drying off after the bath. It is up to you whether or not to beat yourself with a bunch of birch twigs or let others do it. In movies, this procedure looks like a masochistic act, but in fact, the birch twigs relaxes the skin, helping it to withstand high temperatures in the steam room. You should not fear this experience. First, you will have something to tell your grandchildren about severe Russian customs, and secondly, it is after the banya ritual that Russians will stop seeing you as the representative of a strange culture.

Leave backpacks to students

Do you think a backpack is comfortable? Indeed, it’s very convenient to wear on your back, but among office employees in Russia, it is viewed as of the mark of a low position. When Russians see a man in a suit with a backpack, they would bet their monthly salary that he is a foreigner. If you don’t want to stand out from the crowd, remember that in Russia, backpacks are for students and tourists only. On public transport you should take your backpack off to avoid reproaches and unpleasant remarks.

Photos: PhotoXPress, Alamy/Photas, Legion Media, Vostock-Photo, RIA Novosti

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