Artefact of the Month

Khanty Moccasin

June, 2016.


The history of footwear is closely intertwined with that of humanity:  shoes have been a part of human life – supporting, covering, and protecting the feet of their wearers – for millennia. In the beginning, shoes were more of a necessity than a fashion statement, protecting feet from the adversities of contact with various elements of the environment, such as terrain and weather. 

Naturally, people living in different parts of the world constructed shoes from different materials and wore them in different ways.  For many cultures, including those falling within the Ob-Ugric language group, a key material in this process was animal skin.  The clothing worn by Ob-Ugric peoples was made of the skins of fish (sturgeon, sterlet, burbot), reindeer, moose, and various smaller animals (mink, ermine, sable, squirrel, and fox).  Originally, moose skins were used primarily for shoes, gloves, and belts, while the furs of domesticated reindeer were applied to a broader variety of garments.  By the 19th century, however, reindeer fur had become the raw material of winter clothing produced by virtually all Ob-Ugric groups, a change spurred by the shortage of more valuable types of furs that developed as the commercial demand for them rose.  During the 20th century, the production of clothing from reindeer hide continued among the northern and some eastern Khanty, and the northern and some western Mansi, in areas where reindeer husbandry was still actively pursued, while belts, gloves, and shoes made from the skins of horse and cattle were seen primarily among the southern Ob-Ugric groups.

The appearance of beading among Ob-Ugric peoples was closely linked to the development of trade, as evinced by finds of beads in archaeological excavations dating to periods from the iron age to the early Middle Ages.   By the 16th to the 19th centuries, most glass, crystal, and clay beads were making their way to Ob-Ugric lands via Russian traders, where they were applied to clothing in combination with metal ornaments.  In terms of execution, beaded ornamentation was most spectacular during the 19th and late-20th centuries, when the widest variety of materials was available, but traditional manufacturing and decorative processes had not yet been forgotten.  The moccasin seen here is an example of beadwork from this period.  Eighteenth-century sources indicate that Ob-Ugric women went barefoot in summer.  Although there is no way of ascertaining how general this practice was, extant 19th-century photographs of Ob-Ugric groups show both barefooted women, and women in summer footwear.  One such type of shoe, the nir, took the form of an ankle-high moccasin made of dehaired leather or a material similar to velour, sometimes topped with a boot shaft.  Where leather was the material of choice, cow or horse hides were often purchased for the purpose.

Khanty and Mansi ankle moccasins were decorated with beaded or appliquéd patterns and sometimes edged with felt.  The sole and upper were cut separately and sewn together. More advanced variations benefitted from an added nailed-on heel.  Examples were collected by Antal Reguly, Károly Pápai, János Jankó, and Ágnes Kerezsi.  Such shoes were worn with felt or knitted woollen stockings. Ob-Ugric women had a second, undecorated type of shoe which they wore when they were on their menstrual cycle, as the beaded and decorated shoe could only be donned when a woman was “clean”.  The idea that a woman on her menstrual cycle was “unclean” derived from the belief that people had multiple souls, one of which resided in the blood.  A woman who had reached puberty was unclean, because the blood that contained her soul was lost once a month, a state that endured until menopause.  Each month during her cycle, a woman was expected to adhere to strict rules:  she could not sleep in the family tent or house, but was relegated to a "small house" constructed specifically for the purpose.  She could not cross a man’s path or touch hunting or fishing implements, and was required to wear the marks of her state about her person, including a pair of simple, undecorated, unbeaded shoes.

The patterns on beaded shoes were simple, generally consisting of a combination of lines.  Appliquéd metal served both decorative, and protective purposes, in the latter case safeguarding the wearer from evil spirits.

Ágnes Kerezsi

Kondia, Siberia
Collected by Antal Reguly, 1844-45