1980s-1990s “Old Believer” Dresses from Alaska

These are a series of dresses I found in a thrift store in Fairbanks, Alaska, and put into the “History Collection” of the UAF Costume Shop in the Theatre Department. They are recently made (1980s-1990s) “Old Believer” dresses. Old Believers are a conservative offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church that broke off from the main Orthodox church after Peter the Great’s reformation of the Orthodox rituals in 1700. Large numbers of Old Believers emigrated from Russia during the 20th Century because of religious persecution from the Communist government. Several small towns in Alaska are largely colonies of this religious group. These dresses most probably are from one of these towns. The traditional dress of Old Believers is a modern adaptation of traditional Russian peasant dress. Women’s dress is based on the Sarafan. These dresses include several unusual features that make them immediately identifiable as modern Sarafans:

  1. A high yoke in front with many gathers over the breast.
  2. A flat back bodice piece or smocked back going down to the waist.
  3. In many cases, there is a hidden slot in the front pleats of the dress for breast-feeding.
  4. All these dresses are made of silk-like polyesters that resist wrinkles.