Dowry Embroidery

“The Dowry” by the Russian painter Vasili Pukirev (1832-1890), 1873. “The Dowry” by the Russian painter Vasili Pukirev (1832-1890), 1873. Tretjakow Gallery, Moscow (Russia).

In many parts of the world a girl’s dowry, or the property and money that she and her family bring to a marriage, played an important role in the history of embroidery. Basically a dowry is the transfer of parental property and/or money to a daughter on her marriage. It is usually given to her husband or his family, but in many cultures the dowry remains the property of the woman to whom it is given. 

A dowry can vary considerably in form and size. It is intended to bring financial security in widowhood, a buffer against negligent husbands, or as an inheritance for her sons and daughters. Often the dowry was used to provide items for the new marital household and included garments, household textiles and related items such as linen cupboards (usually filled with items such as bed sheets, table cloths, and so forth). In some cultures the dowry would include the girl’s clothing for much of her life and especially garments to be worn on important occasions and festivities.

Often she would make daily and festive garments for her husband-to-be, to be included in the dowry. In Oman for example, once a girl was engaged she would embroider a cap (kuma) for her future husband, which was intended to show her skill in needlework. In addition her embroidery skills would be needed to make and decorate items to furnish the marital home, such as curtains, cushion and sofa covers, towels, and so forth. In some cases, a woman/girl’s skill at embroidery could mean an extra source of income for her (new) family.

There are many examples from all over the world for the use of dowry embroidery to establish a girl and her family’s economic and social status. In Palestine (before 1948), for example, girls would start to learn how to embroider and make their dresses at the age of about seven, but the garments would never be made up until she was officially engaged. Similarly, prior to the Communist Revolution in China, a Han girl was expected to make and decorate a wide range of embroidered garments, including lotus shoes, in order to show her patience and skill. Sometimes it was the girl herself who made all the items; on other occasions, she and various female members of her family would make the items.

Another possibility can be illustrated by the old tradition on the Greek island of Karpathos, whereby the first born girl (kanakara) would inherit many pieces of fine embroidery from her mother, some of them to be included in her dowry, while her younger sisters had to do with lesser pieces.

Source: GOODY, Jack (1976). Production and Reproduction: A Comparative Study of the Domestic Domain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Digital sources:

Digital source of illustration (retrieved 11th June 2016)


Last modified on Thursday, 04 May 2017 18:36
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