Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Magnificence of the Tsars

by Kathryn Hadley

In this dazzling exhibition, which opens today, over forty costumes and uniforms worn by the Tsars and court officials of Imperial Russia, from the collections of the Moscow Kremlin Museums, go on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The lavish ensembles include the coronation uniforms of seven Russian emperors from Peter II, who reigned from 1727 to 1730, to the last emperor, Nicholas II, who was crowned in 1896. The display ends with the five metre long ermine-trimmed mantle worn by Empress Alexandra at the coronation of Nicholas II, which weighs 13 kilos. The costumes are richly decorated with intricate gold and silver embroidery, lace and silks. They have survived wars and revolutions. They have been preserved in the Armoury Chamber of the Kremlin and reflect, to this day, the glamour and luxury of the Imperial Russian court. Many of the uniforms have never been on public display before. In the words of Svetlana Amelekhina, the curator of the exhibition and senior Research Officer and Curator of the Imperial Dress Collections at the Moscow Kremlin Museums: ‘it is a miracle that they have survived’.

Their preservation is a miracle, moreover, because they are tangible relics of tsarist politics. Displayed side by side and in chronological order, the evolution in the design of the costumes offers a deeper insight into almost two centuries of political changes in Russia. Peter II’s wardrobe reveals, first of all, the continued influence of Peter the Great’s programme of Westernisation on imperial dress. Peter I was the first Russian prince to visit Europe in 1697. He sought to modernise Russia by emulating aspects of social, political and cultural life in the West and issued a series of decrees, which notably made Western European dress compulsory for Russia’s urban population and stipulated that all men should be clean-shaven. The majority of Peter II’s coats and waistcoats were thus made in France and mirror French fashion of the time.

Peter I’s reforms were, however, challenged from the onset and debates about the path that Russia should follow ensued throughout the nineteenth century. The costumes of the succeeding six emperors are, to a large extent, testimony to such questioning and gradual moves away from Western influences. In 1796, Paul I was the first emperor to be crowned wearing a Prussian military style uniform. Alexander II’s accession to the throne, in 1855, saw the introduction of further reforms in accordance with the imperial policy of ‘official nationalism’. He notably gave the Russian name polucaftan to a skirted coat already worn in Western Europe. His successor, Alexander III, pursued similar reforms and designed a new military uniform, which he wore for his coronation and other public functions, which closely resembled the Russian national costume.

The costumes also reflect, however, a number of paradoxes and Western influences were not cast aside altogether. Although the polucaftan was given a Russian name, it remained a Western European style coat rather than a Russian creation. Paul I’s military style coronation uniform was also similar to that worn in Britain by the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV. Lastly, Nicholas I, who ruled from 1825 to 1855, introduced new elements of French military fashion to the uniforms worn by generals in the Russian army since 1808, despite the fact that Russia and France had been at war between 1805 and 1807 and, again, in 1812, following Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

A series of talks, seminars, study days and film screenings will be held as a complement to the exhibition.
Film screenings notably include
Ivan the Terrible, Sergei Eisenstein, 1994, on January 2nd
Catherine the Great, Marvin J. Chomsky, 1995, on January 9th
Nicholas and Alexandra, Franklin J. Schaffner, 1986, on January 16th

For more information on the exhibition read our article
For more information on Peter the Great's programme of Westernisation read
For more information on British influences in nineteenth century Russia read
For more information of the Russian Tsars read our articles

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