Russia trip, June 2011

Most of the time was spent in Moscow, but we also travelled to Sergiev Posad, Suzdal, Ivanovo, Vladimir, Mstera and Pavlovsky Posad.

Friday 10 June – Day 1: We walked around Red Square and then went into the Kremlin. Everywhere there was evidence of preparations for the imminent festivities of Russia Day. ["Russia Day (День России) is the national holiday of the Russian Federation, celebrated on June 12 every year since 1992. The Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was adopted on June 12, 1990."]

In GUM, the great emporium which lines one side of Red Square, the arcades were decorated with displays of folk art from northern Russia, together with boards showing imaginative possible uses of folk motifs and styles to produce contemporary industrial and fashion design.

Within the Kremlin walls we entered the Armoury and were taken on an exhaustive (and exhausting) tour of the treasures.  Of course we were most drawn to the costumes, several of which had been seen in London two years ago when they were included in the V&A’s ‘Magnificence of the Tsars’ exhibition. I wrote about it for a couple of publications at the time.

This review first appeared in the Summer 2009 edition of the journal Теория Моды: (Fashion Theory), published in Moscow:

The Magnificence of the Tsars: Ceremonial Men’s Dress of the Russian Court, 1721-1917, from the collection of the Moscow Kremlin Museums

Exhibition in the Fashion Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum, London: 10 December 2008 – 29 March 2009

The dress reforms put in place by Peter I of Russia in the early years of the 18th century provide a dramatic example of fashion as a cultural phenomenon. Peter I enforced the wearing of fashionable western European-style garments at court and in the cities, leading to the importation of dress and tailors, mostly from France, until Russia was able to develop its own expertise. The Victoria & Albert Museum’s beautifully designed exhibition of the formal male attire of the Tsars, their courtiers and servants, from the time of Peter II to that of Nicholas II, portrayed the effect of these reforms. From the coronation of Catherine I in 1724 until Nicholas II’s in 1896 the practice was followed of depositing the coronation dress and accessories, even down to all his underwear in the case of Peter II, in the Treasury of the Moscow Kremlin. And so a complete collection of ceremonial dress has survived and been cared for through wars and revolutions to the present day.

At the entrance to the exhibition an enveloping layered and bejewelled outfit based on pre-Peter I dress, as worn by Nicholas II at the Costume Ball held in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg in 1903, highlighted the phenomenon of Peter’s reforms. The ball was instigated by the Empress Alexandra after overhearing a discussion as to which was more aesthetically pleasing – the western fashions brought in by Peter I or the earlier Russian-style dress that he swept away from the court.  The ball was attended by some four hundred guests in lavish outfits based on dress from the time of Peter’s father, created by the top theatrical costumiers, couturiers and court jewellers of the day. The costume on display incorporated jewelled cuffs taken from a 17th-century caftan of one of Nicholas’s ancestors – but this, and the other outfits shown in photographs of various members of the imperial family at the ball – were essentially creative ‘fancy dress’ interpretations of pre-reform garments. Peter I’s radical decrees on the subject of dress, a turning point in Russian cultural history, could perhaps have been more forcefully emphasised for the benefit of visitors new to the subject by the inclusion of images of actual old Russian attire – of Tsars and boyars with their long beards, dressed in the exotic Byzantine style so often remarked upon by foreign visitors to the court of Muscovy.

Following the story of the exhibition, told through the chronological order in which the dress was presented, the visitor learned about the shifting cultural focus of the Tsars and intelligentsia from the late 17th century onwards, firstly towards western Europe and then back to their own Slavic heritage. More than forty dress ensembles provided a vivid picture of clothes as an expression of power.  First encountered was the wardrobe of Peter II, who reigned for less than three years before his death at the age of 14. Lavishly embroidered coats and waistcoats of brocade or silk velvet created in France contrasted with fine linen undergarments. Peter’s coronation in 1727 had to be postponed until the arrival of the gold-embroidered cloth-of-silver ensemble, made probably in Lyons. Many of Peter II’s garments had been conserved and prepared especially for this exhibition and had never even been displayed in Russia before. It was fascinating to see more everyday items as well as the magnificent formal dress, such as Peter’s well-worn hunting gaiters and a severe black woollen mourning coat. Dress historians have been particularly excited to see this rare pristine example of black woollen clothing of this age, which would have been expected to deteriorate had it not been preserved virtually undisturbed since the day it was taken into the Kremlin Treasury.

Seventy years after the reign of Peter II, Paul I began the practice of the wearing of military uniform at the coronation, and, for subsequent Tsars, being crowned in uniform served as an expression of Russia’s might and seriousness in times of conflict. The last two Tsars favoured an austere but elegant tunic modelled on the traditional side-fastening Russian garment, the zipun.

It was a privilege to see this exhibition in London, as part of an exciting collaboration between the V&A and the Kremlin Museums. (A display of 18th- and 19th-century British dress from the V&A was recently put on in the Kremlin.)  Curated by Svetlana Amelekhina of the Kremlin Museums, the exhibits of ‘Magnificence of the Tsars’ in London were displayed beautifully, with good lighting and interesting supporting materials. Curatorial staff from Moscow came to the V&A to unpack and set up the garments, and to advise V&A staff about some of the matters of Russian dress etiquette that they would not otherwise have been aware of.

In a lecture as part of the programme of events put on during the exhibition’s run, Lesley Miller, Senior Fashion Curator at the V&A, explained how the theme and choice of artefacts to be included had been arrived at. The space available in the Fashion Gallery and the configuration of the display cases necessarily dictated what could be displayed.  The area is punctuated by a number of pillars and these were turned to good advantage in creating a sumptuous-looking backdrop, being covered in red and gold designs taken from details of the exhibits, such as the embroidery on Peter II’s red coat, or on a ceremonial cloth presented by the people of Poltava at the coronation of 1896. The design was uncluttered, allowing visitors to concentrate on the detail of the garments.  Most cases included one or two telling artefacts to support the dress, such as a portrait of the appropriate Tsar.  A large and dramatically presented case enclosed coachmen’s and postilions’ jackets, covered in heraldic braid, hussar-style frogging and gilt buttons bearing the imperial eagle emblem. These were displayed in front of a large lively graphic of horse-drawn carriages with their aristocratic occupants and attendant liveried servants, which was particularly successful in providing context for the dress.

Visitors could get very close to all the garments – and they clearly wanted to, judging by the number of finger- and nose-prints on the glass cases. Being able to stand within touching distance, with only a sheet of glass in the way, of the slight figure of the last Tsar in the form of his coronation uniform, and reflect on the history of Imperial Russia, was a moving experience.

The captions throughout included just the kind of fascinating detail that makes the difference between basic information-giving and stimulating the imagination. Especially appreciated by textile enthusiasts were details of the embroiderers, weavers or tailors. We learned that the canopy used for the procession of Nicholas II from the Kremlin Palace to the Cathedral of the Assumption for his coronation in 1896 was embroidered on silk satin, velvet and gold foil by eight nuns from the renowned Ascension Convent in Moscow, under the supervision of Mother Superior Eugenia. This canopy and other embroidered ritual cloths, as well as the 7-metre-long gold silk coronation mantle woven by the famous firm of Sapozhnikov and trimmed with nearly a thousand ermine pelts, gave vivid glimpses into the last coronation. To have conveyed an even stronger sense of the ‘magnificence of the Tsars’, a few more images could perhaps have been included of the context in which the garments were worn, showing the unimaginable opulence at court. For example, a reproduction of paintings by Laurits Tuxen or Valentin Serov of Nicholas II’s coronation would have immediately conveyed something of the atmosphere within the cathedral, crowded with clergy and the whole court in ceremonial dress.

A book, also entitled ‘Magnificence of the Tsars’, has been published by the Victoria & Albert Museum (ISBN 978 1 85177 550 7), giving much more information than it was possible to include within the exhibition. Striking full-page close-ups of garment details and explanations about the historical and cultural background make it a useful resource for dress and textile historians, and also for anyone with a more general interest in the Russian imperial past.

There is certainly an appetite for all things Russian in London. Visitor numbers for this exhibition far exceeded expectations and it received a great deal of enthusiastic press coverage. Why has this theme proved so fascinating? Mark Jones, Director of the V&A, said about the exhibition: ‘We’re interested in the Tsars because they were immensely powerful, fabulously wealthy, and they ruled this enormous country – in Europe but somehow not of Europe. Europeans have always felt that the relationship is quite complicated and though they’re very full participants in European culture, there has always been a strong sense of Russia being different and exotic in some ways…. Ultimately though, it will be the sheer glamour and dazzling extravagance of these costumes that will bewitch visitors, wherever they come from.’

The V&A will be mounting a further Russian-themed exhibition, ‘Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes’, in September 2010, which is bound to be popular. And now that ‘Magnificence of the Tsars’ has established such a successful collaboration with the Kremlin Museums, it is to be hoped there will also be further exciting projects of mutual benefit organised between these two great institutions.


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