Tsars in their eyes: A new exhibition reveals the amazing decadence of Russia’s rulers

The Tsars were some of the most lavishly dressed royals in history (portrayed here by Greta Scacchi and Ian McKellen)

The Daily Mail – 22 November 2008 – By Barbara Davies

Organised by the ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Empress Alexandra, it was remembered as the last great ball in Russian imperial history, a fancy dress spectacular at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. 

The 416 guests were requested to come in costumes from the time of 17th century Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich. And, on 11 February, 1903, the Imperial Hermitage was transformed into a breathtaking scene of wealth and splendour. 

Most magnificent of all, of course, was the Tsar himself, dressed in an opulent, full-length, silk brocade coat, decorated with 17th-century cuffs of silver brocade, with embroidery incorporating diamonds, pearls, rubies and emeralds, which had belonged to his ancestor, Tsar Feodor Ioannovich. 

 

Standing centre-stage in his shimmering costume, Nicholas was unaware that, just two years later, his mighty empire would be rocked by the first of three revolutions that would ultimately destroy the Romanov dynasty. But, thanks to a fluke of history, the outfit he was wearing on that cold, snowy February night has survived, and, next month, 90 years after Nicholas perished alongside the rest of the Russian royal family at the hands of a revolutionary firing squad in Ekaterinburg, it will go on display in Britain for the first time ever. 

The costume has survived, largely because of its ancient jewelled cuffs. Because the jewels were part of the Royal Treasury, Nicholas gave this outfit to the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow, where it was locked up. 

                   

Boots worn by a herald at an 18th century coronation, and Tsar Nicholas II’s silk coat, part of his fancy dress costume.

The outfit will form a key part of the Magnificence of the Tsars exhibition when it opens at London’s V&A next month. The collection, which is on loan from Moscow’s Kremlin Museums, is a display of rare and lavishly-decorated costumes and uniforms worn by Russia’s rulers and court officials over the past 400 years. 

‘Not all of these pieces have been on show together in Russia, let alone in Britain,’ says the V&A’s senior curator of textiles, Dr Lesley Miller. ‘These are objects of exceptional historic importance.’ 

There are gold and silver embellished items from the wardrobe of the boy emperor Peter II, who reigned for just three years from 1727-1730, before dying of smallpox at 14. There are bejewelled weapons worn at court, embellished snuff boxes, silk stockings, gloves and gaiters. 

There are the coronation uniforms of six of the emperors who came after him, ending with the last, Nicholas II. But the real wonder is that the items will be seen at all – what with revolutions, wars and the wrath of the Bolshevik regime. 

More recently, there has been heightened tension between Britain and Russia, owing to he latter’s occupation of South Ossetia in August, and the Russian government’s decision to close down several offices of the British Council, the cultural body that initially introduced the directors of the V&A and Moscow’s Kremlin Museums. 

An embellished snuff box from the exhibition
An embellished snuff box from the exhibition

All this might have thrown a question mark over the exhibition, but, as Dr Miller puts it, ‘This exhibition shows that cultural relations can be maintained even when state relations may be difficult.’ 

Chronologically and historically, the items also illustrate the evolution of men’s formal attire at the Russian court. Peter the Great famously tried to Westernise his people, even going so far as to issue an Imperial decree, in 1705, that all men should be clean-shaven and no longer wear the traditional Russian Orthodox beard. 

In keeping with this trend, the earliest coronation outfit in the Kremlin Armoury, that of Peter II, was made from silver cloth. The ceremony, in 1728, was delayed while the boy emperor waited for merchants to return from France with the fine hand-woven fabric, which was then embroidered with gold. 

By 1883, nationalistic trends meant that fashion once again embraced everything Russian. 

Emperor Alexander III chose a simple, traditional, military uniform for his coronation, spurning the opulence of his ancestors. The general’s coat he wore was cut following the lines of a ‘zipun’ or folk coat. Because it wrapped to one side, the Tsar’s tailors had to cut a vertical slit in the chest so that he could be anointed with oil during the coronation without having to unbutton himself. 

Like his son, the doomed Nicholas II, he donned a magnificent gold coronation mantle, or long, flowing cloak over his uniform. A gold mantle from the 1896 coronation is one of the largest items in the exhibition. 

Three identical mantles were made for the Tsar, the Tsarina and the Dowager Empress. Each one weighed 13kg, was 7m long and used 2,691 ermine skins. Gold buckles with cut emeralds, previously used to decorate the coronation mantles of Alexanders II and III, were brought from the Armoury to be sewn onto the Emperor’s mantle.

During a rehearsal for Imperial Russia’s last coronation, three pages dressed up in linen copies of the mantles, so that the seven train bearers could practise carrying the massive train. 

The day of the coronation, on 14 May, 1896, was one of bright sunshine, which, according to eyewitness reports, glinted off the domes of St Basil and the Kremlin, bathing the Tsar in golden light. It appeared to be an auspicious start to Nicholas II’s reign, but, in the end, his belief that he was Tsar by divine right was to be his downfall.

Seen once again, in the V&A’s fashion gallery, spread out in all its golden glory, Nicholas II’s coronation mantle is a stark reminder of the sweeping tide of history. 

Cynics might also argue that, at a time when Russia’s current rulers are increasingly keen to impress their might upon the world, it is no coincidence that they have turned to the past and summoned up powerful, glorious symbols of what Russia once was – and no doubt could be all over again.

Magnificence Of The Tsars is at the V&A in London from 10 December, vam.ac.uk 

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