Fashion by the Book

Fashion by the Book

A new encyclopedic publication looks at pre-revolutionary fashion and reveals how Russians dressed to impress.

Published: March 27, 2013 (Issue # 1752)


Two of the images that are part of Khoroshilova’s study of Russian costume.

A new book that has been published this month takes a close look at the history of Russian fashion and costume in the times of Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II.

Titled “Costume and Fashion of the Russian Empire: The Era of Nicholas II,” the volume contains around 800 rare archive photographs from private collections. Many of the images have been published here for the first time. The core of the collection belongs to the author of the book, St. Petersburg historian Olga Khoroshilova, who teaches at the St. Petersburg State University of Technology and Design.

The book embraces three decades of Russian fashion and places a strong emphasis on uniforms. While the publication gives a fair idea of the designs that were worn and favored by the members of the family of Nicholas II, the reader is also given a glimpse of a vast range of professional clothing — from military uniforms to cook’s garments to the dresses of students attending all-female schools.

“Back in the times of Nicholas II the absolute majority of Russians wore uniforms for their work,” Khoroshilova said. “This “corporate gear” gives an inkling of people’s lifestyles, social hierarchy, fashion trends and what life was like on the whole for the Russian people at that time.”

“The Russian Belle Epoque would always come to me through the images of eternal winter as rendered by the members of ‘The World of Art’ group of artists in their stage designs,” Khoroshilova wrote in the book’s preface.

Photography studios were hugely popular, and the city was home to thousands of them. Some of them, of the caliber of Karl Bulla and Boissonnas et Eggler catered to the aristocracy and wealthy merchants. The more modest and inexpensive ones served the poorer circles of society. Hundreds of elegant prints made by the photographers of these studios make up the visual foundation of Khoroshilova’s improvised encyclopedia of pre-revolutionary Russian costume.

Olga Khoroshilova recalls a chance visit to a second-hand bookshop on Liteiny Prospect back in 1990s. When admiring the ancient folios, she glanced at a stack of pale photographic prints. “The noble features of those portrayed on them and the low price persuaded me to make a purchase,” the writer remembers. The more she looked at the images, the better sense of the epoch she was getting. Little by little, the portraits began to tell the historian their silent stories.

Two of the images that are part of Khoroshilova’s study of Russian costume.

“At first these were ordinary faces, and ordinary garments; but as I studied them — their hair styles, accessories, the photographic studios where the pictures had been taken — the most incredible metamorphosis occurred,” Khoroshilova remembers.

“It became clear why a particular gentleman was wearing a particular suit or why his tie had a certain knot. The whole human story could emerge through a meticulous and scrupulous examination of a picture.”

The book is divided into eight chapters that are devoted to specific types of costumes, from the garments worn by the members of the imperial family to military uniforms to ministerial suits.

A special chapter discusses women in uniforms. Pupils of grades 5, 6 and 7 at the Smolny Institute, which accepted only girls of noble birth, wore brown dresses. The coffee color of the dresses earned the pupils the tongue-in-cheek nickname “coffeeshki.” As the students grew older – from the 7th grade onwards – the colors of their dresses were gradually transformed into light blue, grey and, finally, white.

As Khoroshilova points out, the fashion of the time treated women like flowers. “Women were sublime, elegant and aristocratically silent; the dresses and accessories would do the talking, from the gorgeous milky pearl necklaces to lacy fans to the crisp taffeta frills,” the historian writes.

Khoroshilova has researched far more than the designs themselves. The historian offers some precious insights into the attitudes towards them. “As one witty satirical writer pointed out in the beginning of the 20th century, a foreigner living in St. Petersburg and not wearing a uniform felt slightly inferior,” Khoroshilova writes in her book.

“Regardless of their background, Russian officials of any rank adored their uniforms and awards, which defined their universe.”

As Khoroshilova’s book reveals, back in the time of Nicholas II uniforms carried much more weight than fashion trends. “Uniforms would tell you almost everything about a person — their origins, rank, social status, their level of income and personal achievements,” she said. “A uniform was like a language with hundreds of rules and exceptions and people needed to speak that language throughout their lives.”

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