L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Russian court gown, deconstructed: dress for a maid of honor, unknown date

By an edict of Tsar Nicholas I, enacted in 1834, Russian court dress was strictly regulated, and at official functions ladies were expected to wear a uniform loosely based on traditional Russian styles.  The costume's proportions expanded and contracted with the whims of fashion, and the relative plainness or ostentation varied according to the tastes and rank of the wearer, but the basic components remained the same: bodice, train, and long, detached sleeves all in the same fabrication; visible underskirt; kokoshnik headdress with veil. In her memoir, "The Story of My Life", the florid Queen Marie of Roumania, whose mother was the former Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, daughter of Tsar Alexander II, describes it thus:

"The Russian court dress was exceedingly picturesque and was donned for all bigger occasions. It consisted of amply cut velvet robes over a tablier of white satin; the shape, with its train, and wide, long-hanging sleeves, had something medival [sic] about it. These robes were heavily embroidered in silver or gold and were of every colour of the rainbow; the richest of all were of cloth of gold or silver. A halo-shaped cocoshnic [sic] with a veil hanging from beneath it inevitably accompanied this costume, so that every woman appeared to have been crowned. This unity of attire made all Russian court gatherings uniquely picturesque, saturating them with colour and brilliance unlike anything else; veritable pictures out of the "Thousand and One Nights," Byzantine in splendour, with all the mysterious gorgeousness of the East. In those days the processional entry of the Russian Imperial family into festive hall or saint-haunted church was a picture once seen never to be forgotten."

The costume pictured is one that was worn by a maid of honor, or Freilina (a Russification of the German Fraülein) - the most common rank, and one only held by unmarried ladies - and shows the color and style of embroidery specified for someone holding this title. With this gown the young woman would have worn a very plain, red velvet kokoshnik with a large bow at the nape and a simple chiffon veil. The "buttons" along the front placket would usually have been of gold or large artificial pearls. A diamond monogram of the Empress or Grand Duchess being served would be pinned to the left shoulder. The uniform of those being served would have been of the same exact pattern, of course, only the materials and ornamentation would be to the lady's whim, adorned more lavishly, and abetted by whole suites of jewels - the "buttons" included - and quite often the kokoshnik had morphed into a full-on kokoshnik-shaped diadem.

Some photographs of Freilinas from the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century:

Countess Eugenie Vladimirovna Freedericz.
Countess Zenaïda (Zina) Mengden.
Elisaveta Tolstaya.
Princess Maria Borisovna Scherbatova.
Mlle. Khlebikova.
Olga Naryshkina.
Princess Elisaveta Nicolaievna Obolenskaia.
Olga Vladimirovna von Dehn.
Olga Nicholaevna Repnina.
Princess Zenaïda Nikolaevna Yusupova.
Princess Elena (Ella) Beloselskaia-Belozerskaia.
Princess Bariatinskaia
Countess Lamsdorff.


Another Freilina's court gown, probably from a slightly earlier period.
Embroidery design from the 1830s; as one can see in comparing the examples above, the pattern never really changed at all.


  1. Oh, those Russians! Those gowns and robes are more like architecture than couture.
    (Eat your heart out, Charles James…)
    And it's so nice seeing my distant cousin, Marie of Roumania, quoted on a Saturday morning.

  2. I've always loved Russian court attire. These women's "uniforms" were simply dazzling. (lust)

  3. Dazzling, yes, but all I could think about was how much they must weigh. And that the women must be laced into them so tightly to keep them on, given they are more or less off the shoulder. But what drama!

    1. totally true - beautiful but not comfy

    2. Just because the waist looks small does not mean that they were laced down. There are a great many optical illusions at work here. The contrasting colors at the waist with the exaggerated V, together with the wide shoulders and padded hips work wonders for making a waist look dainty and fit the desired silhouette of the period.

  4. What a beauty that Naryshkina girl! Perhaps a direct descendant of Peter the Great's mother?
    The Naryshkin family was so powerful once..and yet they went through so much tragedy...

  5. The materials and decoration of the gowns were never left to the “taste or whim” of the ladies. The length of the train, the color of th gown, the width and style of the embroidery was dictated exclusively by court regulation. These “paradnaya plat’e” or “parade gowns” were court uniforms for women, and were not subject to whims of fashion. The dresses of the “Freliny” (who were unmarried ladies in service to to the Empresses or the Grand duchesses) were in red. Those of the married ladies, or “Statsdamy” were in dark green. The use of cloth of gold or silver was restricted to the Emoresses and Grand Duchesses for specific ceremonials. Each of the Grand Duchesses had a color restricted to her “court.” Ladies with no personal position at court other than that of consort to their husband wore dresses in the same form but with reduced trains and minimal embroidery. These distinctions are ennumerated in the Court protocols.