Costume Ball (1903)

The idea for a costume ball in celebration of the 290th anniversary of the House of Romanov came to Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna at the end of 1902. The entire event was held at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg over two nights during Shrovetide in 1903 (Lent started that year on 2 March). There was an evening event on Tuesday 11/24 February, followed by the actual costume ball on Thursday 13/26 February.

The evening event of 11/24 February began with the guests assembling in the presence of the imperial family in the Romanov Gallery of the Little Hermitage. A concert was then given in the Hermitage Theatre with scenes from Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov (featuring Fyodor Chaliapin) and Marius Petipa’s ballet Swan Lake to the music of Peter Tchaikovsky (featuring Anna Pavlova). The performances were followed by a Russian dance in the Pavilion Room of the Little Hermitage. Supper was then served in the Spanish, Italian and Flemish Rooms, followed by more dancing.

The costume ball of 13/26 February involved 390 guests dressed in historical costumes dating from the seventeenth century. The palace commandant, Major General Vladimir Voyeikov, wrote in his memoirs: “The impression was fabulous – from the mass of historical national costumes richly decorated with rare furs, magnificent diamonds, pearls and semi-precious stones... the family jewels appeared on this day in such abundance that it exceeded all expectations.”

Tsar Nicholas II was dressed as Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich (1645–76). Nicholas II admired Tsar Alexis and named his own son Alexis when he was born the following year. Nicholas hoped that the ball would act as the first step towards restoring the old Muscovite court ceremonies and costumes which had existed before the reforms of Peter the Great (1682–1725).

Alexandra Fyodorovna was dressed as Alexis’s first wife, Maria Miloslavskaya (rather than his second wife, Natalia Naryshkina, who was the mother of Peter the Great). Ivan Vsevolozhsky, formerly director of the Imperial Theatres (1881–99) and now director of the Imperial Hermitage (1899–1909), helped to design her costume. He recalled: “Empress Alexandra was very beautiful... Her dress was made of broadcloth woven with matte gold and a pattern embroidered with silver thread. The regalia collar abounded in emeralds and diamonds with the central emerald the size of your palm.”

“However,” Vsevolozhsky noted in his diary on 2/15 January 1903, “the public is not happy. No one has money to spare. The Russian costumes cost crazy sums of money – silk damask fabric, broadcloth embroidered with gold and silver, furs are very expensive. Besides, dancing in heavy dresses and fur coats is not much fun. Poor Alexandra Fyodorovna seems to have an unlucky hand and a penchant for inappropriate things.” The empress’s lady-in-waiting, Baroness Sophie Buxdoeveden, wrote in her memoirs that Alexandra’s crown was so heavy that she was unable to bend her head to eat during the banquet.

Grand Duchess Xenia wore a kokoshnik designed by Eugène Fabergé (1874–1960), eldest son of the imperial jeweller Peter Carl Fabergé, which was recently discovered in the collection of the Omsk Museum of History and Local Studies (2022). Xenia’s costume later inspired the “gold travel disguise” of Padmé Amidala (mother of Luke Skywalker), which was designed by Trisha Biggar from Glasgow and worn by Natalie Portman in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002).

Princess Zinaida Yussupova wore the dress of a seventeenth-century boyar’s wife decorated by Cartier with precious stones. Infanta Eulalia of Spain wrote: “Amazing jewels, treasures of the West and the East, completed her attire. With pearl beads, heavy golden bracelets with Byzantine patterns, earrings with turquoise and pearls and with rings that glowed with all colors of the rainbow, the princess looked like an ancient empress.”

Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath of Siam was dressed as a Streltsky spearman of the late seventeenth century. After initially learning Russian in Great Britain (1896–98), Prince Chakrabongse spent a decade in St Petersburg, where he studied at the Corps des Pages (1898–1902) and served in the Hussars Life Guards Regiment (1902–08). During his time in Russia, he met Katerina Desnitska from Lutsk at an imperial ball (1905) and married her in Constantinople (1907). The couple was divorced after Chakrabongse had an affair with his fifteen-year-old niece (1919) and he died shortly afterwards of pneumonia (1920).

Several members of the imperial family were photographed separately afterwards. Nicholas and Alexandra were photographed on 3/16 March 1903. The throne on which Nicholas sits was actually a prop belonging to the Hermitage Theatre, which had possibly been used in the production of Boris Godunov – or even in an earlier private performance of Count Alexei Tolstoy’s banned play Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich at the Hermitage Theatre in the 1880s. Grand Duke Sergei and Grand Duchess Elizabeth later posed in their costumes in the Terem Palace (1635–36) of the Moscow Kremlin.

The ball was held in the Concert Hall of the Winter Palace – part of the Neva Enfilade – which was decorated with stands imitating the interiors of a Moscow palace in the seventeenth century. The dancing was choreographed by two professional ballet directors and dancers, Nikolai Aistov and Jósef Krzesiński (brother of Mathilde Kschessinska).

The costume ball of 1903 was the last joyous court event in the history of Imperial Russia – after this came the Russo-Japanese War, the 1905 revolution and the discovery of haemophilia in the Tsarevich Alexis.

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