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.

Chaliapin wrote in his memoirs: “The invitations issued to the nobles and great families indicated what costumes were to be worn. They were nearly always Russian dresses of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. It was somewhat fantastic to hear the Russian aristocrats conversing with a slight foreign accent and to see them sumptuously but tastelessly tricked out as boyars of the seventeenth century. They looked so like puppets that one was conscious of embarrassment while watching the divertissement, the more so as it was totally devoid of gaiety. The Tzar took his seat in the centre of the theatre with a solemn and dignified air, whilst we, disguised as seventeenth-century boyars, acted a scene from Boris Godounov. I maltreated Prince Chouiski in good earnest; I took him by the collar of the cloak which I, Godounov, had given him, and forced him to his knees... The boyars in the theatre applauded vigorously.”

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.”

All the costumes worn by the guests were brand new, but richly embellished with real objects dating from the seventeenth century. Thirty-eight historical accessories came from the Armoury in the Moscow Kremlin – sixteen of which were used in the costume of Tsar Nicholas II, who came dressed as Tsar Alexis MikhailovichNicholas II admired Tsar Alexis and named his only son Alexis when he was born the following year. He 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.

Nicholas’s costume was sewn by Ivan Caffi, a professional costume designer of the Imperial Theatres, who was assisted by two dressmakers. The tsar’s fur-lined cap was made by the Bruno brothers, who had been official purveyors of hats to the imperial court since 1872. The velvet fabrics and gold brocade alone cost 437 roubles (over £7,000 in today’s money) and Caffi sent the emperor a total bill for over two thousand roubles – although it was later discovered that he had in places used beads instead of pearls. Nicholas’s costume included pearl wristbands once belonging to Tsar Fyodor I and the original staff of Tsar Alexis.

Alexandra Fyodorovna was dressed as Tsar Alexis’s first wife, Maria Miloslavskaya (rather than his second wife, Natalia Naryshkina, who was the mother of Peter the Great). The empress’s costume was based on an image of Maria Miloslavskaya in an old icon, Kii Cross with Bystanders (1671), while her whole image was favourably compared by a fashionable French magazine to a Byzantine mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. Ivan Vsevolozhsky, formerly director of the Imperial Theatres (1881–99) and now director of the Imperial Hermitage (1899–1909), helped to design her costume and 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.

Tamara Karsavina, a future star of the Ballets Russes, wrote in her memoirs: “I remember especially the night of a fancy-dress ball, when the entire Court wore historical Russian dresses. That of the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna was the genuine saraphan of the Tzaritza Miloslavskaya. Being on that night only one of the corps de ballet, where comparatively little concentration was required, I was entirely taken up with the splendour of all that I could see in front of me. I strained my eyes trying to distinguish figures in the semi-obscurity of the audience. Those three in front, the Tzar and both Tzaritzas, one could see distinctly. The young Empress, in a heavy tiara, put on over a gauze kerchief entirely concealing her hair, looked like an ikon of rigid beauty; she held her head very stiff, and I could not help feeling it would be difficult for her to bend over her plate at supper. I had a better view of her in the interval while peeping through the hole in the curtain, for which there was great competition; her dress of heavy brocade was sewn over with jewels.” She added: “This year’s Hermitage presents were made after the design of Alexandra Feodorovna herself. I received a brooch with her cipher in rubies and diamonds.”

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). The costume makers were so overworked that Xenia’s dress arrived unembroidered, barely an hour before she was due to set off for the ball (she calls her dressmaker, Ivanova, a “beast” in her diary). 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 with precious stones from Cartier. 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.”

Some aspects of the ball were slightly updated for more the twentieth century. The dinner menu, for example, included consommé aux truffes, Venetian salad and duck à la rouennaise. Nicholas’s brother, Grand Duke Mikhail, wore a large diamond clasp once belonging to Emperor Paul (1796–1801) in his fur cap (which fell off at one point and was never recovered). Princess Zinaida Yussupova’s costume was too closely fitted for a real seventeenth-century dress – and, of course, ladies did not dance at the Russian court before the changes introduced by Peter the Great.

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 after the ball. 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 seventeenth-century Terem Palace inside 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 attendants were serenaded by the famous choir of Alexander Arkhangelsky, while 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, the discovery of haemophilia in the Tsarevich Alexis and the rise of Grigory Rasputin, all of which contributed to the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty in 1917. The event nevertheless had a far-reaching cultural effect, sparking a wave of interest in Russian national traditions, both at home and abroad. In December 1903, Journal des Voyages in France published an illustrated article about the ball, which paved the way for the phenomenal success of Sergei Diaghilev’s Saisons Russes in Paris five years later.

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