Kostyumirovannii Bal V Zimnem Dvortse

The Costume Ball at the Winter Palace

Published in Two Volumes by "Russky Antiquariat" Moscow 2003


Over the course of two days in February 1903 -- the 11th and 13th -- a magnificent costume ball was given at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.  On the orders of the Emperor and Empress of Russia, their guests were to arrive clothed in the fashions of seventeenth century Russia.  In memory of "such a marvelous festivity," Empress Alexandra planned a souvenir photograph album, which was to be sold for charitable purposes; so deep was her involvement in the project that she can truly be considered the editor-in-chief of the finished book, which was finally published in 1904.  Only a few of these original albums remain, held in private hands, or in rare book libraries, museums and other collections.  The Ball itself never faded from the historical record, and its memory still serves to illustrate the fabulous splendor of Imperial Russia.

In 2003, in a brilliantly conceived and executed exercise, the publishing house "Russky Antiquariat" produced a tribute to the 1903 Ball and its 1904 Book.  The idea of a complete reproduction of the 1904 album was rejected as nonsensical -- the editorial staff believed that original album belongs to its own moment in time, and that any exact reproduction of it would be essentially meaningless one hundred years later.  Instead, "Russky Antiquariat" chose another path: A two-volume memorial to the life, times and artistry of this unique event.

The first volume of the "Russky Antiquariat" work contains reproductions of research materials and documents, including excerpts from the diaries of Ball guests; watercolor reproductions of Ball events -- such as Princess Yussupov's solo "Russian Dance"; seating charts for dinner; menus; lists of those invited to watch the Ball from the Gallery; and -- interestingly -- a note detailing the fact that some fourteen people "refused" to attend!  In this volume, there are also several photographs that were not included in the original 1903 album, and a detailed accounting of any extant costumes of the night, including photographs and short histories of ownership, storage and restoration.

The dress worn by Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, for example, was owned by the State Museum of Ethnography, but has been in the Hermitage collection since 1941.  The Laboratory of Scientific Restoration of Textiles in the State Hermitage performed restoration work on the costume in 2002.  The dress is white silk, woven with white velvet and gold thread; it is lined with more white silk and trimmed with gold braid and artificial pearls in the lap and sleeves.   Xenia Alexandrovna wore it with a kokoshnik and veil.  



The barmy is a detachable collar of brocade, decorated with artificial pearls. A detailed close-up of Xenia's barmy:



Also in the collection of the State Hermitage is the costume of Count Alexei Alexandrovich Bobrinsky, including feryaz, caftan, gloves and boots.  This costume was mostly made from textiles contemporary to 1903, but it does incorporate brocade and buttons dating from the eighteenth century.  The caftan is patterned crimson silk with a kozyr collar and funnel cuffs with galloon and golden embroidery.  The high boots are red morocco with red velvet and gold embroidery.  The costume originally included a hat and sash, both of which have been lost.



From the second volume, the Ball photograph of Count Bobrinsky in his costume; having the opportunity in this book to see the costumes in full color gives an idea of how exceptional the impression of the Ball -- with hundreds of costumed guests -- must have been:



In the second volume of this memorial project, there is a total of 198 illustrations, 173 of which are Ball photographs -- mostly of individuals, but there are also several charming regimental groups.  More than half of the photographs are reproduced by "Russky Antiquariat" from originals. These photographs are presented in compliance with the order of precedence decided by Empress Alexandra when she herself acted as editor on the original album --  but in this album, the facing page of each photograph contains a short biography of the individual shown, including each eventual fate.  Much of this information is unique to this book. 

There are a good many well-known photographs of the Romanov Grand Dukes and Grand Duchesses in this album, as well as the Emperor and Empress, and other luminaries of the period -- but there are also photographs of lesser-known or unknown people of the nobility whose costumes were equally beautiful and wonderfully intricate in their creation.  



Above is Princess Sofia Ivanovna Orbeliani, Maid-of-Honor and friend to Empress Alexandra.  The story of her friendship with the Empress, as well as an account of her last years at Tsarskoye Selo, may be found here: http://www.alexanderpalace.org/palace/soniaorbeliani.html  She died of a long and debilitating illness at Tsarskoye Selo, and is buried there in the Kazansky Cemetery.



Above is Princess Maria Pavlovna Chavchavadze; she was born in 1876 and died in Dorset, England in 1958.  The intricate artistry of her boyarinya costume is outstanding, and is one of my favorites, blending as it does the style of seventeenth century Russia with the Art Nouveau sensibilities of the early twentieth century.



This is Countess Sofia Alexandrovna Ferzen, who is also dressed as a boyarinya.  She was born Princess Dolgorukov in 1870, and married Count Nicholas Pavlovich Ferzen in 1893.  She died in Rome in 1957, and is buried there in a Russian Cemetery.



Natalia Ivanovna Zvegintsova is shown wearing a boyarishnya's letnik.  She has one of the plainest costumes, but one of the most interesting biographies: In September 1903, she was appointed Maid-of-Honor to the Empresses Maria Feodorovna and Alexandra Feodorovna.  During World War I, she served as a nurse in Kaufmann, continuing her service long after the end of the Empire.  When she eventually abandoned her work as a nurse, it was to enlist in the Women's Volunteer Army.  She was wounded in battle during the Civil War in September 1920, and died on 18 October.  She was thirty-seven years old, and had never married.  She must have been a singularly remarkable woman.



The beautiful Olga Mikhailovna Zografo was born in 1875; she disappeared in 1917 during the Revolution and was never seen again by her family.  Her fate remains unknown.  She is shown here as a very young-looking twenty-eight year old in her Ball costume of a boyarishnya.

The photographs of the women's costumes are more satisfying because of their varied style and decoration, while the men's costumes seemed to be darker and more somber-looking, tending towards actual occupations like "court falconer" or "streltsy."  Some of the men did take their roles pretty seriously, though, and several appear to have been in character.  Here is one of my favorite Ball photos -- it's of  sixty-five year old Bogdan (Theophil Egorovich) von Meiendorf, who came to Ball in the very specific role of "Voevode of the Big Regiment of the army of Prince Pozharsky":



Von Meiendorf  had a long army career, seeing action in the Caucasus (1860-66), Middle Asia (1878) and Japan (1904-1905).  Following the Russo-Japanese War, he was attached to the person of His Majesty, a post he retained until his retirement in 1917. He married late in life, at the age of forty, and had  thirteen children, the last of whom were twins born in 1894.   Almost all were as long-lived as their father, who was eighty-one when he died in 1919 at his estate in Mikhailovskoye near Moscow.  He is buried in the Novodevichy Monastery.

The quality of photographic reproduction in this book is outstanding -- the level of visible detail is amazing and the "web friendly" images reproduced in this review should not be considered representative of the book's quality. And on a personal note, I totally covet Prince Kudashev's boots!  



The two volumes of this work come encased in a beautiful two-toned green slipcover, which is of a quite delicate cardboard.  Its design is utterly characteristic of the Art Nouveau movement popular in 1903 -- the arched "windows" on either side of the center picture are in the shape of the actual windows in the State Rooms of the Winter Palace. The chandeliers elegantly wrought in green silk and gilt on the cover of the second volume can been seen behind these "windows," which gives a lovely effect:






 The picture featured on the slipcover is a copy of one of the watercolors reproduced in the first album.  It was painted by M.A. Zichi; the original is held in the State Museum Reserve Collection at Pavlovsk.  It shows several scenes from the evening, including Zenaida Yussupov's famous solo Russian dance, in the center at the bottom.

Russian publishing houses do tend towards lavish and beautifully prepared books, but the quality of this publication is truly beyond reproach. The text is in both Russian and English. The paper is highest quality thick and glossy stock with matt polish and flat matt inserts in the first volume.  The thick deep brown leatherette bindings complement the green silk and gilt front cover of the second volume, and the deep green slipcover conspires to make this a very opulent package.  

The level of research presented by "Russky Antiquariat" in this book is impressive, combining as it does, work produced by historians, curators and archivists from the State Hermitage, the Museums of the Moscow Kremlin and the State Museum-Reserve Pavlovsk. Mssrs Katin-Yartsev and Shumkov are to be congratulated for their outstanding editing -- as indeed they were when the book was awarded a special diploma from the Silver Letter Grand Jury for the "comprehensive and brilliant coverage of one of the most notable events in the history of St. Petersburg."  This book is also currently included in the Gift Foundation of the President of the Russian Federation, where is it frequently selected to be presented to prominent Russian and foreign individuals at major diplomatic events.

If you buy only one expensive book for your Romanov collection in 2007, let it be this one -- and most especially if you enjoy photograph albums.  Weighing in at a steep $400 (and a mighty 11 lbs/5.2 kg!), this is not an inexpensive investment; however, it is very worthwhile saving for, and will be a valuable addition to your library, giving many hours of enjoyment and a complete immersion in the time and traditions of the 1903 Ball.

This book earns two very enthusiastic thumbs up from King and Wilson!



Reviewed by Penny Wilson, 31 December 2006. Text copyright Penny Wilson; photographs copyright "Russky Antiquariat," with permission.