Anastasia Shteinert, Communications and Engagement Manager

This winter, the attributes of traditional Russian style went viral on social media. On TikTok and Instagram, people all around the world record themselves wearing fur coats, fluffy hats, and ornamented babushka-style scarves. This fashion became known as the Slavic Girl Trend.

A somewhat similar surge of interest in Russian national costume occurred in the very westernized elite of the Russian Empire. The trend was further promoted by the 1903 costume ball in Saint Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire. The ball was arranged by the last Russian Emperor, Nicholas II, and his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna. 

The 1903 ball in the Winter Palace, the Emperor’s residence, became one of the biggest social events of Nicholas II’s reign in Saint Petersburg. All the guests wore 17th-century style costumes, custom-made by top designers. These costumes, depicted in a series of photographs, served not only as unique artifacts of that era, but also as a source of inspiration for designers of the future generations, including those involved in crafting costumes for Star Wars. 

The Russian History Museum is home to a massive souvenir album of the 1903 costume ball containing photographs of guests in their magnificent attire: 21 heliogravures and 174 phototypes, ranging from single portraits to large group photos. The album was donated to the museum by Sergei Polonsky in 1981. 

The album was released in limited edition in 1904. It was sold primarily among the ball participants, and proceeds from sales went to charity.

Album of the costume ball at the Winter Palace, February 1903, St. Petersburg. Russian History Museum collection

The concept of the costume ball in traditional Russian attire corresponded with the spirit of that time. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, many artists and intellectuals found inspiration in Russian folklore and attributes of Russian life preceding the westernizing reforms of Peter the Great in the early 18th century. This trend took hold during the reign of Nicholas II’s predecessor Alexander III. In many ways, Alexander shared the ideas of Slavophilism, a 19th-century movement that emphasized the unique cultural and historical aspects of the Slavic peoples and often rejected further westernization of Russia. In visual art, for instance, attention to Russian folklore and tradition was reflected in the paintings of Viktor Vasnetsov, one of the founders of the neo-Russian style.

It was Empress Alexandra Feodorovna who came up with the initial idea of a grand costume ball in the Winter Palace commemorating the 290th anniversary of the House of Romanov. Most likely she and Nicholas II viewed the ball not as a regular masquerade, but as a step towards reviving the rituals and costumes of the Moscow court and continuing the traditions of the distant era before Peter the Great. Preparation for the spectacular occasion took much time and financial resources, but proceeded successfully and was well-documented.

Chromolithograph of Tsar Mikhail Feodorovich (1596–1645) from "Book About the Election of His Majesty, Tsar and Grand Duke Mikhail Feodorovich to the Throne," Moscow, 1856. Russian History Museum collection. This 17th-century garb was imitated at the 1903 ball.

The celebration took place in two phases, on February 11 and 13. On day one, guests gathered in the Winter Palace, proceeding in pairs to greet the imperial couple with the traditional “Russian bow.” The greeting was followed by a concert in the Hermitage Theatre, featuring scenes from Modest Mussorgsky’s opera “Boris Godunov” (featuring the famous singer Fyodor Chaliapin) and ballet excerpts from Ludwig Minkus’ “La Bayadère” and Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” The evening concluded with dinner and dances.

Feodor Chaliapin in the role of Boris Godunov, ca. 1935. Estate of Dr. Simeon Iosifovich Popov

For the second day, all participants dressed up in costumes imitating the fashion of the 17th century. Emperor Nicholas II, for instance, was dressed in a suit that replicated the dress of his beloved ancestor, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (1629–1676). Nicholas wore a robe (kaftan) and train (opashen’) of gold brocade, a royal cap lined with fur, and held a staff in his hands. Some details for his dress came from the original 17th-century garments. Empress Alexandra Feodorovna wore the costume of Tsarina Maria Ilyinichna, wife of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. Alexandra’s Slavic-style crown (koruna) was so weighty that even leaning over her plate at dinner was challenging [1].

Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna in their 17th-century style costumes

Alexandra Feodorovna’s elder sister, Elizaveta, wore a kokoshnik—a traditional Russian headdress—and was lauded as the belle of the ball. Among other high-ranking guests were Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, Princess Zinaida Yusupova, Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, Baroness Emma Fredericks, and Countess Elizaveta Andreevna Vorontsova-Dashkova. Grand Duchess Maria Georgievna recalled: “Some mysterious magic seemed to have changed all these familiar figures into splendid visions of Russia’s oriental past.” V. N. Voeikov, a member of the tsar’s suite, wrote, “The imagination was transported back several centuries […] it gave the impression of a living dream.” [2]

Selected images from the album, Russian History Museum collection:

The ball became one of last grand events of its kind before the Russian Revolution of 1917. The event, however, had multiple cultural and historical repercussions. In 1911, the German playing card factory Dondorf developed sketches for a deck of cards called “Russian Style.” The cards featured figures dressed in costumes resembling those worn by participants of the ball. Printed in Saint Petersburg, these cards were released for the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty in 1913.

Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna and a corresponding "Russian style" playing card

The costume ball of 1903 has an unexpected connection to modern pop culture and the Star Wars franchise in particular. One of the costumes of Queen Amidala, a character from Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, featured a kokoshnik, an element of a Russian folk costume [3]. It is possible that kokoshniks became better known in the West from photographs of the ball, likely copied from one of the souvenir albums of which the Russian History Museum owns a copy. In some way, even today’s à la russe trends on social media echo the event from the distant year of 1903.

Queen Amidala's costume influenced by the traditional Russian gown and kokoshnik

The ball continues to surprise to this day. In 2021, specialists from the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg made an unusual discovery about one of the 1903 ball costumes—a small piece of fudge in the sleeve of the dress worn by Xenia Alexandrovna, the tsar’s sister. It remained there for 118 years before one of the museum employees found the treat. It was then sent for examination, which confirmed that no pathogenic bacteria or mold had formed in the fudge in over a century.

REFERENCES:

[1] “Костюмированный Бал 1903 Года” [“Costume Ball of 1903”], Virtual Museum of Nadezhda Petrovna Lamanova, https://lamanova.com/19_bal_1903.html.

[2] Richard S. Wortman, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy from Peter the Great to the Abdication of Nicholas II (Princeton University Press, 2013), 352.

[3] Here, Star Wars fans compare Queen Amidala’s costume with the one that Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna wore at the 1903 ball: http://www.padawansguide.com/gold.shtml.