The days of February 11th and 13th in the year 1903 were special in St. Petersburg. If, in the words of Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, someone were to peer through the large windows of the palace attempting to catch a glimpse of the party being held inside, they would have been somewhat confused to see that time had regressed to the 17th century: there stood the cream of Russian nobility, yes, but something didn’t quite match; men dressed in long knee-length coats and chain mail shirts, while women wore sarafans and kokoshniks, all looking as though they had stepped out of the court of Ivan the Terrible. It was a masquerade ball that has gone down in history as the last grand one of its kind, known for the exquisite costumes.

We have spoken before about Nicholas Alexandrovich Romanov, better known as Nicholas II. Born in 1868 in St. Petersburg itself, he succeeded his father Alexander III in 1894. He had received a strict, almost Spartan education, combining limited comforts with intense religious teaching and the inculcation of the concept of absolute autocracy. That period ended at the age of twenty-two when he left that closed environment for the first time to travel and participate in sessions of the State Council.

It was then that he met Alix of Hesse and Rhine, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, with whom he shared ancestors and whom he married in 1894 after her mandatory conversion from Lutheranism to the Orthodox faith and the no less required name change, as she became Alexandra Feodorovna. The marriage led a happy life until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 ended both the reign and their lives alongside their children, all shot in Ekaterinburg. Nicholas II paid dearly for his lack of preparation for the throne – which he had to assume earlier than expected – and failed to cope with the changes demanded by the country since the late 19th century, a situation that was met with a repressive policy hand-in-hand with the sinister Okhrana.

But the iron fist not only did not quell opposition but rather radicalized it, and in 1905, following the disastrous war against Japan, protests led to a popular demonstration that was brutally suppressed in what became known as Bloody Sunday. The event, a prelude to what would come twelve years later, took place precisely in front of the Winter Palace, the same palace that in 1903 presented a very different aspect, wrapped in the friendly atmosphere of a masquerade ball. A tradition, by the way, that was sublimated in that edition to such an extent that its memory has passed into posterity, to the point that the Hermitage Museum dedicated an exhibition to it in 2003 on its centenary.

This exhibition showcased some of the costumes worn by the guests imitating 17th-century fashion. A dozen, specifically, although the collection was complemented with original photographs of another thirty-four pieces that were made at the time by order of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna to form an album of one hundred seventy-three images. It was the same guests who posed, both individually and in groups, including the royal family. The money raised from the sale of these albums, mainly among those who were portrayed, was donated to the troops who had been sent to occupy Korea and Manchuria amidst increasing tension with the Japanese.

The designer of the costumes was named Sergei Sergeyevich Solomko, an artist trained at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture who specialized in illustrating books and magazines and who thoroughly researched for this commission, consulting with historians. The result was spectacular because many costumes included genuine jewels, so the guests paid fortunes for them. After the 1917 Revolution, he continued to work in that field, designing costumes for ballet, as the Soviets labeled his art as “bourgeois vulgarity”, although over time he collaborated in the founding of the Russian Academy of Arts. Ironically, today he is an appreciated author because his recreations of ancient environments are very useful to historians.

As we mentioned at the beginning, the ball of 1903 took place over two days: on February 11th and 13th. The first was the evening of February 11th, when guests gathered in the Romanov Gallery of the Hermitage and in the Grand Hall (Nikolaevsky) of the Winter Palace, entering in pairs. The central event of the evening was a concert at the Hermitage Theatre featuring scenes from three works: on one hand, the opera Boris Godunov by Mussorgsky, whose main moments were performed by the famous singers Fyodor Chaliapin and Nina Figner; on the other, a couple of ballets like La Bayadère by Minkus, and Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky, organized by the prestigious French choreographer Marcus Petipa, with a stellar performance by Anna Pavlova.

Next, everyone moved to the Pavilion Hall to witness folk dance performances. Then came dinner, which, due to the number of guests, was served in three halls: the Spanish, the Italian, and the Flemish. Once dinner was over, they returned to the Pavilion Hall for the customary dance, which that night was normal, without costumes, as that was the charm of the second day, held two days later, on February 13th, in the Malachite Hall and adjacent rooms.

At eleven o’clock, the court orchestra, also dressed in period attire, played in the Concert Hall while the guests dined at thirty-four round tables, which, again, had to be distributed in the Small Dining Room as well; likewise, the Malachite Hall hosted more tables for the subsequent tea. The dance began with exhibition dances – including one performed by the dancer Felix Kshesinsky – and lasted until one in the morning with waltzes and mazurkas. This time, the guests wore the sumptuous costumes in the picturesque Russian fashion of the 17th century.

Photographs from the aforementioned album show the imposing costumes worn: boyars with high fur hats and velvet coats suddenly reappeared alongside streltsy with long coats and bardiches (a kind of axe), or ladies in sarafans (the traditional rural dress) and kokoshniks (also traditional headdresses). Young officers from the Guard regiments looked like their cavalry counterparts, and the rest chose to dress as falconers, archers, and the like, like Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, wearing a white caftan, leather boots, and embroidered eagles.

Nicholas II appeared embodying Tsar Alexei I, the father of Peter the Great, leading by the hand the Tsarevich, who wore gold brocade. However, it was the Tsarina who, in a satin dress, a crown studded with pearls and precious stones designed by Fabergé, plus a giant emerald on her chest, dazzled the audience evoking Maria Miloslavskaya. She was the first wife of Alexei I and mother of Tsar Feodor III, who, following a Byzantine custom probably introduced by Sophia Palaiologina, had been chosen as a bride for her beauty among two hundred aristocratic candidates specially summoned to the court. Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, sister of Nicholas II, dressed as a boyar and inspired Trisha Biggar, the costume designer of The Phantom Menace, for one of Princess Amidala’s dresses.

The masquerade of 1903 has passed into posterity thanks to the preserved graphic documentation and that extravagant character framed in the circumstances that would shake Russia not long after. After all, as mentioned by the aforementioned Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, the Tsar’s brother-in-law, it was the last spectacular ball in the history of the empire (…) While we were dancing, in St. Petersburg the workers were on strike and ever thicker clouds were gathering over the Far East. Ironically, the third centenary of the Romanovs in 1913 was commemorated by editing a deck of cards whose figures were the members of the family dressed in their costumes, which later became the most used deck in the Soviet Union.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on August 2, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en El extravagante baile de disfraces ruso de 1903 que sirvió de inspiración para el vestuario de la película «La amenaza fantasma»


Edvard Radzinsky, The last Tsar. The life and death of Nicholas II | Douglas Smith, Former people. The final days of the russian aristocracy | Peter Kurth, Tsar. The lost world of Nicholas and Alexandra | Museo del Hermitage | Wikipedia

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