Russian Elegance: Country and City Fashion (min-review andexcerpt)

Russian Elegance: Country & City Fashion from the 15th to the Early 20th Century

By Luisa V. Yefimova and Tatyana S. Aleshina (Vivays Publishing)

Publication Date: January 9, 2012

For anyone with an interest in the beautiful folk costume and decadent fashions of Russia – this is a sumptuously illustrated, and informative new book from Yefimova and Aleshina.

My interest in Russian fashion stems from both a love of folk costume and detailing (which is copious in this book), from Natacha Rambova’s fascination with Russian culture and arts (especially the Ballet Russes), but also because of the strong Russian ex-patriot influence on Parisian fashion in early 20th century. Given these interests, and the recently opened exhibition on Russia here in California (at the Sonoma County Museum of Art) and the anniversary of Fort Ross (settled by Russians), it seems appropriate to delve deeper.

Written by two staff-members of the State Historical Museum in Russia, both are experts in the field of Russian costume and fashion history. Here’s what the pair have to say on the differences between Country and Town clothing in Russia:

“The history of costume in Russia has one essential feature. At the turn of the 18th century Peter the Great, the young reforming tsar, remotely and uncompromisingly decided the destiny of Russian costume. He forced the upper strata of Russian society by decree to wear European dress. Only the peasants and the Orthodox clergy were excluded from the decree. And so, while the gentry adopted the latest Paris fashions as far as their finances allowed them to, the Russian peasants continued to wear their distinctive traditional garb. Thus costume in Russia was divided into two types: traditional Russian dress and fashionable town clothes of the Western European style.”

Dress belonging to Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, 1750s, France (left – see note 1) and Peasant Woman’s festive dress, Late 19th-early 20th Century, Yeleski district, Orlov province (right – see note 2).

“All Russian peasants, as well as town commoners and merchants favouring the manners and customs of former times wore traditional Russian dress, which was essentially Russian national costume. Fashionable town clothes were made in the Parisian style, yet not without partiality for bright colours, fancy patterns and a generous amount of trimmings. There was a general fondness for shawls, kerchiefs and wraps, which were skillfully combined with fashionable dress. . .”

Peasant woman's outer dress - corsetka; Late 19th-early 20th century Voronezh province of homespun undyed cloth. (see note 3)

“While national dress and urban costume differed in their basic features, they developed under the same social conditions and evolved in parallel. During the lively celebrations of public holidays on the country estates of the gentry, and at fairs int he towns, aristocrats came into contact with peasants and merchants. By associating with their neighbours and being part of a group containing all kinds of people, those who were interested in costume formed a kind of association. This provided fruitful soil for mutual influence by the folk and town style of Russian costume on each other. Thus, details of fashionable costume such as a low neckline and fully rounded, elbow-length sleeves of the woman’s shirt, and also outer clothes of a fashionable cut became prominent among traditional clothes. At the same time, articles of folk handicrafts such as embroidery and lace began to be used in decorating town clothes.” (8-9)

Much of what is included here corresponds with the notion of country and town influencing each other – and what is evident from the photographs is the appreciation held by all classes for intense detailing and decorative elements – Lace, embroidery, brocade, applique, pearls, fur, beading and quilting appears on every kind of clothing, for all ages and all genders. It is a beautifully produced book – and I’m thrilled to be able to share it.

Image Notes:

1. “Dress belonging to Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, 1750s, Franc. Restored with remnants of a crimson silk suplice. Silk, embroidered with coloured fabric, ornamentation, tinsel, lace. This silk dress from Empress Elizaveta Petrovna’s wardrobe was recreated by the Museun’s restorers from a church vestment. Only its front part, the skirt and part of the bodice survived. It was made of heavy reddish-orange silk of French manufacture with a self-coloured floral pattern. The Museum’s masters restored the dress from the empress’ portraits and fashion plates of the period. It is a ball dress with a narrow bodice compressing the waist and a low-cut neckline both in front and at the back. The elbow-length sleeves are of the French needle lace ‘point d’Argentan,’ and the same lace is used for trimming the neckline.” (112)

2. “Peasant woman’s festive dress, blouse, homespun skirt, apron, late 19th – early 20th century, Yeletski district, Orlov province. The blouse has straight inserts, a short body, with sewn-on collar, long sleeves with frilled cuffs. It was made from homespun linen, decorated with embroidery and cotton threads in a cross. Calico strips were sewn into sleeves. The homespun check wollen skirt, has a woven pattern band at the hem. A sleeveless, straight-cut ‘curtain’ apron with back, was made from homespun red-patterned sackcloth, with sstrips of structural embroidery sewn on, cross-shaped embroidery, lace and calico. Strips of red and white cotton fabric decorate the border of the hem.” (89)

3. “Peasant woman’s outer dress — corsetka. Late 19th-early 20th century, Voronezh province, made from homespun undyed cloth. The foreground shows a Voronezh corsetka seen from the rear – a long garment with knife pleats and decorations on the belt in the form of patterned ‘little discs’ sewn to the cloth. The ends of the sleeves are decorated with embroidery made from factory-made materials.” (95)

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