From Peter the Great’s doublet to the wedding dress of the last tsar’s wife Alexandra, Russia’s renowned Hermitage museum has put on display highlights from its vast and unique costume archive. A new Costume Gallery opened this month as a permanent exhibition in a huge modern building in northern Saint Petersburg that houses the Hermitage’s conservation and restoration centre.
A long gallery with panoramic glass cases features 130 mannequins wearing clothes dating from the 18th century, most of which belonged to the Romanov dynasty that ruled until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
“The costume department takes up 600 square metres (6,460 square feet). Behind the mannequins that are on show there are cupboards and dressers where we keep our collection of 24,000 pieces,” said Nina Tarasova, the display’s curator.
“What’s on show is just three per cent of our collection,” she added.
“For example, we have 280 personal items that belonged to Peter the Great — this is the most important collection of 18th-century men’s clothing in the world.”
Ruling in the 17th and 18th centuries, the tsar who founded Saint Petersburg was extremely tall for his day at around two metres (6.5 feet) and was known for his simple tastes.
From peasants to aristocrats
The exhibition’s focus is on the Romanovs, from Peter the Great to the last tsar Nicholas II and his family, who were killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 after his abdication.
But it also gives a broader picture of society, from the traditional clothes worn by peasants in various regions of Russia to the ball gowns donned by aristocrats in Saint Petersburg.
“Thanks to these items, we can learn not only about the fashions of the time but also about what size the Romanov family members were and even what they were like as people,” said Tarasova.
A ceremonial robe worn by tsar Alexander I (who ruled from 1777 to 1825), shows that he was tall and slender, while the plump Alexander III, who ruled from 1845 to 1894 and was reputed to be indifferent to fashion, is represented by a plaid suit.
A simple green wool doublet, a kind of padded fitted jacket, worn by Peter the Great, rubs shoulders with a magnificent blue dress with silver brocade that Catherine the Great, who ruled between 1729 and 1792, used to wear to review the troops.
“It took many months to create some of these dresses,” said Tarasova.
This was particularly true of a white lace dress decorated with fine embroidery, created for the wedding of tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra Fyodorovna in 1894, shortly after he took the throne.
Dressmakers and lacemakers spent more than six months creating the dress.
They look new, trendy
“This is very impressive. Most of all because all these dresses and items come from the 18th and 19th centuries, yet they look new and are even sometimes very trendy,” said one visitor, Anna Gryaznova, who was photographing Louis Vuitton suitcases from 1902.
To keep the very fragile clothing in perfect condition, there is a strict temperature regime of precisely 21 degrees Celsius (around 70 degrees Fahrenheit) with humidity of 46 per cent, and there are no windows to prevent sun damage.
Also at the Staraya restoration centre, visitors can view items of furniture and even carriages.
Visitors need to sign up in advance for a guided tour of the restoration centre, with details on the Hermitage’s website. — AFP