Pocket Profiles · Russia

Pocket Profile – Catherine the Great

To augment the knowledge from our Lost Magnificence series, we are dipping into the history of various members of the Romanov family. The life and reign of Catherine the Great is far too vast for a mere “Pocket” Profile. That very concept is to giggle over. We are simply looking at the highlight reel here, and taking a quick peek at some very regal dressing. Actually, this entire post should be subtitled “Neither Russian nor a Romanov, but definitely a RULER.”

Starting with jewels, as we like to, Catherine’s monogram is shown below.

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The lady herself, in all her glory:

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Life at a Glance

  • She wasn’t a Romanav, or even Russian. She was born Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, in 1729, the daughter of a Prussian prince of minor means.
  • She married the man who would become Peter III of Russia (also, not Russian nor a Romanov!), even though from their earliest meetings she neither liked nor trusted him. It was an entirely political and financially motivated pairing.
  • Unlike some arranged marriages, fondness never grew between the pair. Catherine would eventually have four children, and there are significant doubts that any of them were Peter’s. The oldest, who would become Paul I, was the acknowledged heir and considered the son of Peter III for the sake of propriety. Catherine liked to drop hints that – well, maybe he really wasn’t.
  • With the help of Russia’s military factions, Catherine was part of a bloodless coup that overthrew her husband only six months into his reign. Peter III died shortly after the coup, and his mysterious death cast a pall over the first part of Catherine’s reign.
  • Catherine ruled through 33 years, a period of civil unrest, domestic turmoil and a great expansion of her empire. Ruling from 1762 to 1796, she became an iconic figure who dominated Russian history for decades.
  • She loved to dress the part, and had some throw-down fabulous clothes to show for it.

Court Dress

Catherine the Great initially continued the sumptuous dressing of her predecessors. Early in the century, Peter the Great had dictated that the Russian court wear westernized dress. The ladies wore enormous skirts and clothes studded with jewels and semi-precious stones. Catherine dressed relatively modestly until her husband ascended to the throne, but once she was Empress Consort and then Empress, her skirts became the broadest of all, her clothes the most embroidered.

Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue, with one of Catherine’s wedding dresses, just for perspective’s sake.

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Beginning in the 1770s, court fashion also began to reflect the traditional Russian style. This was driven, in part, by the desire of the Empress to impose the national character in her own wardrobe. Catherine was not born Russian, but she could certainly dress the part. This style for upper class Russian women evolved and was eventually coded into court life by Nicholas I, in 1834. During Catherine’s reign, the upper sleeves of dresses became broad, and the front of the dress was often decorated in the form of a Russian sarafan. You also saw the use of the kokoshnik headpiece with the veil come into fashion. This fashion would continue in the Russian court until the end of the Romanov regime.

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Note: If you don’t follow Catherine Curzon on Twitter, you should. Her #frockingfabulous tweets are, well, fabulous. Lauren Deutsch also does a TsarinaSaturday post that is fun to follow!