Pocket Profiles · Russia

Pocket Profile – Empress Maria Feodorovna (Dagmar of Denmark)

We are jumping 100 years from Catherine the Great to another foreign-born Empress Consort, Maria Feodorovna. In a world of royal intermarriage, she may have been one of the most connected royals. She was certainly one of the most beautiful. She also lived a life that did not lack drama, as we shall see.

As LuckeyGirl says, these Romanov pieces are no mere “Pocket Profiles”, but should be called “Packed Profiles”.

Fast Fact: There are two Maria Feodorovnas in Russian royal history: One born Dagmar of Denmark and one born Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg, who was the wife of Paul I of Russia. We’ll get to her later!

Young Dagmar Wikimedia Commons

Life at a Glance

  • She was born Princess Dagmar of Denmark in 1847. Her father was King Christian IX of Denmark, her older sister became Princess (then Queen) Alexandra of England, two of her brothers were kings of Denmark and Greece, and her nephew eventually became King of Norway.
  • Within her family of origin, she was known as “Minnie”. Her large family was close, and, by royal standards, lived casually.

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Princesses Dagmar and Alexandra of Denmark

  • She was first engaged to the heir apparent of Russia, Nicholas Alexandrovich, who died of meningitis during their engagement. It was true love, and Dagmar was distraught over the death of her intelligent and charming fiance. She had also fallen in love with Russia the country and was happy to marry Nicholas’ younger brother, Alexander III.
  • This second engagement was also very successful, even though Alexander – a big bear of a man – was much less refined, educated, and liberal-minded than his brother. They married in 1866, and there was never any sign of unhappiness or infidelity. Dagmar was all in.
  • Dagmar adapted very well to the challenging ways of the Russian court, which was formal, rigid, and as different from the relaxed Danish royal lifestyle as it could be. She was an excellent consort to her conservative – some would say reactionary – spouse.
  • Dagmar became Maria Feodorovna upon her conversion to Orthodoxy.
  • She became Tsarina upon the assassination of her father-in-law, Alexander II in 1881, a traumatic event but one in which she was a stable force.
  • She was a popular Tsarina within the Russian court. This woman *loved* dressing up, she adjusted to the elaborate, over-the-top Russian style with ease. Like her sister, Queen Alexandra, she had no problems with piling on the jewels.
  • Life as a Russian royal was not entirely easy. All Russian rulers lived under significant fear for their safety and that of their families. With good cause, as history determines.

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Maria Feodorovna, circa 1880, showing she was a pro at icing it up. She would become Empress the next year.

  • She had six children. Perhaps stemming from her background in the close Danish royal family, she was a surprisingly involved mother. She was particularly involved in her son’s lives, which will have consequences for her son Nicholas.
  • Her son Alexander Alexandrovich died in infancy and another son, George Alexandrovich, died at age 28 in a motorcycle accident.
  • The Empress herself died in 1928, ten years after the Bolshevik assassination of her oldest two sons, Nicholas II and Michael. She outlived four of her six children.

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Court Dress and Other Dress

Court dress had been codified by Nicholas I in the early 1830s, and had not changed much since that time. The dresses of Maria Feodorovna are particularly beautiful and there are many well-preserved samples still on display. Court dress contained three separate pieces. There was a white “underskirt” of satin, a velvet bodice (or corsage), and a velvet train, which was removable The train length was determined by rank and all the velvet pieces sported marvelously intricate embroidery. Since Maria Feodorovna was the Empress, and the highest ranked woman, her court dresses are particularly impressive.

(The pink gown was owned by the Empress. The red court gown in the slide show below is that of a Maid of Honour to the court. Note the slightly shorter, but still impressive, train. Both photos from The Hermitage. )

The Empress was a fashionable woman, much like her older sister Alexandra. Her wardrobe included elaborate gowns by Worth, and “at home” wear that was both fashionable and probably more comfortable than the prescribed court dress. She retained her slim figure throughout her life and loved to show it off.

Maria *loved* dressing the part of Tsarina, and by all accounts was good at the role, too. Her love of the intrigue and ostentation of the court would actually pose a bit of a problem for the bride of her son Nicholas, the heir, as we will see in the next Pocket Profile.