Catherine the Great (2019): What’s Right in the Costumes & What Isn’t

11

Now that the trauma of watching Catherine the Great (2019) is over, and I’ve recovered a bit, I thought it might be helpful to do a final post that analyzes the costumes more in depth than what I was able to do in the recap posts (too busy being exasperated at the plot and wondering WTF Catherine saw in that manbaby Potemkin). I won’t be covering every costume in the show, mainly because a lot of what Catherine wears is so repetitive. Her gowns, while beautifully made, are very standardized variations on a theme as envisioned by the show’s costumer, Maja Meschede, but as we will see, are hit and miss with historical accuracy.

The first style I wanted to address was the “court uniform” that Meschede came up with based on written and visual descriptions of the actual court costume Catherine designed. The three main design elements of these dresses as seen in the series is the loose overgown, the ruched sleeves, and the vertical band of embroidery down the center of the bodice. Meschede claims both the sleeves and the vertical trim placement were distinct to Catherine’s Russian court and were created by her taking elements of Russian peasant costume and applying them to the lavish and formal court gowns that were otherwise very similar in style to what high-status women were wearing in all the contemporary European courts.

2019 Catherine the Great

LONDON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The costumes from the upcoming Sky Original drama Catherine the Great at the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival 2019 at the BFI Southbank on April 14, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)

2019 Catherine the Great

 

Ruched Sleeves

I’ll first tackle the ruched sleeves, which of all the things about these outfits that you would think weren’t historically accurate, actually are historically accurate. Or at least, the concept is. Whether or not they were constructed as the show’s costume department constructs them is unknown, but Catherine did indeed adopt these tight-fitting pleated or gathered sleeves into her court clothing starting around 1770 and they persisted through various fashion changes into the 1780s.

“What’s very specific is the ruched sleeve,” says Meschede. “That was based on Russian farmers’ folkloric Sunday dresses.” — Maja Meschede, via Fashionista.

Fyodor Rokotov, after Roslin, Catherine II, c. 1780.

Dmitry Levitzky, Catherine the Great, 1782.

Annonymous, Catherine the Great, 2nd half of the 18th-century.

The show sort of recreates this outfit in the final episode:

Peter Falconet, Catherine the Great, 1773.

As you can see, the ruched sleeves were something of a reoccurring theme in the portraits of Catherine from the 1770s and early-1780s, but there are a couple of differences in what the portraits depict, versus how the show interprets them. Namely, the sleeves appear to be made from more substantial taffeta, satin, or velvet, than the sheer organza depicted in the show.

This portrait of Yekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova (1784) by Levitzky does show a sheer ruched overlay on the sleeves, however. By this time, sheer fabrics were in vogue all over the European continent, so it isn’t a surprise that they would make their appearance in Russian court dress.

I’m also not sure how much I buy Meschede’s claim that the sleeves were elements taken from Russian peasant costume. Most depictions of 18th-century Russian peasant women show voluminous sleeves, like this example:

Ivan Argunov (1729-1802) Unknown Woman in Russian Costume.

Now, Catherine was, in fact, depicted wearing something akin to Russian “traditional” costume (sort of a nascent national costume, or folk dress, but much fancier), intending to show her allegiance with the Russian commoners she ruled over. The typical elements of what later became the national costume of Russia are present, including the kokoshnik headdress, veil, and lavish embroidered motifs.

Annonymous, after Stephan Torelli, Catherine II, c. 1770.

Incidentally, the show does pay homage to the above portrait in the very last scene of the final episode, where Catherine elopes with Potemkin, so points there.

But overall, I’m not entirely sure where the ruched sleeves originate from, but probably not folk costume as Meschede claims. Or they’re some other element of Russian folk costume that I have yet to run across…?

One other traditional Russian element that does get incorporated into the show is the loose, short jacket worn by Catherine in a number of scenes.

Example of a jacket worn with a sarafan, probably late-18th or early-19th century.

 

Loose Robe

As for the loose robe worn over the bodice and skirt, Meschede interprets it as a sleeveless robe with a sacque back, which I’m more or less fine with. We lack visual sources the prove otherwise, so the pleated sacque-back robe is a good a guess as any, with at least some basis in plausible reality.

This portrait by Ivan Argunov of Catherine Melgunov Aleksandrovny (1777) shows enough to argue that the back of these robes were voluminous.

Military Uniform

Meschede reimagined period and royal ensembles for Catherine, but she remained authentic when designing the Empress’s military regalia, housed at The Hermitage. “She was a military lady. She was the leader of one of the biggest armies ever,” says Meschede. Catherine would color-coordinate her military riding suit according to the uniforms of the regiment. In greeting the prestigious Preobrazhensky Guard — also the main military backers in her coup — she wears green, replicated from The Hermitage archives, to match their uniforms.” — Maja Meschede, via Fashionista.

A number of Catherine II’s gowns still exist and a good example of how the over-robe was constructed can be seen in Catherine’s Preobrazhensky uniform:

Catherine II's Preobrazhensky uniform dress (1763, Hermitage).

Catherine II’s Preobrazhensky uniform dress (1763, Hermitage).

The show also recreates this outfit, but takes several stylistic departures from the original:

The back of the gown is the same “sacque” configuration as the original uniform, but the robe is unfitted to the torso in the front. Also, the undergown is made the same as all the other gowns in the show, with a separate bodice and skirt, rather than the waistcoat seen in the extant outfit. The sleeves are also different — in the original, they are probably a two piece configuration like those found in a Jesuit jacket, where the lower sleeves can be detached. The upper sleeve is designed to look like the male cuffed sleeve popular during that era, except its moved to the elbow rather than the forearm. The sleeves in the show version are just straight with a wide cuff at the wrists.

 

Center Front Embroidered Band

“There’s always a big braid going from the neckline down the corset and down the center front of the skirt. It’s like a [sarafan] dress, but much more elaborate.” — Maja Meschede, via Fashionista.

As for the center band of trim running vertically down the front of the bodice, it’s another element Meschede claims Catherine lifted from the Russian peasant costume, except I haven’t been able to find portraits of Catherine the Great showing anything looking like this trim. Granted, in at least one portrait (the 1780s Rokotov portrait, above) she has a center band of an embroidered leaf motif running down the center front of her bodice and skirt, but that’s basically the only portrait of such an embellishment. In all other portraits, however, there’s a wide array of bodice embellishment going on, from embroidery to fancy stomachers, that are pretty much par for the course for this period of European history.

Meschede claims the bodice trim used in the show is actually from the sarafan, a hold-over from the period in the early middle ages that was based on Byzantine costume (there’s a whole rich history of Byzantine princesses being sent to marry Rus’ kings that I won’t get into here, but it got to the point where Byzantine fashion ossified into aspects of regional Russian folk costume still seen today).

18th-century Russian ensemble from the Met Museum.

That said, I’m still failing to find any visual sources aside from the Rokotov portrait that show anything like a center embroidered trim used on the bodice and skirt in any of Catherine’s official portraits or extant gowns.

Banyans

Catherine’s biographies also revealed her penchant for wearing banyans: 18th-century European dressing gowns, which were influenced by the Japanese kimono. “She basically got up, made some tea — she was very self-sufficient — wore a lovely banyan and would write to Voltaire and French philosophers. It was really important to bring across the private Catherine.” — Maja Meschede, via Fashionista.

One of the major points Meschede makes throughout the series is that Catherine is always depicted in loose robes known as banyans when she is “at home” in her apartments. These garments are thought to originate from kimonos, brought back from Japan in the 17th-century, but there’s a lot of stylistic interplay between the general shape of the kimono and elements lifted from the Turkish kaftan, so by the 18th-century, the banyan had become its own thing in European fashion.

Woman’s banyan, with fabric designed by Anna Maria Garthwaite, c. 1750. In the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

2019 Catherine the Great

The banyans in Catherine the Great are probably my favorite costumes in the show, mostly because I’m just a general fan of the style (fabulous bathrobes ftw) and also because they keep to the historical silhouette better than the court gowns.

 

What did you think of the costumes in Catherine the Great (2019)? Share with us in the comments!

Tags

About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Website

Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

11 Responses

  1. NuitsdeYoung

    If I recall correctly (I did PhD on 19C depictions of the Petrine era many yrs ago), the ‘ruched sleeves’ are from an earlier style of rubashka (shirt) than those shown in the Argunov and Torelli paintings, where the sleeve style is copying Western 18C chemise sleeves. The sleeves of the shirt used to be made much longer than the arms, so were worn scrunched up. See some of Surikov’s late 19C history paintings, which are pretty good at recreating late 17C costume:
    https://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/13/01/66/08/le-matin-de-l-execution.jpg
    or one of his fancy portraits:
    https://i.pinimg.com/originals/d4/4b/4c/d44b4c8ce9d2088785a183c06ddd0c0c.jpg

    Reply
  2. JC Schwinn

    Well researched and executed costumes review.
    Mirren is amazing in everything she is in, but for my movie money, I prefer Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress.

    Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      I agree. Catherine was German, and however much she was determined to be Russian (and however much one believes, or not, in cultural stereotypes), she stayed German. I prefer Mirren as Elizabeth I. (By the way, Catherine’s memoirs of her early days at the Russian court, while undoubtedly as self-serving as any politician’s memoirs, are fascinating. She was a very precise, vivid writer: https://daily.jstor.org/the-memoirs-of-catherine-the-great/)

      Reply
      • Roxana

        I’ve always been amazed that a little German princess managed to get the support of the governing classes against her husband the native heir. Peter must have been crazy scary to make a foreign woman look like the better bet.

        Reply
    • Roxana

      I thought I recognized the look. There’s a short jacket in the V&A collection, I believe, that’s a dead ringer for that jacket. The full one though really is a Russian look, though I couldn’t swear to the century.

      Reply
  3. Shashwat

    I wonder why the designer thinks that the overgown is a loose francaise,when it certainly is not.the robe may have been a sacque back,but those wide revers,the waist seam and what should have been the lack of any apparent distinction between the bodice and the underskirt convinces that the fusion of the two styles was not a good idea.the dress should probably have looked more lie a roundgown with the overgown of a turque.Also,the regional Russian influences seemed more 19th c. than 18th.
    The fabrics however were gorgeous.

    Reply
  4. Roxana

    As I’ve said before, pretty makes you forgive a lot. Personally I’m happy if they get the silhouette and basic look right. My expectations are low 😉

    Reply
  5. Suzie Day-Davies

    I agree, the whole series was just plain BAD. The whole time I was watching it, I couldn’t help comparing it to Ekaterina (2014), the Russian series I had watched on Amazon Prime. While it was a bit soapy and the romance portion was rather melodramatic, this series about Catherine’s rise to power was quite entertaining (costuming was quite good too!). Overall, Ekaterina was far more watchable (and longer) than Catherine the Great.

    Just today I found out that there was actually a second series set during the early years of her reign and there is a third series yet to come out. So excited!

    I highly recommend someone from Frock Flicks watches Ekaterina, if only to do a single-post comparison to the Helen Mirren sh*t-show.

    Reply
    • Suzie Day-Davies

      Also, Season 2 has some great dressing scenes showing all the various layers, as well as a few times showing her maids literally sewing her in to her dress! Double yay!

      Reply

Feel the love

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.