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