Ekaterina (2014) – Nyet Bad Costumes


Finally, the popular Russian-made TV series about the life of Catherine the Great is available in the U.S. for streaming on Amazon! The original title was Ekaterina, airing in 2014. The title on Amazon is Ekaterina: The Rise of Catherine the Great, and this name feels more accurate because it takes 3 out of 10 episodes just to get to Ekaterina’s marriage to Pyotr Fyodorovich. This show is all about the rise, alright. But the storytelling is worth it, even if the costuming isn’t always.

Ekaterina (2014)

The orthodox ceremony, all dark and serious.

2014 Ekaterina

Followed by a fancy minuet.

Before I selectively bitch about the costumes, let me heap praise on the acting, especially Yuliya Aug as Empress Elizaveta I, Pyotr’s aunt and predecessor. She is a real bad-ass! The historical figure was amazing — a solo female monarch a la England’s Queen Elizabeth I, except she gained the throne by in a military coup, where she allegedly put on armor, grabbed a cross, and told the army: “Whom do you want to serve: me, your natural sovereign, or those who have stolen my inheritance?”

Though that happens well before the events of this TV series, Aug’s performance captures Elizaveta’s strength and political acumen, as well as her sensual side. She may have been unmarried, but she didn’t even pretend to be a virgin queen. She had a number of lovers, and in this show, her most well-known, the “Night Emperor,” Alexei Razumovsky (played by Aleksandr Lazarev) is her most trusted advisor and is seen in both court and bedroom scenes. This is particularly lovely as Aug and Lazarev are not the typical young, lithe types shown in intimate settings, and their romance is filmed as attractively as any other.

Ekaterina (2014)

Alexei and Elizaveta, all formal.

Ekaterina (2014)

And informal.

As for Ekaterina herself, she starts out as a idealistic, hopeful Princess Frederika, thinking she’ll fall in love with Prince Charming Pyotr. It takes her stupefyingly long to realize that he’s a dweeb, more obsessed with his dogs and toy soldiers than anything else. Empress Elizaveta is a useful role model for Ekaterina (this is the name Frederika takes when she converts to Russian Orthodoxy), but they have a falling out soon after the younger woman finally marries the heir. And that’s when Ekaterina begins to assert herself, and the story’s focus slowly shifts from the older generation to the younger. If you’re into royal intrigue and political machinations, this series will satisfy, and not just in a soap-opera, bed-hopping way (yes, there’s some sex, but it’s not that cliche “I will use my body to get my way” thing; it’s just “a woman has needs, no big deal,” which, from all accounts, is what both Elizaveta and Ekaterina did).

Ekaterina (2014)

It’s cute, if pointless, that Ekaterina dresses up and plays soldier to try and get close to Pyotr.

While I’m about to nitpick the costumes — as we do here at Frock Flicks — I think it’s interesting to note this interchange in a Russian publication, AIF, with actress Marina Aleksandrova who plays Ekaterina (translation via Google):

AIF: “The Russian viewer, unlike the American and European, likes to look for inaccuracies in historical cinema, which in the West is accepted without any claims to call ‘costume dramas.’ How would you explain this?”

Marina Aleksandrova: “They say that, according to statistics, we are a more reading nation than the rest. I do not know who really counted this statistics and how reliable it is, but this assumption can not be ruled out either. In addition, we have an increased interest in history in principle, since it is rich. There is something to dig.

Here is this cultural code and love of history, perhaps, and make viewers to be more meticulous towards the adaptation of classics, to historical cinema. And we do not know how to let go of our emotions. We always want to find a horseshoe, I want to cuss someone (laughs). But it is much easier to criticize than to praise.”

I can’t tell if that means this series has more historically accurate content in Russian eyes (it does follow the basic historical events, IMO), but I’m amused at the cultural comparisons!

Ekaterina (2014)

The not-so-happy imperial family.



Costumes in Ekaterina

Well, the costumes are not as shitty as, say, The Tudors or gods forbid, Reign, however, the hair makes close to zero attempt at historical accuracy and there are more back-lacing gowns than not. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being Wolf Hall as having the most historically accurate costumes on screen today, I’d say Ekaterina is a solid 6 with pretensions towards 7 or 8. The silhouette and the fit is good, especially on Yuliya Aug — OMG, she always looks amazing! It’s so easy to make a plus-size actress look bad in historical costume, but the costume designers Valentina Kameneva and Svetlana Moskvina did a fantastic job making sure Aug looks gorgeous in every scene. That’s some shit that does fit, baby!

Ekaterina (2014)
Ekaterina (2014)

Questionable fabric choices, but her rack is smokin’ hot in this gown, all while she is ruling with an iron fist!

Ekaterina (2014)

However, I doubt she was a redhead — like most of these court women and men, the Empress probably powdered her hair because starting with Peter the Great, the Russian court was really into copying French fashions. Check out this portrait, below, where you can see the top of Empress Elizaveta’s head is powdered white but the curls around her neck are brownish or at least dark blonde.

Elizabeth of Russia by L. Tocque, Tretyakov Gallery, from Wikimedia Commons.

Elizaveta of Russia by L. Tocque, Tretyakov Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.

Ekaterina (2014)

This basically how their hair is throughout the whole series. Elizaveta’s can pass OK, but Ekaterina has a modern bridal updo.

Since I started into the hair, OK, WTF, why no wigs on any of the men except for the servants? Yeah, really, they did that. This is not the 19th century, when wig-wearing, liveried servants was an affectation to show how rich you were. It was fashionable for men to wear wigs in the 1740s-50s, when this series takes place. In fact, it had been fashionable for men to wear wigs for about a century, so really, the buzzcuts and floppy short hair on all the court dudes is ridiculous.

Alexei Razumovsky, Nikita Ivanovich Panin, Alexey Bestuzhev, Ivan Betskoy

Look — Elizaveta’s lover Alexei Razumovsky (top left), and her court advisors (clockwise) Nikita Ivanovich Panin and Alexey Bestuzhev, and Ekaterina’s court advisor Ivan Betskoy, are all wearing powdered wigs. It was totally a thing.

Ekaterina (2014)

Yet this is the typical lineup of court men in Ekaterina. Where are the wigs???

Ekaterina (2014)

Oh here they are — we only see these low-quality white (not powdered!) wigs on serving-class men. You’re doin’ it wrong.

Pyotr too, he should be wearing a wig, and while yes, it’s accurate that he’s clueless and weird, he probably didn’t dress like a peasant all the time because, c’mon, he was still the heir to the empire. He doesn’t get a decent suit until he’s married.

Coronation portrait of Peter III by Lucas Conrad Pfandzelt,1762. Wikimedia Commons.

Coronation portrait of Peter III by Lucas Conrad Pfandzelt,1762. Wikimedia Commons.

Ekaterina (2014)

For the wedding ceremony, his hair is at least tied back to resemble a wig’s queue. But that’s all we get.

OK, let’s look at the supposed star of the show, Ekaterina. The series starts in 1744, a year before her wedding, when Frederika is a relatively poor German princess, loitering around court with her mom, trying to get Pyotr to put a ring on it. Her clothes are rather plain, she doesn’t have any jewelry, and she wears her hair in a bun. Let’s look at what the historical young woman looked like about this time:

Grand Duchess Ekaterina by L. Caravaque, 1745, Gatchina Museum. Wikamedia Commons.

Grand Duchess Ekaterina by L. Caravaque, 1745, Gatchina Museum. Wikimedia Commons.

Seems she didn’t powder her hair, but she was just 16. See also, poor (for nobility) and German. At least her gowns were painted to impress.

Grand Duchess Ekaterina by Georg Christoph Grooth, 1745. Wikimedia Commons.

Grand Duchess Ekaterina by Georg Christoph Grooth, 1745. Wikimedia Commons.

In Ekaterina, the TV series, she does start out wearing dumpy dresses, I guess to look like the poor relation, but these outfits push that point a little far.

Ekaterina (2014)

Here is Ekaterina’s early court look — a big, ol’ princess-seamed MEH.

Ekaterina (2014)

Here’s her other standard look. What the frock is up with those winged epaulets? Also, I can see boning through the front of the faux-stomacher, that’s a bit clunky.

Ekaterina (2014)

This orange and green dress is the worst — grommets with contrasting back lacing! weird wing epaulets! and wait for the front…

Ekaterina (2014)

THEY PIPED THE PRINCESS SEAMS. (Don’t show Kendra, she’ll need a lie-down.)

Ekaterina (2014)

In the same episode, she wears this quite lovely striped “zone” gown (while her mother, kneeling, gets berated for spying).

Ekaterina (2014)

There, in the back, that resembles historically accurate construction for an 18th-century gown! You can do this!

It’s a plot point for Ekaterina to get better clothes as the wedding approaches — Empress Elizaveta gives Ekaterina new gowns, while also bragging that she has 32,000 gowns herself. Which could be accurate, as the Empress had a reputation for extravagant clothing, never wearing the same gown twice, and the often changing gowns multiple times a day. #LifeGoals

Ekaterina (2014)

Sometimes, you have scenes like this, where the lines, colors, and sumptuousness just look right for the Russian court. Soft-focus blurs out the details.

Ekaterina (2014)

Ekaterina’s wedding dress is 90% great, although the sequined embroidery is a bit too asymmetrical and modern to my eye.

Ekaterina (2014)

On a rare visit with her son, she wears this blue (poly baroque?) satin number. Nice shape, despite the sketchy fabric and trims.

Ekaterina (2014)

But this gown is great! More like this, please!

Ekaterina (2014)

This pet-en-l’air jacket is quite a good historical look too, and I’ll forgive the hair hanging down because she’s sneaking out to meet her lover (or just she had sex with him, can’t remember).

Ekaterina (2014)

For a masquerade ball, everybody cross-dresses, and the women get the better end of the deal by wearing soldier’s uniforms. The men get the most pathetic of gowns, and these shitty Southern Belle wigs were obviously just taken out of the bag and plopped on the guys’ heads.

Ekaterina (2014)

Behind-the-scenes shot of the masquerade ball provides a detailed look at the crappy Party City “Marie Antoinette” wig and clown-white makeup. This makes me sad.

Ekaterina (2014)

I feel like they mostly use corsets as props, not so much underneath all the gowns (especially judging by the amount of boning that can be seen through the gowns), but I could be wrong.

Ekaterina (2014)

So. Much. Back-lacing. It’s in the opening credits, fer chrissakes.

A second season of Ekaterina played in Russia in early 2017, and this chronicled more of the Empress’ actual reign (you can find season 2 online, but I don’t know if the links are legit). Some screencaps are floating around, and I think maybe the costumes are a little better quality. The first season was watched by about 20% of the country when it first aired, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the second season got a higher budget.


Will you say da or nyet to Ekaterina?

30 Responses

  1. revknits

    Watched the whole season 1 online somewhere – just binge-watched it was so much fun. How could you not comment on the several way too short gowns of Ekaterina! I laughed so much at those. The actress playing Elizabeth rocked – will miss her.

  2. Caroline

    I really loved this show. I was surprised that it was mostly accurate. Though I did note most of the things that you did in your commentary. That zone front gown jumped out at me because those didn’t show up for another twenty years at least. But still, good show. I’m looking forward to season two.

      • Leigh

        Season 2 is up on Amazon! I can’t speak to the fabrics, but I did notice a LOT more robes à la Française,

      • Elyse

        Season 2 is up and it looks like they did get that major budget improvement. I only noticed one truly glaring back-laced dress, with metal grommets you are shocked, I know. (It’s an extended shot of a main character, during a ball, from the back. Ouch) The one thing that stood out most, and it comes solely from learning from you lovely ladies, is that they have Catherine in a black court dress that look like 1730-1750 appearing in the 1770-80s.

        Also, take a note of the portraits that appear. Some are better that others, but it looks like they at least tried to make them look of the period.

  3. Athene

    We liked it overall – but then we are Tsarist history obsessed here. And you are right – the costumes weren’t as bad as they could be; the sudden “WTF is that” clothing intrusion into the story line was relatively low. So, two thumbs up, with caveats. >>On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being Wolf Hall as having the most historically accurate costumes on screen today,<< Except for that astonishing, head-scratching tabard-schmata-thingy that Anne Boleyn wears for archery practice.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yeah, that’s always the Wolf Hall caveat ;-) But I really enjoyed the story of Ekaterina, a lot more fun to watch that most of the things out there.

  4. Nzie

    Thanks for highlighting this—I’ll have to look for it on Netflix. I am surprised they didn’t do better on the costumes/hair; I’d largely agree with the cultural self-assessment (although reserving on the comparison). Russians go to art and historical museums all the time—I’ve waited in a long line out the door for a special pre-Raphaelite exhibition, for example, in Moscow, and on new year, their biggest winter holiday, the same was true for the Hermitage. I’ve been to Catherine Palace (named for Elizabeth’s mother, not Catherine II—never “the great” under communism), Catherine’s Moscow palace, the Hermitage, the Tretyakov—there’s no lack of portraits, and in general Russians do beautiful recreation work, with incredible precision. (Sometimes I feel that Russians love beauty like the rest of us love air.) So the lack of wigs is really odd to me. But I do look forward to watching the series regardless—be interesting to see a Russian popular take on the history.

  5. atmarquise

    I think that wiglessness and other oddities in costumes is just because of a really strict budget. Just look at another russian tv-series about Ekaterina “The Great” (2015). They had the largest budget among any other russian tv-series ($10millions is the craziest sum for russian tv), so “The Great” has wigs (though rather “plastic”), dresses are richier and so on.

  6. JDV

    I’m surprised the costumes weren’t better when they have cases and cases of Catherine’s actual gowns on display to work from… not to mention the abundance of portraits and statues. Oh well, I’ll definitely be checked this out anyway!

    • atmarquise

      Unfortunately, they had historical sources, but had not enough money to reproduce it :(
      Russian tv-series usually have a very limited budget.

  7. Susan Pola Staples

    I, too binge watched this on YouTube for season 1. I was impressed with the 85-90% historical accuracy, and like Athene am pro-Tsarist Russia here too. I’m looking forward to seeing Matilde (about Mathilde Kschessinkaya and Nicky II love affair, his marriage to Alix and her subsequent affairs with two of Nicky’s cousins)
    What I giggled and popcorn tossed at screen (actually hard as I watched on my smartphone) was the backlacing garments, poly-brocade fabric. I wanted to give the designers an award for making Elizabeth Petrovna look awesome and powerful.
    I will watch season 2 when it gets on YouTube or Netflix.

  8. Knitms

    Bringing up the costuming of Elizabeth Petrovna, I would love for you guys to do a best and worst plus size costuming lineup (if there are actually enough characters in costume dramas that aren’t normal/thin). Certain time periods were spectacular for the larger figure yet, there are so many ill fitting sacks out there (or they’re just straight up boring matronly stuff). It perpetuates the idea that either everyone in the past was super thin, and/or that larger people didn’t/don’t care about their appearance.
    On the good side, I would have to list the HBO biopic Bessie, for making me reconsider the 1920’s as a “thin girls only” decade. On the bad side, Taboo’s depiction of the Prince Regeant, which was both ill fitting and gross.

  9. Yanina

    Wanted to check it for ages, your post is a good push into right direction. I have a small crush on Alexander Lazarev, guess ogling him could compensate for back-lacing moments.
    There is also series called “Secrets of the coup d’etats” (Тайны дворцовых переворотов) dealing with two previous decades of Russian history from Peter the Great’s death through subsequent head cutting and different plots to ascendancy of Empress Anna Ioannovna. I watched 6 out of 8 episodes couple of years ago, and it was all glitter but more or less good both in terms of plot and costuming (men had huge wigs, too). The director said it was intended to be specifically focused on lives of Russian empresses and consorts.
    But my all-time favourite is Russian version of “Queen Margot” – to the point that I sometimes confuse the actress with Margot portraits facepalms

  10. Brenna Beattie

    Wow. Agreeing with your rating of historicity. I’m reminded a little of the Sophia Coppola Marie Antoinette. Okay, not everything was rock solid period, but I managed to forget that (and the script, oof, yuck, I hope it sounds better dubbed in French) because I was too wrapped up in the Atmosphere and I can forgive some anachronism in color (like that one hot pink number). Ekaterina’s zone front is gorge, though I could be biased as I have wanted a zone front for ages. Thanks for letting me know that this exists!

  11. picasso Manu

    “Also, I can see boning through the front of the faux-stomacher…”
    That’s not all I can see. Did she really flatten her boobs down along her ribcage that way?
    Not the point (pun intended) of the stays, and ouchies besides!

  12. M.E. Lawrence

    Thanks! I didn’t know about this series, and I’ve been a fan of C the G since I was a teenager–heading over to YouTube now.

  13. Nonnymus

    I can tell Russians appreciate historical accuracy because even their ballet companies have pretty accurate historical costumes!

  14. Ryan Lege

    Had to stop watching after the second episode! I was like…”What the hell is going on with the attire?” It’s the 18th century folks…wigs are absolutely non-negotiable. Sorry…couldn’t do it no matter how good the acting was. What a shame…

  15. AnnaGraceDreams

    I can’t believe you haven’t mention the jewelry. It is horrid ! There was no clip on earrings in 17-th century. You can see the cheap plastic and rhinestones ( at very best) . Tacky!

  16. Ric

    Guess I am truly Western. I watched the story from the viewpoint of historical perspective, acting talent and visual entertainment. The costumes were adequate to support those goals and I didn’t quibble about the threads per inch of the fabrics or the design of the fasteners. For me, those details are too trivial to affect the entertainment value of the series. Which, of course, means I stumbled onto the wrong website and commentary. All the best…

  17. dianne

    Thanks for your review of this show. I’m in the process of binging and I’ve gotta say..I love it!
    I’m not as expert in historical costuming, but I’ve learned so much from this blog site that I actually noticed many of the “bad” things you pointed out. Thanks again for all the fun!