Mathilde Does 1890s Couture (Mostly) Right

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Mathilde, aka Matilda, currently showing on Amazon Prime under the title Mathilde: The Affair to Break an Empire, is a 2017 Russian film that purports to tell the story of future Tsar Nicholas II’s premarital relationship with ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya. There was a whole lot of controversy when this came out in Russia, because it shows the now-venerated tsar (officially: he’s now Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer in the Russian Orthodox Church) getting up to some serious premarital sexytimes. But you should watch it if for no other reason than wow, they did a (mostly) amazing job showing 1890s couture!

Okay, so the film takes massive liberties with historical accuracy. Basically it shows Mathilde as Nicholas’s One True Love, and puts the two into a love triangle with Alix (the future Empress Alexandra). While it’s true Nicholas and Mathilde had a relationship, it seems to have ended nicely as Nicholas got engaged (read more at The History Press). And according to Nicholas’s own diaries, he was super smitten with Alix.

Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining film, even if the ending rang hollow, and there are some semi-unnecessary plot threads, because THE COSTUMES, PEOPLE…

They were designed by Nadezhda Vasileva, a Russian designer whose resume consists of things I’ve never heard of, like a 2005 TV miniseries adaptation ofThe Master and Margarita. According to the film’s director, Aleksey Uchitel:

“Speaking about the costumes, I would like to mention the great work from our two costume artists and designers Nadezhda Vasileva and Olga Mikhailova. Together with their assistants, they made 7000 costumes. We relied on a number of photographs, literary sources and paintings, which is one reason why we reached this level of authenticity. There was even one case when Lars Eidinger, the lead actor, was brought to the shoot wearing a leather jacket and jeans and I asked, ‘Why is he not in a costume?’ And I was told, ‘No, during that time, it was starting to become fashionable, jeans included’. So that was one of those paradoxical things, not only all those glorious dresses and military uniforms.” (Eye for Film)

Here’s that leather coat, which I will admit, I did raise an eyebrow at.

Side note: I have now looked at SO MANY images of late 19th-century gowns by amazing designers like Charles Frederick Worth, and I am DEEP DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE OF DRESS LUST. Seriously. Start scroll through this Pinterest board and tell me if you aren’t overwhelmed with the beauty.

 

Ballet Costumes

If you’re into ballet costumes, you will be in heaven. There’s lots of close-ups of (longer-than-modern) tutus and point shoes.

Here’s the real Mathilde in a ballet costume | Photographic postcard of Mathilde Felixovna Kschessinskaya (1872-1971), c. 1898-1900, via Wikimedia Commons

And the kind of on-screen gorgeousness in the movie.

Pink!

Mathilde’s costume strap breaks at a key moment.

There’s a lot of really beautiful close-up action shots.

Okay except I have to ask, did they really have LED lights in the 1890s?

Because it’s pretty, but I was scoffing!

 

Russian Court Dress

So Russia had a formal court dress for women, instituted by Tsar Nicholas I (1825-55), which remained in place from 1834 through 1917. According to the Alexander Palace, it was described in a period source as “a white embroidered silk gown, with an embroidered velvet overdress with long, open sleeves in the Muscovite style.” The key thing visually to me is the split overskirt with train and, even more so, the long, split sleeves. Check out that Alexander Palace blog post if you’re interested in learning more.

(Late 19th – early 20th c. Ceremonial Court Dress – Hermitage

On screen, we mostly see Nicholas and Alexandra’s court mantles:

Compare that with Alexandra’s real coronation mantle, preserved at the Moscow Kremlin Museums:

1896 Coronation mantle of Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna – Moscow Kremlin Museums

However, behind-the-scenes photos show both Alexandra and Dowager Empress Maria in court dress:

I would say both look a little overly shiny and I question the fur on the sleeves, but Alexandra’s actual coronation gown is also preserved:

1896 Coronation Gown of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia

The film shows a mix of women, most, but not all, wearing Russian court dress at Nicholas’s coronation:

And here are some of those movie gowns on display:

And in case you’re wondering, here’s Nicholas’s real coronation uniform:

(1896 Coronation uniform of Emperor Nicholas II Moscow Kremlin Museums

Mathilde’s Costumes

The real Mathilde was born in 1872, started seeing the tsar when she was 17 in 1890, and was of Polish heritage.

Here’s the real Mathilde | Photographic postcard of Mathilde Felixovna Kschessinskaya (1872-1971), costumed for the Spanish dance, 1897, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the film, she’s played by dark-haired Polish actress Michalina Olszanska (note that the dowager empress’s character, originally Danish, is played by a Danish actress). This isn’t an exhaustive run-down of her costumes, but just the ones I want to talk about.

This sailor suit was super cute.

Yes, this film falls prey to corset chafing.

A pink confection.

Beautiful colors and an interesting beaded applique.

This teagown was REALLY beautiful. I love the overhang (no idea what to call it) on the bodice, which is so typical of the era, and then the mix between the light green silk and all the cream lace.

Wider shot but harder to see details.

The tsarevich gives her this ballgown to wear when he decides to take her to his birthday ball, despite everyone’s disapproval.

It’s made of a chartreuse satin with beaded lilies all over it.

It reminded me very much of this Charles Frederick Worth design for an evening gown in Harper’s Bazar, 1894. I may have tried to make a (shitty) version of this decades ago.

Purple mantle with embroidered flowers, the first time I sat up and said “HEY WAIT A SECOND.”

It’s an interpretation of this 1895-1900 coat by Marshall Snelgrove Ltd at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Lots of beautiful details, from the embroidery to the piping to the brooch.

On display!

I’m not sure why she was wearing trousers in this scene where she’s trying to research her ancestry.

And I definitely raised my eyebrows when she went all steampunk in this number. Note the leather capelet, steampunky corselet, and the leather pouch! The hat is fabulous.

Another “HEY WAIT A SECOND” when she wore this ball gown.

1898–1900 evening dress

Yep, somebody decided to make the Worth “ironwork” evening dress, 1898-1900, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It’s not 100%, but it’s a striking design and they executed it well…

Until someone decided to get all Edward Gorey on the side/back. Um, how do these two aesthetics work together AT ALL?

 

Alix’s Costumes

Originally German (Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine), the future Empress Alexandra was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. She met Nicholas in 1884 and the two fell in love, but parents and grandparents objected for a while. They finally got engaged in 1894 and were married later that year.

Engagement official picture of Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna, April 1894, via Wikimedia Commons

Alix first shows up as Alexander III is dying, so she’s in mourning (although the pink lining isn’t very mourning-appropriate).

Here’s some great lace and tucking, although did women really wear fetishy boots like that in the 1890s? Discuss.

I LOVED seeing the little zig-zag-y collar stays! These are totally period accurate and help keep the high collars up.

Okay, this outfit was A Bit Much. I could probably handle it without the weird cherries embroidered on the sleeves. It just screams “hey we got a new embroidery machine!!”

Although in close-up, the colors were great.

HAT. BROOCH. PINK RIBBON. Yasss!

This grey and pink ensemble was fabulous, but hard to screencap.

Being fitted for an in-progress dress, which her future mother-in-law sniffs at as being tacky. Agreed!

Okay but I LOVED — at least on screen — this evening gown worn to the opera. LOVE the sleeves and all the tulle and flowers on the neckline.

On display, the roses look kind of cheesy, but it read great on screen.

It reminded me a lot of this dress worn by the real Empress Alexandra | Evening Dress of Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna Hermitage

The tulle around the neckline is something you see a lot in the period, like on this c. 1902 ball gown by Charles Frederick Worth at the Palazzo Pitti.

This wrapped look on the bodice is also very of-the-period.

Here’s Alexandra and Nicholas at their wedding.

I’m not sure why they put him in his engagement photo uniform (see above) instead of the real thing he wore. | Emperor(Nicholas II on the day of the wedding in a uniform of the Life Guards Hussar Regiment with a black crape on his left sleeve, 1894, via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s movie-Alix’s dress on display.

Unfortunately all I can find in terms of what she really wore was this painting, which primarily focuses on her court mantle (which, note, she didn’t wear on screen) | Detail from Wedding of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna by Laurits Tuxen (1895), Hermitage.

The wedding night. I won’t even get into the transition as Nicholas is suddenly hot for Alix, and instead point out the corset chafing.

 

Maria Feodorovna’s Costumes

Empress Maria Feodorovna, 1884, British Library

The Empress, later Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna married the future Alexander III in 1881. She lived until 1928, and yes, is the dowager empress that you always see in all the Anastasia movies!

Here she is in mourning for her husband, but then carrying the world’s brightest parasol. That’s not how mourning works.

Also, random but, I swear the ballet director’s waistcoat (squint and you’ll see it in the middle there) is made of the same fabric as the parasol.

At a ball for Nicholas’s birthday. It was hard to screencap an all-over shot, but, GORGEOUS. Also, HOW SPOT ON DID THEY GET HER HAIR THANK YOU BABY JESUS.

The delicate shiny beadwork reminded me a bit of this ball gown owned by Empress Alexandra | Ball Dress of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, Hermitage Museum

On screen, this red embroidered dress worked.

Don’t love it as much on display, but on-screen is what matters.

More hot collar stay action!

At the opera with Nicholas and Alexandra. You don’t see much of the dress, but TIARA ON POINT.

Some more fabulous hats, and a corset, on display.

 

What are your thoughts on Mathilde‘s take on 1890s couture?

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About the author

Kendra

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Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

30 Responses

  1. Roxana

    Nicholas loved Alexandra truly, madly, deeply to the bitter end. And she loved him. She knew all about the affair with Mathilde and dismissed it as a youthful folly. Neither Nicholas nor Mathilde took their affair seriously. It was practically routine for a Grand Duke to have a dancer as a mistress, and a coup for a dancer to be that mistress. Mathilde had the class to make no trouble and moved on to Nicholas’s cousins. She played by the rules and did very well out of her Imperial affairs. She escaped Russia after the Revolution, married one of her Grand Ducal lovers and got a title for her son. She did very well in Paris. She was obviously a lady who knew how to look out for herself.

    Reply
  2. Susan Pola Staples

    I actually own the DVD. Although the costumes were superb. I really dislike their fast and loose playing with history. Anyone with any grain of sense knows Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt was Nicky’s OTP and that his determination to win her finally showed his parents that he was sincere.
    I’ll wait a year to say more so that your Patreon posts will be available.

    Reply
  3. Katriona

    I loved the ballet costumes, hair and the hats but I wasn’t into most of the other costumes. They were beautifully designed but they looked kind of cheap to me, a lot of shiny, thin material which is a real shame because if they had used nicer fabric they could have been stunning. But I get that you can’t make all the costumes out of expensive fabric when you have to make hundreds, there’s a budget after all.

    There were some eyebrow raisers for me, like her leather corset outfit but also some stuff that looked more mid-1880s than 1890s and I didn’t like the fit of some costumes, especially on the extras (so many weird underbust corsets…). I can’t even explain it but a lot of the costumes just don’t look right to me, for example the yellow ball gown. There’s just something that seems off but I can’t put my finger on it.

    I was also super disappointed by the story because they made Alix out to be some kind of villain and that didn’t sit right with me, especially considering the way she died and all. (The film has a real problem with its female characters anyways. Mathilde has no female friends, all women hate her for some reason… I’m not into that.)

    Loved the post though. <3

    Reply
  4. Julia Atkinson

    I’m still trying to understand how the blood-stained pointe shoe stolen by Alix turned into a blood-stained soft slipper.

    Reply
  5. Susan Pola Staples

    Thanks for making this available to Patreon nonsubscribers. I sent a tweet to you concerning what Alexandra Feodorovna might have worn to her wedding.

    Reply
  6. Shashwat

    The costumes are accurate but seem a bit off for haute couture.Maybe it’s the too thin,limp,unironed fabrics,or the fact the most of the embroidery seems to be recreating the “designs”on the originals rather than attempting to achieve a flattering creation with each thread meant to beautify the body.Like that “ironwork”costume where the original had each swirl embroidered in different thickness giving a captivating look,but the movie version has it in almost same thickness throughout.Even if it’s embroidered the monotony makes it seem printed on.Many flicks have gowns embroidered all over and like those,this one too goes for the embroidery being far too spaced out in the court gown.Not a historical aesthetic.Embroidery can be-and should be-layered.And those ballet costumes like,what the hell?Those tutus look nothing like romantic or classical tutus.Too fluffy and trimmy in wrong places.It’s Russian Ballet-no,no,NO leniency there😡Those trimmings would not be liked even in modern tutus,let alone the historical aesthetic.
    The headwear was really good though,and the costumes were accurate in construction.I did like the daily wear looks,really accurate and with all the proper layers.But the couture looks disappointing aesthetically.And in many costumes with asymmetric bodices I noticed that the drape hugs the waist in a not very flattering designer.Looks like the work of a really committed and talented designer weighed down by average tailors.

    Reply
  7. EAG46

    The detail on these clothes is amazing. After seeing so many productions going so bare minimal, it’s nice to see appropriately ongepatchket [Yiddish for orante/fussy] clothing.

    Reply
  8. Applecalypse

    Alix wore a cloth of silver Russian court dress for her wedding dress. Her sister Ella drew it in a letter to their grandmother, Queen Victoria. This was mandatory for every Romanov bride, with prescribed jewels. Her coronation dress would have been of the same style but with different embroideries. The wedding gown in the film seems baggy and thrown together (lets put some puffy sleeves on it and its 1890s)
    I dont like Alix’s costumes, they’re nothing like the gowns Alix would have worn, which were actually very elegant, comparatively unfussy in delicate pastels, which suited her shy nature.
    The Dowager Empress (who actually outranks Alix in the Russian Court) is pretty much spot on. She had a very extravert nature and often wore bold colours and designs, while remaining elegant. The period hair is spot on and actually suits this actress’ face.

    I like Mathildes costumes, even though she should be more bejeweled, she famously wore her jewels on stage, even if it didnt suit the part at all.

    Reply
    • Roxana

      They all look kind of flat chested to me, which was so not the mode in the 1890s!

      Reply
      • Roxana

        Yes, the bodice shape is all wrong, look at the actual gowns of the time, very much an inverted v shape, wide at the bust and narrow at the waist. The costume gowns are more naturally shaped which just looks wrong in this period, and is quite unflattering.

        Reply
        • Applecalypse

          there was nothing natural about the 1890s look, it was all about the waist, broad shoulders, wide flared skirts all to empasize the waist. The corsetted waist is structurally necessary to provide enough support for the weight of de skirt part of the gown, otherwise the entire dress is dragged down. FIT IS EVERYTHING

          The more succesful outfits are actually the replicas, even if some of them fail because lack of corsets. The lace up boots Alix is wearing dont seem to be that far off from reality actually, as examples of boots that high do exist, but they definitely would not have been worn with that dress.

          Something I stumbled upon. The sailor suit seems to be a replica of am 1895 outfit in the Museum of at Fit (NY) .

          http://fashionmuseum.fitnyc.edu/view/objects/asitem/759/52/dynasty-desc?t:state:flow=ceb89b63-a45b-4c1d-98b0-81b7def3b431

          Reply
          • Roxana

            Gibson Girls had shoulders like linebackers and busts to match. Actual surviving corsets generally have a waist in the twenty inch range, the tiny waist effect was achieved by contrast with the fullness above and below.

            Reply
  9. Roxana

    I love Russian court dress but Maria Feodorovna looks just terrible in hers. The bodice doesn’t fit right and why only one glove?

    Reply
  10. Viola

    Maybe not LEDs, but they did have fairylights in the 1890s! I believe they were first used in ‘Iolanthe’ at the Savoy Theatre in the 1880s.

    Reply
  11. Katie O.

    The attention to detail with the costumes and the hair are really impressive, but I think the way they played fast and loose with history would bug me too much. It’s strange to me when producers inject drama into historical events when there are so many that are actually dramatic. There were so few royal marriages that were overshadowed by a more-loved mistress that it’s strange to me that they chose to twist the story of one of the few love matches.

    Also that Worth Pinterest board is going to be my new obsession.

    Reply
  12. EmmaJ

    Does anyone know how on earth Alexandra’s gowns managed to survive the Bolsheviks AND Communism–and in such mint condition??

    Reply
    • Nzie

      Good question. I did a bit of quick research and didn’t come up with much. The Kremlin Museum pre-dates the revolution, but many things were sold off or melted down/destroyed when it came to imperial possessions and church items. It also seems like the Soviets allowed the museums to remain open with the items highlighted for their craftsmanship, rather than their owners or perhaps monetary value, but that the research was shut down during the purges, which seem to have included a number of the curators. But having spent a significant amount of time in St. Petersburg and Moscow and visited a number of palaces, they have clothes going back to the early 18th century from Peter I. So perhaps it was a mixture of the cultural heritage and also a sense that the people should see the excesses of their former rulers?

      Reply
    • lesartsdecoratifs

      Unlike jewellery and fine art, textiles and costumes only very recently have become precious as antique items. I mean not as memorabilia but as the object stripped of its provenance. (My favorite anecdote from a costume collector is the story that his competitors at British auction in the 70s were costume designer working for the BBC.)

      The Eastern Bloc sold things from former aristocratic, royal and even contemporary private and public collections of their citizens and museums – but usually not with their provenance attached. They also avoided selling high profile items and sold a lot of it on the downlow. These conditions would have nullified any profit in selling these particular items.

      Giving these items out, also would have fed the cult of personality for the Imperial family. How they avoided destruction in the early days is hard to pinpoint because you would need to know in which collection they were at the time. But people protected those collections in general at great personal risk and probably would have taken care not to draw attention to these items even existing at the time.

      Reply
  13. Jose

    Hey the actress who played Maria feodorovna wasn’t the one who played Alix in The Lost Prince??? I also remember seeing her as Alexandra in Grigory R. (Rasputin) (2014) what an evolution

    Reply

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