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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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?