In February, 1903, a grand party was held in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, followed two days later by a grandiose fancy dress ball, whereby guests dressed in bejeweled 17th-century style costumes. The ball, timed to coincide with the 290th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty, took place at the end of the Nativity Fast.
Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna saw the ball as a first step towards the restoration of the rituals and costumes of the Moscow court, continuing the traditions bequeathed by the glorious ancestors of the Romanov dynasty of the distant pre-Petrine times.
Gathering in the Romanov Gallery on 24th (O.S. 11th) February, guests followed in pairs to the Nicholas Hall of the Winter Palace to give their hosts a “Russian bow”. The party’s central event was a concert in the Hermitage Theater with scenes from Modest Musorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov (key parts were performed by Feodor Chaliapin and Nina Figner), Minkus’ ballet La Bayadère and Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake directed by Marius Petipa (performed by the prima ballerina Anna Pavlova). The performance was followed by a Russian dance in the Pavilion Hall. Dinner was given in the Spanish, Italian and Flemish Rooms of the Hermitage. Thereupon Their Majesties and the guests proceeded to the Pavilion Hall where the party culminated in dancing.
PHOTO: Guests pose for a photograph in the Hermitage Theater
The second part of the ball took place two nights later, on 26th (O.S. 13th) February: all the guests dressed in 17th-century style costumes, made from designs by the artist Sergey Solomko, in collaboration with historical experts. Among the 390 guests, were 65 “dancing officers” – all dressed as 17th century archers or falconers – and personally appointed by the Empress . Members of the Imperial Family gathered in the Malachite Room, others in the adjacent areas. When ten o’clock struck, the guests went to the Concert Hall to dance. The court orchestra, wearing costumes of trumpet-players of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich performed behind a gilt grating, while 34 round tables were arranged in the Nicholas Hall for dinner. The Concert Hall and Small Dining Room accommodated bars, the Malachite Room, tables with tea and wine.
When dinner was over, the August hosts and their guests returned to the Concert Hall to dance till one in the morning. After three specially prepared dances were performed (Russian dance, round dance and plyasovaya), directed by chief ballet director Aistov and Kshesinsky, waltzes, quadrilles and mazurkas were enjoyed. Young officers of Guards Regiments, Horse-guardsmen, Life-guardsmen and Lancers, acted as male partners in the dances. Participants had received some training: at the dress rehearsal held in the Pavilion Hall on 10 February, 1903, ladies wore sarafans and kokoshniks, while men sported dresses of streletses, falconers, etc. Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna acted as “judges”.
Despite all the doubts, disputes and gossip, leading up to the luxurious and memorable event, the ball went wonderfully well. Impressed by the ball, Nicholas II wrote in his diary:
“The hall, filled with ancient Russian people, looked very beautiful.”
The palace commandant, Major General Vladimir Nikolaevich Voeikov noted:
“The impression was fabulous – from the mass of old national costumes, richly decorated with rare furs, magnificent diamonds, pearls and semi-precious stones, mostly in old frames. On this day, family jewels appeared in such an abundance that exceeded all expectations.”
After the balls of 11th and 13th February, 1903, the Empress commissioned the best photographers of St. Petersburg: L. Levitsky, D.M. Asikritov, D.S. Zdobnov, Yves. Voino-Oransky, F.G. Boasson, E.L. Mrozovskaya and many others, to take individual and collective photographs of the participants in their costumes. In 1904, a limited edition album containing the photographs was released, consisting of ten large-format files (folders). 21 heliogravures and 174 phototypes. The album was sold primarily among the participants of the ball, and the proceeds from the sale went to charity.
The 1903 Bal, remains the most celebrated festivity arranged in St. Petersburg during the reign of Emperor Nicholas II (1894-1917). More than a century later, it remains an event of an enduring historical significance.
Official Portraits of Nicholas II taken in the Concert Hall of the Winter Palace
PHOTO: For the background, photographers utilized a stand imitating the walls of a 17th century chamber of the Terem Palace in the Moscow Kremlin was installed in the Concert Hall of the Winter Palace – as seen in the photo above. The throne chair, is a prop, from the storeroom of the Hermitage Theater.
PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II wearing the costume of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (1629-1676); the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna in the costume of his first wife Tsarina Maria Ilyinichna Miloslavskaya (1624-1669). Photo by L.S. Levitsky, 1903
Nicholas II’s 17th Century Costume
Emperor Nicholas II was dressed in an exact copy of the 17th century clothes, worn by his beloved ancestor, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (1629-1676).
The costume sketch for Nicholas II was developed by the Director of the Hermitage, Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky (1835-1909) and the artist of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theaters, Yevgeny Petrovich Ponomarev (1852-1906). Two types of velvet and gold brocade were ordered from the Supplier of the Imperial Court – the Sapozhnikovs firm. The fancy dress for Emperor Nicholas II, called “The Small Tsar’s Attire”, was sewn by the theatrical costume designer of the Imperial Theaters Ivan Osipovich Kaffi (1860-19 ??). He was assisted by two dressmakers, whose names have not survived. The tsar’s hat was created in the hat workshop of the brothers “Bruno”, suppliers of the Imperial Court since 1872..
The 17th century-style costume worn by Emperor Nicholas II at the ball held in the 1903 Ball in the Winter Palace, has been preserved to this day in the State Armoury Museum of the Moscow Kremlin. It is on display in Room 6 of the museum, which houses a rich collection of secular and ceremonial costume. The tsar’s 1903 costume can be seen in Showcase 45 (see photo above)
His costume and shashka (hat) were made from the finest materials and design: “velvet, brocade, silk, satin, leather, sable, gilded thread braid, gold, precious stones, pearls, weaving, braiding, casting, chasing, engravings, carving and enamel.”
Opal worn by Emperor Nicholas II (left). Manufactured: Russia, 1903, cufflinks and buttons – Constantinople 2nd half of the 17th century. Materials: Damask, brocade, gold. Work: Sewing, weaving.
Kaftan worn by Emperor Nicholas II (right). Manufactured: Russia, 1903, cufflinks and buttons – Constantinople 2nd half of the 17th century. Materials: Golden velvet, silk, satin. Work: Sewing, casting, chasing.
Rod (staff) of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. Istanbul, mid-17th century Gold, precious stones, pearls, iron; casting, chasing, carving, enamel. Collection of the the State Armoury Museum.
Zapona-pendant of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. Istanbul, second half of the 17th century. Gold, precious stones; chasing, carving, enamel. Collection of the the State Armoury Museum.
The Costume Ball in the Winter Palace. Luxury 2-Volume Edition
In 2003 the Russian publishing company Русский Антиквариат issued a limited luxury edition printing of The Costume Ball in the Winter Palace in a handsome 2-volume set with slipcase. The publication was a joint project of the State Hermitage Museum, the Moscow Kremlin State Museum, with the participation of researchers, genealogists and descendants of relatives of the nobility who attended the historic event.
The publishing firm offered two variations of the 2-volume set. The first featured one volume in Russian, the second volume in English, however, the firm also issued 100 copies featuring both volumes in English. In 2009, I managed to acquire a number of copies of the 2-volume English edition, and sold them through my bookshop.
Volume I featuredall the documentary and research material, including preserved costumes, unique photos and archival documents, most of which are published for the first time. 128 pages, 50 black and white illustrations, 20 tables with colour images, and introductory article by the Director of the State Hermitage Museum Mikhail Piotrovsky. The cover is made from high quality dark brown leather substitute with gold lettering.
Volume II – showcases the Ball participants. 464 sepia-colour pages, 198 photos of the Ball participants. The cover is made from high quality dark green leather substitute, with gold lettering. More than half of prints made from the original photos. Each image is accompanied by a biographical article.
Sadly, the publisher of these fine books has since gone out of business. Copies of the rare all English edition set, which are highly sought after by collectors in Britain and North America, are occasionally offered through rare book auctions.
© Paul Gilbert. 21 February 2021
If you enjoy my articles, news stories and translations, then please help support my research by making a donation in US or Canadian dollars to my project The Truth About Nicholas II – please note that donations can be made by GoFundMe, PayPal, credit card, personal check or money order. Thank you for your consideration – PG