Russians who taught Parisians how to dress

The first Russian invasion was in 1814, when Cossacks and hussars flooded Paris after the defeat of Napoleon. Culturally, however, it was a century later that France began to feel the Slavic influence, when Diaghileffґs Saisons Russes set a trend that saw Russian style dominate the era. Here Alexander Vasilyev, historian of fashion and Russian emigre, gives us his take on the Russian haute couture, the parallel reality behind the Iron Curtain.
Scholar, art-collector and eccentric wit, Alexander Vasilyev trots the globe as a lecturer on the history of fashion. Born in Moscow, he spent the first half of his life in Prechistenka Street, one of the most romantic nooks of the old capital, before emigrating and settling in Paris, which is where he became interested in the history of fashion. His striking lectures encapsulate the many turns and departures in his own life.

As an author, Vasilyev became the first to tell the world about the Russian émigrés who won Western hearts in haute couture but remained unknown in their ancestral lands.

He won fame with his bestselling books Beauty in Exile and 150 Years of Russian Fashion. Later he became known at home in Russia, where few had ever heard about émigré fashion houses before reading his books.

It was the sensational Saisons Russes that brought Russian fashion to Paris, wasn't it?

They were a tremendous success. An important player in this was the superb graphic artist Leon Bakst, who designed the costumes and scenery for several ballets. His ideas infatuated the world. Constructivist and non-figurative artists snatched at the trailblazing geometric patterns of his textiles. He inspired couturier Paul Poiret, who admittedly already had a liking for the Russian art.

From 1910 on, however, it became a theme that fashion magazines would photograph their models in ballet postures. The Paquin fashion house famously elaborated on Bakst's sketches. Many other couturiers used his striking colour combinations - for instance, blues and tans.

How did fashion develop after the 1917 revolution?

First we should remember that Russian artists had an impact on the Parisian fashion industry long before the revolution. Marie Vassilieff designed dolls and furniture, and Sonia Delonnais, a young artist from Kiev, became a celebrity for her use of original colour patterns as a textile designer. Stage artist Alexandra Ekster was a frequent presence in Paris long before emigration, and made innovative hats.

But after the revolution, of course, there was an influx of aristocratic Russian ladies into Paris, complete with their immaculate manners, proud bearing and penetrating Slavic charm. Making their living on stage and the catwalk after they fled penniless abroad, they created the refined image of the art nouveau woman. This instantly admirable Russian style was perhaps captured most of all by Princess Natalie Palei, a cousin of the Romanovs. But there was also Grand Duchess Maria Romanova, who started the Kitmir house, which specialised in elaborate embroidery; Grand Duchess Irina, a niece of Emperor Nicholas II, and her husband Prince Felix Yusupov who opened the IrFe fashion house; and Princess Lobanoff-Rostovski with her lingerie house. The list goes on.

As the émigré aristocrats showed, it's far more rewarding to be after style as opposed to fashion. Style lasts longer and is far more respectable.

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