Tsars in your eyes: uniforms and camisoles

On December 10 the Victoria and Albert Museum will show ensembles from the collections of the Moscow Kremlin Museums, Russia's oldest national treasury. Almost all of the exhibits - lavish costumes and uniforms worn by the tsars and court officials of Imperial Russia - have never been seen by the public, in Russia or abroad.
A crown in place of Monomakh's Cap

The Magnificence of the Tsars will feature more than 40 superb men's ensembles: the coronation costumes of Russian emperors as well as the ceremonial attire of chamberlains, heralds and court coachmen. Men's costumes were chosen for this exhibition simply because women's costumes turned out to be more fragile and harder to transport. Moreover, the Moscow Kremlin Museums' collections of men's ceremonial dress are the most complete.

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to see all types of Russian ceremonial dress for the last 200 years of the Romanov dynasty's rule.

The first coronation ceremony using the Imperial Crown of Russia was in 1724. Until then, the principal symbol of tsarist power had been Monomakh's Cap, a 14th-century hat trimmed with sable and decorated with precious stones.

After this coronation, and for every succeeding one, the entire coronation costume was entrusted to the Kremlin Armoury. These costumes were painstakingly prepared by the finest tailors, embroiderers and jewellers in order to be worn only once.

No other event in the life of a Russian emperor could compare in its significance. The last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, described it in his journal: "A great and solemn day, but difficult for me in a moral sense.

"Everything that occurred in the Cathedral of the Assumption, while seeming like a dream, will never be forgotten one's entire life."

All Russian sovereigns were crowned in the ancient Cathedral of the Assumption in the Kremlin. The ceremony went on for several hours and was full of pomp. Small wonder it required a number of richly decorated accessories: the coronation canopy, the throne pillow decorated with the royal monogram, and a special pillow for the crown.

All these objects are included in the exhibition.

But the most important exhibits are, of course, the ceremonial costumes. They show how the Russian tsars' notion of luxury changed. The earliest coronation costumes - of Peter II and Paul I - are exceedingly sumptuous, embroidered with gold and silver. The costume of the next emperor, Alexander I, is more restrained: only the cuffs and epaulettes are embroidered with gold. While for both Alexander III and Nicholas II, everything is more than modest: an austere military uniform with a minimum of detail.

Visitors will be intrigued by the unusual costumes of other participants in the coronation ceremony - the royal heralds, for instance. Some were dressed almost more splendidly than the tsar himself: in velvet camisoles lavishly decorated with gold embroidery, hats with ostrich feathers, and velvet boots with gold ribbons that might have come straight out of a fairy tale.

Perhaps the only object that has existed exactly as it was for 200 years is the magnificent imperial mantle. It was sewn from several yards of velvet, decorated with an embroidered royal coat of arms and trimmed with ermine, the most expensive fur there was. Only one such mantle has been preserved by the Kremlin Museums, and it too will be on display.

An exchange of costumes

In addition to the coronation costumes of the Russian tsars, the exhibition will include almost the entire wardrobe of the boy emperor Peter II, who ruled from 1727 to 1730: camisoles, breeches, stockings, undergarments, and even dressing gowns or morning dress of fine French silk.

Interestingly, almost no royal finery remains in France today - it was all destroyed during the French Revolution. Russia too lived through years of revolution and devastation during which many of the treasures in the Armoury were sold in the West. But, surprisingly, the Moscow Kremlin Museums managed to preserve the bulk of its holdings.

As a consequence it has a unique collection of ceremonial dress that no European museum can match. It has never been shown in Russia.

According to Elena Gagarina, general director of the Moscow Kremlin Museums, scholars have only recently begun studying this collection, a part of which was restored especially for the London exhibition.

The idea for this exhibition, or rather for this exchange of exhibitions between the V&A and the Moscow Kremlin Museums, came from Moscow. It is part of a large-scale project under whose auspices the Kremlin Museums have been collaborating with some of the most famous museums in the world.

"We want to show our visitors collections from different countries and different trends in art," said Zelfira Tregulova, a deputy director of the Kremlin Museums.

In 2004 Moscow hosted a collection from the Louvre; in 2006, two splendid exhibitions of decorative jewels arrived from Dresden and St Petersburg; and this autumn the Moscow Kremlin Museums showed Two Centuries of British Fashion, culled from the collections of the V&A.

"The British Council in Moscow helped us begin negotiations with the V&A," said Tregulova.

The show was a huge success with more than 60,000 visitors over two months. The Moscow Kremlin Museums have high hopes for further collaboration with the Victoria and Albert.

The Magnificence of the Tsars will run until March 2, 2009.

Kremlin treasure-trove

The Kremlin Armoury is a world-famous museum-treasury containing some 4,000 exhibits of decorative and applied art from Russia, Europe and the Orient dating from the 4th to the 20th centuries. These include ancient state regalia, royal ceremonial dress and coronation costumes, priests' robes, gold and silver objects by Russian, European and Oriental masters, arms and armour, carriages, sledges, and ceremonial equine attire.

The Armoury also houses the world's most comprehensive collection of 16th- and 17th-century Russian weaponry: more than 500 exhibits, including richly decorated ceremonial and hunting arms. Of enormous value is its collection of Oriental weapons - mostly the work of Iranian and Turkish gunsmiths - dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, a period poorly represented in other museums. One of the Armoury's largest collections consists of objects made by various foreign masters and dating from the 13th to the 19th centuries. Most of these came to Russia as ambassadorial gifts. The Armoury's collection of English silver by 16th- and 17th-century London masters, for instance, is the world's largest. Its unique because in England a great deal of silver plate and decorative silver objects were destroyed during the Reformation in the 16th century and still more during the revolution a century later. The Armoury's collection of English silver provides a vivid illustration of the history of English-Russian political and trade relations.

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