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Walk through wardrobe of Peter the Great (and others)

By Margaret WillisSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 23, 1987



London

A mantle of beaded tulle and trimmed with down ... An officer's uniform said to have been worn by Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltava ...

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A corded silk gown decorated with straw thread ...

The silver braid-trimmed, moire silk jacket of a court wet nurse ...

And a fan decorated with down, feathers, berries, and a humming bird.

These, and 300 other treasures from an age gone by, are woven together in a panorama of history and beauty now at London's Barbican Centre.

``Russian Style 1700-1920; Court and Country Dress from the Hermitage,'' offers Westerners a rare glimpse into the glittering world of the czarist nobility. The items, from the collection in Leningrad, illustrate the development of Russian fashion from the beginning of the 18th century up to the Revolution in 1917.

The show is part of a Russian season at the Barbican, marking the Barbican's fifth anniversary as one of London's leading cultural centers. Other events include Stravinsky's music, Eisenstein's films, and paintings by the controversial but successful Ilya Glazunov.

Only a few Russian costumes exist from the early 1700s; these are from a small section of the population - the Imperial Court. But while 300 of Peter the Great's outfits are in the Hermitage Museum, only nine of them have been brought to London.

Unlike rulers before him, Peter traveled much outside Russia. On return, he worked to develop and modernize his feudal country, bringing it up to date with Europe.

Along with his many reforms, he insisted that the court should wear European dress, and introduced fitted waistcoats and knee britches for men and gowns with tight-waisted bodices for ladies, with wide skirts held out by hoop petticoats. Men had to shave off their beards, and there is a rumor that Peter enforced a tax on the beards of reluctant shavers, which helped him to fill his scant coffers.

Here at the Barbican is Peter's brown woolen greatcoat. Its full length verifies that the czar's recorded height of nearly 7 feet was accurate. His shapka (Russian hat), lined with brown curly lamb's wool, has extra-long flaps that hang like a spaniel's ears. His time spent in Amsterdam learning nautical matters is evidenced in the styling of the sailor's suit. The uniform he wore at the Battle of Poltava, in which the Russians under his leadership defeated Sweden in 1709), is of the Preobrazhensky Regiment.

At the beginning of the 1800s, ladies' dresses changed from the wide crinolined skirts to delicately embroidered, empire-waisted gowns made of tulle, crepe, and silk.

By the 1840s, the waists were nipped and the hourglass figure - with the help of tightly boned corsets - was all the rage. New forms of decoration for the garments were constantly sought. The exhibit shows many beautiful examples: a silk gown whose flounces are embroidered in pressed straw, many dresses with gold and silver thread work on rich brocades and velvets, and one is decorated with steel sequins from the town of Tula, better known today for its samovars.

French fashion influenced the Russian court in the late 19th century with stunning examples from top couturiers. Among the designers was British-born, Paris-based Charles Worth, a trend-setter who had an international clientele that included the royalty, aristocracy, and nouveau riche. There are six of his gowns on view, dating from 1880-1900.

But Russia had its own high fashion designers, such as Lamanova, Brizak, Amiragov, and Chernyshov, whose fine work can also be seen here. And there are some fine examples of traditional folk costumes from different provinces of Russia, all lovingly hand-embroidered and often passed down from generation to generation. Accessories in the show include examples of the woolen shawls unique to Russia; these were woven with finely spun yarn in way that made both sides identical. With no right or wrong side, the shawls, made by serfs, became very fashionable in Europe.

Tamara Korshunova, curator of the Costume and Textiles department at the Hermitage, is a grandmotherly figure who has been responsible for caring for each item. She has also found many of them herself, visiting estates and second-hand shops whenever costumes are involved.

For the 25,000 items on view in the museum, she says, there are 10,000 in drawers just waiting for space in an exhibit. Victoria Charlton, director of the Entertainment Corporation, who brought the Bolshoi Ballet Company to Britain last summer, went to Leningrad to talk with Tamara and select which items to bring to England.

``The costumes here in the exhibit are valued at over 13.5 million rubles,'' she said. ``Many of them have never been seen before, even in the Soviet Union, though a very few were shown in 1976 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Tamara organized that exhibit, too.''

Courtaulds, one of the sponsors of the exhibition, has contributed a selection of Russian historic textiles from its own collection. Its links with Russia go back to 1725, when the first members of the Courtaulds family empire (Huguenot refugees in London), served the Court of the Emperors of Russia as goldsmiths.

The most dazzling display in the exhibition is a case of court dresses from the late 19th century. The czar, Nicholas I, like Peter before him, delivered an edict on official clothes at court: rich embroidered trains, whose length and color were dictated by the wearer's status at court; long, hanging sleeves; a kokoshnik (traditional Russian headdress) to be worn with veil attached.

The showcase holds a shining silver brocade gown, decorated with silver thread and wire and complete with the very long embroidered train denoting a member of the imperial family. The kokoshnik is studded with pearls and there are tiny silver brocade slippers. Beside the sumptuous outfit are rich gowns in green, Burgundy-red, and pink velvets, all three exquisitely embroidered and with trains of different lengths.

Through April 26.