Sat, 25 Mar 2023

The Russian imperial court loved to have fun and knew how to do it in style - almost every monarch threw lavish balls with surprises, enthralling entertainment and, of course, elegant dancing. At such soirees, the most incredible costumes were worn. Balls, however, also played a role in geopolitical intrigue and were used to settle scores.

1. Metamorphosis Ball

Georg Caspar Prenner. Equestrian Portrait of the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna with Retinue

Georg Caspar Prenner. Equestrian Portrait of the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna with Retinue

The Russian Museum

Peter the Great's daughter inherited his love of fun and games, and news of the lavish masquerade balls held at the court of Empress Elizabeth resounded throughout Europe. Attending one was quite a costly affair. Firstly, a new costume was required: Special marks were made on outfits so that guests wouldn't be tempted to turn up in the same costume at the next ball.

Secondly, guests had to watch their appearance closely. If Elizabeth didn't like something, she took matters into her own hands on the spot, snipping off what she thought were inappropriate embellishments on dresses or adjusting excessively flamboyant hairdos with her scissors.

Of course, the empress had no problem with her own wardrobe, having an estimated 15,000 outfits at her disposal. She would even change her costume several times in the course of a single ball. In 1744, the empress threw the Metamorphosis Ball, ordering the men to come in women's dress "à la Francaise" with hoop skirts and powdered wigs, and the women to wear narrow men's kaftans and white stockings.

Masks were not allowed, so that those present would know who looked particularly absurd and comical. This cross-dressing flattered only Elizabeth herself - in fact, men's clothes suited her amazingly well. As for the others - well, they were not amused, and in fact, quite annoyed.

2. The Azor Ball

Alexandre Benois. Catherine the Great and her court

Alexandre Benois. Catherine the Great and her court

Public domain

Catherine the Great also loved masquerade balls. In the autumn of 1790, at her behest, about a hundred male and female costumes in the style of the "prime ministers of Egypt" were made, and stalls selling them were set up in the ballrooms.

The guests had to dig into their pockets or take out credit on the spot and change into the new outfits - the men into women's costumes and the women into men's. After overcoming their amazement at this transformation, everyone hit the dance floor for a whirl, only hours later going home without changing into their usual outfits.

Sometimes masquerades at the court of Catherine the Great had a fairy tale quality. For example, on the occasion of the birth of her grandson, Alexander, she staged a ball for "Azor, the African nobleman". The rooms were decorated with letter "A" monograms embellished with diamonds and pearls.

The guests were invited to play cards and, if they won, they could help themselves to a diamond from boxes standing nearby. Azor himself appeared in the rooms from time to time, but didn't approach - it was only later that the guests understood it was Prince Potenkin in disguise.

3. Ball in the Tauride Palace

Celebrations in the Tauride Palace. Engraving by R. Negodaev, 19th century

Celebrations in the Tauride Palace. Engraving by R. Negodaev, 19th century

Public domain

In the spring of 1791, Prince Potemkin put on a ball in honor of Catherine the Great at the Tauride Palace to mark the taking of the city of Izmail on the Black Sea. About 3,000 guests were invited, and guests were met by an orchestra playing outside the entrance.

Inside, everything gleamed in the bright light of 20,000 wax candles and more than 100,000 lamps. The warbling of birds could be heard in the winter garden, ornamental fish splashed around in enormous aquariums, and glittering mirrors were installed to keep the stoves out of sight.

A marble sculpture of the empress stood in the midst of all this splendor. An orchestra played, actors put on a French comedy, and ballets were performed. Potemkin, decked out in a crimson kaftan bejeweled with diamonds, greeted the empress and spent the whole evening personally attending to her. Quadrilles echoed in the reception rooms. Meanwhile, Grand Dukes Alexander and Konstantin led the dancing.

Catherine preferred cards to dancing that evening. She played not for money but for precious stones. The ball continued until morning and was one of the most talked-about events not only in Russia but also in Europe.

4. The Black Ball

Emperor Alexander III was less than enthusiastic about balls: He even refused to dance with his bride-to-be on the eve of their wedding. Empress Maria Feodorovna, however, made up for it by partying enough for the two of them.

"Color" balls were frequently organized at court: white for debutantes, and pink for newlyweds. Then, in 1888, there was the Emerald Ball held in the Nicholas Hall of the Winter Palace, when ladies danced in red, white, yellow and pink costumes with large emeralds sparkling in their earrings and necklaces.

The Black Ball

The Black Ball

Public domain

In January 1889, a Black Ball was held in the Anichkov Palace. The suicide of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, and his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, had occurred not long before. Protocol dictated that all entertainment be suspended at the courts of Europe for the period of mourning. However, the ball in St. Petersburg went ahead.

Guests arrived at the Anichkov Palace dressed in black, their costumes complemented by diamond jewelry. The effect was stunning as the "black" couples spun round the snow-white room to the strains of Viennese waltzes. This was the empress' stylish way of getting back for an old affront: Grand Duke Nicholas Alexandrovich, the heir to the Russian throne to whom she was betrothed, had died in 1865.

Austria failed to carry out any observances of mourning. A year and a half later, Maria Feodorovna had married Alexander Alexandrovich, her deceased fiance's younger brother. And many years later, as empress, she found a way of reminding Austria of its offense.

5. Russian Ball

All participants of the costume court masquerade ball, 1903

All participants of the costume court masquerade ball, 1903

Public domain

Although he was not averse to a bit of dancing, Russia's last emperor, Nicholas II, was primarily concerned about Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, who didn't like balls because of her fragile health. But it was her idea to hold a costume ball in the Neo-Russian style.

Costumes based on 17th century fashion were made according to designs by artist Sergey Solomko. They were complemented by furs and ancient family bijouterie. Nicholas II was dressed as Tsar Alexis of Russia and his consort as Tsarina Maria Ilyinichna. Almost 400 guests gathered in the Winter Palace that evening,

To this day, the 1903 ball, which was timed to mark the 290th anniversary of the rule of the House of Romanov, is regarded as the most sumptuous event ever held at the Russian court.

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