Magazine article Russian Life

Empress Elizabeth: The Iron-Fisted Fashionista

Magazine article Russian Life

Empress Elizabeth: The Iron-Fisted Fashionista

Article excerpt

HOW IN THE WORLD did the extremely spartan Peter the Great produce a daughter with a passion for fashion so legendary it verged on the maniacal? Elizabeth constantly spoke of her unwavering devotion to her father's reforms, and promptly reinstated his bans on growing beards and wearing ugly, old-fashioned clothes, but there the similarities ended.

Although Elizabeth occasionally took scissors to the hair of her ladies-in-waiting, one should hesitate before drawing any parallels to Peter the Great's personally shaving off the beards of his noblemen. Their motives were profoundly different. Peter was determined to transform his countrymen into "civilized" Europeans, while Elizabeth was intent on answering one of life's persistent questions: "Mirror, mirror on the wall, Who is the fairest one of all?" As one can imagine, there was only one satisfactory response. She outlawed extravagant clothing, strictly prohibiting dresses made of fabric costing more than about five rubles a yard. (Of course almost all Russian rulers were fond of edicts of this type.) But to no avail.

According to the 18th century historian Mikhail Shcherbatov, Elizabeth's court was "arrayed in cloth of gold, her nobles satisfied with only the most luxuriant garments, the most expensive foods, the rarest drinks, the largest number of servants, and they applied this standard of lavishness to their dress as well. ... Imitating the upper classes became popular, and a man commanded respect only in accordance with the magnificence of his home and attire." Elizabeth herself was known as "the Russian lady in French heels" and she insisted on an exclusively French wardrobe. In fact, she could not bear the sight of Russian peasant clothes on anyone. Here, at least, she and her father were in full agreement.

Nineteenth century historian Leonid Trefolev published an entire article on the topic: "The Foppery of Empress Elizabeth," and included as evidence a copy of a bill from one of her majesty's shopping sprees. Trefolev questioned whether the average Russian would recognize anything of Peter (famous for being badly dressed) in his daughter and her court, prancing about in their finery.

AN OBSESSION WITH FASHION does not materialize on its own. Children develop a taste for luxury by watching the examples set by others. Peter the Great was too preoccupied with the expansion of his empire to pay much attention to his daughter's upbringing. Therefore, the blame for Elizabeth's infatuation with her appearance must be laid at the feet of her mother, Catherine I, Peter's beloved "Katerinushka," who, as she grew older, forbade her ladies-in-waiting from wearing jewelry, or dresses made of golden cloth. It is easy to see in her mother's actions a foreshadowing of Elizabeth's later manifestos on dress.

Elizabeth's main interest, even as a child, was her appearance. In 1717, as an eight-year-old, she greeted her father's return from abroad wearing an opulent Spanish costume. The French envoy noted, for the historical record, that she looked fantastic. She was fond of appearing at her father's assemblies in multicolored, embroidered dresses, with diamonds sparkling in her hair. A famous portrait of her as a child shows Elizabeth dressed to the nines and wearing a pair of wings (popular in children's fashion of the time) attached to her back.

"Her youth passed by and taught her nothing," commented one historian about Elizabeth. It is true that the academic and moral education of the tsar's daughter was quite uneven. It succeeded, however, in teaching her to dance, to have lovely manners, and to speak and read perfect French. Her father, of course, complained that modern children had it too easy. Why, in his day, he hadn't had such nice books to read; he hadn't even had teachers!

Linguistically and culturally, Elizabeth was groomed from childhood to marry into French high society. After visiting the court of the young Louis XV in 1717, her father became particularly fixated on acquiring the boy-king as a son-in-law. …

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