10 things about Olga Bulbenkova and the court dress of the House of Romanov
I had never heard of Olga Bulbenkova until a friend from high school added her to their inspirations on Facebook. I took one look at her stunning, opulent designs and knew that I had to know more about this woman and the style of the Russian court. Here are 10 things about this fascinating style and time period.
1 // Birth of a Fashion House
Olga Nikolaevna Bulbenkova (1835-1918), founded a fashion house called Madame Olga’s in St. Petersburg in the mid-1800s that went on to become one of the most popular for designing gowns for the Russian court, and specifically the Imperial Family. Not bad for the daughter of a priest.
2 // Not the Only Game in Town
Other important designers for the Russian court during this period include Izembard Chanceau, A.T. Ivanova, and the English designer Charles Worth. Each designer had their own unique look and specialty.
3 // Straw into Gold
Madame Olga’s house was known for its gold thread embroidery, which was done at the Novotikhvinsky convent. Convents were traditionally where this intricate embroidery was done.
4 // Palace Restrictions
All dresses made at Madame Olga’s followed the strict edicts for court dress that were set by Tsar Nicholas I in 1834. The cut, colour, and decoration of a gown signified its owner’s position in the court hierarchy. You could probably say that Nicholas I was a bit of a control freak.
5 // Uniform of the Court
This edict specified that women in the Russian court wear “Russian Dress Uniforms” (Paradnaya Plat’e). This was originally a white embroidered silk gown with a velvet overdress and long open sleeves in the Muscovite style. They had very full, bell-like skirts that fastened at the waist with a gold cord. These gowns were incredibly heavy and unwieldy, but were based on the traditional Russian style, as Nicholas wanted court dress to emphasize national Russian tradition as well as make it easier to tell the status of the women in his court. The style was eventually streamlined and modernized a bit, but still retained a look that was distinctly Russian. You know that amazing gown from the end of the animated Anastasia movie? It’s a very good representation of how the court style looked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
6 // The Topper
Elaborate jeweled headdresses called Kokoshniks were also required. Married women wore theirs with veils. Needless to say, I wish I had 10 of them. Luckily for me, you can buy them on Etsy (!!!!).
7 // For Royal Bods Only
The Edict on Court Dress also specified that only the Empress or the Grand Duchesses (The Emperor’s daughters) could wear cloth of gold, or cloth of silver. However, if the Empress was wearing cloth of silver, the Grand Duchesses couldn’t wear it at the same time. Unfortunately for the Grand Duchesses, the Empress liked wearing silver a lot, and the Grand Duchesses mostly got to wear it at their weddings.
8 // Colours of the Court
Attendants to the Imperial family could only wear gowns in two colours—garnet red and emerald green. It was always Christmas at the Russian court, apparently.
9 // Watch that Train
The length of one’s train was also important—the longer the train, the higher one’s status. I would be OK if we brought this one back.
10 // End of an Era
Madame Olga’s went out of business in 1917 when the Revolution came, since the dissolution of the court meant there was no longer any business for them. The house’s last large court commission was in 1913 for the 300th Anniversary of the House of Romanov (see above image).
And I had to add one more, because we couldn’t finish this without talking about what happened to these designers following the fall of the House of Romanov…
11 // Death of an Industry
The Revolution also saw the extinction of the ecclesiastical embroidery you see on the gowns that houses like Madame Olga’s made. Most of the women who did this work fled to France, and were quickly snapped up by couturiers like Patou, Lanvin, and Chanel (Russia’s loss was Paris’s gain). This industry is only just now seeing a bit of a resurgence, as there are convents trying to practice this traditional art once more.