Muscovite Splendor

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.

Past Present

What the minutiae of 19th century daily life can teach us about our wardrobes

Museums and clothing have a longstanding history together. The John L. Wehle Art Gallery is home to the fairly extensive Susan Greene costume collection: 3,000 garments spanning from the late 18th to the early 20th century (think many crinolined skirts and satin tuxes). It’s a collection that Karen Augusta, Antiques Road Show appraiser, calls “a gem” that “stands alone as one of the finest collections of its kind in North America”. So what is it that makes this particular collection so unique? Susan Greene kept everyday possessions belonging to men, women and children that no one thought people would want to see. Displayed in shiny glass cases are dish rags, undergarments, and beloved frocks that have been Frankensteined together over and over to resurrect the dead. Visitors see the material lives of New Yorkers from eras past, approachably presented.

The museum is situated in the Genesee Country Village & Museum, a historical village in Mumford, New York, complete with Ye Olden Shoppes. I got to wander through the collection with Bevin Lyn, Coordinator of Interpretive Programs, who I found walking through a cobbled street. In a full Jane Austen style get-up, Bevin gave me a tour of the collection, first recollecting how she came to the Genesee village. “As a child I was really into Jane Austen,” she says, “so when I came here I was like ‘Wow! These people are like me.’” Bevin worked in banking but came back to work the museum, linking herself with this past. She hasn’t turned back and I began to see why.

Thrifty Hist’ry
Since the Greenes collected the garments of the working and upper classes, a history of thriftiness is woven through the exhibition. Bevin points out that most New Yorkers “valued each and every garment [they owned]…so they patched, maintained and took care of [them]…and that’s why they survived today.” “Thrift” today conjures up exciting trips to Salvation Army to find quirky leftovers. A 19th century American’s idea of thrift was simply NOT discarding or giving away their clothes, but preserving them for their own usage. With a tighter economic climate, Bevin warns that “we’re having to come full circle.” Perhaps we can learn to take better care of our clothes by following the Wornette lead

“Without foundation there is no fashion”
Bevin quotes Christian Dior as she leads me through the incredibly user-friendly plexi-glass covered drawers of women’s undergarments. She talks of corsets and stays, words which perplex me at first – what is the difference between these undergarments? Push-up vs. just keeping them in place? My guide tells me that the terms are interchangeable. This collection encompasses that interesting time just after the French revolution when non-fussy, cotton shift dresses became popular and foundation garments thus evolved accordingly. Women did not want bone in their foundation garments, but opted for softer more flexible stays that allowed for greater movement, just like their dresses did. Much in the same way, we opt for sports bras- versus underwire cups and hydraulic cleavage pressure systems for our more bouncy pursuits.

Paisley Knock-offs
Staring at a case saturated in paisley, Bevin relates that paisley shawls were once a status symbol. Cashmere shawls in paisley designs were produced in Kashmir, India and were created by sewing needles and hand-weaving. Small sections would be sewn together so masterfully that seams were invisible. In the second half of the 19th century, paisley scarves were woven on looms in Paisley, Scotland. In Franc,e attempts were made to domesticate Indian goats which produced the soft wool, all in the hopes of replicating the pricey Indian original. When these “knock-offs” came out, Bevin emphasized that wealthy women were upset: “in the fashion articles of the time you’ll read that rich women think it’s so gauche that these poor women are copying them.” Lest we forget the Fendi baguette incident from Sex and the City.

The Wehle Gallery has put together a relevant fashion exhibit in that it has exposed many of the fashion concerns of the 19th century only to reveal they have become trendy again. The gallery however breaks with the prevailing style of museum exhibits by including numerous hands-on drawers, displaying cheap and chic garment examples, and on some fortuitous occasions, offering period-costumed tour-guides. These are some trends I wouldn’t mind having catch on.

photography // Stephanie Herold

We Don’t Joke When It Comes To Bespoke (Except for This Joke Here)


When I first heard the word, I thought it meant some kind of talking, as in, “He bespoke of the movie,” or, “I bespoke the truth.”

Needless to say, that’s not what it meant. At least not fully.

After some relentless online digging, I found the real meaning of the word, along with some interesting history.

Did you know?
The word “bespoke” actually means custom-made, in reference to things of any kind, specialized to the buyer’s preference. It is the opposite of ready-made. When applied to fashion, however, the term bespoke is only used for men’s suits and clothing, making it a parallel to the women’s haute couture label of individually cut and designed garments.

Why should I care?
Unlike haute couture, bespoke is not a protected label. This upset a lot of men in fashion, especially tailors, so the Savile Row Bespoke Association was set up in 2004 to protect the integrity of the art of tailoring in London’s West End. In 2006, the Savile Row Bespoke became a label, established for simple identification of suits and garments made specifically on Savile Row (and surrounding streets). So while bespoke is not a protected label, the Savile Row Bespoke Association has made itself a trademarked brand, and is working towards making bespoke clothing protected, so that it can be the male fashion equivalent to women’s haute couture. However, they haven’t been successful in achieving that goal yet, which is probably why not that many people today know what it means, or even that it exists.
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Remembrance of Things Past

Anybody who’s spent more than ten minutes on Tumblr can tell you that there is no shortage of love for vintage clothing on the internet. However, usually the retro image-a-thon tends to be restricted to wealthier white women of eras gone, erasing from history the styles of women of colour. Threadbared‘s Minh-Ha T. Pham has started Of Another Fashion, an online archive of images intent on putting a face (and an outfit) to the sides of sartorial history often overlooked. As she writes, “In providing a glimpse of women of colour’s material cultural histories – a glimpse that no doubt only begins to redress the curatorial and critical absence of minoritized fashion histories – this archive and the forthcoming exhibition commemorates lives and experiences too often considered not important enough to save or to study.” An exhibit of the same name is also being planned.

To contribute to Of Another Fashion, click here.

Photo by Clem Albers