International Museum Day: 30 Objects – Costumes of the Russian Empire

13 May 2017

For International Museum Day on 18 May our Head of Collections, Alice, has chosen her top 30 objects from Mount Stuart’s Collections which we’ll bring to you throughout the Month. Ranging from books, furniture, silver-work, paintings and documentation from hundreds of years of Stuart family life, this barely scratches the surface of our Collections so make sure to plan your visit and experience it for yourself!

The first edition of ‘Costume of the Russian Empire’, which includes seventy richly coloured drawings, was first published in 1803 and details the costume of the Russian people. It documents one of the great cultural shifts in this region led by Peter the Great.  In 1721 Peter swept away centuries of traditional lavish and ornate court styles adopted through links to the Byzantine Empire and beyond which had remained largely unchanged since the 10th century.

Inspired by the spirit of the enlightenment Peter the Great favoured a western style of dress which coincided with the general Europeanisation and expansion of the now Russian Empire. He formalised these ideas with an edict issued in 1700 discouraging the wearing of traditional Russian dress both at court and at large and within 100 years the practice was all but extinct at court spreading to the far corners in the following century. The centre of the royal court modelled itself firmly on the behaviours and dress of the central Europe powers, in particular France, and this can be seem in this portrait of Peter I by Delacroix.

In the Bute Collection we have a set of 15 catalogues which documents the Russian Empires cultural assimilation of western ideals during the 18th and 19th centuries through the fortunes of their national dress, a popular subject in the 19th century Britain. By the end of the 18th century the empire would extend from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Black Sea in the south and from the Baltic Sea on the west to the Pacific Ocean and until 1867 controlled Alaska on the North American continent to the east. This made Russia one of the largest nations with a population of 125.6 million on the 1897 census.

This book also documents many of fascinating peoples that formed part of the empire and their traditional modes of dress before westernisation took hold. One example are the people of the Kamtschatka peninsular at the far north east of the continent.  Known as the Itlemanns meaning ‘living here’ they were a clearly defined culture until the end of the 17th century but  the arrival Russian explorers and settlers as well as epidemics and  intermarriage saw them all but disappear as a distinct cultural group by the end of the 18th.

The descriptions of their dress are written in a dated style but are a fascinating read!

A woman of Kamtschatka in her Holiday Dress 

The Kamtschadale seldom chooses a wife from among the females who dwell in the same hut as himself.  He repairs to the one which contains the object of his affection; he solicits the happiness of labouring for her parents, and uses every exertion to give them a favourable opinion of his zeal and activity.  If the lover is so unfortunate as to displease the parents and their daughter, he loses the fruits of his labour; but if he proves agreeable to them, he demands and obtains permission to touch his mistress; that is to say, to untie the strings of her jacket.  But this is generally found to be extremely difficult; for the moment he obtains this permission, the object of his affection is placed under the safeguard of all the matrons dwelling in the same habitation; who make it their especial care never to lose sight of her, and to redouble their vigilance in proportion to the skill and activity of the lover.  Besides this, the girl, who is never left alone for a moment, wears, on these occasions, two or three additional jackets, and is so over-loaded with garments, which are fastened upon her in every direction that it is with great difficulty she can move about.  Whenever she perceives her lover, she immediately screams out; the women run to her assistance, throw themselves upon the swain, and beat and scratch him in the most unmerciful manner; so that, instead of an expected conquest, he only carries off the bruises and scratches of his watchful antagonists.

It frequently happens that these efforts last for whole years, and are always attended with the same success.  Often, after seven long years spent in fruitless endeavours, the youth is thrown by the females from the top of some balagan, or summer hut, and is lamed for the remainder of his life.  But the lover, who at length discovers his mistress alone, or badly attended, cuts the threads of her garments, pulls off the bands which fasten them, and tears jacket, drawers, and every part of her dress, into a thousand pieces.  He has then touched her; and she bears witness to her defeat by exclaiming in a mild and plaintive tone of voice, Ni, ni

The marriage is immediately agreed upon, and the lover is no longer deprived of the reward to which he is so richly entitled.  On the following night he pays a visit to his bride in the quality of a husband, and on the day after he conducts her in triumph to his own habitation.


A woman of Kamtschatka in her Best Attire

 But, notwithstanding the difficulties mentioned in the preceding description, the lover has not yet passed through all the formalities necessary to secure him the title of husband; for in Kamtschatka, by a singular custom, the marriage is not celebrated till after its consummation.  The husband returns, in a few days, to the bride’s parents and the nuptials there take place.  He is attended on the road by both their relations.  At a short distance from the habitation the company stop, and the festival commences with songs suited to the occasion.  These songs are accompanied with various religious, or rather superstitious ceremonies.  Drum-sticks are woven with garlands, made of an herb which they hold in great veneration, and to which they attribute the most efficacious qualities; a few words of mystical signification are muttered over a dried fish’s head enveloped in the same herb, and the sacred charge is entrusted to the care of an old woman.  To the clothes which the bride has already on, are added a jacket of sheep’s-skin, and four other garments, which are thrown one over the other.  Arrived at the hut, she does not ascend into it by the usual ladder, but is let down by means of bands under her arms.  The old woman to whom the fish’s head was confided, places it at the foot of the ladder.  The bride and bridegroom trample upon it, each of the company hasten to follow their example, and the old woman, who had hitherto preserved her charge with the utmost care, is contented to be the last to commit this outrage:  she afterwards picks up the mysterious head and places it over the fire.  This strange ceremony is, doubtless, allegorical; but, hitherto, no traveller has given us a satisfactory explanation.  After this, the bride takes off the four additional garments, and distributes them amongst her relations, who, in return, present her with various presents.  The company then sit down:  the religious rites are concluded, and the rest of the day is devoted to festivity.  The new married pair remain for some time with the bride’s father, and their labours are devoted to his service.

Polygamy is allowed in Kamtschatka; but, as the husband is under the control of his wife, he rarely takes more than one.  Marriage is only forbidden between fathers and children, brothers and sisters.  Divorce is common among them, and is attended with no ceremony whatever.

A Kamtschatkan Sorcerer 

 The national religion of the Kamtschadales is Schamanism.  It strongly resembles the idolatrous worship of the Yakuti.  Koutkhou is the name given to their deity, and from him they boast their descent:  but as every religion is divided into sects, the Kamtschadales dispute amongst themselves as to the manner of their descent from Koutkhou.  They all agree, however, in believing that Koutkhou took up his abode for some time, upon the earth, and that Kamtschatka was the place of his residence.

The Kamtschadales acknowledge the existence of an evil spirit.  They believe also that the forests, volcanoes, mountains, and the springs of boiling water are inhabited by Genii, far more formidable than the Gods themselves, seeing that they dwell nearer to men and are workers of evil.  They believe in a state of existence after death, in which they experience neither hunger nor pain.  The world they will then inhabit, they suppose to be situated under our earth.

The Kamtschadales connect no principal of morality with their religious notions.  They believe everything to be permitted that is pleasing to their senses, and that nothing is forbidden but what is injurious to them.  Should one of their companions happen to scrape the ground with a knife, they would conceive themselves threatened with a hurricane; and would be fearful of drawing down tempests upon them, if they were to sharpen a hatchet upon a journey.  Were they to behold one of their most intimate friends on the point of being drowned, they would not save him: for in snatching the unfortunate sufferer from the punishment inflicted upon him from the Gods, they would expect to draw down the same condemnation upon their own heads.

If a man happens to die in one of their huts, they imagine that the infernal spirits will visit him, and destroy, at the same time, the living.  For this reason, when one of their companions is in the most imminent danger, they carry him out of the hut, and leave him to expire in the open air.  If they do not have time for this precaution, they fasten a cord round the neck of the deceased, and in this manner draw him out of the hut, and give the body to be devoured by dogs.