The Romanov Grand Duchesses

7 June 2011

A pair of splendid ceremonial gowns worn in 1913 by the grand duchesses Olga and Tatiana, eldest daughters of Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. The dresses were made in St Petersburgh in the workshop of Bulbenkova and were to be worn at the official event for the 300th anniversary of the House of Romanov. The dresses are made from white satin with gold and pink velvet decoration and are designed to be worn with traditional pink velvet halo like head dresses called ‘kokoshnik’. The Empress loved to dress her eldest daughters, known as ‘The Big Two’ in matching clothes.

These photographs shows the two grand duchesses wearing their gowns. The 1913 celebrations in Russia were to be among the last opulent state occasions that the Romanov family presided over before the outbreak of World War I and the Revolution that was to engulf them.

The two younger grand duchesses, Maria and Anastasia were also present at the ceremonies and would have worn similar ceremonial robes, although the photographs above date from a few years earlier. ‘The Little Two’ were also dressed in matching clothes by their mother, most usually frilly muslin and linen gowns like the two below which were worn by them when young.

I’ve been fascinated by the Romanov family ever since I was a little girl and stayed up late one night to watch Nicholas and Alexandra, bedazzled by all the pomp and glitz and splendour then heartbroken by the tragic end. Since then I’ve read countless books about the family, avidly devouring every detail of their lives and, I’ll admit it, hoping that the conspiracy theories were true and they had managed to escape after all. I particularly liked the theory that they were smuggled to the coast and then spent the next decades cruising the oceans in a royal yacht. They always look so happy in photographs taken on board the Standart, you see…

There’s such a haunting beauty to old photographs of the lost Romanov children, who are long dead whether you accept that they were murdered in July 1918 or survived to old age. Are events more tragic when the victims are pretty, I find myself wondering? Would we care as much about the fates of OTMA (their personal nickname that they used to co-sign letters: Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia) and Alexei if they were older and less beauteous?

The official photographs of the young Russian Tsarevitch and grand duchesses have become as much a part of their mythology as the rumours surrounding their final moments – those fresh faced young girls in their pretty white dresses with long, softly pulled back hair. Their pensive, direct gazes reminiscent of their parents, who always look so serious, almost melancholy in their photographs.

The private family snaps tell a different story of course – they show face pulling, scuffles, bicycles, snow, kittens and laughter and, if possible, are even more unbearably sad than the posed and elegantly cosy photos taken by the official photographers.

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I also have a post about the splendid dresses worn by the Empresses Alexandra and Marie, which you can see here.