Catherine the Great (1729-1796) was probably the best tsar Russia ever had. She arrived in the country as a teenaged German bride, and eventually took the throne in a coup that deposed her idiot husband. For 34 years she reigned as Empress and Autocrat of All the Russias, expanding the nation’s borders and turning it into an international powerhouse. She was a brilliant, incredibly capable woman, and in many ways very enlightened—or as enlightened as an absolute monarch can be. She corresponded with thinkers like Voltaire (who claimed to adore her) and successfully promoted education, modernization, and reform. (Not for serfs, though. They were still out of luck.) During her reign Russia finally became, in the words of a contemporary, “a European country,” with an educated, sophisticated elite and the status of a world power. What Peter the Great had dreamed of, Catherine the Great made happen.
To dress like Catherine the Great, you need an 18th century gown and lots of bling. The pieces we suggest, from left to right:
1. Eighteenth-century gown set (bodice, skirt, lace cuffs, and hoop skirt). You can also just get
the dress by itself (bodice and skirt) in a variety of colors and patterns. The hoop skirt, lace cuffs, and various chemises can be purchased separately as well. We also recommend a bum roll to create that wider-than-a-Mack-truck look around the hips, and a corset to give you a rigid torso. (Eighteenth century gowns were meant to be worn over stays, and it’s impossible for them to look the way they’re supposed to without that stiff underpinning. Even an inexpensive modern corset is better than nothing.)
Last-minute alternative: What if you can’t wait a week for your costume and need something right now? Just look for the nicest Marie Antoinette or Martha Washington costume you can find. If Marie Antoinette, obviously make sure it’s a full-length gown and not one of those bizarre miniskirts. If you get a Martha Washington costume, don’t wear the mob cap or any sort of kerchief.
2. Rhinestone appliques: floral sash and floral mirror pair. To get the look of Catherine’s epic diamond chains, just tack a few rhinestone appliques to your bodice. You’ll probably want to re-use the dress for other costumes (basically any woman who lived in the 18th century), so don’t attach the appliques permanently. Just lightly pin them on, or even use a few dabs of Aleene’s “Tack-It Over & Over” glue for a temporary hold.
3. Light sky blue sash. Chair sashes are very useful for replicating the fancy medal sashes worn by monarchs; you can also use a length of very wide moiré ribbon, assuming you have access to a craft store that carries such things. The light blue sash Catherine the Great wore in her portraits was for the chivalric Order of St. Andrew the First Called. Wear it over your right shoulder, and pin a brooch to it (next).
4. Bow-shaped rhinestone brooch. This is a nice big piece, suitable for its job of pretending to be a chivalric order badge.
5. Rhinestone tiara. Of course you need a crown. The real Russian imperial crown was ginormous—you can see it in the painting on the left up top; it looks like an erupting onion dome—and not something that you can just whip up on the fly. Fortunately you don’t need to: Catherine wore nice little diamond tiaras most of the time.
6. Rhinestone necklace and rhinestone earrings. Have we mentioned that Catherine liked diamonds? Check out the size of her earrings in the painting on the right up top. And the imperial crown she had specially made for herself was literally covered in diamonds. A fascinating post on the Jewels du Jour blog has pictures and some background on the Russian royal jewel collection.
Main illustration credits: The painting on the left is the coronation portrait of Catherine by Stefano Torelli (1763-66). The portrait on the right is by Aleksey Antropov, and is dated to about 1765.