Mathilde, aka Matilda, currently showing on Amazon Prime under the title Mathilde: The Affair to Break an Empire, is a 2017 Russian film that purports to tell the story of future Tsar Nicholas II’s premarital relationship with ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya. There was a whole lot of controversy when this came out in Russia, because it shows the now-venerated tsar (officially: he’s now Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer in the Russian Orthodox Church) getting up to some serious premarital sexytimes. But you should watch it if for no other reason than wow, they did a (mostly) amazing job showing 1890s couture!
Okay, so the film takes massive liberties with historical accuracy. Basically it shows Mathilde as Nicholas’s One True Love, and puts the two into a love triangle with Alix (the future Empress Alexandra). While it’s true Nicholas and Mathilde had a relationship, it seems to have ended nicely as Nicholas got engaged (read more at The History Press). And according to Nicholas’s own diaries, he was super smitten with Alix.
Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining film, even if the ending rang hollow, and there are some semi-unnecessary plot threads, because THE COSTUMES, PEOPLE…
They were designed by Nadezhda Vasileva, a Russian designer whose resume consists of things I’ve never heard of, like a 2005 TV miniseries adaptation ofThe Master and Margarita. According to the film’s director, Aleksey Uchitel:
“Speaking about the costumes, I would like to mention the great work from our two costume artists and designers Nadezhda Vasileva and Olga Mikhailova. Together with their assistants, they made 7000 costumes. We relied on a number of photographs, literary sources and paintings, which is one reason why we reached this level of authenticity. There was even one case when Lars Eidinger, the lead actor, was brought to the shoot wearing a leather jacket and jeans and I asked, ‘Why is he not in a costume?’ And I was told, ‘No, during that time, it was starting to become fashionable, jeans included’. So that was one of those paradoxical things, not only all those glorious dresses and military uniforms.” (Eye for Film)
Side note: I have now looked at SO MANY images of late 19th-century gowns by amazing designers like Charles Frederick Worth, and I am DEEP DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE OF DRESS LUST. Seriously. Start scroll through this Pinterest board and tell me if you aren’t overwhelmed with the beauty.
If you’re into ballet costumes, you will be in heaven. There’s lots of close-ups of (longer-than-modern) tutus and point shoes.
And the kind of on-screen gorgeousness in the movie.
Russian Court Dress
So Russia had a formal court dress for women, instituted by Tsar Nicholas I (1825-55), which remained in place from 1834 through 1917. According to the Alexander Palace, it was described in a period source as “a white embroidered silk gown, with an embroidered velvet overdress with long, open sleeves in the Muscovite style.” The key thing visually to me is the split overskirt with train and, even more so, the long, split sleeves. Check out that Alexander Palace blog post if you’re interested in learning more.
On screen, we mostly see Nicholas and Alexandra’s court mantles:
Compare that with Alexandra’s real coronation mantle, preserved at the Moscow Kremlin Museums:
However, behind-the-scenes photos show both Alexandra and Dowager Empress Maria in court dress:
I would say both look a little overly shiny and I question the fur on the sleeves, but Alexandra’s actual coronation gown is also preserved:
The film shows a mix of women, most, but not all, wearing Russian court dress at Nicholas’s coronation:
And here are some of those movie gowns on display:
And in case you’re wondering, here’s Nicholas’s real coronation uniform:
The real Mathilde was born in 1872, started seeing the tsar when she was 17 in 1890, and was of Polish heritage.
In the film, she’s played by dark-haired Polish actress Michalina Olszanska (note that the dowager empress’s character, originally Danish, is played by a Danish actress). This isn’t an exhaustive run-down of her costumes, but just the ones I want to talk about.
Originally German (Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine), the future Empress Alexandra was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. She met Nicholas in 1884 and the two fell in love, but parents and grandparents objected for a while. They finally got engaged in 1894 and were married later that year.
Maria Feodorovna’s Costumes
The Empress, later Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna married the future Alexander III in 1881. She lived until 1928, and yes, is the dowager empress that you always see in all the Anastasia movies!
What are your thoughts on Mathilde‘s take on 1890s couture?