The Empress' Old Clothes And Other Historic Fashions

By Tara Maginnis

As the imperial capital, and then the city of Lenin, St Petersburg's inhabitants from the highest to the lowest have always known the importance of dressing to impress.

And the city's museums give enough coverage of the area of costume to satiate any visitor interested in the history of Russian attire.

Museum collections here are usually very different from Western collections and so are especially interesting because of their "unusual" nature.

The most spectacular display of costume in St Petersburg is at the Russian Ethnographical Museum (formerly the Ethnographic Museum of the Peoples of the USSR).

This is an exceptional, but underrated tourist attraction, right in the middle of the city. Despite being adjacent to Ploshchad Isskustvo, scarcely a block away from the Grand Hotel Europe, it is never crowded even in the height of tourist season or on weekends.

As a result, the security guards, far from turning into scowling watchdogs (like those in the more overcrowded museums) are dying to talk and to show their treasures.

And at only 2,500 roubles it is also one of the cheaper museums for the foreign tourist to visit.

The Ethnographic Museum was originally part of the Russian Museum (next door) built before the 1917 Revolution, but in 1934 it became a separate entity. Under Stalin, the study and display of USSR folk arts served political ends.

Unlike English costume museums, which tend to focus on history, or French ones that stick to costume as Couture, Russian costume museums under the Soviets primarily collected costume as proletarian artwork.

As a result Russia has the best museum collections of "folk" costume worldwide and the Ethnographic Museum in St Petersburg is considered to be the best of its kind.

The museum displays a total of 200,000 examples of folk art, mostly dated from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The museum also houses rotating exhibits of contemporary folk arts. All the costumes on display are high quality. Most notable are the costumes in the hall devoted to ethnic Russian peasant dress.

Also on display are items from the other Republics which made up the former USSR.

A particularly spectacular Chukchi (Eastern Siberian) Shaman's garment is on display on the second floor of the West wing.

There is also a rotation of small new exhibits such as the present display of restored antique fans, although some small sections of the main collection are closed.

Even though the main collection contains enough all by itself to absorb the most ardent of costume enthusiasts for an entire day there's still more!

If you have extra cash, or all day to see the whole museum, or better still both there are two "extra" exhibits that cost 10,000 roubles each to enter.

The elusive "Gold Hall" houses valuable jewelry and jewel-encrusted costume accessories in a space like a bank vault.

Go right towards the Russian hall, then, before the entrance turn left into the Ukrainian hall, then turn right. The Gold Hall is hidden behind a small door at the far end of the hall.

You can only tour the Gold Hall with a guide, so you may have to wait your turn for the next tour. To get your tour in English, book one day in advance.

Another extra exhibit is in the central marble hall, between the two main galleries. The fabulous, sparkling exhibition, "The Emperor's Collection," has all that glitters in the way of costumes and jewelled objects.

Notable are a group of traditional church vestments, with highly ornate embroidery. Also interesting is a group of china figures depicting the costumes of various ethnic regions in the Russian Empire.

You can often find art and design students in this hall sketching the costumes for class projects or to sell in the main Museum gift shop. To raise money for improvements the museum has three gift shops, one with modern folk crafts and books, a small hall displaying St Petersburg style floral beadwork jewelry, and a textile arts demonstration area in the Russian hall that sells the products of demonstrations.

Photos: Tara Magannis