When we look at fashion, we expect change, innovation, and creativity. But what I see goes beyond that – an entire paradigm shift has occurred. During the twenties, fashion was about beauty. Rich women bought the haute couture designs, middle class women tried to emulate it. The looks, while truly gorgeous, were achievable; the models, while certainly extremely beautiful, looked nevertheless like normal women, and the clothes, accessories, even the evening gowns were something any woman would be proud to own and use.
The other day, my good friend, the writer Nurit Henig from Israel (see several of her wonderful stories right here on http://ililarbel.weebly.com/personal-histories.html) sent me a link to a fashion show video, telling me it was a “gift to Madame Koska.” It is stunning, and I could see why she sent it – most of the dresses are beaded, much like the clothes I described being made in the atelier of Madame Koska, an art she brought from Paris and Russia. I have to say I was so fascinated with the video that I had to view it more than once.
The clothes are futuristic, but they borrow from the past, not only because of the elaborate beading, but the designs as well. For example, one of the creations is strongly Elizabethan, suggesting a farthingale. The models who present the clothes look, to be quite honest, like snakes. Each model wears a head covering which is a beaded cage that covers the face as well as the skull, giving them the shape of a snake’s head. The models are extremely tall and thin, and the beaded dresses skim their bodies like reptilian scales. They are, to be honest, a bit scary and alien, even though they are of course very beautiful.
During Madame Koska’s time, the venue was generally selected for its airy, cheerful, and elegant appearance. Refreshments would be circulated or served on tables covered with silver and crystal. Flowers would be everywhere. Often, light classical music was played by a live band. The venue you will see on the link below looks like a dark castle. People are dwarfed by it. The music is not pleasing to the ear. The entire effect, if you ask my opinion, is menacing. And most important, I was wondering what woman on earth would actually buy and wear these strange creations… Enjoy!
Hopefully, you have already met some of these beautiful ladies in Madame Koska and the Imperial Brooch. However, we did not discuss them in the detail they deserve.
What I must tell you first is what they were not. Unlike today’s models, they were not children. You would never meet a girl between the ages of fourteen to sixteen being forced to diet into anorexia and stunt her development. They were young ladies who had come of age. They were not over six feet tall and made of skin and bone; they had real women’s bodies. Certainly they were tall and slim and had the necessary tiny waist and long legs, but they did not resemble a giraffe.
In the 1920s, there were about a hundred Russian young women who worked as models. They were exiles from the Revolution, and came from the aristocracy, had no money and needed employment – and the great couture houses were only too happy to get them. The girls had excellent education and perfect manners, and could converse with the clients with ease, not only because of their social habits and experience, but also because French was really the first language of the Russian nobility.
There was a strict hierarchy in the modeling profession. The models were divided into several categories: Mannequins de cabine, who were on payroll for the couture house; mannequins vedettes, or “stars” who came for special shows, and mannequins volantes, or flying models, who were hired to travel with shows abroad; and mannequins mondaines, or society models, who were particularly beautiful or had important titles. The last category did not appear in shows. They were given dresses to wear in society.
The house of Chanel, for example, had two “star” mannequins. The first was Princess Mary Eristova. Mary was born in Georgia, but her father, Prince Schervachidze, was a member of the State Duma of Russia, raising his daughter and her siblings in Saint Petersburg, where she became a lady-in-waiting for the Empress Alexandra. When she arrived in Paris and was introduced to Coco Chanel, the couturier was impressed with her fragile, dark, exotic beauty that truly suited Chanel’s style. The second was Gali Bajenova, a tall blond with a full figure, and was the daughter of a famous general, Konstantin Nikolayevich Hagondokov. She came to Paris as a married woman, and was hired by Chanel to be a society model, showing the Chanel dresses at many society events. Her pictures appeared in many of the more popular magazines.
Many noble families would have objected to their daughters doing any work at all – let alone showing themselves in public – but often there was no choice. The Russian immigrants had absolutely nothing, and many of them had no marketable skills for anywhere but Russia, where the fathers served as officials and the mothers either did not need to do anything, or served at court. And modeling paid extremely well – a model could earn at least four times as much as a waitress or a shop girl. In addition, these young ladies had the love of fashion that helped them settle into the new life with a level of comfort. Many saw it as an adventure and enjoyed the trade and the social opportunities it brought.
The pictures in this posting came from a site that declared them as copyright free. If anyone feels this is incorrect, please let me know and I'll remove it immediately.
In Madame Koska’s atelier, Natalya, the expert on Russian Pearl Embroidery is highly valued, and plays an important part in the first mystery, Madame Koska and the Imperial Brooch. No wonder. It is a difficult, intricate form of embroidery, demanding perfection in the execution.
The level of opulence achieved by this style is unmatched by any other bead or sequin embroidery, no matter how valuable. The pearls themselves do not have to be very expensive, though beautifully rounded ones are preferred. But the combination of laying down gold couching thread, pearls, and sometimes other gems on brilliantly colored, heavy cloth, certainly is fit for royalty, nobility, the church, and the fabulously wealthy.
Pearl embroidery is no longer in high demand for fashion, but some great craft persons still make it, so the art is not lost. Many elegant, vintage patterns still exist and can be bought online. Here are a couple of links showing examples and techniques that would take the breath away from any embroidery lover, craft historian, or anyone who love the history of fashion.
This link leads to the site of a modern artisan who works with this medium.
This link will show you a historic image of a Russian princess wearing a priceless pearl-embroidered dress and a headdress to match.
This link takes you to a place that could have been Madame Koska’s…
I hope the history and images help bring more of Madame Koska’s creativity to life, and that you will enjoy these lovely crafts! If any of you mean to try making it, please send me a picture!
A statue of Vaslav and Bronislava Nijinsky by Giennadij Jerszow
Did Nijinsky possess supernatural powers?
Vaslav Nijinsky was a legend even during his own time. There were several occasions where people were wondering if his performance was not helped by supernatural powers. His leaps, in particular, seemed to be so incredibly high, and lasted so long, that people felt he was flying, or floating, defying gravity.
It is most unfortunate that we cannot see any old films in which he appears – apparently Diaghilev did not allow anyone to film during Nijinsky’s performances – so the only evidence we have is word of mouth and memoirs. However, Nijinsky’s sister, a great dancer and choreographer in her own right, left some clues.
For example, his level of energy and his ability to focus were extraordinary. Here is how Bronislava described his practice habits:
“While Vaslav, apart from the others, practiced his dance exercises alone, I observed him from a distance. He executed all his exercises at an accelerated tempo, and for never more than forty-five to fifty minutes; that would be his total practice time. But during that time he expended the strength and energy equivalent in other dancers to three hours of assiduous exercises… Vaslav seemed more intent on improving the energy of the muscular drive, strength, and speed than observing the five positions… He worked on the elasticity of the whole body in the execution of his own movements. Even when holding a pose, Vaslav’s body never stopped dancing. “
Another point is, why couldn’t the greatest dancer of his time, perhaps even the entire twentieth century, lift his legs very high? Here is a paragraph by Bronislava that explains the one flaw he had exhibited:
“In his adagio exercises, in the développé front , he could not raise his leg higher than ninety degrees; the build of his leg, his overdeveloped thigh muscles, as solid as a rock, did not permit him to attain the angle possible for an average dancer.“
And the most important, here is the explanation for his supernatural leaps. Perhaps people should have taken a clue from the strange fact that he was one of the few male dancers, ever, who could dance en pointe, but no one connected the two facts.
“In the allegro pas he did not come down completely on the balls of his feet, but barely touched the floor with the tips of his toes and not the customary preparation with both feet firmly on the floor, taking the force from a deep plié. Nijinsky’s toes were unusually strong and enabled him to take this short preparation so quickly as to be imperceptible, creating the impression n that he remained at all times suspended in the air. “
Source: Nijinska, 1982, pp. 293-4
“Anyone here? Where are you?” The lady stood in the middle of the large, empty room, her chocolate-colored eyes flashing with anger as she stared at the incomplete renovations. Buckets of creamy white paint, brushes, and other painting paraphernalia were scattered around the cloth covering the floor. “Where is everyone?” she cried again. There was no answer. With a sweeping motion she flung her embroidered, elegant black shawl around her shoulders, and without removing her black fur hat, which added considerable height to her already slim and tall figure, strode up the stairs, negotiating her high heels with ease. “The pigs,” she murmured, quickly correcting herself and saying “Les cochons.” One must keep one’s style even when alone, as she was always trying to remember.
On the upper story’s little hall she burst into one of the rooms, then stopped suddenly and gazed at its perfection. The walls glowed with their fresh coat of paint; the parquet was polished to a deep shine. She sighed with relief and went downstairs again, reaching the empty room just as the two workmen returned from their lunch.
“Why have you not finished the house?” she asked, her voice shrill and accusing. “You absolutely promised to finish by tomorrow! I fully relied on you! The furniture is arriving on Friday, and where shall I put it? I will not pay! I will complain! You will be instantly dismissed!” She almost stamped her foot but must have remembered the danger it could present to her high heel, and stopped herself in time. Instead she decided to wring her hands, a most impressive gesture since it allowed the many rings she wore on top of the white gloves to flash and sparkle in the sun-drenched room.
She seemed to be a fairy, a creature made of light and air, not of this earth. When she appeared at the Maryinsky Theater, at the age of eighteen, the great ballet master, Marius Pepita, could not believe his own eyes. In his entire long career, he had never seen a ballerina perform quite like Anna Pavlova.
An overnight success, she went with the ballet to many countries in Europe, and then, in 1909, joined Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and went to Paris with him. She was as great a sensation there as Vaslav Nijinsky. How could the two greatest ballet dancers of all time be at the same place and the same time? How could such a coincidence happen? It seems impossible – and yet it did.
She did not return to Russia, particularly since the war prevented everyone from going back and forth. But she did not stay with Diaghilev, either. This ethereal creature had a mind of her own and she would not have anyone manage her career and dictate to her where and when she would dance. She became a true nomad, and traveled all over the world, appearing before royalty and modest dance halls with the same dedication to her art; she always danced as if possessed by a power higher than herself. Royalty saluted her. At the dance halls and second rate theaters, in company of jugglers and animal trainers, the audience gasped at the dark, exotic, delicate creature who seemed to make time stop as she danced. Her name was recognized internationally, in every continent. She made the dance look so easy, as if it cost no effort at all. The audience did not know that her muscles hurt so much that she had herself wrapped with tight bandages when she was not dancing. She never stopped hurting, but she would not stop dancing, either.
In 1931, at almost fifty, Pavlova was rather old for a ballerina; most dancers at that time stopped performing in their forties. But her power and magic did not diminish by age. She was expected in Brussels, at a royal performance the Queen was planning to attend. A few days before the performance, the theater manager received the shocking news that Pavlova died suddenly on her way, at The Hague.
The performance was not cancelled, and the Queen attended. When the time for Pavlova’s solo came, the orchestra played the music of her famous “Dying Swan” and a single, pure white ray of spotlight moved over the dark stage, following where Pavlova would have been moving as she danced. The Queen rose to her feet, and so did the rest of the audience, and their eyes followed the white light until the end of the piece. An other-worldly, eerie tribute, most fitting for the magical dancer.
These links connect to two dances by Anna Pavlova. We are so lucky they have survived.
Fashion changed greatly during the 1920’s, as we all know, and Madame Koska and the Imperial Brooch had the fashion scene as the background to the story. I did not have a proper fashion show in the book, since the action took place while Madame Koska’s establishment was preparing for its first London show, and was rudely interrupted by crime!
In the next book, on which I am working now, the fashion show will definitely occur. As I was researching for it, I found wonderful, authentic old films, showing elegant fashion shows, and I thought the readers might be interested in seeing them.
The venue was most important. It was essential for the fashion house to have the shows in large, beautiful, airy and brilliantly lit rooms. They had to be in a central and respectable area, so the great ladies would not hesitate to come, refreshments were served, and music might be unobtrusively played in the background. Often the flower arrangements, silverware, and decorations were stunning.
What I find extremely interesting is that the “mannequins,” as the models were called, were not always professionals. Often, young society ladies volunteered for the job, particularly if there was a charity involved, but even for regular shows, if the fashion house was sufficiently famous. It was considered a fun thing to do for a modern, emancipated young woman!
These links are only a few of the wonderful films available – there are plenty more if you are interested!
L’Après-midi d’un Faune : http://tinyurl.com/n4kceov
The first performance of L’Après-midi d’un Faune created a huge scandal. Nijinsky had caused scandals for what audiences perceived as indecency before, but nothing like this one. It was premiered in Paris, and one would expect sophistication from the Parisian audiences and critics, but it seems this ballet was just too much.
To begin with, this was no classical ballet. It was done in the style of a Greek bas-relief, as if it was coming to life. The choreography, by Nijinsky but with Diaghilev complete approval, was entirely innovative. The dancers were barefoot, moving heel to toe. Most of the dance was done in profile, like a Greek frieze, so the classical “positions” were eliminated.
The scenery and costumes, by Leon Bakst, were gorgeous. The Faun wore tights that were patterned after a dappled horse, and had vine clusters attached to it. He had a wig with short horns. The Nymphs who surrounded the Faun floated about in delicate fabrics for the dresses and veils. There were no white tutus and no pink shoes.
The story was based on Greek myths, but extremely simple. The Nymphs appear, dancing together and playing. The Faun observes them, proceeds to chase them, and finally tries to seize one of them. The Nymph manages to evade him, and runs away, leaving her veil. The disappointed Faun climbs a cliff in the background, lies down on the veil, and becomes immobile.
That is the end, and the curtain falls.
Except that on the first performance in Paris, Nijinsky did not remain immobile. As he lay down on the veil, he started moving in a sexual and suggestive way, and the audience began screaming, hissing, and protesting, while others were whistling and applauding. It was pandemonium.
As always, Diaghilev knew exactly what to do. Immediately, he gave the order to repeat the ballet, from beginning to end. The audience calmed down and watched for the second time – and ended with a huge, unanimous applause.
This did not end the story, though. The next day, the great critic, Calmette, wrote a scathing article in the Le Figaro newspaper. He was answered by the famous sculptor, Rodin, who not only loved the ballet but was also a personal friend of Diaghilev. The controversy spread, and Paris was divided into two camps regarding the scandal. The newspapers went on with many articles – and the result was a huge success of L’Après-midi d’un Faune.
When I first saw that there was a film that showed Nijinsky dancing L’Après-midi d’un Faune, I did not believe my eyes. What???? It is well known that Diaghilev did not permit filming Nijinsky, ever, under no circumstances. But here was this strange old video, and I watched with baited breath… all the while I was hoping that perhaps another video might exist, one that would show Nijinsky’s wild, almost unnatural leaps. No such luck – this was not real. It was nice to see Nijinsky moving, but the video is a modern work of combining still photographs, and making them move to the glorious sound of the Debussy piece. Nevertheless, even though you know it’s not real, the imagery is wonderful and enjoyable. The link, again, is http://tinyurl.com/n4kceov.
Here she is, the elusive, enigmatic, undefeatable Madame Koska, who can solve a crime and run an establishment of magnificent haute couture with equal success. Who is she? What is her first name? Who was M. Koska? Where did she learn her trade? It must be Paris but she has a Russian name… where does she get her lovely mannequins? Does she smoke a cigarette stuck in a long ebony cigarette holder?
The cover and you see here is for the first book in the series I am writing about Madame Koska's adventures. The printed book is a special edition, published by the Angela Thirkell Society of North America, and it will not be available unless I prepare a second edition. Currently, the book is available only as an e-book on: http://tinyurl.com/pa4y8b5
In a future segment I plan to add the introduction to the book right here, so you can get an idea, if you wish, as to the content and to how it all started. But the blog is going to be about much more. If you are interested (not necessarily in the order mentioned) in London in the 1920's, Russian émigrés, Parisian haute couture, opium dens, sophisticated and attractive gentlemen who are not quite what they seem, fascinating ladies with a past, flappers and Mannequins, jewel thieves and cat burglars, the Russian Revolution, Catherine the Great, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, and the Ballets Russes, among other things, please come back! I would appreciate comments, of course, and if you notice that I missed a subject that belongs here and is close to your heart, send me a note, preferably on scented light green paper with a gilded edge.
And just to start us on the right track, check out this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZsn6R4qiLo