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!