“You look very Russian.”
It was an apt appraisal. Take one furry hat, place on head and – voila – comparisons to Anna Karenina are inevitable (the velvet helps). The recent film release has also helped to spur the re-emergence of words such as ‘tsar’, ‘cossack’ and ‘oligarch’ into fashion’s lexicon. Like the trends themselves, the vocabulary used by magazines and commentators waxes and wanes – ‘winter brights’ replacing ‘camel’ which replaced ‘seventies’. Each new season heralds another selection of descriptions to dislodge the old ones.
What I find fascinating though is what these words actually mean. Take ‘Russian’ for example. What is being evoked? It seems to me to be a mythic combination of warmth, opulence and wealth. It suggests snowy wastelands and colourful spires, chandeliers and satin, ice crystals and fur. When used within a fashion context, ‘Russian’ has only a shadowy resemblance to what it claims to represent.
This isn’t to play the language police or criticise use of the word. In fact, I wore a Russian themed outfit for a New Year’s Eve fancy dress party, with the largest, fluffiest grey hat I could find. But I'm nonetheless intrigued by the relationship between the way we label style and what those labels represent.
I’m studying Russia in my A2 History course at the moment. The syllabus starts in 1855 with Alexander II ruling. A large percentage of the population at the time were serfs – quite literally ‘souls’ to be bought, sold and worked by wealthy landowners. The rich image we now conjure of historical ‘Russians’ is one of St Petersburg society or the opera in Moscow rather than peasants so poor that some wore wooden boots, bare feet insulated only with straw. We tend not to acknowledge that the incredibly privileged minority sat atop a large, poverty-based majority. Of course we don’t. The glitter, the furs, the culture – all of this appears more alluring than the hugely unequal society or economic reality. And yet, such extreme affluence was only possible due to the existence of this class system that favoured a chosen few.
It’s not just exclusive to Russia though. We do it all the time – picking and choosing the bits of history we’d like to be inspired by. I, like many others, love stately homes and costume dramas. The stories attached to these grand buildings and their inhabitants are a source of endless interest. Think of the Elizabethan court, or Marie Antoinette’s lifestyle or opulent Balls in the 20s and 30s. They all intrigue. But why? I suppose the short answer is that we tend to aspire beyond our immediate environment – idolising what we're unlikely to experience ourselves. I certainly do it. But I occasionally catch myself, wondering whether it’s right to celebrate those stories of excess. Lift up the taffeta and one inevitably finds the suffering of others hidden beneath. Of course there are countless books, TV shows and studies that have explored the lives of the supporting networks – the servants, the peasantry, the farmhands – but they tend not to excite in a similar way, despite often being just as interesting.
Maybe they still need to be acknowledged though, awareness tempering the seduction of luxury. But in using ‘Russian’ as a descriptive term, the concept remains merely another form of escapism. It may once have been rooted in reality, but it has budded fantasy.
The ever-fabulous Florence Fox took these photos of me in my second hand sourced garb. This is one of the first set of photos posted here from a very exciting new venture between the two of us. We have started up a collaborative blog called 'Renard et Rose' where we are showcasing our photography projects. Comprised of sneak previews and technical discussions of each shoot, followed shortly after by the resulting photos, it's a platform for us to publish our shared ventures. We have plenty of ideas brewing for the year ahead. You can read more about the project here.