Dressing 18th Century Russia in ‘The Great’

Elle Fanning in The Great (2020). Catherine, the young princess, is standing on an ornate palace stairway, her body facing away but her head turned to look at the camera. Her pale blonde hair is curled in a half updo, and she wears a hot magenta satin gown that reaches the floor.

In Hulu’s The Great, the initial naivety of its protagonist Catherine (Elle Fanning), as a foreign princess in a new country, is apparent from the off. It serves as a heavy contrast to the courtiers she now finds herself surrounded by , whose appetite for plots, murder, and sex seems never-ending. Not only that, the new Empress finds herself entering a world filled with courtiers who gleefully embrace the oddities of fashion, something which initially appears strange to the new Empress. Throughout The Great, series creator/writer Tony McNamara, costume designer Emma Fryer, and hair & makeup designer Louise Coles use costuming, hair, and, and makeup to show the progression of Catherine the Great’s character arc from naive princess to coup leader. Sometimes this is done explicitly, as a plot point which is discussed and acknowledged by the shows characters.

We see in episode one, for instance, that the ladies of the Russian court have taken to wearing their wigs pushed back on their heads, as if they were hats. When one such lady, Tatyana, shows off her latest wig from Paris, Catherine is non-plussed, scrambles to respond to Tatyana’s question of “you recognise it, no doubt?” by replying “I recognise it as… special.” It’s the kind of oddity that a viewer would be forgiven for assuming is the type of silly, exaggerated detail that a modern writer would insert in order to highlight and then satirise the extravagancies of 18th century court life, but in fact it is a detail series creator Tony McNamara points out is actually period accurate.  Indeed, as we’ll explore, 18th century court fashion had a penchant for the extravagant meeting the bizarre, so there are plenty of details for McNamara and Fryer to mine without the need for too much invention.

In other scenes, the styling of Catherine and her courtiers goes unremarked upon, but is in itself a vital reflection of what is happening within the scene. To reflect this, early episodes show Catherine in gowns which come largely from a pastel colour palette with lots of baby blues and seafoam greens, and hair that is initially loose and then only simply dressed, contrasting with a court whose aesthetic is darker, bolder, larger, and decidedly more jewel-encrusted. No member of the court embodies this contrast better than the Emperor’s mistress, Madame Georgina Dymova, portrayed by Charity Wakefield. Dymova is frequently seen in various shades of red – from blood to berry, ruby to wine, but never approaching anything close to the pastel colour palette that marks Catherine as a newcomer.

Elle Fanning in 'The Great' (2020). Catherine, her hair pulled back in an updo, is wearing a light turquoise gown with a darker teal velvet jacket over the top which buttons up to her neck in a more austere look. She stands centre frame in a crowd of other courtiers wearing elegant gowns and suits, but all in shades of brown and orange, making Catherine stand out.

In multiple scenes, we also see Georgina, and other courtiers, wearing mouches, a kind of artificial beauty mark made out of velvet that often came in novelty shapes, and were applied to the face and/or chest. Madame Dymova favours a heart on her chest with a smaller mouche under her eye, while Aunt Elizabeth wears  a horse high up on her cheek. Mouches had their origins in the 16th century French Court, but quickly spread were still popular throughout Europe, now throughout all social classes,  in the 18th . While their original purpose was to cover up blemishes and scars, their adoption into fashionable dress meant that, by the period in which The Great is set, they were also used for purely decorative purposes, which is how we see the Russian court wearing them. Various codes cropped up in regards to the placement of mouches – how many people wore and where exactly they placed them could indicate anything from their political views, to their prominent personality traits, to private messages addressed to their lovers. These codes aren’t explored in The Great, nor are the mouches worn by courtiers acknowledged in the script, but (as with the hat-wigs) it’s the kind of weirdness that The Great delights in, so perhaps we might hope for a plot involving conversations via mouche when the show’s second season comes round.

A rudimentary illustration from 1650 of a person wearing mouche, little shapes cut from velvet that were stuck on the face to disguise imperfections. There is a star, a moon, a circle, and a horse and carriage.
Mouche illustration (c. 1650)

Other actual oddities of 18th century court fashion present throughout Fryer’s costume design include panniers, a kind of undergarment worn by women that horizontally enlarged the hips of the wearer. Panniers were approaching fantastical levels of size around this period, as can be seen by looking at the real Catherine’s coronation dress. When one sees this particular gown, it is not difficult to imagine how, at their apex, panniers found women taking up around three times the physical space as their male counterparts, and necessitated their wearers altering how they got around – circumventing doorways and getting around other panniers wearers seem to have been the main issues. Such incidents are well encapsulated in this recollection, from a gentleman writing to the London Review in 1741, that “I have been in a moderate large Room, where there have been but two Ladies, who had not enough space to move without lifting up their Petticoats higher than their Grandmothers would have thought decent.” Their perceived ridiculousness and garishness meant panniers were often mocked and satirised in speech, writing, and cartoons of the 18th century. While Fryer does not make the panniers of The Great quite so large as to necessitate such absurd physical manoeuvring, that anecdote is exactly the sort of silliness borne out of seriousness that both The Great’s writing and costuming design delight in, so perhaps (as with mouches) we will see more from this strange undergarment in season two.

In episode four, Catherine finally thinks her acceptance at court is on the horizon when she accepts an invitation to a tea dance made up of court noblewomen in an array of pastel wigs. Considering Fryer’s aforementioned use of a pastel colour palette to highlight Catherine’s differences from the ladies of the Russian court, this might have been a sign that she might, finally fit in – sartorially at least. However, when the women of the court do embrace pastel tones, they don’t do it by halves. Therefore, even in a scenario where Catherine’s outfit fits in better, its simple nature (no wig, no jewels, no adornment of the gown adornments with fabric flowers or flouncy bows) still contrasts with the opulence of the imperial court. Again, we can see how Fryer and Coles utilise hair and costume design as a reflection of the scene’s plot, wherein an alienated Catherine hopes this tea dance invitation will finally lead to friendship and acceptance at court, and instead finds herself further bullied and isolated.

Wig colours in the tea dance scene vary from lilac to mint green, but are mostly pink. This detail is anachronistic, but not to the extent that a modern viewer might assume. The Great takes place in 1740s, and there was a short-lived craze for pink wig powder in the late 1770s-mid 1780s, something that’s perhaps best visually documented by the multiple miniatures, created by artist John Smart during this period, showing both men and women with pastel pink hair. Indeed, such pink hair can be seen on Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, in a scene set in the late 1770s.

Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette (2006). A close up of Marie, dressed in a pale pink satin gown and her wig a matching dusty pink colour, adorned with a white flower wreath.
Marie Antoinette (2006) Columbia Pictures

This brings up another interesting aspect of The Great : the potential influence of Marie Antoinette on its visuals and approachFryer’s noted decision to chart the character arc of Catherine through her increasingly bold sartorial choices is similarly achieved as in Coppola’s biopic of France’s ill-fated queen. Like the team behind The Great, she employs a mix of historical research with more modern touches, and uses the changing fashion of the film’s protagonist to chart her emotional journey; like Catherine, Antoinette goes from a muted colour palette and simple gowns, to larger silhouettes and bold colours. While Canonero did win an Oscar for the designs, the film’s aesthetics and approach to history was not always popularly received when it came out – it was famously booed at its Cannes showing. However, its offbeat approach to the historical biopic genre, namely its focus on communicating what it would be like, emotionally, to be a teenage queen (rather than adhering strictly to historical accuracy) has led to Marie Antoinette developing a cult following over the years, something The Greats positive reception has presumably benefitted from. It would seem that Milena Canonero’s costume design has had a surprisingly large influence on period drama costuming in the year 2020, as Emma’s costume designer Alexandra Byrne and director Autumn de Wildehave credited the film with influencing the aesthetic of their adaption.

As the show goes on, and Catherine begins to finds love and her footing (not to mention, she also starts plotting), the look of her wardrobe is expanded, with more variety of colour and shade being introduced into her clothing – a bright yellow gown with the accent of a pink belt, or a dark navy robe á la anglaise with hot pink underskirts. The apex to this is seen in the show’s finale – with Catherine’s increased confidence now fully arrived, she and her allies attempt their coup d’état, a transformation that is communicated visually by the Empress’ striking hot magenta gown, her hair adorned with matching flowers. The dress’ hot magenta shade gives it a decidedly modern feel – perhaps more Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes than the traditional idea of an Autocrat of All the Russias.

In interviews, ColesFryer, and cast member Gwilym Lee have all highlighted that The Great’s approach to its characters looks is to take period-accurate shapes and silhouettes, but then pairing them with fabrics in more anachronistic  prints and colours to give them a punch of modernity and excitement. Such is the case with this dress, for while the colour pink became increasingly fashionable and popular throughout the 18th century, she seems unlikely to have sported such a shocking shade. This mixing of authenticity with modernity is a perfect sartorial representation of the show’s wider tone, with The Great’s title card pitches itself as “an occasionally true story” (with an emphasis on ‘occasionally’) and frequently makes jokes and nods to elements of history that haven’t yet happened – for instance, the far-off Chernobyl disaster is referenced when the city’s choir is described as “glowing”, while in another episode Catherine’s lover Leo invents a drink made up of vodka, ginger beer, and lime – a drink many viewers will know as the Moscow Mule. Another example of a deliberately modern touch combined with period detail the blue cloak Catherine repeatedly wears. It was chosen specifically because it has “the looseness and casualness that lets you feel like you’re talking to a contemporary woman”, with a hood reminiscent of a modern hoodie, but is actually a Brunswick, a  type of cloak design which was popular in women’s fashion during the mid 18th century.

Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning in The Great (2020). Peter (left) and Catherine (right) and standing together in their royal attire, he in a navy velvet jacket adorned with gold medals and a blue sash, she in a more muted pale green dress with a cream sash and a forest green cloak over one shoulder. Both look into the camera, poised.

When Catherine’s coup fails, she finds herself locked in her rooms, unable to do anything but fret, a situation that is worsened when Marial informs her that Peter knows both that she both started the and that she is newly pregnant. Catherine tells Marial “he will be coming for me now!”. “No,” Marial replies, “he won’t”. Elle Fanning’s acting is remarkable here, as we watch her face go from tears to confusion to dawning realisation to resolution all in a matter of seconds – she realises that if she emphasises her pregnancy, he won’t kill her. Perhaps, she can even turn the situation around.

In Catherine’s next scene, we open on a steadily zooming out close-up of her gown’s stomacher, which along with her bodice, has been slashed to reveal her bare belly. Catherine’s dress now serves both as a metaphor for journey across the episode (initially bright, brash, and confident, she suddenly finds herself being cut down) and as a weapon at her disposal. Both she and her dress might have fared even worse if not for her cleverly pivoting Peter’s focus onto her new pregnancy. Here, she uses the new cut of her dress to her advantage, taking Peter’s hand and making him feel her bare stomach, emphasising to him that their child is “here, under your hand…just under the skin. Your son.” Here, Catherine turns her ruined dress into a powerful weapon. The touch of her bare stomach allows for the reality to really dawn on Peter that he has, in his own words, “made a fucking person”. This gives him pause re: murdering his wife and unborn child, which he attempts to shake off by proclaiming that “any cunt can give me a baby.” Yet, he isn’t entirely convinced by his own logic, and tells Catherine that he “needs a moment”. He then kneels down, cradling her bare stomach and talking to their child, referring to himself in a fond voice as “daddy”.

Catherine ultimately ends up being spared, but Peter threatens to kill her lover, Leo, if she doesn’t submit to him. She initially agrees, but after a chat with (the) Voltaire realises that Russia is more important than a romantic relationship which could end at any moment for any number of reasons. She gives her military commander the go ahead to fire a shot, and the coup is back on. But, Catherine’s fate is left on a cliff-hanger. Will her dress sustain more cuts in her pursuit to become ruler of Russia? Only time, and series two, will tell.

by Chloe Esslemont

Chloe Esslemont (she/hers) is a 24 year old writer and artist, obsessed with art, pop, culture, history, and how they intersect. Her bylines include DazedPolyesterArt UK, and Hyperallergic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.