Elegance in exile

09 January 2012 | By Anna Sutton


Anna Sutton slips amongst the glamorous shadows of the past. All photography by Joshua Burns.

On a recent trip to Venice I saw a sublime exhibition that explores the contributions of Russian émigrés to fashion and costume design.

Elegance in Exile: Between fashion and costume, Diaghilev’s time is housed in The Museum and Study Centre of the History of Fabrics and Costume at Palazzo Mocenigo, a 17th-century Gothic building that formerly belonged to one of Venice’s most noble families. It’s a fittingly grand choice of venue for this event.

The exhibition, curated by Francesca Dalla Bernardina, features costumes of the Ballets Russes designed by artists such as Leon Bakst, Andre Derrain and Natalia Goncharova, whose take on colour was as stunningly original as anything achieved by the Fauvist painters, as well as fashion created and informed by the Russian émigrés who scattered all over Europe following the October Revolution.

At the heart of this show is the lasting contribution Sergei Diaghilev made to culture.

The pieces are sourced from the collections of Alexandre Vassiliev, a renowned fashion historian and a designer of costumes and sets, and Toni Candelero, a noted dancer and choreographer.

Elegance in Exile is curated so that the costumes complement the interior design and furnishings of each room. In the Portego (great hall), a collection of dresses introduce the theme of Orientalism. Embellished with hand-sewn glass beads, pearls and lace – some from Venice, a major centre of the glass and lace industries in Italy – an array of 1920s evening dresses are presented in a context of antique opulence. Intricately embroidered and beaded Charleston-style gowns of magenta silk, mustard velvet and silver tulle as fine as gossamer are framed by Renaissance cupids and chandeliers.

Nearby, a French silk cloak encrusted with hundreds of sapphire-blue stones and Venetian-style beads is a shining reminder of the influence the Russian exiles had on haute couture in Paris in the first half of the 20th century. Designs by Charles Worth, Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny are interspersed with those by Russian fashion houses such as Kitmir.

The Contessa’s bedroom and the bathroom reveal a collection of champagne-coloured lace ball and concert dresses laden with exquisitely rendered embroidery and pearl embellishments, some with bold floral painted patterns inspired by the Ballets Russes.

Costume drama is heightened in the Rococo red room, where gilded mirrors, antique Murano glass chandeliers and Louis XV chairs provide a sumptuous setting in which to showcase evening dresses reflecting Oriental influences from Istanbul and China. Heavier fabrics such as brocade silk and exotic detailing like metallic embroidery predominate here.

Further on, an opulent line-up of dresses in fabrics such as crepe and velvet, adorned lavishly with squirrel fur and Russian floral prints, provoked many gasps of admiration from viewers on my visit, while a trio of bell-shaped evening dresses in lace and lamé dating from the 1920s carried through the pronounced ballet theme.

Head pieces and accessories worn by Russian ballerinas are on show in the Count’s library, a display of glittering prizes yielding precious crystals, pearls, marabou feathers, dainty beading and hand-sewn sequins.

The finale of my trip was seeing the more familiar but always wildly original Ballets Russes costumes dating from 1909-1929 . Highlights included Leon Bakst’s ‘Costume for a Slave’ from Le Dieu Bleu (1912) and Natalia Goncharova’s ‘Costumes for a Noble’ from Le Coq  d’Or (1914).

This is curation at its finest: a harmonisation of costume with evocative surroundings which does justice to the bold Russians whose art is so beautiful it stirs the senses and elevates the soul. For further reading see Beauty in Exile: the artists, models, and nobility who fled the Russian Revolution and influenced the world of fashion by Alexandre Vassiliev.

How about Russian ballet in Australia? The Ballet Russes in Australia and Beyond explores the impact of these vital artistic troupes on Australian dance. You can pick up a copy from our online store.