Peter the Great’s quilted house coats and stylish velvet costumes, canonical clothing of Orthodox priests, embroidered ceremonial dresses of Russian aristocrats and colorful wedding gowns of Cossack women — these are just some of the amazing items of clothing on display at the Costume Gallery of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, each with its own story.
The Gallery, which opened in December at the Hermitage’s Staraya Derevnya Restoration and Storage Center, is unusual. It isn’t a traditional museum, but a hybrid between an exhibition space and a repository.
The exhibits are displayed in dimly lit halls that go completely dark as soon as visitors leave (they are equipped with motion sensors). This is designed to protect the fragile items, which are sensitive to light and humidity.
Behind the mannequins dressed in the gowns of Russian tsars and peasants, there are rows of lockers containing most of the precious collection, which give the visitors a sneak peek at the museum’s “backstage” area.
The Hermitage’s collection of costumes features more than 24,000 items covering the period from the late 17th century to the beginning of the 21st century. The Gallery currently displays 130 mannequins and numerous small items, such as hats, shoes, fans, bags, suitcases, mirrors and hangers. Because the venue is a repository, there are no labels or descriptions. All the information and legends must come directly from your guide, which makes for a more personalized experience.
The exhibition opens with a section devoted to the clerical clothes of the Russian Orthodox Church. In many cases these came from Russian empresses, including Elizabeth and Catherine the Great, who donated their ceremonial and evening dresses to monasteries by the thousands, where they would be remodeled to suit ecclesiastical needs.