The 19th century Russian Court often threw lavish parties (at the behest of the general populace). Think strikingly rich ball gowns, impressive court paintings, lavish pieces of furniture, exceptional pieces of jewellery… The ballroom scene unfolds slowly.
Grand balls were considered to be one of the most important court occasions and great effort goes into the planning of every single detail.
As in any society there are certain etiquettes that one should always adhere to. In Russia it was (still is) taboo to arrive late for a social occasion. Even more so if the invitation came bearing His Imperial Highnesses’ seal. It would be a terrible slight to arrive after your host since it would be a flagrant show of disrespect. Balls typically began on the dot at 7.30pm. Another faux pas would be arriving at the wrong door as each rank in the hierarchy had a door assigned to it. No, we would not want to be associated with someone of a lower rank especially if their reputation does not precede them.
Once the host and his family and all the guests were in attendance, the master of ceremonies would open the ball with a grand polonaise. A polonaise is a stately march-like Polish dance processional promenade by couples. Just as planning extends into every little detail, there were also many rules to govern clothing and accessories worn during the balls. It was fashionable for the men of the court to have a different uniform not just for formal occasions but also a special uniform for balls, the higher the rank, the greater the amount of embroidery that adorned their coats. Ladies’ gowns were made of luxurious amounts of material that followed the current court styling which could have incorporate details from other European cultures. In the nineteenth century, the fan was a mandatory accessory for the ladies. The decoration and form of the fans, not withstanding the manner in which the fans were held, allowed the ladies their own game of gestures. There were certain gestures that could speak volumes to one fluent in the language.
Aside from dancing and clothing, the ball included smoking and card-playing (one would imagine this to be the gentlemen’s past-times), marvelous decorations, souper would be served and a breathtaking display of fireworks would end off the evening of revelry.
The reigning Tsar also regularly threw themed balls where guests were expected to dress according to the set theme which could range from ancient Greek robes to Chinese costume to sixteenth-century fashion. Tsar Nicholas I and his spouse Alexandra Feodorovna enjoyed throwing such balls that they hosted these dazzling historic-inclined costumed and masked balls twice a year. However it was Nicholas I’s successor, Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra, who threw the famous ball to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the Founding of St Petersburg which was held in Russia’s seventeenth century style. It is also sadly the last ball the Romanov family ever organized.
It has been noted in the annals of history that at souper, every guest was served each course piping hot and individually portioned instead of laying every dish at once on the table for guests to take a lunge at, oft times the fastest or longest-armed guest would get their choicest picks at the end of which everyone would end up with a full platter of cold food.