Guest Post: Musings On The Kokoshnik

I’m pleased to welcome reader Eliska to Royal Hats. She is a a writer, retired ballerina, actor, member of the International Dance Council (CID) and enthusiastic royal hat follower who contacted me several weeks ago with an interesting theory about a style of royal millinery that has gained in popularity this year.

When the Duchess of Cambridge appeared in the wedge shaped headpiece to christening of her newborn son, Prince Louis, my historical costume antennas went, “Aha!” As someone who studied art history, she is obviously very well informed of all things of the royal past- fashions included. Or should I say ‘Fashion in the First place’, since that is how we perceive history- through the visual information given to us through old portraits and photographs.

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This year we commemorate a hundred years since the end of WWI, or The Great War, as Churchill named it, without any doubt that this was the last one ever. It was also the tragic anniversary of the Romanov murder. Portraits of all Russian princesses, in summer white, including the headpiece, the kokoshnik, were to be seen all over media.

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As the year progressed, I started noticing more than usual appearance of the kokoshnik, as a new headpiece choice, all over European aristocratic circles; at weddings, family gatherings, christenings. It was as if European aristocratic circles suddenly rediscovered this type of headpiece.

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An intriguing question started taking shape in my mind: Is the sudden appearance of this headpiece an inconspicuous nod to the genetic ties and loyalty of royal Europe to the Romanovs? The quiet aristocratic, diplomatic “we will-not-forget”?Of course you can counter this with portraits of Tudor Queens. Holbein painted all of them garbed in the finest fashions of his time, their headpieces closely resembling those of Russian folk costumes.

Elizabeth Tudor by Hans Holbein c. 1546-7. The Royal Collection, Windsor Castle

However, I see it as hardly any coincidence that this year, of all years, Royal brides of royal Europe chose the kokoshnik shape as their tiara of choice.

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Looking at videos, you can see many of aristocratic ladies with headpieces of that choice. Pure chance? Perhaps. Let me recapitulate a few historical facts for you: kokoshnik: the headpiece of Russian folkdress, abolished at Russian court by the Tzar Peter the Great who saw the imminent need to change his aristocrats to more Western looking, presentable group. Beards and kokoshnik had to go.

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As time went by, another Russian monarch, the German born Princess Sophie Anhalt-Zerbst, renamed Ekaterina Alexejevna on her marriage into Romanov dynasty, became known as Catherine The Great. Her new country was also introduced to all things Western but she had a different aim than Peter the Great. In a move to befriend the vast Russian populous, she sat for a famous portrait wearing, you guessed it, a traditional kokoshnik.

Portrait of Empress Catherine II by Vigilius Erichsen, c.1770. State Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Whether or not this fashion strategy worked in Catherine’s political favour, that’s another essay to write. Two generations after the above portrait was painted, Napoleon attempted to defeat Russia. The French invasion of Russia in 1812 awoke the nationalist loyalty and inspired the Russian aristocracy emphasize their Russian roots. An immediate, easy way to do this was through fashion; quickly, the kokoshnik returned to court as part of mandory dress and was included as part of the coronation robes of every Russian Empress from then forward. With immense personal connections through the royal circles of Europe, the resurgence in popularity of the kokoshnik spread beyond Russia’s borders and soon the headpiece became “à la mode”. 

Portrait of a woman in the Russian court dress by Orlov, Pimen Nikitich, c.1835. State Hermitage, St. Petersburg

So, back to my theory: Have the aristocratic ladies of Europe sent a loving nod to the unfortunate late family this year? It is up to you, kind reader, to decide. I just thought it would be interesting to elaborate on that idea. While my theory may be debated, the crescent shaped headpieces made many a fashion statement this year; The kokoshnik has resurfaced from obscurity again. Well done, ladies! (Curtsy)

Thanks, Eliska! So readers- what do you think?
Photos from Getty as indicated; The Royal Collection; and State Hermitage, St. Petersburg

17 thoughts on “Guest Post: Musings On The Kokoshnik

  1. Thank you Eliska, this post certainly made me think about how history and fashion are intertwined. I do like tiaras shaped like kokoshniks, and the two worn this year are both stunning. I cannot say the same about the hats shaped like kokoshniks. I think they look more like overstuffed headbands than hats for the most part. Am I the only one who feels this way?

    • I am not terribly excited about the hatband trend with a kokoshnik shape or not. It seems like it is replacing hats and I don’t want to see any more occasions when hats could be worn replaced with head bands.

  2. I definitely think the kokoshnik has influenced millinery trends of recent years (I’m glad others pointed out they’ve been popular in Australian racing millinery for the past 4 or so years, something I was gonna say if no one else had), but I think the timing with the Romanov deaths anniversary is just coincidental.

    From a historical standpoint, the Romanovs aren’t ones many would choose to emulate, and as the Russian and British royals rarely married directly into each others families (although they were related through many continental cousins and relatives), I would guess it is not a nod to them. From a fashion standpoint, the Romanovs definitely could be emulated, but as what is old is new again is something we’ve seen many times in style & fashion, I would say the kokoshnik is simply making its rounds again. Also, as people are trying to find hats that don’t act like hats so much, this is a style that was bound to come back.

    At any rate, it does allow us the opportunity to examine the kokoshnik in a new way and for Eliska to enlighten us with her knowledge! Many thanks for this!

  3. Thank you Eliska!
    I learned to appreciate the kokoshnik over the years, it sort of frames the face, is is nice to have alternatives in hat styles

  4. I agree with the sentiments of “Em” above, including the fact that the Australian milliners started following this trend set by Dolce and Gabana after they sent their models down their runway couture show with beautiful floral headpieces, about four or five years ago. They..D & G., progressed to metal headpieces etc. this is when the trend was picked up by the Australian milliners, who expanded that theme over the few years, to include leather etc. then to the halo shape or maybe the “kokoshnik” shape -unknowingly.

  5. Thank you Eliska for doing all this research! I will throw my vote towards milliners influencing royal fashion, rather than the other way around. But, I do think that it is still highly feasible that the Romanovs may have been an influence. Milliners are artists; artists look everywhere for inspiration. It is highly likely that 1) milliners favored by royals look to past royal fashions frequently, 2) are very much accustomed to the schedule of designing pieces that will be worn in a future season, and 3) may have been inspired by the anniversary and it influenced their designs.

    On the point of tiaras… I’m still willing to take this as a coincidence, since we only have two brides to consider. However, it seems the Queen has some control over the tiara selection, and she is certainly well-versed in history and would have been well aware of the coincidental timing. So it may have been a factor after all!

    While I agree with others that this style- particularly at a greater height- is difficult to pair with modern clothes, I’m a fan of anything interesting. And it certainly has been new (all over again) and interesting!

    I had also never made the connection to Tudor pieces before. And I was immediately struck by how similar these looked to a hat in one of my children’s books- in the “Little Golden Books” version of “Heidi,” she returns to her grandfather wearing a woven-looking hat with a round vertical halo at the back. I believe she is a Swiss character… what an interesting international connection!

  6. Well, as lovely as it sounds , whilst so far away from millinery&fashion reality..this shape pops in fashion quite often.. 1920 all silver screen beauty , 1930’ s huge trend (remember ms Simpson portrayts? Schiaparelli assembles?), no frivolities in 1940 ( other than Dina Durbin Hollywood movies), but back in 50 (though “curvette” shape was more common); scip 60&70 but back with vengeance in 80 . As in fashion 80&90 dominate “high street” and fashion walks last 3 years, no surprise of reappearance of “tiara” or “kokoshnik “ shape. Last 2 years all Australian races beautifuly decorated with tiaras/kokoshnik. Several Australian milliners presented collections based on this shape.( Rebecca Share for example)..this year trend splashed on high streets .. hat block makers presented all variations of this shape in 2015/16. And now English millinery give up 🙂
    It is easy to wear ( and easy to remove for after party without messing hair style ) generally construction very light. Less risk than ill constructed Fascinator. I predict it will stay for couple seasons , but hope not long!

    • Thank you for posting, Kliska. I’d never considered the similarity between Tudor headdresses and the traditional Russian costumes before. And how interesting to think of kokoshniks coming in and out of fashion for political reasons. What wonderful portraits you have used to illustrate the history!

      Although the millinery design trend may have been out there before the anniversary, I wonder whether heightened exposure to the historic photos may have raised royal interest in the look.

      So, HatQueen, this begs the question of when a bandeau becomes a kokoshnik — the eye of the beholder?

  7. Whether deliberate or not, there’s no getting around the fascinating timing of this hat/tiara shape’s resurgence in England. I like to think that it’s a nod to times past, on some level anyway. It’s fun to try out new ideas and it’s even more fun when there’s some historical resonance.
    I don’t actually think that this shape is particularly easy to wear against modern hair and clothing, but I’ve been loving all the efforts so far!!

    • Not particularly easy to wear against modern hair and clothing – I agree! I think it’s because modern royalty are likely to be photographed from all angles, but portraits are seen only from the front. It would be fascinating to see what the headdress of the lady in Russian court dress would look like from the side or behind.
      I myself wear a kokoshnik-style headwrap sometimes – the ends of a scarf tied over the head are twisted around each other as they cross the head in opposing directions. Having the whole head covered in the same cloth is easier to carry off than what you might call a hat-style kokoshnik, where it’s one stripe on an otherwise unadorned head, and the proportions easily look ‘off’.

  8. Interesting theory but the timing doesn’t add up. These kokoshnik shaped headpieces were in a lot of 2018 spring collections so on the runway in fall 2017 which meant they were designed in late 2016 or very early 2017 a long time before anyone would have been thinking about the Romanov anniversary. I think it’s more likely that the European milliners noticed how these style headpieces were becoming really popular here in Australia and jumped on with the trend.

    • You make a good point- many European royal women wear hats that are variations on designs from millinery collections each season. This suggests to me that milliners and millinery trends influence royal fashion and not the other way around (for the most part- there are always exceptions!). For Eliska’s theory to be true, I think the European royals had to feel personally connected to the Romanov anniversary enough to make a conscious choice not only to give it a fashion nod… but to do so in a way that inspired several milliners to include the shape in their Spring/Summer 2018 collections. Somehow, that feels unlikely. As others have mentioned here as well, the kokoshnik-shaped bandeau headpieces have been popular in racing circles in Australia for several years and it makes sense to me that the trend spread globally this season. I don’t think the Romanov anniversary was high on fashion radar 2 years ago years ago when the Spring/Summer 2018 millinery collections were under design… while the timing this summer with the anniversary was good, I think it was mostly coincidental. That all being said, it’s still an interesting theory to debate!

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