Costume dramas (or period dramas) are my weakness. I love the clothes: corsets, lace, silk, and in the best productions, you also get authentic hand-stitched gowns to die for. I also love the melodrama, I admit it, and the endless twists that are given to a cherished storyline.
Recently, I have discovered Russian costume drama. Before I go on to discuss the costumes of my latest binge-watch, Love in Chains (original title Krepostnaya, 2019) I should make a couple of more general observations. Adaptations of great classic novels made in Russia are usually quite spectacular - think of War and Peace by Sergei Bondarchuk. They tend to be in dialogue with the book upon which they are based and costumes and location are a strong focus. A similar engagement with literature and history was also seen, in Western Europe, in masters such as the late Luchino Visconti, who maniacally sought to recreate the period in which his stories, often inspired by cherished novels, were set, in the most authentic way (the legendary Piero Tosi was his costumier).
The Ukrainian/Russian production Love in Chains now available with English subtitles on a number of streaming services and acclaimed in Cannes for its lavishness, follows in that film-making tradition I have mentioned. It is a melodrama but its reference point is the visual and narrative tradition of the film masters of the 20th century, as well as the great novels of Europe. As Tara Prytsaetska, creative director of the production, said in an interview for Drama Quarterly:
"we sought to create a layered, multi-character ‘novel,’ not just a telenovela. We wanted the viewer to be immersed in the story in the same way they used to be in novels by Alexandre Dumas, George Sand and Maurice Druon. We were not interested in a predictable tale of love. We wanted to create a real world where passions would rage. And like a novel, the story was supposed to engage completely different audiences".
Love in Chains is about a bondmaid brought up as a noblewoman, but still, legally, a serf and is set in the 1850s, in Ukraine, which at the time was part of Imperial Russia. For the record, serfs were emancipated in 1861 by the tsar Alexander II but in practice, serfdom continued until the October Revolution of 1917, which, as we know, changed the course of history with the birth of the now-defunct USSR.
Ukraine is not Russia but the cultural bonds between them are extremely tight, so forgive me if in this post I use the adjective 'Russian' also with reference to Ukraine.
Love in Chains runs for two seasons and the end of season two is so incredibly tragic, one feels somewhat cheated having watched forty-eight episodes in which the heroine is abused and tortured, every time in a novel way. The male lead is killed off in series one, three episodes before the final one, though his death will dominate the story for the whole of season two; his replacement is murdered in episode 48, kicking off a new tragedy just as the episode is about to end, thus leaving the viewer wondering when the next season will be broadcast, because there HAS to be a resolution! We all know that this is what sustains drama series, this hope that it will all be resolved, in a 'just' way, in the next episode and thus new seasons are added, viewing rates soar and everyone is happy (well, almost).
That of the bondmaid seems to be a well-loved subject in Russian TV series and movies. There have been quite a few stories in which the heroine is a highly educated, refined bondmaid, on appearance indistinguishable from a noblewoman (though noblewomen often reveal to be pretty crass in their speech and demeanour) but always only property, a thing with no rights, so she could be punished very harshly, depending on the master's whim. The landlord owned a serf's labour, not the soul, but sometimes this difference was not clear. The dynamics at play in such stories are very interesting and there is definitely a reflection on the contemporary ills of Russian society, where there are now no serfs, but authoritarian rule continues to be the norm and corruption is rampant, as it was in Old Russia. Tara Prystaetska, reflecting on the global success of Love in Chains says :
"we achieved our goal of creating a story that captivates viewers in the same way the best novels captivate readers. Viewers were immersed in the story and rooting for their favourite characters. The values, traditions and rituals in the show form part of the cultural code of the Eastern European audience, while modern viewers can relate to the problems Love in Chains addresses, such as abuse, difficult family dynamics and post-traumatic stress disorder. The relevance and timelessness of our dramatic elements played a vital role in the success of our project".
Katerina on her wedding day (Drama Quarterly)
The nobles, both men and women, wear beautifully cut clothes and there is an abundance of crinolined gowns. Noblewomen wrap themselves in silk embroidered shawls over their morning housecoat when breakfasting, then changing into more elaborate stay-at-home dresses or riding clothes if they go horse-riding (most of the characters in this drama are excellent riders). Corsets are all the rage, so we have a few scenes in which the young ladies look like sylphs and are prone to fainting because they cannot breathe.
The serfs also wear, for church and for celebrations, such as their own weddings - they could marry but always only with their owner's permission - beautifully embroidered skirts (women), pants (men) blouses and tunics, headcovers, ribbons, which are all part of the traditional country wear of Ukrainians. There is an abundance of beautifully ribboned braids, as the latter symbolised honour in Old Russia; the noblewomen, however, do wear their long hair in more fancy updos, some copied from magazines full of news about Paris, the capital of fashion since the days of Louis XIV.
Having watched both seasons of Love in Chains totally engrossed in the story, I am now watching select episodes again, going back and forth, just to look at the clothes and see whether I can possibly copy any of them.
The Chervinskys with two of their bondmaids, Katerina and Galya
I am only able to stitch simple things at the moment but I love looking at this splendid wear and who knows, I might, just might, be able to make myself a housecoat. For now, it's enough to dream of it!
(For those interested in sewing historical costumes as a hobby see these podcasts by Jennifer Rosbrugh)