Princess Charlotte of Wales’ Russian dress, 1817

We recently ran a post on our Facebook page which shared images of Princess Charlotte of Wales in a blue Russian style dress. It proved really popular, so we thought we’d take the opportunity to look at the dress, and the portrait of Charlotte where she is depicted wearing it, in greater detail.

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars two years earlier, anything Russian was eminently fashionable in 1817, when the portrait was painted. Princess Charlotte of Wales, only legitimate child of the Prince Regent (later George IV) was desperate to have the Russian Order of St Catherine bestowed on her. She’d been trying for the honour since at least 1813, with little success. (The order was only given to women, primarily those of the Russian royal family but also occasionally granted to foreign queens and high-ranking princesses.)

Princess Charlotte of Wales, after George Dawe, 1817.
Princess Charlotte of Wales, after George Dawe, 1817. Royal Collection Trust.

The well-known portrait of her, by George Dawe and dated to 1817 (shown above), depicts the princess in a Russian style dress, known as a sarafan, and – supposedly – wearing the Star of the Order of St Catherine’s. The notes on the Royal Collection Trust website say of the portrait:

At her left breast she wears the star of the Order of St Catherine, which she received on 1 July 1817, from Maria Feodorovna, wife of Paul I, in gratitude for hospitality shown to her son Nicholas during his visit to London. (Princess Charlotte’s husband, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, also served under the Russian Emperor during the Napoleonic Wars.)

Now, we don’t want to contradict the RCT who surely know better than us, but we can find no corroborating evidence that Charlotte ever received this honour, and upon zooming in to the portrait, the Star insignia which she is wearing looks incorrect. It almost appears to have the Prince of Wales feathers atop it and is not studded with diamonds, as it should be. Maybe, however, Dawe chose to paint it this way? Although we have our suspicions, we really can give no confirmation one way or another and will have to rely on the royal collection’s assertion that this is the Star of the Order of St Catherine.

Detail from the portrait of Princess Charlotte of Wales
Detail from the portrait of Princess Charlotte of Wales by George Dawe.

The dress Charlotte wears could almost have been copied from a portrait of Sophia Petrovna Svechina, a Russian exile in Paris. She was painted by François Joseph Kinson in 1816, just a year before Charlotte sat for her portrait, wearing a remarkably similar dress.

Portrait of Sophia Petrovna Svechina (1782—1857) by François Joseph Kinson. An outstanding Russian woman of her time, a daughter of state secretary of the Empress Catherine II, a lady-in-waiting, writer, mistress of the famous literary salon in Paris, took a special place among Russian Catholics.
Sophia Petrovna Svechina (1782—1857) by François Joseph Kinson. An outstanding Russian woman of her time, a daughter of state secretary of the Empress Catherine II, a lady-in-waiting, writer and mistress of the famous literary salon in Paris. Via Wikimedia.

A Sarafan is a Russian trapezoidal jumper (or pinafore) dress, and a traditional folk costume. These two Russian portraits show the subjects wearing dresses that are also very like that worn by Charlotte.

Russian woman and child
Russian woman and child – image sourced via Pinterest.
Portrait of a girl in Russian dress by an unknown artist.
Portrait of a girl in Russian dress by an unknown artist. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg.

No doubt Charlotte had her dress especially made (it was produced in England) for the portrait and to set off her Russian order, whether being worn legitimately or not. Charlotte’s version of this Russian dress is made from blue silk, trimmed with gold lace which has red highlights, and edged with gold fringe. Amazingly, it has survived and is also in the royal collection. As you can see from the images below, it has either faded slightly, or Dawe used a little artistic licence to darken it in his portrait of the princess.

Princess Charlotte of Wales' Russian style dress.
Princess Charlotte of Wales’ Russian style dress. Royal Collection Trust.
Back view of Princess Charlotte of Wales' Russian style dress. Royal Collection Trust.
Back view of Princess Charlotte of Wales’ Russian style dress. Royal Collection Trust.

When she sat for her portrait, the princess was pregnant. Her child – a son – was stillborn, and Charlotte died from complications following the birth the next day, 6 November 1817. She was just twenty-one years of age. Had she or her son lived, they would have been heir to the British throne.

Copies of the painting were made, many with slight variations. One shows the dress in white instead of blue, another leaves off the gold trimming. This version below shows the dress in a darker hue, and with a much more extravagant ‘blouse’ beneath, with lace sleeves.

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales by George Dawe. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales by George Dawe. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Interestingly, when George Dawe’s brother, Henry Edward Dawe, made a mezzotint copy of the portrait after the princess’ death, which was published in January 1818 and an amalgamation of two of the portraits already given above, the Order of St Catherine pinned to Princess Charlotte’s breast was totally omitted.

Hand coloured mezzotint of Princess Charlotte by Henry Edward Dawe, after the painting by George Dawe.
Hand coloured mezzotint of Princess Charlotte by Henry Edward Dawe, after the painting by George Dawe. Royal Collection Trust.

George Dawe subsequently spent many years at the Russian court where he painted many of the nobility there. It is thought that he used the portrait of Princess Charlotte as inspiration for his later one of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Certainly, the rich colour of the dress and the pose are reminiscent of the princess’ portrait. It increases the pathos of poor Princess Charlotte’s picture however; how she would have loved to be painted with her arms around her children. Sadly, that was not to be.

Charlotte (Alexandra Feodorovna), Empress of Russia, with her eldest children, Alexander and Maria c. 1821
Charlotte (Alexandra Feodorovna), Empress of Russia, with her eldest children, Alexander and Maria c. 1821. Via Wikimedia

We’ll leave you with this fantastic video, which looks at Princess Charlotte’s dress and the portrait.

 

Sources not mentioned above:

Letters of the Princess Charlotte, 1811-1817 (1949)

Autobiography of Cornelia Knight, Lady Companion to the Princess Charlotte of Wales: With Extracts from Her Journals and Anecdote Books, Volume 1 (1861)

* Please note: this week, our next blog post will be on Friday. *

7 thoughts on “Princess Charlotte of Wales’ Russian dress, 1817

  1. Jolly lucky Leopold didn’t drizzle away all the gold braid on it.
    It just struck me that the sarafan is not unlike Viking dress for women in many respects, but of course the Rus spring from Viking stock so maybe there’s a link there in folk dress.

    I saw the word sarafan, and promptly remembered the song ‘the red sarafan’ which featured in the Chalet School books and which no dictionary in the 1970s managed to translate for me. Elucidation at last!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Joanne Major

      Very Viking like.

      Oh, I LOVED the Chalet School books. I had near enough the full set but had completely forgotten that song mentioned in them.

      Like

      1. I have been collecting them over my adult years having only had access to them as library books as a kid; there are some pretty good fan-written books filling in missing terms as well, now available.
        Those and Georgette Heyer are my go-to comfort books when I am ill ….

        Like

      2. Joanne Major

        I’ve often thought about trying to buy the books again. I read them all out of sequence too as it was largely a case of badgering my parents to buy me copies as and when we came across them; I don’t recall them being in our library. Really suprised that they’ve never been reissued.

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      3. they have, some of them, in ghastly 1970s format and sometimes abridged. Try charity and second hand shops which is where many of mine came from. We have a lovely secondhand shop in Felixtowe which I swear is part of L-space and they have huge selections of old school stories right in the back reaches where you half expect to walk through a wall into an ancient medieval library somewhen …. I think it’s better than the one in Rochester which is lauded by so many people.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Miriam Al Jamil

    The dress was displayed recently at the Russian exhibition at the Queens gallery in London, alongside one of the paintings in your blog. It is somewhat glamorized in the painting and the dress has a smaller and more modest style of bodice
    . Her body shape was clearly emphasised in the painting, which is an interesting fact in itself!

    Like

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