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I just started re-reading War and peace, having completely forgotten it since the first time I read it. And I'm noticing that Tolstoy is referring to clothing every now and then. I wonder what it actually looked like.

Looking up the history of clothing in Wikipedia, I note that this period (1805 to 1812) was dominated by Empire style fashion, which is quite different from most periods before and after. But of course the fashion in the different countries was different, and maybe it was not adopted in Russia. On the other hand, the Russian aristocrats were imitating the French ones (about a third of the dialogue seems to be in French), and maybe they were wearing full French fashion too. The Russian translation of the Wikipedia article doesn't help, as it only depicts Western examples of the style.

I noticed a few mentions of clothing which are consistent with Empire style, but not conclusive. One young girl is said to have naked shoulders, "as was usual then". A female figure has a reticule, and a male one a redingot. Natalia Rostova is wearing a sheer muslin skirt (кисейная юбка) and her lace drawers are visible the first time she is introduced, but this could simply be children's attire. There are also more baroque clothing items mentioned, for example a man wearing a jabot.

Should I imagine the figures wearing kiddie-pool-sized crinolines, or diaphanous gowns, or something else entirely?

  • Yes, that! I too have been reading it nowdays. That was intriguing. Like in the theatre performance, where Anatole first meets Natasha and seduces her, Helene is described to be nearly naked, with a sieve like attire something – Rohit Jan 15 '15 at 16:14
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A Russian fashion of that period is best documented in paintings of Боровиковский (active in 1790 - 1810). A Google query brings much more images.

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I suppose that you can trust Soviet movies on War and Peace. Unlike the US movies they show the clothing correctly. Especially the War and peace by S. Bondarchuk. They employed professional historians as consultants and had an enormous (by the Western standards) budget.

I suppose that women really followed the French fashion, but most men wore military uniforms (of their regiments) on all formal occasions. Most of the nobles had to be enlisted with some regiments and they had to wear military uniform. (An exception was the main male personage, Pierre Besuchov, who did did not).

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From reading the books of Robert Massie, specifically about Catherine II (Catherine the Great) [r. 1762-1796], at this time the lingua franca was French. Anyone who was anyone in Russia spoke French.

Catherine the Great and Peter the Great were arguably the most progressive Tsars in Russia's history. With that, a more western style of philosophy, appearance, and way of life was acceptable.

Another note to consider is Catherine's husband Peter the III who like Catherine was German, had a love of the Prussian's tight style army uniform in comparison to the frumpy and loose Russian style. Peter enjoyed wearing his uniforms as often as possible. This was also mimicked by his supposed son, Paul I [R.1796-1801], who also enjoyed the Prussian style uniform.

It is extremely important to note that not everyone in Russia was mirroring French taste. Rather, this would have been Boyars, noblemen, and courtiers of the Tsars and Tsarinas. Serfs, the overwhelming majority of the Russian population, would of course not have been aware of or been able to afford French style dress.

With that said, I feel that you have an amalgamation of different types and styles of at least more western clothing, more specifically, French. I also think it is important to note that Prussian style uniforms became popular as well after Peter III changed the Russian military attire. Also, it is important to be specific about who in Russia you are talking about.

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