Catherine the Great (1729-1796) was probably the best tsar Russia ever had. She arrived in the country as a teenaged German bride, and eventually took the throne in a coup that deposed her idiot husband. For 34 years she reigned as Empress and Autocrat of All the Russias, expanding the nation’s borders and turning it into an international powerhouse. She was a brilliant, incredibly capable woman, and in many ways very enlightened—or as enlightened as an absolute monarch can be. She corresponded with thinkers like Voltaire (who claimed to adore her) and successfully promoted education, modernization, and reform. (Not for serfs, though. They were still out of luck.) During her reign Russia finally became, in the words of a contemporary, “a European country,” with an educated, sophisticated elite and the status of a world power. What Peter the Great had dreamed of, Catherine the Great made happen.

To dress like Catherine the Great, you need an 18th century gown and lots of bling. The pieces we suggest, from left to right:

Catherine the Great costume1. Eighteenth-century gown (bodice and skirt) in soft yellow jacquard. You can get a pair of lace cuffs in that same shop, or you can just wear a long-sleeved chemise underneath your dress and have the chemise cuffs peek out. Instead of a bell-shaped hoop skirt, we recommend a set of panniers to create that wider-than-a-Mack-truck look around the hips. You can also get a corset to give you a rigid torso. (Eighteenth century gowns were meant to be worn over stays, and it’s impossible for them to look the way they’re supposed to without that stiff underpinning. Even an inexpensive modern corset is better than nothing.)
2. Rhinestone appliques: floral sash and floral mirror pair. To get the look of Catherine’s epic diamond chains, just tack a few rhinestone appliques to your bodice. You’ll probably want to re-use the dress for other costumes (basically any woman who lived in the 18th century), so don’t attach the appliques permanently. Just lightly pin them on, or even use a few dabs of Aleene’s “Tack-It Over & Over” glue for a temporary hold.
3. Sash ribbon. The light blue sash Catherine the Great wore in her portraits was for the chivalric Order of St. Andrew the First Called. You can get a similar effect with a taffeta chair sash, like this; a pageant sash would also work. Or if you can find very wide moiré taffeta ribbon (at least 4 inches wide), that would be ideal. Wear it over your right shoulder, and pin a brooch to it (next).
4. Bow-shaped rhinestone brooch. This is a nice big piece, suitable for its job of pretending to be a chivalric order badge.
5. Rhinestone tiara. Of course you need a crown. The real Russian imperial crown was ginormous—you can see it in the painting on the left up top; it looks like an erupting onion dome—and not something that you can just whip up on the fly. Fortunately you don’t need to: Catherine wore nice little diamond tiaras most of the time. (For more on the imperial crown, The Court Jeweller has fascinating pictures and background.)
6. Rhinestone necklace. Have we mentioned that Catherine liked diamonds? The style in the 18th century was for collet diamonds, so we used a necklace with big crystals to get a similar look. (For more authenticity, you can get a reproduction 18th century necklace from Dames a la Mode.) We also opted for rhinestone chandelier earrings that look like the ones Catherine is wearing in the painting on the right up top.

Main illustration credits: The painting on the left is the coronation portrait of Catherine by Stefano Torelli (1763-66). The portrait on the right is by Aleksey Antropov, and is dated to about 1765.


Other costumes in this category: Queens