REVIEW: The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

Helen Rappaport pierces the romantic veiling swaddled around the daughters of Nicholas II to present a pleasing, if sobering look at the four lives brutally ended one night in the summer of 1918. I’m not a Romanov buff by any means, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Imperial Family and their lost world (Fox’s Anastasia (1997) is one of my favorite movies). When I downloaded this book to my Kindle, I didn’t know what to expect–the discovery of Anastasia’s remains in 2007 closed the case on the many imposters, and Rappaport certainly wasn’t going to mine rumors about Rasputin, was she?

Thankfully, Rappaport didn’t dwell on either. Instead, she drew a balanced, yet sometimes frustrating portrait of four young women raised at the highest echelons of society by warm, kind-hearted parents who were horrible rulers. The sentimental portrait of Nicholas and Alexandra’s great, abiding love is brought to earth to a startling degree, and the reality of their characters played out amongst their five children. The family of Nicholas II was very close and tight-knit, and the love between them all was intriguing to read in light of the stereotypical image of the stern, emotionally distant Victorian/Edwardian paterfamilias. But in the context of their time–which Rappaport paints very well–their extreme insularity brought their downfall.

There were times when I wanted to reach through the text and shake Empress Alexandra for her neglect and sheltering of her daughters, her obsession with her son and the throne, and her devotion to autocracy. There were times when I wanted to shake Olga, whom Rappaport claims was the most sensitive and astute of the four daughters, especially as Russia drifted towards the Revolution. My frustration was especially piqued when the Grand Duchesses kept getting sick at moments of crisis! I suppose illness was a constant presence in the days before vaccinations, but I couldn’t help but feel that the Romanov sisters were subconsciously susceptible to debilitating illnesses when beneath emotional strain (and it possibly was the only time their mother got out of bed and paid attention to them).

However, there are lots of charming, cheeky moments in this book. Rappaport draws from reminisces and letters they sent to friends over the years to paint as deep a portrait of Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia as one can without lots of primary resources (I was arrg! when reading passages of the sisters burning their diaries and letters in 1917-18). There is some repetition of their characters traits Rappaport presumes from extant sources, but it kept the sisters at the center of the tale even when chapters detailed the obsessive, fearful motherly love Empress Alexandra had for her only son. It was also intriguing to read about Rasputin through their eyes: I still can’t get a bead on him, but their grief when he is murdered in 1916 is palpable nearly one hundred years later.

Rappaport ends The Romanov Sisters as they are heading downstairs to the cellar of the Ipatiev House, for which I am thankful–it would have been difficult to read the gory details after being in their heads for 500+ pages (Rappaport has written about the fortnight leading up to murder in The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg). The mark of a great biography is one that effortlessly weaves the historical, cultural, and socio-political context into the subject’s life, and in The Romanov Sisters, Rappaport does just that.

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Edwardian Hairstyling

Edwardian hairstyling003

Before attempting to dress the hair it should be thoroughly brushed and combed. Many women are satisfied with giving their hair these attentions at night only. This is a mistake, for the ease with which the hair will “ set” becomingly will be greatly increased if its tone and vigour have been stimulated by previous treatment with brush and comb. If the hair is worn loose at night, it will doubtless be slightly tangled, and must be carefully restored to order before the actual hairdressing can begin. If, on the other hand, the hair is wom plaited or tied at night, fresh life will be restored to it by allowing the air to blow through each tress.

Artificial waving is best done before the process of hair-dressing is begun, either by the use of curling pins or by the use of hot tongs. The latter method has many disadvantages, among them being a certain risk to the health of the hair. Constant use of irons tends to make the hair brittle, and their drying action must be counteracted by the use of a good brilliantine or hair lotion. An excellent method of producing a deep wave is to insert the hot tongs (testing them carefully first to ensure that they are not too hot) in such a position that the hollow part of the prong is under the piece of hair to be waved. The tongs are then closed, rolled over slightly, and pulled obliquely alongside of the head. If in a moment they are removed, the tress of hair on which they have operated will be found to have taken a deep wavy impression, giving a graceful waved appearance, not a crimp. This is the effect of drawing the tongs obliquely instead of letting them rest straight in their pressure on the hair.

At the present time a low coiffure which involves a separate dressing of the front and back portions of the hair is very popular. The portion of the hair above the forehead is divided off from the rest. It may then be parted either in the middle or at the side, or left to be arranged in its undivided state. Perhaps the most generally becoming style is that in which, after dividing the hair by a short parting, each portion is carefully French—combed. By this means, by fluffing up the under-surface of the hair, it is given an artificial thickness that otherwise would be absent or could only be supplied by pads. The hair is then rolled back and held in position by means of side-combs. The ends of these rolled-back portions of the hair should then be smoothed down over the back of the head and allowed to mingle with the hair to be dressed in the nape of the neck.

A girl with very long and abundant tresses can dress her hair becomingly by dividing the back portion into three tresses. Each one should be French-combed and rolled, and then each roll pinned lengthways across the back of the head. One roll will be pinned above the other, so that a spiral effect is obtained. The lower rolls of the spiral should be narrow, while those at the top may be really wide. The addition of a wide ribbon or velvet bow on the top of the spirals will be a dainty finish.

For evening wear few hair ornaments are prettier with a low coifl’urethan the bandeau of ribbon, tinsel, or pearls. Roman pearls sewn on black velvet make a charming bandeau for a fair-haired girl. A gold chain can be used with excellent effect, twisted among the tresses of a dark-haired woman. A single flower, a rose or carnation, can be fastened against the coil of hair, and looks exceedingly pretty.

The Lady’s Realm (1906)

Edwardian Fashion Week

Lucile Fashion Parade

Lucile Fashion Parade

Today’s fashionistas can access the catwalks of New York, Paris, London, and Milan Fashion Week with the click of a button or tap of an app–and they can mark their purchases just as easily. Though Edwardian women didn’t have YouTube or apps, they too had fashion shows, and just as today’s fashion industry is divided into two seasons, so it was in the 1900s.

Paris has always been the center of the fashion industry, and couturiers used the fashionable races at Auteuil and Longchamps in the spring and in the autumn to unveil their latest designs. Mannequins (models), carefully attired in whatever daring trend the designers hoped to press upon ladies, would casually stroll about the racecourse, stopping at suitable intervals for perusal. Sometimes the wild designs backfired, as was the case with the mannequins dressed in trousers around 1913! This was followed on a more restrained scale by English designers (Redfern, famous for the tailor made, made its mark at Cowes). Lucile is credited with the creation of the “mannequin parade,” and this became a staple in not only dressmakers’ establishments, but upscale department stores. Sipping tea in the fashion department, while a parade of girls strolled by in the latest designs became de rigueur for middle- and upper-class women, and they needed only point at what they wished to buy.

The cult of the model was decades away, but Lucile once again paved the way when she hired statuesque young women and gave them romantic names like Gamela and Hebe, and took them with her on fashion tours of the US.

As Blanche McManus points out in The American Woman Abroad:

The mannequins play one of the most important rôles in these Palaces of Modes. They are the live “dummies” on whom are displayed the costumes. All day long they must promenade the salons of the establishments where they are employed, revolving slowly before the eyes of a critical battery of customers, that the effect of the gown may be better judged on a living figure than it may on a thing of wires and papier-maché.

Frequently there is a stage upon which the mannequins play their parts, parts which call for quite as much endurance as the most tragic roles of the real stage. Endurance, tact and skill in their highest forms are all called for, and upon the ability of the mannequin to impress the buyer with the graces of a particular gown depends the sale quite as much, in many instances, as upon the skill of the designer or the insinuations of the salesman or woman. The physical and mental strain is unceasing. From nine in the morning often until nine at night the mannequin must be on her feet, changing from one costume to another at the caprice of the most erratic of clients. Her position and advancement depend upon her ability to clinch sales. All her natural and artificial charms are brought to bear. The mannequins are selected for their svelt figures and for their beauty of face as well as of form. They wear a tight-fitting, black sheath garment, over which the gowns are shown.

A mannequin in a swell establishment is paid something like thirty dollars a month, perhaps a little more if her reputation as a seller is particularly good. Another service which she renders is posing in public places in the new creations of her employer that a new fashion may be well launched in the eyes of the public. She may be seen at Longchamps on the day of the Grand Prix, at Armenonville, at the Pré Catelan, indeed wherever fashion congregates. On the occasion of the Grand Prix she is generally out in full force, parading in the paddock as in the tribunes, or strolling in the enclosure reserved for high society. She will perhaps be dressed in the most bizarre of creations and be followed greedily by all eyes, but she glides along, seemingly unconscious of the throng or the part she is playing, though she divides the honours with the horses and the jockeys. All feminine Paris studies the mannequins on parade at Longchamps greedily and on the verdict does a new style catch on or fail. Betting on the success of a new style is as exciting as the “Pari-Mutuel” at the Grand Prix.

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