This post contains spoilers for The Great season 2 episode 02, "Dickhead."
Catherine (Elle Fanning) has wrestled control from Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) but her desire to make an impact on Russia hits some early roadblocks in “Dickhead.” It becomes immediately apparent that the old way of ruling the country is not going to give way to the new with ease in The Great, and Catherine has to embrace certain traditions. First, she must entertain the whims and wishes of the nobles and the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as her husband who is currently under house arrest — and yet still wondering the halls of the Winter Palace mostly unhampered.
This episode features Catherine's coronation that signifies to the court, Russia and the world that she is no longer the wife of the ruler — she is Catherine the Great. Because of this announcement, Catherine tells Marial (Phoebe Fox) and Peter that “It doesn’t matter how I look, just what I do,” when asked about her choice of gown for this ceremony. She is met with mocking laughter at this naive statement because the clothes she wears play a significant role in how she will be perceived. Unsurprisingly, Catherine's experience reminds us that it isn’t just the last 100 years when there has been scrutiny over pantsuits, frocks and other clothing options made by women in power.
Similar to how the script and music choices bend the rules of accuracy, The Great’s costume design has taken some liberties. In the first season, designer Emma Fryer took inspiration from Christian Dior’s iconic 1947 Bar Suit — Dior was influenced by the turn-of-the-century Belle Époque era — and an earlier French influence is felt throughout the court. In season 2, Catherine’s audacious gold dress seen in episode 2 is the statement pieces from new costume designer Sharon Long. Meaning is wrapped into every stitch and Catherine’s message is woven into the stunning look.
We are going to separate fact from fiction in the second season of The Great. This episode-by-episode guide continues with a fashion statement in “Dickhead,” and the role Catherine played in reviving a traditional Russian style.
- 'The Great' season 2 episode 1 Fact vs Fiction: Head's It's Me
- 'The Great' season 2 episode 3 Fact vs Fiction: Alone at Last
Did Peter the Great ban certain fabrics?
“It’s what our grandmothers used to wear before they were beaten to death for wearing something so ugly,” Marial tells Catherine when she sees the design her friend favors. This is a joke based on taste, but Peter’s grandfather, Peter the Great did make some big changes to Russia’s image after he returned from travels to England and the Netherlands. In 1698, he ordered that men should shave their long beards off and two years later he banned government officials and landowners from wearing traditional gowns. The following year he decreed that French and German style (think vests, breeches, petticoats, bonnets) should be worn and anyone resorting to the old style would be taxed (unless you were a peasant).
Peter I wanted Russians to keep in step with the enlightened Europeans and the fashions he restricted were seen as regressive. So when Peter makes reference to “banned fabrics” it is rooted in the choices made by his grandfather — although in the Hulu series Peter the Great is Peter III's father.
What did Catherine wear to the coronation?
“If you dress well, no one notices what you do. Just what you wear,” Marial advises, while Peter suggests Voltaire said this (he didn’t) before claiming these words of wisdom as his own (there is no evidence of this either). The kokoshnik ornate headwear, delicate gold floral embroidery and sleeve design are all nods to the past that captures Catherine’s fundamental understanding of Russian symbolism.
Even though it is very different from the descriptions of Catherine’s actual gown, Long has captured its spirit and desire to embrace the past and future. Biographer Virginia Rounding describes in her book Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power this coronation attire as “a magnificent gown of silver silk embroidered with eagles and trimmed with ermine.” Botanicals take the place of these creatures.
One other major difference is that Catherine crowned herself, whereas the abdicated Peter completes that task in the show. However, the number of jewels in the crown is mesmerizing and it is visually similar enough to the ancient Byzantine design that the real Catherine the Great’s crown, which contained a total of 4,936 diamonds and was made specifically for this event.
What influence did Catherine have on Russian fashion?
Fashion played an important role early in the first season when Catherine got her revenge on mean girl Lady Svenska (Danusia Samal) in one episode by giving her a gift of a gorgeous frock that actually came from the same material as the tent upholstery, causing Svenska to endurespublic humiliation.
In "Dickheads," after dismissing Marial’s “very Versailles” coronation suggestion, Catherine takes a page out of Dior’s book and pulls imagery from the past. “It is bold and very Russian,” is her assessment of the pre-Petrine style she adopts. Marial and Peter think she will be mocked for her choice and her husband remarks, “I thought you were taking Russia into the future, not grandmother’s house.”
In a bid to shed her German identity, Catherine welcomes a unique aesthetic that eschews Prussian and French fabric and silhouettes — and laughter is far from the response. Returning to the “Russian” style became wildly popular throughout her reign and dictated this shift in the imperial dress. It wasn’t a case of duplicating the old, rather, taking recognizable elements and marrying them with contemporary trends, which became known as “in the manner of the Empress.” It is clear from the awestruck expressions on the faces of the next generation that Catherine is making her sartorial mark.
Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.
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