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All that glitters

With a display of the opulent clothing of Russian royalty, are post-Communist curators inviting us t

Following the dynamism of its expansive "Cold War Modern" exhibition - blueprints for a better world and bomb shelters for a destroyed world - the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is staging "Magnificence of the Tsars", a smaller offering strikingly different in texture and tone. The display is subtitled "Ceremonial Men's Dress of the Russian Imperial Court (1721-1917)" and the exhibits are on loan from the Kremlin Museums, including the celebrated Armoury Chamber. Elena Gagarina, general director, explains the intention: "to introduce the British public to the art of the finest dressmakers, tailors, embroiderers and jewellers working for the Russian imperial court". But a warning: these are almost exclusively male costumes, the peacocks' plumage, bypassing even Catherine the Great.

Much can be found to admire here in cut, taste and craftsmanship, the cleverly supported flared coats, the playful boot-cuff sleeves popular for ten years from 1725, the beautiful greens, the periodic reversions to plainer surfaces, often reflecting European fashions. Some of the most delicately created royal garments on display carry no jewels or elaborate embroidery at all - creamy undergarments in fine holland linen, gaiters, kid gloves. But the outer garments worn as symbols of authority bring a cumulative impression of pomp, ceremony and the shameless opulence of the Romanov autocracy.

One wonders whether the curators of post-Communist Russia are inviting us to forget why the tsars had to go. While one group of specialists attached to the major museums of Moscow and St Petersburg is now keen to display the liberating modernist paintings previously hidden in the cellars, the Kremlin Museums are parading the high styles of the imperial centuries with pride and zest. One's admiration for the tsars' designers and the meticulous skills of their tailors is likely to be offset by the same sense of revulsion brought on a few years ago by the lavish travelling show "Jewels of the Romanovs: Treasures of the Russian Imperial Court".

Touring the exhibition in the enlightening company of its curator Svetlana A Amelekhina, I began to feel as if I was imprisoned in Madame Tussauds without the heads. An alternative display would venture out to photographs (there are a few) and the paintings of Ilya Repin: for example, his marvellous 1880s canvas depicting a religious procession in the Kursk region down a dirt track, along which the tsar's subjects - the poor, the lame, the crippled - follow a huge ornate shrine, candles glittering within, in the hope of divine healing. Or, more pedestrian yet revealing, and also by Repin, Alexander III's Audience for the District Elders in the Yard of the Petrovsky Palace, Moscow (1885-86). Here, the tsar stands rather nervously, only four years after his father's assassination by revolutionaries, adorned with medals galore, granting an audience that he clearly hopes will soon be over. At the V&A we see the uniform but not the man.

Or, to indicate the anti-monarchical perspective, why not include a poster issued abroad in 1900 by the Union of Russian Socialists, showing a six-level pyramid of social hierarchy under the tsars? From each level a kind of statement issues in Cyrillic script. At the top sit the tsar and tsarina ("We rule over you"). Beneath comes the imperial court ("We govern you") supported by the Church ("We deceive you"), then the army ("We shoot you"). Under them the new rich, the bourgeoisie, are found guzzling at table ("We eat for you"). At the bottom, bending under the weight of the entire edifice, peasants and industrial workers declare, "We work for you. We feed you." Unseen at the V&A stretches the barren emptiness of the real Russia, the serfs labouring on the steppes, scores of whom were sold off every year by the aristocracy to finance the opulent displays demanded by life at court.

The modern era began with Peter I (the Great), a zealous moderniser who banished beards as he embarked on a European tour of inspection in 1697. "And to do this," in the words of an early historian, "he created a Grand Embassy . . . which he himself accompanied incognito." But this "incognito" was not so easy. For one thing Peter was six feet seven inches tall (though as narrow all down as Don Quixote) - and for another the foreigners knew it. That he was travelling with a retinue of 250 including dwarfs, trumpeters and surgeons tended to give the game away when Peter reached the shipyards of England and Holland, or the Palace of Versailles. But then, the emperor having deprived himself of an heir by secretly having his own son executed, the throne passed, after a pause, to his grandson, only 11 years old, whose wardrobe is at the V&A. This included little full-skirted brocade jackets and the two pairs of stockings required to fill out spindly legs. After a hunting trip during which his 600 hounds bagged 4,000 hares, 50 foxes, five lynxes and three bears, the boy-tsar grew bored and was carried off by a chill and the smallpox.

Royal deaths were invariably good news for the bespoke tailors and dealers in fabrics. Each coronation ceremony - they always took place in Moscow; Catherine the Great's was worthy of Barnum & Bailey - signalled boom time. Every anointed monarch sported a new outfit that was then handed over to the Kremlin treasury, never to be worn again. Merchants returned from Lyons bringing the specified fabrics, cloth of silver, shimmering gold embroidery, large ornamental motifs interlaced with fantastical flowers and fruit. From the time of the highly intelligent - and therefore rapidly murdered - Paul I, emperors wore relatively austere bottle-green regimental uniforms for their coronations, but their retinues (guardsmen, heralds, postilions) were done up to the nines in medieval tabards of cloth of gold, musketeer-style red velvet hats with ostrich feathers . . . and more.

Here again, one yearns for a glimpse of the popular view, even the mythological one of Alexander I in the garb of a simple, wise old man of the people, shaking Napoleon out of his uniform to unmask him as a wolf. Less benign is the English cartoon depicting the repressive Nicholas I as a snarling bear dressed in extravagant military uniform, observing the hanging and flogging of chained Polish rebels and their women in 1830. A lighted cannon-taper in his claw, the tsar-bear declares: "Gentlemen, I know that you wish to address me; but to spare you from delivering a pack of lies, I desire that you hold your tongues." (The name of the current president of Russia, Medvedev, means "bear".)

According to eyewitness accounts, the court of Alexander I came to resemble a cross between a couturier's workshop and a soldiers' barracks, packed with lance corporals modelling uniforms, the emperor himself devoting hours to making chalk marks on coats and undergarments amid a litter of moustache brushes, button-polishing sticks and nostril-tweezers. Possibly the clothes this tsar wore are less interesting than his treatment of Alexander Pushkin, whom he exiled twice. Like leaders of the Byzantine and Holy Roman empires, the Romanovs found support in the Roman eagle with two heads. Practically everybody did. By the time the rulers of Europe confronted each other in 1914, the eagles' heads were pointing in all directions, as were the ubiquitous moustaches: "Your country needs you" (that is, needs to kill you).

In the meantime, inhabiting their fools' paradises, the aristocrats of Europe revelled in lavish fancy-dress parties and masquerades. In January 1903, 416 invitations were issued from St Petersburg. Ladies and gentlemen were to come in costumes from the time of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (father of Peter the Great and a believer in Old Rus). Fabulous Fabergé was to hand, selecting from the crown jewels an emerald as big as the palm of his hand to decorate the empress's robes.

This jamboree took place shortly before the Japanese sank practically the entire Russian fleet and two years before the revolution of 1905 and the Odessa Steps massacre. Fifteen years later the entire royal family, children included, was wiped out by a Bolshevik firing squad in Ekat erinburg. According to one account, the four daughters (the grand duchesses) wore protective bodices sewn with diamonds, which served only to increase their suffering and delay their deaths - but Madame Amelekhina, senior curator of the Imperial Dress Collections, assures me that the girls had no idea what fate was to befall them, and were merely using their undergarments as a treasury.

"The Magnificence of the Tsars" is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, until 29 March. For further details log on to:

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...