Let the epic long letters begin…
I think this was one of the first letters I looked at on my first trip to LOC. I remember the feeling of excitement. I’d been thinking about these letters for so long. I’d practically memorized the finding aid. I had a plan. But I don’t completely know what to expect. I’d only done research in local archives up until this point. This was the Library of Congress. This was the big leagues.
With my Reader Card in hand and laptop charged, I entered the Manuscript Reading Room in the Madison Building.
If you are envisioning the grand Main Reading Room in the Jefferson Building, you are wrong. The Jefferson Building is magnificent but all my research was done across the street at the more modern Madison Building. The Manuscript Reading Room is much more like a university library – bright lighting, commercial carpet, and long straight legged tables.
I completed my first call card, ordering my first four boxes. I picked a table toward the front of the room and waited. After a bit the librarian emerged from the closed stacks with a wooden cart. The cart squeaked to a stop next to my table.
There… on the top shelf of the cart were four dark green Hollinger boxes. The librarian instructed me to keep the boxes on the cart and only one folder on the table at a time. He pointed out the pencils and scrap paper at the front. I thanked him and stared at the boxes as he walked away.
I opened Container 862 of the Breckinridge Family Papers and pulled the folder with the dates around fall/winter 1894. The purpose of this trip was to see what the Russian letters were really about. I don’t remember if I knew at that time KCB/CRB had attended the wedding of Nicholas and Alexandra. In 2000/2001, I was complete focused — single-mindedly so — on KCB’s experience at the coronation.
I placed the folder on the table and opened it. A neat stack of a dozen or more onionskin paper letters filled the folder. For the first time I was seeing KCB’s handwriting. The moment took my breath away.
November 29th 1894
My dear Fanny,
I expect you have all read accounts of the Emperor’s wedding, but I thought you might like to hear something of it from me. Tonight I am alone, so I am going to write you a long letter. I am vain enough to think you will want to hear first what I wore, so I will begin with that and some of the other costumes. I did not have time to order my court dress from Paris, as we had only four days notice that we would be expected at the wedding. The impression was that none but the family would be present on the occasion. So the invitation found me all unprepared. “The Ceremonies” informed me that I could wear colors on the occasion and the invitation had in one corner “Trains de Cour.” I will say here that the invitations were printed and very ordinary affairs. There is no engraving done here. I have to send to Paris for my visiting cards. But to return to the wedding. I concluded that although I had permission to wear colors, that I might need a court dress again before the year of mourning is out, when perhaps white would be required, so I had mine all white of a slight cream tint. The dress is white satin, brocaded, not in flowers but what they call electric – little dashes of light through it. It is low neck and the bodice is trimmed very simply with embroidered chiffon and a fine pearl trimming. The court train, which here, the ladies of the diplomatic corps wear after the english fashion, from the shoulders, was of plain white velvet lined with satin. The dress itself is made with a medium train and the court train is carried over the arm most of the time. I did not let mine on the floor but once and I am glad to tell you it was not at all soiled! I wore two white tips in my hair, my dress was well made, fitted perfectly and I looked very well. I have found a very good dress maker here, who is not high, but the goods here is very much higher than in Paris. The invitation did not say what time the wedding was to be, as one never fixes a time for an Emperor, but requested us to be at the Winter Palace at half past eleven “a as sister a la benediction nuptiale.” So we left a few minutes after eleven, and drove to the entrance set apart for the Diplomats. Not being many Diplomats, comparatively speaking, there was no crush. Inside the door we gave our wraps to our resplendent chasseur who for the occasion had laid aside his black and was in all the glory of his gold and blue plumes. I thought how you and Mary would have rejoiced could you have been there. In front of us was a broad white marble stairway, competed with crimson. At short intervals all the way up were gorgeous lackeys who stood stock still as piloted us one went all the way in from of us. They were dressed in a scarlet coat, with much gold lace, white satin waistcoats, white satin knee breeches, white silk stockings and patent leather low shoes with big buckles. We were conducted through an enormous room into another almost as large which was set aside for the reception for the corps. There are very few ladies in the corps now not more than a dozen I should say. The wife of the English Ambassador and her daughter were there both dressed in the English court dress, both white satin brocade, three feathers in their hair and (illegible) vails (sic) behind. The daughters’ (sic) dress was trimmed with white flowers and she looked like a bride. The wife of the French Ambassador wore the most perfect gown, I think I ever saw. There would be no excuse for her if her didn’t dress well, she comes from Paris and has all the money one could want! (underscore) I could begin to describe it accurately, but it was white satin, and the train was heliotrope or lilac velvet. Many of the Russian ladies were more magnificent but nobody as perfectly dressed. One of the ladies wore a gown of yellow brocade with a train of bright green bordered with sable. One wore a gown of white brocaded in rose buds in pink and bordered with sable, the train a light olive etc. After we had waited fifteen or twenty minutes a master of ceremonies requested us to proceed to the church, which is a part of the palace. We were conducted through endless corridors, enormous rooms etc. with much dignity. The church is not large but very beautiful. Much gold and many beautiful paintings. The Russians seem to revel in rich coloring about a third of the church was railed off in front of the railing stood about two dozen priests, waiting to received the bridal couple. They were dressed in cloth of gold being literally, cloth woven of gold. It was very rich, but two heavy and stiff for grace. Not satisfied with gold robes. They were brocaded and embroidered in gold. Some of them wore meters of gold set with jewels and with pictures on them. One, in the centre held three slender candles in a candle stick, each candle several inches apart at its base, and they all came together at the top, and as they burned down the preist (sic) pressed them together so they touched and always looked like one flame. This siginifed (sic) the trinity. I wish I could tell you what the different things in the ceremony meant but there was no one to tell me and I could not imagine. Inside the rail on both sides next the wall behind other rails were the singers, men and boys, all dressed in red. In the centre of the railed off space was what we would call the alter covered with red, and behind it a huge candle burning. All the churches are lighted with candles.
Well we waited and waited as there had been no time fixed we did not know how many days we would have to wait and there was no place to sit down. I forgot to say that when we went into the church the women were separated from the men and we had the best places outside the railing. I hate to leave your uncle Clif, it seemed sort of lonesome, but as there were many more gentlemen than ladies. I had a much better place to see than he did. I stood immediately by the rail so there was nothing between me and the ceremony and all the royal folks on either side. I suppose it was about twelve o’clock when the court chamberlains began to enter. There were dozens of them. When they and the suits accompanying some of the royal persons had been placed the bride and groom appeared. The priests met them. One of them held a gold cross for them to kiss then they turned and went into the railing the Emperor and his bride following. The bride was dressed in a gown of cloth of silver, that is woven of silver threads. The train was of cloth of gold, lined with white satin and a wide border of ermine all around it. She wore a crown of diamonds, a necklace of diamonds that covered her whole chest. Her dress was cut low, and a vail (sic) of very beautiful lace, held in place behind by diamonds. Five of the high dignitaries of the court, all old men and in full uniform bore her train. Two of them held it quite close to her shoulders, to relieve her of its weight I suppose. Two of them half way down and one at the end. The Emperor was dressed in a suit of black, two gold stripes down the sides of his trousers. What looked like a flat red bag hanging down on his left side. A red collar embroidered in gold. A jacket of pearl grey (sic) trimmed with gold and bordered with sable on his back like a cape, his arms not in the sleeves. Behind the bridal couple came the Emperor’s mother. She was dressed in white crepe. The Princess of Wales in white satin. She had on a small diamond crown and an elaborate diamond necklace. But there were dozens of Russian ladies who threw her in the shade as far as diamonds go. All the Russian ladies when they have on their court dress were long vails (sic) behind and a sort of a crown. It does not go around the top of the head though but comes down behind the ears nearly to the back of the neck. The Emperor’s grown sister, the one who was married last summer wore white crepe, crown of diamonds, crepe vail. The little sister, a little larger than Lees, but said to be twelve years old, wore a quaint white satin, cut princess, down to her feet, sleeves of tulle, a crown of pearls. One of the grand duchesses wore a gown of ermine, one a gown of that silver cloth, bordered with ermine, one white satin embroidered in silver. All wore crowns of jewels, and vails (sic) of tulle or beautiful lace. The Russian court dress is a long train from the waist almost meeting in front, and opening gradually wide to the bottom. The bodice is cut very low on the shoulders, and the sleeves set in over the arms in the old fashioned way. The sleeves open in front all the way to the armhole and fall in a point almost to the knees. It is not a graceful costume but is very showy and effective. (Illegible) the royal people went inside the rail. The maids of honor were all dressed in scarlet embroidered in gold. Crowns of red embroidered in gold and white tulle vails (sic). There were diamonds and pearls in such abundance and of such size that it hardly seems real. As soon as the couple entered the railing, there was a burst of song. The music was beautiful. The service lasted about an hour and was conducted entirely by song and intonation. Of course I understood nothing. After one priest had said a few words, two other priests spread a strip of pink silk in front of them. They stepped forward and stood on that. Then after a while one priest brough (sic) a gold goblet which he held to the lips of the Emperor and his bride. I suppose this was the wine. After a while again a priest bought two rings on a gold tray. The priest took one made the sign of the cross on the emperor with it and put it on his finger. He did the same with the other and put it on the bride. I forgot to say that the very first thing was that two priests brought two lighted candles each tied with a bow of white ribbon and a bunch of white flowers. One was given to the Emperor and one to the bride, and they held these candles throughout the whole ceremony. Then the next thing to the candles was that two priests brought two gold crowns on gold waiters. In the mean time eight gentlemen had taken their places on each side of the bridal couple standing in a line behind one another. The first on the side of the Emperor was his young brother about Carson’s age and size, and such a nice looking boy. The priest took one crown and made a cross on the Emperor with it then handed it to him to kiss then held it over his head. Then handed it to the young brother who continued to hold it over his head, then he did the same with the other cross with the bride, and the gentleman at the head of the line held it over her head. The crowns don’t touch the heads and it is awfully tiresome to hold them in place. Hence so many gentlemen. When the first two have held them about two minutes the next two take them and the first two step to the foot of the line and so on over and over. For the crowns are held over during the entire ceremony. Well after they had had the wine and the rings, a gold crucifix was brought on a gold tray. The priest made a cross over each one with that and each one kissed it. Then he read from a large book bound in gold, which I took to be the Bible. He kissed the inside of it, closed it and they kissed the outside. Then he took a hand of each with an end of his robe between his hand and theirs, and they all walked around the alter three times. It was a difficult walk for there were the five train bearers, and the two young men with the crowns. Each time they got around they stopped long enough for the crown bearers to change. After this was over the priests came forward with their gold waiters and received the crowns and two more took the candles. Then the Priest who had performed the ceremony kissed each one on the cheek then the Emperor kissed the bride on her cheek and then kissed her hand. Then he led her to his mother who kissed them both. Then the king of Denmark kissed them. About that time the master of ceremonies asked us to go to the hall of the Diplomats to receive the Royal bride and groom. I thought this meant shaking hands but I was doomed to disappointment! We were all formed in line, and dropped our trains, and after waiting a few minutes, the court chamberlains filled through then came the bride and groom followed by all the other great people. As they passed down the line where we stood they would look at us and give a gracious bow. And then we would dip a deep curtsey! And we keep receiving bows and dipping courtesies until they had all passed. And never a bite of breakfast did they give us! Then we stood around a while and came home. The bridal couple drove in a chariot of gold to one of the churches to prostrate themselves before two pictures in thanksfulness (sic). And I understand the Emperor didn’t like it because there were soldiers there. It was a magnificent and gorgeous affair. The Emperor was manly. The bride looked very serious and as if she realized what she was doing. She was exceedingly handsome. I was at a Russian wedding last Friday night. The ceremony was practically the same but of course nothing like as splendid. We are moving the furniture in our appartment (sic) now and hope to go in Saturday. Your uncle Clif has come home and joins me in great love to you all. Kiss Mrs. Brown for me.
Your very loving aunt,
Katherine C. Breckinridge
You are not expected to read all this at once.
The wedding of Nicholas and Alexandra was held in the Grand Church at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. And the Staircase KCB refers to is most likely the Jordan Staircase in the Winter Palace. And the English Ambassador’s wife is Mary Emma Lascelles, wife of Sir Frank Lascelles. And the English Ambassador’s daughter is Florence Lascelles. KCB describes the color of the French Ambassador’s train as heliotrope which is a “perennial shrub with blossoms in shades of purple, blue, or white.”
KCB’s detail of the wedding fashion is the significant part of this letter. As she mentions toward the end of the letter, “I was at a Russian wedding last Friday night. The ceremony was practically the same but of course nothing like as splendid.” The Russian Orthodox wedding ceremony was the same for a Emperor as for a average person. But the people present at the wedding and what they wore. Now that is special.
Alexandra, Princess of Wales – a fashion icon of her day – was the sister of the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, wife of Prince Edward (future King Edward VII), and future Queen of England. I love KCB’s use of the word shade to describe the Russian ladies diamonds compared to those of the Princess of Wales.
“But there were dozens of Russian ladies who threw her in the shade as far as diamonds go.”
The representations of both English court dress, with train worn from the shoulders and worn by the English at the wedding as well as the ladies of the Diplomatic Corps, and the Russian court dress, with train worn from the waist, are described KCB to her niece Fanny in this letter. KCB’s own court gown, designed by Redfern and worn to the coronation of Nicholas & Alexandra in 1896, is in the English style.