Children’s Fashion of the Russian Empire by Alexander Vasiliev
Translated by James Womack

I found myself musing the other day on photography; specifically on the impact it must have had in its early days when suddenly human beings found their images being recorded without the aid of a painter. In these days of social media, cameras in every phone and millions of images appearing around us constantly, it’s hard to realise just how *strange* this must have seemed to the public of the time. Photos have an immediacy that paintings often don’t, allowing their subjects to transcend time differences; and that’s certainly the case with this perhaps unexpected but absolutely fascinating book which popped through my door recently from the lovely people at Glagoslav Publications.

“Children’s Fashions of the Russian Empire” is a large format, soft cover book which features just that – images of children from the past (though in global terms, not that distant a past). There are over 400 photos, taken from the collection of Alexander Vasiliev, and a remarkable group of pictures it is. Vasiliev is something of a polymath: a playwright, collector and fashion historian, he’s also a lecturer as well as being responsible for more than thirty books, often featuring his collections of images. If that wasn’t enough, he’s staged productions all over the world and won a number of awards. So Vasiliev is ideally placed to share these images as well as providing some commentary and context.

The book starts in the 1860s, which as Vasiliev explains was when photographic visiting cards first appeared in Russia; and he makes the decision to end the book in 1917 when the revolution swept away the imperial way of life forever. In the interim, the pages of photographs here provide fascinating witness to the changing fashions for youngsters which developed over the decades in Russia.

What strikes the modern reader/viewer immediately is the formality of the clothing and the poses: the children and young people look to my eyes like small adults, or children dressed up for some kind of occasion. The dresses and hair are often elaborate; the pose controlled; and there isn’t a lot of smiling going on. As the decades go on, the clothes simplify a little, no doubt reflecting the change in dress for adults; yet still the smiles are missing. In fact, I was reminded very much of an old image I have of my mother as a child, where she stares straight-faced at the camera with a sullen, almost mutinous look on her face (she was obviously stubborn even then….) I guess it took a long time for fashions in photography to change and get to the point where we now demand smiles from our offspring almost as soon as they’re born!

The photos are beautifully presented, with commentary provided and names of the children given where they’re known. There are shots in national dress (some of which is quite lovely); shots with beloved toys and pets; and family groups with siblings and parents. As we get into the 20th century, the shots become a little more relaxed; the clothing looser and less formal; and smiles start to creep in. The last photographs in the book are from 1913 and 1914, a time when the major cataclysm of the First World War was about to hit Europe, and one picture of two brothers in overcoats and caps made me wonder about their eventual fate…

In fact, there’s a poignancy throughout the book, no doubt brought about by seeing these images taken by loving parents of their children, as a way of remembering their youth. They’re a reminder of the transience of life; we’re all on this planet for a short time and these snapshots (like all the ways we record our lives nowadays) give us a kind of immortality, as long as the media survive. Vasiliev has certainly given these children a kind of after-life, as well as tracing the history of children’s clothing during that period (or at least children of a certain social status, as I imagine the peasantry dressed very differently). The images from the 1900s onwards were particularly affecting as I found myself looking into the eyes of the subjects, wondering how the War and Revolution affected them and what became of them; we just can’t imagine I guess…

So “Children’s Fashion…” was an unexpectedly interesting and moving book to browse through. It’s a beautifully produced volume, with excellent quality reproduction of the photographs, and If you’re interested in the history of clothing it would be just up your street. However, it worked on an extra level for me: as a snapshot of the past, a doorway into a time gone by, and a reminder that we are *all* human beings the world over, with our lives, our loves and our families. If we could remember that, maybe we could stop fighting amongst ourselves and concentrate on looking after our beautiful little planet a bit more…

Review book kindly provided by Glagoslav Publications, for which many thanks.