At the end of the first episode of HBO’s Catherine the Great, the empress Catherine (played by Helen Mirren—née Mironoff) holds a cross-dressing ball at the palace. Catherine, who we usually see in elaborate, heavily embroidered gowns (courtesy of costume designer Maja Meschede), is pictured instead wearing a tailcoat and breeches, taking advantage of the relative ease of movement to prance about the room and lead her courtiers in a traditional Russian dance.
Meanwhile, her male advisors and military generals, who are usually seen in the episode trying to undermine Catherine’s authority, scuttle around looking uptight, toying uncomfortably with their undergarments and badly fitted wigs. Her power-hungry lover Grigory Orlov (Richard Roxburgh) is now more frustrated by his corset than by his diminishing presence at court: “This fucking thing—it pushes my tits up too far.”
These gender-bending masquerades actually existed and were known at the time as metamorphosis balls. They were first popularized in Russia in the 1740s by Empress Elizabeth I, the daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine’s mother-in-law, who purportedly held eight as part of her coronation celebrations and then every Tuesday throughout her reign. While balls involving cross-dressing were popular throughout Europe, they took on special meaning in Russia in the 18th century, an era dominated by female rulers looking to assert their authority through symbols of masculinity. However Elizabeth I’s contemporaries attributed her mania for these balls to her own vanity—she apparently had great legs and was tired of covering them up in dresses.
In her memoirs Catherine the Great reflected back on her early experiences in the Russian court as a newlywed, including her mother-in-law’s penchant for drag: “The Empress had a fancy to have all men appear at the Court balls dressed as women and the women as men, without masks; it was like a Court day metamorphosed.” In a sea of uncomfortable, badly made-up male courtiers and sycophants, Elizabeth I, self-assured and leggy, was a revelation to the young Catherine: “The only woman who looked really well and completely a man was the Empress herself. As she was tall and powerful, male attire suited her. She had the handsomest leg I have ever seen.”
For Meschede the metamorphosis ball was a highlight. For Mirren’s turn as Catherine in menswear, Meschede designed a stunning gold ensemble, meant to invoke both decadence and a uniquely Russian color palette: “We chose gold, a specific warm gold that’s used in the beautiful Russian Orthodox churches,” she told me. To create the look, a team of 15 people spent almost three weeks hand-embroidering the gold detailing for Mirren’s costume. “I wanted her to look like a Russian icon from one of the paintings,” Meschede explained.
Though they were popularized by Elizabeth I, Catherine continued the tradition in her court, using them to mark important military victories. In anticipation of a victory over the Ottoman Empire, she held a ball where the men wore Persian veils and the women Turkish turbans, followed by a sumptuous meal at the Winter Palace. “Everyone was very merry,” her secretary noted in his journal. At that ball attendees were met by French actors at booths selling the special theme pieces on credit, but typically courtiers had their own clothes made in advance for these balls, and as Meschede tells it, they put a lot of effort and money into looking their best in drag: “All the aristocrats had their own fabric weavers, embroiderers, and tailors. They were very prepared.”
According to Colleen McQuillen, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Southern California, cross-dressing balls were a playful but important way for Russian empresses to put their so-called masculine attributes on display, thus cementing their authority. In her book, The Modernist Masquerade: Stylizing Life, Literature, and Costumes in Russia, she writes: “The political expediency of dressing as men helped the empresses establish legitimacy as leaders of Russia.” When Catherine the Great came to power by a military coup (with Orlov’s help she had her husband, Peter III, arrested and sent to jail, where he died eight days later), the empress donned a green colonel’s uniform to lead her troops to the palace. Despite these overtures, Catherine’s enemies would latch onto her femininity, not her masculine costume, when bemoaning the successes of the Russian military. A British satirical journal published a cartoon titled “An Imperial Stride!,” which showed the various European monarchs looking up her skirt—one is depicted as saying, “The whole Turkish army wouldn’t satisfy her.”
Symbolic displays of power aside, menswear was also just less restrictive than women’s fashions of the era (dresses could weigh up to 30 pounds). Meschede says that for women these balls represented a kind of “freedom for a night”: freedom from corsets, undercages, petticoats, and all the rest. Over the course of the three-day shoot for the metamorphosis ball scene, Meschede told me the male actors on set were desperately missing that freedom: “Every man was like, ‘Wow, we can’t believe women wore these.’”
Catherine the Great aims to undo the myth of the sex-crazed empress whose appetite for men was as rapacious as it was for territory. Instead, onscreen, we see men chasing after her, plotting behind the scenes to win Catherine’s affection and trust. In that way the metamorphosis ball encapsulates the series as a whole. We see men, like the besotted Potemkin (Jason Clarke), primping for hours, hoping to impress the empress with low-cut necklines and face powder. Catherine humors them; she grasps the smiling Potemkin by the sleeves of his gown and says with affection: “We need men like you.” By the next episode she’ll send him off to fight her battles, to build her empire—but not before one last dance around the room.
Originally Appeared on Vogue