The museum of the Bolshoi Theater contains more than three thousand costumes, about half of which were used in productions based on Russian folklore. Because of the notorious fires, which damaged the Bolshoi Theater, and the troubles of revolution, most of the costumes are from performances of the second half of the twentieth century, and only a few examples date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The most vividly traditional Russian costumes come from performances of historical operas, as one of the tasks of this genre is to convey the historical characteristics of national culture. The theatrical costume has developed over time together with history, incorporating all of its features: political and social changes as well as fashion trends. In the nineteenth century, not much attention was paid to the artistic unity of the sets and costumes. Usually several artists designed the productions at the same time.
During the creation of the soloists’ costumes, often the preferences of the performers meant more than matching the costumes with the colors of the set. The museum also stores authentic folk costumes, which indicates that historical, ethnographic costumes were used in performances. All of this led to quite eclectic performances.
N. D. Shpiller’s costume for the part of Tamara 1942
N. D. Shiller as Tamara 1942
The desire to recreate historical costumes on stage arose only at the end of the nineteenth century, reflecting the new fascination among Russian artists with history, archaeology, and ethnography. A number of brilliant artists, including K. Korovin, A. Golovin, A. Benois, and N. Roerich—members of the “World of Art” association—worked for the stage.
In their works, these artists relied on the study of the life, material culture, and visual arts of the period in which the performance was set. Every detail of design and costume, every ornamental motif was the result of research and was embodied with the features of a single style.
Konstantin Korovin worked in the Bolshoi Theater for twenty years, during which he designed more than sixty performances. The artist had a precise knowledge and feeling for the specifics of opera and ballet costumes.
For him, a character’s costume was a necessary complement to the overall artistic composition of the scene. He saw the costumes as the moveable bits of color that create dynamics in the stage setting and bring the music to life.
V. I. Pyavko and M. Nelepp’s costume for the part of Samozvanets 1946 - 1948
Scene from Mussorgsky’s opera
Performances with the “local flavour” always enjoyed success among audiences—Russian Seasons, for example, was enthusiastically received worldwide in the early twentieth century.
The company of Sergei Diaghilev played a significant role in promoting Russian culture in Europe and contributed to the fad for all things Russian, especially for clothes based on Russian folk traditions.
M. V. Kazakov’s costume for the role of Boris Godunov 1948
Scene from Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov
After the revolution of 1917, the theater ceased to be “elitist.” Rejecting the former, so-called “bourgeois” ideology, the theatrical censors sought new “revolutionary” subjects for a new audience, the “proletariat,” looking favorably on heroic and patriotic performances in which peasants and the ordinary people would be the main characters.
The new repertoire also included successful stagings of fairy tales, based on ancient Russian epics such as the “byliny”.
Yu. A. Mazurok, A. Malchenko, and A. P. Ivanov’s costume for the part of the Venetian merchant 1949
Scene from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Sadko
Another artist, F. Fedorovsky, was responsible for many innovations and reforms at the Bolshoi Theater, in particular the Bolshoi Theater Museum, which opened in 1923.
Fedorovsky also organized the construction of new artistic workshops, redesigning the entire process for stage production. Fedorovsky, one of the great designers of historical productions, expressed his creativity primarily in patriotic operas, infusing them with heroism and monumentalism.
Petrova’s costume. Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina 1950
Boyar’s costume. Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina 1950
E. T. Raikov’s costume for the part of Vladimir Igorevich 1953
E. T. Raikov’s costume for the part of Vladimir Igorevich
The style called “socialist realism” was dominant from the late 30s to the late 50s. Artists had the task of depicting reality in its revolutionary development and educating citizens in the spirit of socialism. In the 60s, Russian art began to gradually return to the legacy of the avant-garde.
The use of conventional forms of artistic abstraction increased. A distinctive feature of costume style from the second half of the twentieth century was symbolism and metaphor. The symbol could signify various kinds of information: social, historical, psychological, ethnic, religious, and so on.
In order to create costumes with these symbols, one key attribute was chosen, with associations that would be perceived by the audience. It was no longer necessary to engage in copying of historical clothing; it was enough to hint at the source, and the symbol behind it would help create the image of the character.
The genre of the fairy tale and the genre of serious historical works require different approaches. Historical opera relies more on the drama and psychological basis of a work, whereas a fairy tale is more emotionally light, with an emphasis on humor and enchantment. Thus it is natural that setting and costume design for fairy-tale operas and historical operas will be approached differently.
Borodin’s opera Prince Igor 1953
Costumes for fairy tale productions are more primitive; they are characterized by the conciseness and expressiveness of the image. When artists create these, they rely not on the actual patterns of historical costumes, but on Russian arts and crafts, which, in their diversity, have always been an endless source of inspiration.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tsar’s Bride 1955
Costume for the part of Marfa 1955
"The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia: a source of inspiration"
Every artist seeks a prototype or original source for his or her work. The opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia, based on ancient Russian tales, has been performed several times at the Bolshoi, but almost all of the artists turned to the ancient Russian tradition of icon painting.
Sketch of female costumes 1983
G. A. Kalinina’s costume for the part of Fevroniya 1983 M. F. Kasrashvili’s costume for the part of Fevroniya 1983 Chorus costume 1983
Contemporary art is postmodern art, characterized by the rejection of attempts to create a universal canon with a strict hierarchy of aesthetic values and norms.
The only uncontested value is the unrestricted freedom of artistic expression, based on the idea that “everything is permitted.”
Chorus costume. Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan 1986
Scene from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan 1986
The designers of the Bolshoi Theater have engaged with this new approach to contemporary art in various ways. The Theater, with its great heritage and long history, is now increasingly open to experimentation.
The results are unusual, bright performances, sometimes close to kitsch, but not devoid of self-irony, whose novelty is in the synthesis and fusion of different features, techniques, and styles, all of which create a new, unique form.
V. P. Zakharov’s costume for the part of Afron. Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel 1988
Scene from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel. Act 1
Today, the repertoire of the Bolshoi Theater is formed in accordance with two objectives: first, the preservation of historical heritage, allowing the audience to learn about the masterpieces of Russian theater from the last two centuries, and second, the search for new ideas and the creation of new aesthetic priorities in opera and ballet.