A Brief History of the Russian Kokoshnik Tiara
There were political undertones at play when Russian royals co-opted this peasant style.
Let’s start with the basics — the kokoshnik is a traditional Russian headdress. Word nerds, take note — the root word (kokosh) means “cock’s comb” in Russian.
The earliest kokoshniks were shaped like a halo, widest above the forehead and narrower at the sides. If you’ve seen the golden halos of saints in Russian icons or other Christian art, you get the general idea.
The earliest versions of kokoshniks were covered with fabric and tied on with ribbons at the side, like in this painting by Viktor Vasnetsov, famous for his romanticized depictions of Russian history and folklore.
The kokoshnik was part of traditional Russian folk dress, along with the sarafan — a sort of jumper or pinafore with a blouse underneath. The kokoshnik made it to the Russian royal court in the 16th century, where boyars’ wives wore large, fancy versions studded with gems and covered with rich golden cloth.
The tradition held strong in the 17th and 18th centuries. Catherine the Great had a jeweled kokoshnik…
…and her adorable granddaughter Alexandra Pavlovna was painted in an elaborate one, while wearing a sarafan.
Under the reign of Catherine’s grandson, Tsar Nicholas I, everything changed.
In 1834, he laid down official rules for women’s dress at the Russian imperial court. All ladies had to wear the same type of dress, with a velvet sarafan-inspired bodice and long sleeves, topped off with a kokoshnik and veil. Even the amount of embroidery on the dress was proscribed — it indicated the lady’s rank.
In practice, this decree created a costume with an off-the-shoulder tight-fitting bodice, split skirt, and long outer sleeves.
This sartorial specificity was Nicholas I’s way of, well, being a control freak.
But it was also an early exercise in branding. Nicholas wanted everyone to know his court was inherently Russian. Over a hundred years earlier, Peter the Great had ordered his courtiers to dress in Western styles, even forbidding the long beards Russian boyars had worn for, oh, all of time.
Nicholas wanted to re-introduce essential elements of Russian culture into his court. For Nicholas, Russian culture was a unifying force to be deployed as Russia colonized and conquered, expanding further into the Caucasus and central Asia.
Nicholas’s wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, was a key player in his plan. She led by example, with a go-big-or-go-home strategy:
Russian court dress would remain virtually unchanged until there was no longer a court at all, after the fall of the last Romanov tsar, Nicholas II.
Kokoshniks Go Viral
As charming as the court ladies’ bejeweled fabric kokoshniks were, they’re not what sent this style into the stratosphere. Kokoshniks really caught on in the mid-to-late 19th century, after jewelers adopted this traditional shape to make tiaras for the Russian imperial family.
Kokoshnik tiaras were actually a clever piece of marketing for an imperial family that was, in terms of bloodline, way more German than Russian.
By re-using a design from folk tradition, it’s like the Russian royals were saying, “Hey you, peasant — we wear kokoshniks, too. See? This means we all have a shared cultural history. We’re the same person, really. So think about that before you plan another bombing or revolt. You wouldn’t want to hurt you, would you?”
As the 19th century progressed, Russian grand duchesses married into a number of European royal families: those of Greece, Württemberg, and Great Britain, among others. They took kokoshnik tiaras with them, often given as wedding presents. Even unaccompanied by the grandeur of Russian court dress, there was no denying the impact of a wall of diamonds on your head.
Back in Russia, the grand duchesses incorporated their diamond kokoshnik tiaras with the fabric kokoshniks required for court dress. Here’s a fabulous tiara on Grand Duchess Alexandra Georgievna, as part of Russian court dress in about 1890. Her fringe tiara has been sewn onto the front of a fabric kokoshnik:
Of the 14 tiaras in the Russian imperial collection, four were kokoshniks.¹ (This collection was state property, as opposed to the numerous tiaras that belonged to individual grand duchesses or empresses.) That collection included the gorgeous diamond-and-pearl kokoshnik shown below. The Soviets sold it in 1927, and later owners include Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough and Imelda Marcos.
Soon, other European royals saw their Russian counterparts rocking their kokoshniks, and decided they wanted in on that action, too.
The trend hit maximum velocity in 1889 when a group of British noblewomen commissioned a gift for Princess Alexandra of Wales’s 25th wedding anniversary. She specifically requested a kokoshnik tiara that looked like her sister Minnie’s — and by Minnie, I mean Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia.
A Garrard tiara with 61 platinum bars, holding a total of 488 diamonds.² Alexandra wore it often. When she died in 1925, she left it to her daughter-in-law, Queen Mary. When Mary died in 1953, she left it to her granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II.
The present queen wears this tiara quite a bit. It was in especially heavy rotation in the 1960s. In 1961, for example, she wore it to the Vatican with a black veil to meet Pope John XXIII.
Here she is, wearing her great-grandmother’s tiara during a 2005 visit to Canada:
Variety Is the Spice of Life
Thanks to the creativity of jewelers including Fabergé, Bolin, Cartier, Chaumet, and Boucheron, we can see many beautiful variations on the kokoshnik tiara.
Case in point: Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden’s tiara, stolen from a German museum in 2017. The Baden court jeweler, Hermann Schmidt-Staub, created this delicate beauty in 1907 or 1908, about the time Hilda’s husband became Grand Duke.
It has a traditionally shaped kokoshnik frame, flat on the bottom and curved across the top. Stylized decorative motifs connect the top and bottom of the frame, with a total of 367 diamonds set in platinum and yellow gold.³
And then you’ve got the kind of kokoshnik that’s filled in with detailed metalwork and gems. Examples include Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna’s emerald kokoshnik and Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna’s sapphire kokoshnik. Both women sold these tiaras in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. On the left, we have Queen Marie of Yugoslavia in the emeralds; her mother, Queen Marie of Romania, is on the right in the sapphires.
In the case of the emerald kokoshnik, the design includes tiny lilies of the valley, a symbol of love and luck. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t work, but that’s a story for another post.)
Other creative kokoshniks include Irina Yusupova’s rock crystal Cartier tiara, a wedding present from her mother-in-law in 1914. Her husband hid it in their Moscow palace when they fled Russia during the revolution. The Soviets discovered it eleven years later, and it’s never been seen since.
The Times They Are a Changin’
World War I disrupted royal and aristocratic society on a physical and an existential level. The jewel market was flooded with the treasures of dethroned Romanovs, Hohenzollerns, and Hapbsburgs, among others.
For those who’d kept their thrones, state dinners and royal weddings provided plenty of opportunities for tiara wearing. But in the 1920s, traditional tiaras — including kokoshniks — went out of fashion. Low-slung bandeaus, worn over the forehead, became the go-to look to accompany the decade’s sleek, boyish fashions and short hairstyles.
According to jewelry expert Hans Nadelhoffer, the last kokoshnik tiara was ordered in 1937.⁴ It went to Jane Mills, Countess Granard, an American heiress married to an Irish peer.
Today, you’ll find kokoshnik tiaras in the royal collections of Great Britain, Sweden, and Luxembourg, among others. There’s also a stunning blue enamel kokoshnik, once property of the dukes of Westminster, on display in the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
And we’re all familiar with the most famous kokoshnik of recent years, the Greville emerald kokoshnik that Princess Eugenie of York wore at her 2018 wedding.
Princess Eugenie of York leaves St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle...
Princess Eugenie of York leaves St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle following her wedding at St. George's Chapel on…
Tiara lovers, take note — kokoshniks are making a comeback.
A Russian-inspired 2019 Chanel haute joaillerie collection contained not one but two kokoshnik tiaras. If you’re lucky enough to wear one, take a moment to reflect on the rich cultural heritage and history that inspired its design.
¹ Munn, Tiaras, 271.
² Field, The Queen’s Jewels, 45.
³ Scarisbrick, Tiara, 128.
⁴ Nadelhoffer, Cartier, 64.
Field, Leslie. The Queen’s Jewels. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1987.
Munn, Geoffrey. Tiaras. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2001.
Nadelhoffer, Hans. Cartier. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007.
Papi, Stefano. The Jewels of the Romanovs (revised and expanded edition). London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Scarisbrick, Diana. Tiara. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000.
Smucker, Samuel Mosheim. The Life and Reign of Nicholas the First, Emperor of Russia. Philadelphia: J.W. Bradley, 1856.
Parts of this post originally appeared on GirlInTheTiara.com in “5 Types of Kokoshnik Tiaras.”
Featured image background painting: “A Boyar Wedding Feast” by Konstantin Makovsky, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.