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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.

Icon featuring the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus with golden circular halos around their heads.
Icon featuring the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus with golden circular halos around their heads.
Early 18th century Russian icon from the church of St. Sergius of Radonezh. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Portrait of a Russian girl wearing a kokoshnik with beaded fringe and pink ribbons that tie it on.
Portrait of a Russian girl wearing a kokoshnik with beaded fringe and pink ribbons that tie it on.
“Portrait of a woman in a kokoshnik” by Viktor Vasnetsov (1920), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Painting of a Russian noblewoman wearing a large kokoshnik over a lacy cap and floral veil.
Painting of a Russian noblewoman wearing a large kokoshnik over a lacy cap and floral veil.
“Cup of Mead” by Konstantin Makovsky (c. 1890), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The tradition held strong in the 17th and 18th centuries. Catherine the Great had a jeweled kokoshnik…

Catherine the Great wearing a black kokoshnik studded with diamonds and pearls.
Catherine the Great wearing a black kokoshnik studded with diamonds and pearls.
Painting by Vigilius Erichsen (c. 1770), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

…and her adorable granddaughter Alexandra Pavlovna was painted in an elaborate one, while wearing a sarafan.

Alexandra Pavlovna wearing a very large pearl-studded kokoshnik over a lacy cap, sarafan, and white blouse.
Alexandra Pavlovna wearing a very large pearl-studded kokoshnik over a lacy cap, sarafan, and white blouse.
Painting by an unknown artist (1790s), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Dress Code

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.

Lady-in-waiting wearing a black kokoshnik with floral embroidery, white veil, and red-and-white court dress.
Lady-in-waiting wearing a black kokoshnik with floral embroidery, white veil, and red-and-white court dress.
Painting of Natalia Vladimirovna Obolenskaya, lady-in-waiting to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (1834). Unknown painter, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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:

Empress Alexandra Feodorovna in an enormous fan-shaped jewel-studded kokoshnik and gold dress and veil.
Empress Alexandra Feodorovna in an enormous fan-shaped jewel-studded kokoshnik and gold dress and veil.
Painting by Franz Krüger (1830s), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

A lady-in-waiting in Russian court dress with a fabric kokoshnik, veil, and off-the-shoulder dress with long split sleeves.
A lady-in-waiting in Russian court dress with a fabric kokoshnik, veil, and off-the-shoulder dress with long split sleeves.
Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Golitsyna in 1914. Photo by K.A. Fisher studio, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Maria Pavlovna wearing her diamond and pearl tiara made up of interlocking circles with a pearl hanging in each circle.
Maria Pavlovna wearing her diamond and pearl tiara made up of interlocking circles with a pearl hanging in each circle.
Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna the elder, circa 1908. Image by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Elena Vladimirovna wearing a diamond kokoshnik fringe tiara with simple pearl jewelry and a black evening gown.
Elena Vladimirovna wearing a diamond kokoshnik fringe tiara with simple pearl jewelry and a black evening gown.
Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna, Princess Nicholas of Greece (c. 1923). Image by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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:

Alexandra Georgievna wearing a diamond tiara over her fabric kokoshnik as part of Russian court dress.
Alexandra Georgievna wearing a diamond tiara over her fabric kokoshnik as part of Russian court dress.
Photo by Aniklot Pazetti of St. Petersburg, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Russian pearl-and-diamond kokoshnik tiara. The pearls dangle from the top of the tiara frame.
Russian pearl-and-diamond kokoshnik tiara. The pearls dangle from the top of the tiara frame.
Image by an unknown photographer, taken in the 1920s; public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Maria Feodorovna wearing a diamond kokoshnik tiara over her fabric kokoshnik to hold her veil in place.
Maria Feodorovna wearing a diamond kokoshnik tiara over her fabric kokoshnik to hold her veil in place.
Empress Maria Feodorovna, photo by Charles Jacotin (1881); public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The result?

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:

Queen Elizabeth II wearing Alexandra’s kokoshnik tiara with a sapphire necklace and a white formal gown.
Queen Elizabeth II wearing Alexandra’s kokoshnik tiara with a sapphire necklace and a white formal gown.
“2005 Royal Visit: Queen Elizabeth II” from Government of Alberta via Flickr, used with Attribution-Noderivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0).

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

Hilda of Baden’s tiara on a red velvet cushion in a glass case in the Badisches Landesmuseum in Karlshruhe, Germany.
Hilda of Baden’s tiara on a red velvet cushion in a glass case in the Badisches Landesmuseum in Karlshruhe, Germany.
Image by Gryffindor, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Marie of Yugoslavia wearing a fur coat and the emerald kokoshnik. Marie of Romania wearing the sapphire kokoshnik.
Marie of Yugoslavia wearing a fur coat and the emerald kokoshnik. Marie of Romania wearing the sapphire kokoshnik.
L: Queen Marie of Yugoslavia; image by an unknown photographer. R: Queen Marie of Romania; image from the Bain Collection. Both public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Irina Yusupova wears a white wedding dress and lace veil held in place with the Cartier rock crystal tiara.
Irina Yusupova wears a white wedding dress and lace veil held in place with the Cartier rock crystal tiara.
Irina Yusupova on her wedding day in 1914. Image by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Violet, Duchess of Westminster wears a thick diamond-encrusted bandeau across her forehead and a sleeveless flapper dress.
Violet, Duchess of Westminster wears a thick diamond-encrusted bandeau across her forehead and a sleeveless flapper dress.
Violet Nelson Rowley, the Duchess of Westminster, in an undated photo from the Claude Harris studio in London. From the Bain Collection at the Library of Congress.

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.

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.

Notes

¹ Munn, Tiaras, 271.

² Field, The Queen’s Jewels, 45.

³ Scarisbrick, Tiara, 128.

⁴ Nadelhoffer, Cartier, 64.

Sources

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.

Credits

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.

Written by

I write about fascinating royal women, their jewels, and quirky aspects of royal history no one else talks about. Find me at https://girlinthetiara.com.

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