Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Style That Ruled the Empires- Exhibition Review

Yesterday my husband and I had our delayed Valentine's Day, and went to Hillwood Estate in D.C. where he first proposed, to take in an exhibition called "The Style That Ruled the Empires: Russia, Napoleon, & 1812". If you know your history you will already be aware that 1812 was the year that Napoleon was defeated in Russia and driven out, but nonetheless the decorative style known as "Empire" was pervasive across Europe, even in Russia. This is the war (known as the Patriotic War in Russia) in which Tolstoy's War & Peace is set.

Diamond and Ruby necklace and earrings
The exhibition could not have been more perfectly set than in the Dacha which was built on the sprawling premises of the turn-of-the-century estate; and, though it was a relatively small group of objects, was diverse and lovely. There was armor, snuffboxes, maps, glassware celebrating the Russian generals, furniture, medals, but best of all for me- two empire gowns with accessories and jewelry.

There were mirrored doors set up behind the two mannequins, making it possible to see the back of the gowns, but the shoes were hidden under the folds of the frocks so that they were not visible beyond white pointed toes. The gowns were both beautiful, and different from each other, with a quantity of bouillon decoration on one, and a filmy gathered bodice on the other. The best part was that because of the intimate grouping of the objects within the small one-room building it was possible to get very close indeed to the gowns and see where seams were placed, what decoration was woven as part of the fabric and what was sewn to it, and even how the necklaces clasped (I think I made the security guard nervous by peering around the side of the display case for the above set).

As if the gowns themselves weren't enough, the hair ornaments, gloves, shawl, fans, and lace were certainly of some interest. It's always nice to see extant garments close-up and in-person, since photographs just don't capture all of the details in a three-dimensional way.

In addition to the exhibition, my husband and I also took a stroll in the gardens (which is where he originally proposed), looked in at the greenhouse to see the orchids, and had luncheon complete with two kinds of tea, and a Russian theme at a leisurely pace in the cafe. This time we skipped the main house, because we have been there many times, but for those new to Hillwood it is not to be missed. For more information, photos, and reservations you can visit their website at

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