The Romanovs of the 20th century have an infamous place in history, not only for their connection to Queen Victoria, but for the gruesome way they met their end. The Russian ruler, Czar Nicholas II, governed with certainty and entertained in the kind of opulence that is hard to envision today. This absolute rule, and the God-like persona associated with the position of czar, contrasted sharply with the Russian serfs. This created a polarized political climate that would end in bloodshed. However, before it all came crashing down the royal family partied like it was 1999- albeit in 1903.

Czar Nicholas II and his young family in 1904
Czar Nicholas II and his young family in 1904. Via/ Wiki Commons

Tragically, the Bolshevik Revolution resulted in the entire family being brutally shot to death and their bodies hidden. But, in the years leading up to the Revolution, the family lived a charmed life of prestige. Photos of the Romanovs and their guests from the Winter Costume Ball of 1903 leave little doubt as to the effort and expense they went to in order to impress.

dancers in elaborate dress at the 1903 Bal in St. Petersburg
Performers in elaborate costumes for the 1903 Bal. Via/ NYPL Digital Collections

Gowns encrusted with jewels, jackets woven with threads of gold, and elaborate headdresses made of pearls were some of the incredible details found on the costumes of the wealthy and powerful that danced in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg on February 11th and 13th of 1903.

The dance was called the 1903 Bal and was held to celebrate the 290th anniversary of the Romanovs taking power in Russia. The theme for the costumes was 17th century national dress, which explains the Medieval feel to the women’s headdresses. However, the extraordinary use of pearls, gold, silk, fur, and damask on these costumes probably outstripped anything that would have been worn in the 1600s.

Nicholas Hall of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg
Nicholas Hall of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Via/ Wiki Commons

Guests were treated to exhibitions of the latest in orchestral music, as well as a live performance of the ballet, Swan Lake, in the Nicholas Hall. After the performances, the party moved to the Pavilion Hall of the palace for a night of dancing and merrymaking, all while wearing their intricate costumes.

Nicholas II of Russia and Alexandra Fyodorovna dressed up for the 1903 Bal
Nicholas II of Russia and Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna (granddaughter to Queen Victoria) dressed up for the 1903 Bal. Via/ Wiki Commons

Up until now we had only black and white photographs of the Romanovs and their extended family in the their costumes, but one Russian artist has brilliantly colorized these photos . The results lend a vividly real aura to the documentation of one of the most lavish royal parties of the 20th century.

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Olga Shirnina, a Russian professor and artist, has transformed the original sepia toned photos of the 1903 Bal attendees in all their costumed glory. Using historical context, Shirnina colorizes historical photos in a style that is so realistic it’s like looking through a window in time to the past.

Elena Nikolaevna Bezak
Wife of Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich. Via/ NYPL

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Some of the magnificent costumes of the 1903 Bal survive today and have been displayed at the Hermitage, the museum that now fills what was once the Winter Palace. Shirnina uses historical context to make her photos as true to life as they can be.

We can imagine that other details like hair color, eye color, and background can be a little trickier to contrive. But, Shirnina comes as close to history as is possible, leaving us with a stunning set of portraits of one of the most lavish parties of the modern era.

Ekaterina Il'inichna Tatishcheva
Ekaterina Il’inichna Tatishcheva, draped in a cape of damask and fur. Via/ NYPL Digital Collection

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Shirnina has contributed to the The Romanov Royal Martyrs Project, a documentation of the conspiracy against Czar Nicholas II and the last days of the Romanov family. It’s hard to think of a better way to bring the story to life than with intriguing color photos like these.

Cornet A.A. Kolubakin at the 1903 Bal
Cornet A.A. Kolubakin. Via/ Wiki Commons

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It truly is amazing how color brings these portraits to life and gives a sense of just how spectacular these costumes (and the ball) must have been in real life.