Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Empress's Grand Ball - 1780

Countess Maria Vorochova sighed as she got out of bed and began to get dressed. Her husband, Alexander, still lay in bed, snoring loudly. For such a small man, Alexander could drink an incredible amount. He had been out again, drinking and gambling with his friends. Maria wondered how much he had lost this time, for he was a bad gambler.

As her maid tightened her corset, causing her to gasp, Maria again regretted the day she had ever married her husband. Then again, she had had no say in the matter. Women never did. Her father had been a successful merchant. He had also been a social climber and it had been his ambition to have his family marry into the ranks of the nobility.

Unfortunately for him, Maria had been his only legitimate child (he had sired several illegitimate ones in his long life), so the best he could do was to marry his only daughter to a nobleman. The Vorochova family had had a title, and an estate, but no money. The spectre of bankruptcy had loomed over this once illustrious family.

Alexander's father, the previous count, had stubbornly resisted any family member marrying beneath themselves. Blue blood married blue blood in his mind. But even he had to accept the inevitable. He needed a large injection of cash and so reluctantly agreed to marry his fifteen year old son to a merchant's daughter, who was three years older than his son, in return for the substantial dowry that she would bring. The dowry had been sufficient to clear all of the count's debts and have some left over.

The men were happy enough with the deal, but Maria felt shortchanged. Her new husband was a small, weedy boy. He was ignorant, had neglected his education and spent his time drinking, gambling and hunting. When the old count died, Alexander became master of the estate. As the count and as her husband, Alexander had complete authority over his older, better educated and more sensible wife. Maria had been confined to being a wife and hostess.

Meanwhile, Alexander had no idea how to run the estate, or any interest in doing so. Maria and the estate steward were secretly meeting and making the sensible decisions needed to keep the estate profitable. Maria felt that she was doing all of the work and getting no credit whilst her husband did whatever he liked and ate away at the profits by his wastrel existence.

Then, Maria's unfulfilling existence was interupted by a missive from the Empress Catherine. The Empress, Maria recalled, had seized power at the expense of her less able husband and had, it was rumoured, had murdered him. Catherine had proven a strong ruler, but had some odd whims.

This missive was a classic example of the Empress's eccentricity. The Count and Countess Vorochova had been summoned (not invited) to attend a Grand Ball in Moscow to celebrate the Empress's birthday. So far, so normal. But along with the missive was a note stipulating that the Empress expected the ladies to come attired as gentlemen and for the gentlemen to attend dressed as ladies.

Maria frowned at this. This was not normal behaviour. Still, it was an imperial command and so they must obey. Not attending or making excuses might earn the Empress's displeasure and she was renowned as being a ruthless woman. She and Alexander might find themselves in prison if they disobeyed. Or worse. Maria shuddered.

Maria looked at her husband, still unconscious. She would tell him when he stirred, whenever that would be. In the meantime, she would have to organise the costumes she and Alexander would have to wear. Looking at her husband again, a little smile creased her features. For the first time in ages, Maria was going to have some fun. And at her husband's expense.

When a bleary Alexander staggered out of their bedroom, Maria showed him the missive and the note. As she expected, he glanced at them and told her to arrange everything. Maria smiled at her husband's foolishness. A better man would have told her to get him plain women's things only and would have insisted on inspecting them before he wore them. But this was lazy, foolish Alexander. Alexander, by leaving it all to her to arrange, was about to get exactly what he deserved.

The following day, the estate was inundated with tailors and dressmakers, who had heard of the invitation and had naturally flocked to the estate hoping to make a lot of money. Alexander had gone to a neighbour's estate for more gambling. His absence made things easier for Maria.

Maria selected a tailor for her own outfit. She was going in the full uniform of a Hussar Colonel. The tailor measured her and assured her that the costume would be ready on time and delivered to the estate.

The dressmaker was then summoned. Maria knew her husband's measurements and gave them to her. She then outlined exactly what she wanted. The dressmaker had to suppress her laughter at the clothes, underwear and shoes that she was being asked to provide for the count.

It was the night of the Grand Ball. Alexander and Maria had been given a room at the Imperial Palace. A trousseau containing their outfits had been delivered to the room. It was time to get changed. Alexander was busy in the bathroom, so Maria slipped into her Hussar's outfit of rough drawers, thick socks, heavy tunic and trousers, knee high boots, a sword and a shining helmet. Maria thought that her costume made her look more manly and smiled.

Alexander emerged, complimented her on her costume and asked where his was. Maria pointed to a mass of material on the four poster bed that was theirs for the night. Maria bade him to get undressed as she would need to help him with his costume.

Soon, Alexander was naked. Maria handed him a pretty, lace-edged, silk chemise and he put it on over his puny chest. White silk stockings were put on his slender legs. She then gave him a pair of white silk drawers, covered all over with lace and with little pink ribbons. Alexander looked at them for a moment, but put them on. The frilly drawers came right down to his ankles.
Maria then produced the pink satin covered corset and put it around Alexander's body and then took great pleasure in lacing him into it. Alexander squealed in protest and found that once the laces had been tied, he was quite incapable of removing it without help. His mobility was greatly impaired and the garment was uncomfortable to wear. Maria then produced a mass of lace petticoats and made Alexander step into them. The pink ballgown, much adorned with ruffles, frills and ribbons, followed. Maria then applied full make up to his face, put a towering blonde wig, festooned with ribbons and flowers, on his head and fitted a pair of jewelled and very high heeled shoes to his feet. Rings were put onto all his fingers, a heavy necklace was put on him and diamond earrings were attached to his earlobes.

Maria had, quite deliberately, chosen the most feminine and restrictive of garments possible, far more overly feminine than anything she would ever wear herself.

Alexander staggered with difficulty over to a mirror on his jewelled heels and gasped with shock. He might well be shocked, for the pretty girl staring back at him, with a tiny waist, huge skirts and very feminine features, was undistinguishable from a real lady. Worst of all, from Alexander's point of view, the skirts of his dress were (quite deliberately!) short enough to allow the frills of the lower part of drawers to be seen. Maria stifled giggles. He looked more like a woman than she ever had.

"Maria, I can't go to the Grand Ball dressed like this! What have you done to me?"

Maria shrugged "You did leave me to arrange everything, so I thought it would be fun for you to be a beautiful girl, rather than a plain one".

"You stupid woman! I'll be humiliated! There must be something else I can wear!"

"There isn't. And the Empress is waiting for us to make our appearance. You'll just have to make the best of things".

Alexander looked at her pathetically "You'll look after me won't you, Maria". He looked and sounded quite helpless.

In command, Maria took his arm "Of course I will. Don't worry, you look very beautiful".

They attended the ball, Maria completely at ease as a Colonel and Alexander struggling to walk in his impossibly high heeled shoes, voluminous skirts, corsetry and massive wig. He was hot, uncomfortable and deeply embaressed to be seen dressed as elegantly as a courtesan. The other guests were looking at him with great interest and especially at his frilly drawers, which became highly visible as soon as he moved. His skirts and petticoats rustled so that he could not help but attract attention.

He was angry at his wife for choosing this ridiculous outfit for him, but he was also completely dependent on her to look after him when he was so vulnerable and he clung to her arm. But he would punish her for this humiliation once they were home!

Alexander suddenly became aware of another presence. The Empress herself, dressed in the uniform of an Admiral. She looked very boyish and masculine and there was a mischevious twinkle in her eyes.

Alexander instinctively attempted to bow, but he found that this now impossible in a corset and petticoats, so he had no choice but to attempt a curtsey. He almost fell flat on his face as he tried to copy the obesiance expected from noblewomen, and would have done so had Maria not been there to steady him. Once he was on his feet, Maria gave the Empress a smart bow and introduced herself and her husband.

Alexander was humilated that the Empress was seeing him dressed as he was. But, the Empress was very complimentary about both their appearances, especially his "You make a very splendid woman, Count Vorochova!" she had said "And you wear such pretty drawers!" she smirked "By far the best costume worn by a man tonight and my favourite!" Then the imperial presence was gone.

Alexander went from shame for elation! They been noticed and complimented by the Empress. Who knew what favour might follow? A position in the government, or the army, for himself, perhaps, or a lucrative grant of estates. He turned to his wife and kissed her in gratitude "You clever little thing!" he said "You knew what you were doing all along - trying to get us noticed!"

Maria had not intended for this outcome to occur, but at least her husband was now grateful to her.

He was elated a month later when he received a letter from the Empress herself. He had torn open the letter hoping to find he had been given estates or a place in the government. Maria saw his face go white when he read the contents.

Maria was worried. Perhaps they had displeased the Empress in some way. Rulers were fickle. "What's wrong Alexander?"

He handed the letter to her. When she read it she burst out laughing "By command of her Imperial Majesty, the Empress Catherine, Count Alexander Vorochova is to be transferred to the Imperial Court and to serve her as a lady in waiting". Not exactly the position at court he had been expecting! But given the eccentricities of their ruler, not entirely unexpected. Maria thought that it was a role that her pretty but useless husband was well qualified to perform.

A trousseau had been delivered along with the letter and Maria opened it to find expensive gowns, jewellery, shoes and masses of exquisite and dainty underwear. This was what her husband would have to wear at court in his new role as a male lady in waiting.

Later that day, a crest-fallen Alexander left the estate, wigged, gowned, corsetted, petticoated, and fully made up. It was quite impossible to identify any trace of masculinity in the elegant young woman lifting her skirts high in order to enter the coach and revealing that she was wearing white frilly and re-ribboned pantaloons and jewelled, absurdly high heeled shoes. She looked every inch the lady in waiting that she was to be to the Empress.

With Alexander occupied with his new ladylike existence, Maria could run the estate without any interference from him and without him spending the revenues frivilously. Maria had decided to adopt male attire and reflected how the roles of her and Alexander had been completely reversed. She was now in trousers and the master of the estate and he was now powerless and obliged to wear the frills and lace that expressed his femininity.

1 comment:

  1. I love the idea of a woman wearing her uniform as a Colonel of Hussars, especially with her sword and helmet. No wonder Maria smiled because she looked more manly. Plus, the hostess looking very masculine in her uniform as an Admiral. Great!
    Thank you for such an excellent story

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