These stunning colorized photographs of the Romanov royal costume ball of 1903 breathe new life into Russian history

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Historian Olga Shirnina says it’s a passion project of hers. Olga Shirnina
  • Colorist, professor, and historian of the Romanov dynasty Olga Shirnina is bringing photos from the Romanov costume ball of 1903 back to life.
  • Using new technologies and research into the fashions of the time, Shirnina has been able to restore these black and white images back to their former glory.
  • From opulent headdresses to bejeweled gowns, these colorized images prove just how awe-inspiring the Romanov’s most opulent ball truly was.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories .

The Romanov dynasty, and most notably the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, is most well-known for its opulent parties and the mystery surrounding Grand Duchess Anastasia, who many believed survived the family’s politically fuelled execution in 1918.

A book titled “The Romanov Royal Martyrs” is bringing new life to the famed royal family, featuring newly colorized images from the costume ball of 1903.

Though it can be a lengthy process to research the colours of the clothing worn during this time period, colorist, professor, and historian of the Romanov dynasty Olga Shirnina explains it’s a passion project of hers.

“I do the ball images just for my own pleasure, and I take time to do it right,” she told Insider. “Colorizing these images is very interesting work and I really enjoy it.”

Here are 17 colorized photographs of the Romanov royal costume ball of 1903.


The Romanov costume ball of 1903 is commemorated in an album of black and white photos.

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Tsar Nicholas II. Olga Shirnina

However, picture colorist and professor Olga Shirnina is bringing the photos back to life through a beautiful colorization method, transforming the century-old black and white photos into glorious works of art that reflect what the costumes would have actually looked like.


The photos from the costume ball are particularly notable as this was the grandest celebration held by Tsar Nicholas II, the last emperor of the Romanov House.

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Tsar Nicholas II. Olga Shirnina

Tsar Nicholas II, pictured here wearing the golden brocade of 17th-century Russian Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich, is one of the most well-known figures in Russian history.

He ruled Russia from November 1, 1894, until his forced abdication on March 15, 1917. He along with his five children, his wife Alexandra, and three servants were executed by firing squad on July 17, 1918.


The Romanov family’s execution is even more well-known for the legend of Anastasia Romanov, the youngest daughter of Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, pictured.

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The Tsar’s wife Empress Alexandra Feodorovna Romanov. Olga Shirnina

Though it was true that precious jewels had been sewn into the four duchesses’ clothing, sparing them from the first round of gunfire, it has since been revealed that every member of the tsar’s immediate family died that night.

According to Biography.com, in the 1970s an amateur archaeologist found a shallow grave containing the skeletons of six adults and three children tied to the events of July 17, 1918. A forensic investigation in 1991 then identified the nine bodies as the members of the tsar’s family and others murdered that night, but Anastasia’s body and the body of her younger brother, Alexei, remained missing.

Rumours circulated over the century that Anastasia and Alexei had survived. Some women even claimed to be Anastasia, allowing the mystery to be kept alive.

However, in 2007, a new DNA analysis of another shallow grave found near the first gravesite concluded that Anastasia and Alexei had also died the same night, putting an end to the rumours.


Prior to the family’s deaths, the Romanovs were known for their opulent parties.

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Princess Elisabeth Obolensky. Olga Shirnina

The winter celebration of 1903 spanned multiple days. First, a party was held on February 11 in the Winter Palace.


The party included a concert, dinner, and dancing.

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A costume ball attendee. Olga Shirnina

Two days later a grand fancy dress ball was held, and the empress herself commissioned the best photographers of St. Petersburg to make individual and collective pictures of participants at the ball, according to The State Hermitage Museum.


Participants’ costumes included everything from brocaded capes to headdresses and bejeweled gowns.

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Mademoiselle Alexandra Taneeva. Olga Shirnina

According to History Daily, Nicholas II invited 390 guests to the party held at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, which was to commemorate the 290th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty.


The costumes would have been extremely expensive at the time, as royalty and Russian nobility came together to dance and celebrate the dynasty’s anniversary.

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Princess Olga Orlova. Olga Shirnina

Princess Olga Orlova, pictured, was one of the party’s royal attendees.


More prestigious members of the emperor’s court, like this lady-in-waiting and her sister, were also allowed to attend.

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Anna Vyrubova, a lady-in-waiting, with her sister. Olga Shirnina

When the clock struck 10, all guests were invited into the Concert Room to dance.


The colorized images of the opulent costumes bring to life the extravagance of the costume ball.

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Princess Zinaida Yusupova. Olga Shirnina

According to The State Hermitage Museum, young officers of the guards regiments, horse-guardsmen, life-guardsmen, and lancers also acted as male partners to female attendees in the choreographed dances.


Traditional, choreographed dances like the Russian dance, round dance, and plyasovaya were performed.

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Countess Elisabeth Cheremetew. Olga Shirnina

However, common waltzes also took place at the grand ball.


Empress Alexandra Fedorovna and Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fedorovna acted as “judges” of the dancing.

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Princess Zinaida Yusupova. Olga Shirnina

Dancing offered the perfect opportunity for guests to show off their extraordinary costumes.


Baroness Emma V. Fredericks, the maid of honour of Their Imperial Majesties, is pictured wearing a towering beaded headdress and a fur-lined cape.

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Baroness Emma V. Fredericks. Olga Shirnina

The costumes were modelled after traditional 17th-century Russian dress, according to Russia Beyond.


The tsar’s sister, Ksenia Alexandrovna, dressed as a boyar’s wife.

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Grand Duchess Ksenia Alexandrovna of Russia. Olga Shirnina

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, a boyar was a member of the upper stratum of medieval Russian society.


However, while party-goers danced and feasted the night away, trouble was brewing in Russia.

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Princess Barbe Dolgorouky. Olga Shirnina

“While we were dancing,” Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich recalled, according to Russia Beyond, “workers’ strikes were happening in St. Petersburg, and clouds were gathering over the Russian Far East.”

The 1905 Russian Revolution would begin just two years later.


Colorizing these images is not an easy task, Olga Shirnina told Insider.

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Countess Fersen. Olga Shirnina

“There is not much information left about those dresses,” Shirnina told Insider. “First I looked for real costumes from the ball – today, some of them are in museums like the Hermitage Museum.”


Colorizing guests’ costumes relied on extended research into what people would have worn during that time period.

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Madame Tatistchew. Olga Shirnina

“I had excellent samples for the costumes of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna. The few still-existing costumes of other ball guests gave me an idea of how they could have looked 1903,” Shirnina said.


“Many of the dresses were a stylization of old boyar clothes, so I looked at paintings and stylizations of Russian folk dresses,” she told Insider.

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Countess Elisabeth Moussine-Pouchkine. Olga Shirnina

“Of course, I had to use my imagination,” Shirnina said. “First, it was hard for me to do pearls and jewels, silk and brocade, now the hardest part is choosing the ‘right colours.’ Sometimes, I just have the feeling that the colour is wrong even if it looks right.”

“Often, I drop the image and wait for an ‘insight.’ Regardless, colorizing these images is very interesting work and I really enjoy it,” she said.


The finished product gives lovers of Russian history — and those fascinated by the Romanov empire – insight into what attending one of their opulent parties might have been like.

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Cornette Kolioubakine. Olga Shirnina

Examining the attendees’ opulent costumes not only gives viewers insight into how extravagant these gatherings really were but also offers a peek into 17th-century Russian fashion history.