by Dave Potter
Exclusively for the ‘Tales of the Veils’ website
Ekaterina shivered as she stood by the stout oak door. Partly it was from the freezing cold of winter and partly because she was scared. This was her day, the most important day in her young life and she worried as to how it would all end. Her teeth bit hard onto her mask and she drew her thick cloak around her. Then, with a nod, the servant opened the door and announced her name and she walking slowly out into the crowded hall.
Inside the great hall was warmer that the corridor because of the bodies of all those crowded therein. Ekaterina glanced around nervously. Through the eyeholes of her mask and the thin tunnel of vision allowed by her large hood she could see them, the greatest boyars in all the land, bearded and clad in their robes, and in the midst of them all the priest, Fr. Serafim whom many said was so holy that he could even be a saint. She bowed her head and walked slowly towards the raised platform in the centre of the room. As she walked a hush fell upon the entire company. By the time that she had reached the platform, absolute silence reigned.
“In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” Fr. Serafim intoned. Ekaterina felt a drop of his holy water sprinkle upon her hand. Then her father came up and removed the cloak from her. It fell to the floor and revealed her naked body to the world. Through the eyeholes in her mask, she could see the boyars eyeing her youthful body, considering if her rounded hips are suitable for childbearing and if her firm breasts could give both milk and pleasure. Then her father’s hands came up to her face to remove the blank moretta mask. She opened her mouth and the mask was removed. Her feeling of vulnerability, of nakedness and exposure was complete. The boyars sighed, but was it due to her exceeding or disappointing their expectations? Never since childhood had she shown her face in public to any man save her father, yet now they could all see her. She desperately wanted to examine each boyar in turn, to see who her future spouse might be but she knew she should not. A properly-brought up lady merely stares blankly ahead, as if all of this is quite routine.
After all the boyars had managed to examine her shapely form, her maid came up to her and fitted a shift over her whilst another maid started on her long blonde hair that brushed against her bottom,. She braided it carefully and then wrapped the plaits in the traditional Russian style around her head so that she could feel them weighing down upon her.
All the while she stayed stock still, letting the servants lift her arms up, button the shift and perfect her hair. Inside though, her heart was beating fast, for she feared the next bit. Her father reappeared into view, this time carrying her bridal corset. It was hard for her to suppress a gasp as she saw it for it was formidable indeed. She wore stays regularly of course, but only light ones and never laced so fully. Yet one of the requirements for marriage in Tartary is a bride whose waist can be spanned by the hands of her husband, and that meant a corset tighter than anything she’d ever experienced before. The corset was fitted and the busk fastened and then the trapeze bar above her was lowered and her wrists fastened to it. The bar was then wound up until her toes barely touched the floor and then the tightening began. At first it wasn’t noticeable but slowly it became tighter and tighter and her breathing more laboured. Ekaterina desperately wanted to cry out but she knew that it would not be proper and that if she did her marriage prospects would be ruined in an instant. A bride has to bear these things, however tough they may be. Now it was getting excruciating, she felt suffocated and her breasts rose and fell dramatically with each laboured breath, but still he tightened, pulling and pulling, seemingly never-ending. She tried to recite the Lord’s Prayer to keep her mind distracted but she could not focus on the words, could not focus on anything, her world was spinning, she blacked out.
The smelling salts wafted under her nose brought her round. The pain around her middle was now excruciating. Inside though, she was proud. The boyars would be pleased that she had remained quiet and steady all the way up to fainting. That was regarded to be an exemplary sign in a bride. Now though, she had to deal with her middle, crushed beyond all existence, perhaps, if her husband was that way inclined, permanently?
Her father came up to her and put his hands around her middle. Would the fingers meet at the back? She hoped they would as she was sure that she couldn’t endure anymore tightening. Even if they did of course, it was no guarantee, but then that was later… better to put it off…
They met! He beamed widely and the boyars nodded appreciatively. Then came the coverings necessary for the next stage: silk stockings on her legs, then fine leather boots that reached to her thighs, laced their entire length that made her stand on tiptoes. These were not boots designed for walking and she would probably only ever wear them this once, but you never knew? After all, after marriage a wife is her husband’s property and – like the corset – if he decrees it, then she must endure it. Then after that came the coup de grace, the most important item of all, one that she feared and yet welcomed at the same time: the Virgin Moretta.
As a hangover from the days when the Muslim Hordes ruled Tartary, it was not acceptable for a lady to show her face in public and so many women had worn veils. Then, one day a shipment arrived from the great trading city of Venice, containing black masks named morettas that were held in place by the lady biting on a wooden protrusion inside the mask, giving them the additional value of keeping her quiet as well as hidden. Overnight these masks became popular amongst the boyarinas and it seemed as if they would become the standard wear for all females when, much to the surprise of the ruling classes, the Church came out and pronounced that these masks were ungodly, being the product of the evil Western Apostates, and as such should never be worn in public. What was to be done? Veils were seen as ungodly due to being tainted by the Muslims and morettas due to being tainted by the Catholics! The women of Tartary were in despair when the great St. Olga of Kiev came out of her hermitage and announced that she had received a vision from the Virgin Herself. The Virgin told the holy woman that the women of Tartary should keep their modesty and similarly do Her service by wearing morettas fashioned after Her Holy Image, the Icon of Kazan. Their Western morettas they could still wear, but only beneath a veil or a hood, never to be revealed to the outside world.
And so it was now that every boyar had a moretta made at the greatest cost by the finest craftsmen for his daughter to be worn on her wedding day and then for the rest of her days. And today was the day when Ekaterina would be masked.
Fr. Serafim stepped forward and with great ceremony held up the mask for all the company to see. Then he walked up to the waiting girl, bade her open her mouth and fastened the beautifully-carved mask onto her waiting face.
Immediately her view of the world was transformed, from one free and unobstructed to two tiny pinpricks of light. She had no peripheral vision and would have to turn her head to see anything not directly in front of her. Not that she turned her head then of course, no, that would be improper. Under the mask it was hot and despite being lined with material, the wood was hard. Ekaterina felt as if her face was being moulded into the expression of the Virgin, meek, mild and pure, but then checked herself into remembering that such was how a lady’s expression should be. As she was thinking, Fr. Serafim continued the ceremony, wrapping a black scarf around her forehead and then fastening the black mantle lined with silver embroidery around her head, covering her beautiful golden locks and sealing the mask firmly into place. She now felt confined and silenced yet at the same time she welcomed the anonymity and protection that the mask gave her from the leering eyes of the boyars.
Then came the testing. Slowly and silently, the prospective candidates lined up in front of her and each tested her middle. Inwardly Ekaterina prayed that no further adjustments would be required, but in her heart she knew that that would be unlikely and sure enough, on three separate occasions did the fingers of the boyar fail to meet and she was tightened further, the last one causing her to faint away again. But when it was done, and all the candidates for her hand knew that they could span her waist with their hands, then Fr. Serafim prayed again, gave all another sprinkling of the holy water and she was released from the trapeze.
As soon as her weight was transferred onto her feet, the pressure grew again around her middle and she went dizzy, leaning on the two maids for support and praying that she would not faint away again. Thankfully, the Virgin heard her prayers this time and she just managed to stay in this world. Then, guided by the maids, she stepped back and felt the pole take her weight. Quickly they strapped her legs to it so that supported her weight and its cushioned top rested between where her legs met. Now at worst, she would flop down if she fainted, but she could not fall to the floor.
The pole was fitted to a circular piece of wood, around which were other pieces of wood so that it resembled something akin to the bottom half of a beer barrel, save that it was slightly larger, the front piece, (where Ekaterina had walked in of course), was missing and that all the outside was brightly painted. It was as if the bride-to-be were in her own special pen which of course, in a fashion, she was.
Then came the bit that so many had been waiting for; the fitting of the dowry. In Tartary the value of a bride is very much associated with the value of her dowry, but ancient laws state that the dowry of a bride must be worn on her on her wedding day, and so evolved the custom of the fitting of the dresses.
The first dress of any bride was decided by royal edict. The edict specified that women at the Tartar court were to wear “Court Dress Uniforms.” This was described as “a white embroidered silk gown, with an embroidered velvet overdress with long, open sleeves in the Muscovite style.” The skirts were rouched and fastened at the waist, held together by a gold cord. The shape of the skirt was bell-like and full, the sleeves slightly puffed at the shoulders and reflected the Muscovite style to the west. These dresses were extraordinarily cumbersome and heavy, the bodices tightly boned so as to show off the hand-span waist of the bride. The dress trains were interlined and reinforced to support the great weight of the gold embroidery. Though picturesque, the dresses were unwieldy, and Ekaterina had heard her mother and other ladies who had worn these dresses described them as armour. Through her pinholes though, all that she noticed was the beauty and sumptuousness of it. As it was carefully fitted by the maids and she concentrated on staying stock still she imagined that she were no boyarina but instead a full princess. But then she reflected, who knows? Perhaps there was a prince amongst all those suitors and so maybe by the end of the day she would be a princess, wearing dresses such as that for the rest of her life?
As it was fitted though, she understood what her mother had meant. It was inordinately heavy and within seconds she grew hot and flustered, which caused her tortured breasts to heave up and down even more rapidly. ‘It is an honour!’ she reminded herself continuously, desperately battling to keep her consciousness.
After the court dress came the second dress, this time in a more Byzantine style, reminding the girl and her audience of their country’s religious heritage as the new Constantinople. Here no respect was paid to the wearer’s compressed waist and instead a thick gown of gold produced, the embroidery of which contains much of the bride’s wealth. Beaming with pride, her father lifted the heavy garment and fitted it around his daughter who underneath her Virgin Moretta gasped at the weight of it As it was buttoned up carefully, she felt herself really beginning to cook under all those layers and Ekaterina was glad that she’d taken a long drink before going out for the ceremony.
By this stage only Ekaterina’s gloved hands were visible to the watching boyars, but these were the next thing to be hidden by a pair of beautiful embroidered and bejewelled gloves that her mother had worn as part of her wedding dowry. Then, when these were on, her father took hold of her hands and chained them together in front of her, symbolising her modesty and her willingness to become the slave of her new master. Then came the other layers, thick embroidered cloaks in the peasant style, four in total, one made by her mother, one each from her grandmothers and the last by her elder sister. As they were being fitted, Ekaterina remembered sitting by her mother’s side as she’d been making hers, and recalled how it took years to complete one and her first task after giving birth to her first daughter would be to start work on one for her wedding. As she cloaks were draped over her, she wondered what it would be like to give birth and if she ever had a daughter, what she would call her. Most of all though, she wondered as to who the baby’s father would be.
The four cloaks fitted, there was only one layer left, a thick black fur cloak from her father, made of the finest bearskin from an animal that he himself had killed during hunting. As that was fastened on her the temperature rose up even more and crushed by all the weight, Ekaterina found that she needed every effort to prevent fainting again. Things weren’t made easier either by the addition of the thick black veil that now covered her entire face and left her blinded.
But that was the last layer and now all that was left was the piece de la resistance, the famous wedding crown, handed down through the generations. Fr. Serafim approached and placed it on her head, golden and laden with jewels, so magnificent that the boyars all gasped. Ekaterina however, heard nothing, for this extra piece was the straw that broke the camel’s back and it caused her to faint clear away.
Few people noticed her slump, for by now her many layers were keeping her upright, but her maid did and she wafted the salts under her mistresses nose, causing the bride-to-be to come around with a gasp and a cough, wishing that she hadn’t been brought back to the ordeal she was undergoing. But then of course, if she had stayed unconscious, she’d have missed the final stage. Already servants were nailing the front to the bottom of the “half-barrel” that she was standing in, and the maids were arranging the clothes inside the barrel so that they filled it completely. Then finally, with great fanfare and another sprinkling of holy water from Fr. Serafim, it was brought in, the upper half of the barrel, or to be more exact, the doll. Carefully crafted and painted, like the beautiful dolls that she had played with as a child, here was a life-sized wooden doll with a smiling face under painted plaits. As the top was lowered onto the bottom and secured into place, the whole assembly clapped. Ekaterina’s world however, merely went black and silent and the agony of waiting began. Whilst the doll stood there the negotiations between the suitors would begin and when one was chosen, there’d be a celebratory party that would last all night. Then, the following day, the doll would be carried to a cart and wheeled to her new husband’s house which could be over a day’s journey away. When it was opened and only then would she know who her new master would be and how he wanted his wife to live. Would he love her and could she love him? Would he give her freedom or keep her corseted and laden with clothes as her sister’s husband had done with her. Would she ever see her parents again? Ekaterina was sure her father would choose a wonderful husband. She imagined a cross between the handsome young man working at the stables of her father and an educated noble having been honoured for his heroic fighting in his first battle. Pain and agony gave way to unknown sensations deep inside making her feel warm on certain unfamiliar places. Out of the darkness comes a face beautiful beyond imagination, his lips ready to meet hers. Their lips meet and they kiss for minutes, hours … days … Slowly but surely she started muttering a prayer to the Virgin of Kazan, for this was all in Her hands now…
This story was inspired by the following video:
http://www.4shared.com/file/103803598/d54272dd/v-r_1999-00_fw_w_hc.html (72 Mbyte)
The video is of a Viktor & Rolf Autumn/Winter 1999/2000 fashion show. The court and country in question are totally fictional, Tartary being a vague Western term used prior to the 17th century for the area east of Moscow. However, the culture in those parts has been influenced by both Islam and Byzantium as well as the extremely cold weather and the wedding dress described is the official court uniform of Russian ladies during Tsarist times that was described as ‘armour’ by those forced to don it. As for the saint and icon, both exist although no attention to historical accuracy has been paid when mentioning both.
Copyright © 2009, Dave Potter