Pleasure, Cruelty, Arrogance in Glowing Colors


“Everything that may add luster to her reign will have some attraction for her,” a French diplomat wrote of Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia as its enlightened despot from 1762 to 1796. Catherine acquired a lot of luster: she revitalized and modernized Russia through her interest in Western European art and technology, and its new Enlightenment philosophies of progress, reason, and liberty. Catherine knew the power of luster because she’d needed it to get on the throne. In the years before she staged a coup against her own husband (the childish and cruel Peter), she’d been waiting. She planned elaborate parties for important people and cultivated an image of herself as both deeply Russian and a champion of modernity.

Catherine’s story has been told on film and television countless times. It’s catnip for anyone looking for a good period piece, as it offers intrigue and romance—Catherine was notorious for her love affairs—set against the exotic backdrop of the Russian court. Costume and décor can help tell the tale of how an obscure German princess became a great monarch by crafting an image of herself as a different kind of ruler. Production design, often dismissed as an unserious pleasure of historical dramas, can say a lot about power—who wields it and how. It shows how much royal surfaces matter: the struggle for dominance is a war waged on the battlefield of style. The opulence of a monarch and her court is not just about flaunting royal power; it is a vision of a country and its relationship to the person who rules it. Sumptuous fabrics, glittering diamonds, and marble halls are methods of persuasion.

Both The Scarlet Empress—Josef von Sternberg’s 1934 film starring silver-screen goddess Marlene Dietrich—and Hulu’s current series The Great—created by Tony McNamara and starring Elle Fanning as Catherine—use the opulence of the Empress’ court to tell the story of her rise as a triumph of light, elegance, and beauty over a twisted, grotesque darkness. Both are winking riffs on the period piece, playfully using its conventions to tease out the relationships between style, sex, and power. Sternberg achieves this through innuendo-laden dialogue and visual puns, while The Great overflows with visual and verbal raunchiness. They look very different, as well: The Scarlet Empress is set in a theatrical, fantasy version of the Russian court, while The Great has the luxurious, authentic look of a conventional prestige period piece. In each version of Catherine’s story, the trajectory from darkness to light is a transition from a brutal, traditional, and masculine rule to the modern, soft, feminine power that Catherine promises. Yet in both versions, production design subtly complicates, and even undermines, this overarching narrative, questioning if women can ever be truly independent, and if they can really be better rulers than the awful men who came before them. 

In both The Scarlet Empress and The Great, Catherine’s maneuvers in the battle of surfaces take place in different forms, and on many different fronts. 

     I. Feasts

Royal banquets are common in period pieces. Literal feasts for the eyes, they can also be informative rituals. At court, eating is not just nourishment; it’s conspicuous consumption. Table manners and traditions demonstrate social norms, and how the monarch influences them.

Both The Scarlet Empress and The Great use feast scenes as introductions to the barbarism of the Russian court, and the pampered indifference of the ruling class. They scan banquet tables, reveling in close shots of grotesque culinary excesses and tracing the gazes of scheming aristocrats as they size each other up.

In The Scarlet Empress, Catherine and Peter’s wedding feast begins with a shot of a steaming cauldron. A full human skeleton is wrapped around it, staring into the steaming soup. Plates are filled with bubbling mush and wild tangles of greens. The reigning Empress (Peter’s aunt) is so blasé about the feast that she absentmindedly performs a blessing with a turkey leg instead of her scepter. Clusters of servants crush up against every chair. This opulence is stifling, a taste of the constant surveillance Catherine will endure at court. Shining brightly in her wedding dress and shrouded in veils, she’s luminous as a pearl, a radiant feminine spectacle already being admired by the military men who will help put her on the throne.   

In The Great, the wedding feast is also where Catherine first realizes what a revolting mess she’s been dropped into. Here again, the camera pans across gloom and vulgarity; courtiers in dark clothes tear into their food and gossip viciously. Like Dietrich, Fanning’s pale face and glittering tiara are a focal point amidst oppressive grotesquerie. 

“This fucking duck is delicious, do you not find?” her new husband, Peter, asks her out of the blue. Peter enjoys haute cuisine, but he enjoys it obscenely, fondly remembering his “pig and hazelnut orgy of 1756.” He and his courtiers throw food into each other’s mouths, their crude manners disrespecting those who labor to produce these delicacies. It’s made clear that Peter’s vulgar attitude towards food reflects a deeper disrespect for life when, at one particular banquet, he serves the severed heads of Swedish soldiers. These dishes are a truly horrifying sight: yellow-green skin, milky eyes, and patches of coarse, dirty hair sit on plates next to cupfuls of exquisitely crafted, fluffy dessert. After complimenting the dessert, Peter commands his guests to join him in gouging out the dead soldiers’ eyeballs.  

To Catherine, Peter’s gastronomic obsession is a sign of decadence and superficiality. (She knows it is his greatest weakness, and exploits it to usurp him. When Peter flees court, she kidnaps his French chef, leaving him with nothing to eat but rats. He quickly abdicates.) Intellectual, single-minded, and a bit prim, Catherine sees such things as a waste of time. When she takes the throne, the feasts are moments where she must soften her will and bend her ideals to the world as it is. Peter—under house arrest, and both enamored of his wife and determined to overthrow her—outmaneuvers Catherine when he throws an 18th-century aristocratic rager (with powdered faces, cotton-candy wigs, and mincing dances) for the Ottoman ambassador. The party makes more diplomatic headway than Catherine’s pleas for compromise and reason. Peter, whose hospitality is his one strength as a ruler, explains that this is because people like “an impromptu, spontaneous outpouring of love and alcohol,” something that the “un-fun” Catherine can’t understand.

Catherine, thinking on her feet, manages to make friends and temper the brutality of the Russian court. When courtiers start throwing vegetables at servants for sport, she suggests that they instead chuck turnips at people who’ve wronged them, a more egalitarian kind of cruelty. Catherine joins the party—what woman in the public eye can survive being branded un-fun?—and decides to let them eat cake.  

The feast is where opulence can most quickly turn to boorishness and rot. It is everything that Catherine will work to define herself against.  

     II. Façades

Life at court requires many façades: interiors, settings, and decor reflect the sensibilities of the court and the land it rules over. For Catherine, they are backdrops for the performances of the self that are essential to gaining and maintaining power, and a way of setting her apart from the status quo. 

Sternberg, who had no use for realism, went all out in his fantastical vision of the exotic Russian court. (James Phillips notes that The Scarlet Empress cost $1 million to make, more than twice the average amount of a studio “A” film at the time.) Hans Dreier’s set designs depict a court whose grotesque style reflects its underlying cruelty. Richard Kollorsz painted modernist, surrealist versions of traditional Russian Orthodox icons. Packed together in wonky patchwork patterns, the distorted bodies of transfigured saints stand out against gleaming gold backgrounds. The paintings cover giant doors that require 10 or more people to push open, representing the obscene wealth and unshakable political power of the Russian Orthodox church, an impediment to progress in the country.


The true source of the court’s splendor also manifests in twisted and tortured statues, made by Peter Ballbusch. The wooden figures are so distorted that they sometimes look like melting wax. The statues are used as furnishings—candelabras, chairs, banquettes, and headboards that appear all over the palace, their twisted backs bent and necks contorted as they illuminate or support royal bodies, recalling the serfs whose punishing labor pays for the court’s opulence. 

Dietrich’s Catherine offers herself as a contrast to this court, and a better ruler, by turning herself into a façade: power as beauty and light amidst grotesque darkness. She makes herself a surface onto which powerful men (and then Russia itself) can project what they want to see. She must seem both attainable and unattainable. Not unlike a movie star. Not unlike Dietrich herself, whose star image was of a sexually knowing woman who maintained an ironic detachment from her own allure. As the Catherine of The Scarlet Empress more closely resembles Dietrich herself, she grows more powerful. 

Sternberg constructs Catherine’s movie star façade through veils, which both show and hide. Manipulation of the veil signals Catherine’s growing mastery of surfaces: at first, it is a net that traps her, but it becomes a tool of seduction that she uses to her own ends. One of the most striking images in the whole film is a close-up of Dietrich at Catherine’s wedding. During the ceremony, Catherine and Peter’s hands are bound together by a lacy veil. We then see her face hidden behind another veil and lit by a single candle. Her eyes grow panicky, then fill with tears of resignation. The veil traps her in loveless subservience. Later, when Catherine gives birth to a son (fulfilling her function as “broodmare”), the veil returns. She lies in bed, her face screened by the net bed curtains. The camera gets closer and her face becomes fuzzy and abstract behind the hatched lines of the veil. The veil is now a cocoon; she is being reborn as a pleasure-seeker and power player. Later, when her deranged husband threatens to kill her, he points his sword directly at her breast. She smiles and insouciantly uses her veil to tie a little bow around the blade. It is a signal: her soft, feminine power will defeat his military might, such as it is. When Catherine the scheming seductress takes her full form, the veils around her bed are a permeable façade; only the chosen few (usually military men who will support her coup) are allowed past the veil and into her bed. The veil is sometimes armor, sometimes weapon, sometimes tease.

In The Great, Catherine’s rooms are façades that project her image of herself as emissary of the Enlightenment; they are a vision of what she believes Russia can be under her rule. Again, a contrast is established: Peter’s rooms are painted a dark green, and covered with the skulls of things he’s killed. (Later, when trying to woo Catherine, he offers to paint them a lighter color.) Catherine’s rooms reflect her Enlightenment ideals: her dainty gilded furniture, all in pastels, reflects the trends of Western European courts. Her wallpaper has a chinoiserie print, with elegantly twisting branches full of blossoms and nesting birds. (David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye notes that chinoiserie—designs inspired by Chinese art—were favorites of the real Catherine.) Again, style reflects Catherine’s philosophy; her beloved Voltaire often wrote of China, a civilization he saw as more technologically and politically advanced than Europe. 

Catherine tells her lover, Leo, that she sometimes imagines the wallpaper has come to life, that the blossoms are blooming and the birds are flying away. If this at first seems like the delusion of a confined madwoman, it is also a testament to Catherine’s optimistic-messianic belief that her own vision of the world will inevitably spread the good news of progress.

Once Catherine takes the throne, however, everything becomes less clear-cut. Façades send mixed messages. Changes in the palace décor subtly echo the more grotesque look of The Scarlet Empress production design, reflecting the struggle between Catherine’s ideals and the realities of the world as it is. Instead of the patchwork of religious icons, walls are covered with lively portraits painted by a palace serf. They reflect Catherine’s (at least partial) egalitarian vision: the common people are represented in the palace where royal portraits would normally hang. These walls double as a memorial: the artist is killed by an angry aristocrat after Catherine frees the serfs on a whim and an uprising ensues. Yet these portraits are also warnings, reminders of the consequences of Catherine’s tendency to act justly but rashly—often in order to feel better about herself—instead of making slow and pragmatic progress.

In The Great’s second season, Catherine herself is seduced by façades. Peter, under house arrest, turns his room into a nursery for his and Catherine’s unborn son. He paints murals on the walls, fanciful animals that are charming but also disturbingly misshapen and twisted. The murals are part of Peter’s plan to project a different image of himself to Catherine: a changed man who has happily given up a throne he never really wanted, and who now hopes to be a supportive husband and co-parent. Catherine, overworked and stymied at every turn, is tempted by this domestic scene; Peter, a former monarch, has picked up some knowledge of the power of surfaces. 

The realm of façades is where the film and the series’ visions of Catherine start to diverge. When Dietrich’s Catherine turns herself into a seductive spectacle, it reflects The Scarlet Empress belief that sexuality is a woman’s only means of attaining power. Fanning’s Catherine, who is determined to win the day through intelligence and reason, has more complex façades that reflect the tension between her aspirations and reality.

     III. Fashion

Like façades, clothes follow the trajectory of Catherine’s rise to power. Fashion is the most potent pleasure of the period piece. (There’s a reason why this genre is often called the “costume drama.”) Clothing is where the personal body meets the social body. It is also a source of sensory and erotic pleasure for the spectator, and a marker of sexual difference and social rank. For a woman in power, fashion is a tool for not only attracting attention, but also conveying personality, allegiances, and even ideals. The story of Catherine’s transition from vulnerable, impressionable princess to absolute ruler of Russia is one that must be told through clothes.

In The Scarlet Empress, Catherine becomes a political actor by transitioning from a pantomime of 18th-century girlhood to a seductive and defiant woman made in Dietrich’s star image. The film plays with the conventions of the costume drama through Dietrich’s winking, over-the-top performance of Catherine’s youthful innocence. Dietrich usually plays the sadder-but-wiser girl; her iconic androgyny mocks the men who seek to punish her for her sexuality. As young Catherine, she feigns feminine innocence: her eyes are like saucers, her voice constantly breathy and incredulous. Her clothes enhance this cartoonish, virginal drag. Dietrich’s costumes gesture towards period accuracy; she wears white gowns with rows of girlish bows running down the fronts of their bodices. They have lacy collars and cuffs, and they are shaped by wide panniers (hoops worn under a dress that artificially widen the hips). They restrict her movements; she has to walk horizontally to maneuver through tight spaces, and you can see her pausing to think about how she’s going to get from Point A to Point B. She looks like a wedding cake, reflecting her romantic dreams of marriage, which are dashed when she meets the creepy and imbecilic Peter. Catherine eventually becomes sexually experienced (thanks to an anonymous encounter with a soldier), and more secure in her position at court after she gives birth to an heir. Her style grows bolder and more glamorous—she is a screen goddess, clothed in show-stopping satins, feathers, and veils. 

When Catherine first contemplates taking a lover, she’s dressed in a military-style jacket and tricorn hat, but both are edged with a row of white feathers. The ensemble suggests her future position as court seductress and darling of the military, two entwined roles that will help her rise to power. In an encounter with her admirer, Count Alexei (who betrayed her by having an affair with the former Empress), she’s dressed in an all-feather getup that has to be seen to be believed. It follows the basic silhouette of an 18th-century gown but is entirely transparent, and covered in black feathers with white tips. The transparent fabric shows off Dietrich’s legs—a famously fetishized element of her sex appeal. It teases visibility and touch as she humiliates Alexei by making him bring her new lover (a general) into her bedroom through a secret passage. 

Her true transformation into both empress and movie star occurs in the final sequence, where Catherine, on her horse, storms the palace with the military and stages the coup. As she rides, she wears a hussar’s uniform: trousers, a white military jacket with epaulets, and a large fur hat. This is pure Dietrich, dominant and exultant in her androgyny. The transformation is complete; Catherine’s power is absolute. The grotesque opulence of the Russian court is vanquished by the opulence of Dietrich herself—golden curls, creamy skin, and perhaps the most elegant and perfectly photographed cheekbones in all of cinema. The shining intensity of her glamor can distract us from the maniacal glee in her face as she rings the bell to announce her ascension to the throne. It’s a sign that, no matter how luminous she may appear, her reign will only perpetuate the tradition of cruelty. 

The Great sees female power slightly differently; it at least entertains the notion that Catherine’s evangelical belief in reason could make her a better kind of ruler. Over the course of two seasons, her clothes reflect that political philosophy and the challenges of making it a reality. Fanning’s girlish naiveté and optimism (somewhat more genuine that Dietrich’s) are reflected in her early costumes. As with Dietrich’s, these are distinctively girly, but also simpler, less flouncy. Like her apartments, the understated elegance of Catherine’s wardrobe reflects her ideals. Her gowns, all in pastels (usually optimistic yellow and serene sea green), are simple. The fabrics are lustrous, but you have to look closely to see them shimmer. They have minimal embellishments: piping and pintucks around the waist and neckline. She wears no panniers and only a few crinolines, allowing for ease of movement. She also has no-nonsense work clothes—an open-collared shirt and skirt that she wears when she’s working seriously on her plan to seize power.

In the second season, Catherine not only seizes power from Peter, but does so while pregnant. Her clothing reflects her newly contradictory condition: she has the power of the supreme ruler but is constrained by the whims of her own body. It also reflects the conflict between progressive and autocratic impulses that Catherine struggles with. She wears simple pastel overcoats that tightly confine her breasts, while her skirts flow freely over her stomach. The dresses beneath the coats provide a contrast: they are in deeper, richer colors, and made of stiffer brocades, more traditional to the trends and weather of the Russian court. Autocracy and Enlightenment grapple with each other on the Empress’ body.

Fanning’s Catherine claims to be uninterested in fashion; the great believer in reason argues that it doesn’t matter what she looks like, only what she says and does. Yet for her coronation, she chooses the perfect outfit: not a trendy, modern design but an all-gold Russian ensemble—wide skirts and a narrow waist, crowned with a giant gold headdress. The court ladies mock her as old-fashioned and backward, but she starts a trend among the young women at court, planting seeds toward a future. It’s the crowning example (sartorially speaking) of Catherine’s sometimes irrational instincts serving her well, establishing her as a true Russian ruler and marrying the old with the new. 

     IV. Fur

It’s impossible to talk about Catherine’s costuming without accounting for her furs. Fur is strongly associated with royalty, as well as with Russia itself. It is sensually evocative, suggesting warmth and softness—but also the chill that necessitates wearing it. Thus, Catherine’s iconography requires a lot of fur. Fur signifies Catherine’s evolving public image as a true Russian and thus a good candidate for the throne.

In The Scarlet Empress, furs (like veils) are, at first, a weapon used against Catherine, which she eventually turns to her advantage. She first comes to Russia covered in a pile of furs—a royal gift that oppressively thrusts ‘Russianness’ upon her; the reigning empress tries to train Catherine to be an obedient Russian wife. In these lessons, where Catherine is forced to serve the soup at yet another grotesque royal feast, her demure gown is trimmed with fur, an understated embellishment at the neckline and bodice. This attempt to make her a submissive Russian woman is utterly futile; when she decides to seize power, Catherine will wear her furs quite differently.

When Catherine realizes that her path to power depends on military support, she uses furs to seduce and dominate. She visits the barracks, commending the troops on their victory while flirting outrageously. For this visit, Catherine sports a giant, slanted fur hat, typically worn by Russian generals. She also has fur on the cuffs of her dress, and she carries a giant fur muff. There are even fur trimmings on the wide hips of her gown. She is a Russian, a military leader; her furs will also rub against the soldiers when she walks past them, in a seductive provocation. 

Fanning’s Catherine resists ruling by force or cruelty, so fur makes its way into her wardrobe more subtly. It’s an occasional embellishment, as when Catherine and Peter attend a diplomatic summit with the King and Queen of Sweden. Her subdued nod to Russian culture signifies Catherine’s role as ambassador. Though she negotiates through reason, fur hints at her dormant autocratic ambitions; along with those demure trimmings, she wears the same general’s fur hat that Dietrich’s Catherine wears to the barracks. She’s a lioness waiting to pounce.

Fur becomes a bigger part of Catherine’s wardrobe in The Great’s second season, as Catherine reluctantly accepts the necessity of using autocratic power to achieve her desired reforms. She wears more fur as she starts to accept Russia as it is. Catherine’s growing acceptance of incrementalism and realpolitik manifests in her ombré fur capelet. Lighter-colored fur bleeds into and alternates with darker colors. Catherine first wears this capelet for an attempted détente with her nemesis, Archie, the powerful patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Archie hopes to make Catherine more friendly to the church by helping her see God, which they attempt to do by tripping on shrooms in the woods. Catherine only sees a great light—the Enlightenment she hopes to bring to Russia. Archie is disappointed, but Catherine softens her stance towards the church, and accepts that it can help her realize her progressive goals. As with the fur capelet, dark and light bleed into one another, and softness mixes with cruelty. 

Freud saw fur as the dominant fetish of male masochists. (Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who gave masochism its name, titled his novel about female dominance Venus in Furs.) Dietrich’s Catherine fulfills the fantasy of the punishing woman wrapped in furs, who rules absolutely and dispenses tenderness or cruelty at her will. On the contrary, in The Great’s second season, Fanning’s Catherine becomes attached to a similar fetish object: a baby carrier made of Russian-style brocade and lined in sumptuous fur. Peter has had it made and uses it to tote their son, Paul, around the palace. It’s part of the image he’s projecting—the supportive partner and happy stay-at-home dad. For Catherine, the fur object represents a very modern fantasy: the girlboss dream of “having it all.” 

The Scarlet Empress follows a very clear trajectory from light to dark, very appropriate for its simple story about the inevitability of absolute power. On the other hand, the subtleties and mixed messages of The Great’s production design reflect the complicated nuances of Catherine’s new position as ruler and her confused feelings about Peter. She loathes him, but also loves his tenderness toward her son. He’s the only one who knows what it’s like to be in her position (and the only man who can make her orgasm. She has come far, but she’s still a weak player in the battle of style because she’s taken in by the façades of others. She is lured in, minimizing Peter’s underlying cruelty and rampant horndoggery, and the indisputable fact that, as long as he’s still alive, he is a threat to her power. Ultimately, Peter profanes Catherine’s family fantasy by not only sleeping with his mother-in-law, but also accidentally killing her and covering it up. 

Though The Great is more interested in the subtleties of power and the good that a female ruler can potentially do, at the end it is no less cynical about the limits of a woman’s options. Catherine’s decision to accept compromise and complexity only leaves her completely duped and humiliated in her personal life. At the end of the second season, she’s back where she started: she needs to kill Peter for her own political survival, only now she has to do it while stupidly in love with him. For a female ruler, keeping the kindness that Dietrich’s Catherine quickly shed only leaves you vulnerable, personally and politically. Soft power is still power, and it can be turned against a ruler—abused, leveraged, taken away. The battle of style must command the ruler’s attention as well as the viewer’s if she wants to know the lay of the land.