​19. The Empress Elisabeth's transvestite balls

The Memoirs of Catherine the Great1743-4

The Court balls never numbered more than one hundred and fifty or two hundred people; those that were public numbered eight hundred.

In 1744 in Moscow, as I have already related, the Empress had a fancy to have all men appear at the Court balls dressed as women and the women as men, without masks; it was like a Court day metamorphosed. The men wore whaleboned petticoats, the women the Court costume of men. The men disliked these reversals of their sex and were in the worst possible humour, because they felt hideous in their disguises. The women looked like scrubby little boys, while the more aged had thick short legs which were anything but attractive. The only woman who looked really well and completely a man was the Empress herself. As she was tall and powerful, male attire suited her. She had the handsomest leg I have ever seen on any man and her feet were admirably proportioned. She dressed to perfection and everything she did had the same special grace whether she dressed as a man or as a woman. One felt inclined to look at her and turn away with regret because nothing could replace her.

At one of those balls, I watched her dance a minuet; after it was over she came up to me. I took the liberty of telling her that it was lucky for all women that she was not a man, for even a mere portrait made of her in that attire could turn the head of any woman This compliment was expressed in full sincerity and she accepted it with grace, replying in the same tone and in the sweetest manner, that had she been a man, it would have been to me that she would have given the apple.

I bent down to kiss her hand for so unexpected a compliment; she kissed me and the rest of the company tried to discover what had taken place between the Empress and myself. I did not conceal it from Mme Choglokov, who whispered it to two or three others, so that it passed all round the room and within a quarter of an hour everybody knew about it.