Serbian Queen Natalija had a deep love for fashion. Despite facing criticism from many in Serbia, including King Milan, for her penchant for luxury, she was considered a fashion icon of her time, with a significant following among women. After her exile from Serbia in 1891, a dress she left behind was reportedly preserved as a cult item in the home of the Belgrade Women’s Society.
The most well-known and representative visual depiction of Queen Natalija is the portrait from 1882 painted by Vlaho Bukovac, which is displayed in the National Museum of Serbia. In this portrait, the queen is dressed in a sumptuous turn-of-the-century gown, in line with European fashion trends of the 1870s and 1880s. Evolving from crinolines that spread the lower part of the dress around the body, the “turnir” was a support structure worn at the back to expand only the rear part of the skirt. The fashion of this period was characterized by decorative elements such as ribbons, trimmings, elastic fabrics, and pleats, while the materials used for the turnir included cushions filled with horsehair, tightly starched fabric, and frames made of bones, bamboo, and rattan.
Vlaho Bukovac recollected in his memoirs a conversation with Queen Natalija regarding her intention to be presented in a “turnir” gown. On that occasion, she expressed her dislike for elaborate national costumes, which she thought involved too much jewelry and ornaments. By preferring fashion over national attire, Queen Natalija, emphasizing her fashion-conscious image, directly participated in reshaping the public representation of the ruler’s wife, which was significantly different from the previous norms. Historically, the central aspect of the official representation of the wives of Serbian rulers, especially in the cases of Princess Persida and Queen Natalija, was lavish headgear and jewelry, including large brooches.
Another portrait of Queen Natalija, painted by Uroš Predić in 1890, attracted public attention when it appeared at an auction at Bonhams in London in 2008. In this portrait, set in the queen’s private salon-boudoir, various carefully selected interior elements played a crucial role in constructing the image. Oriental carpets and Pirot kilims, books, domestic and foreign newspapers, a photograph of Crown Prince Alexander, an icon of the Virgin Mary, a palm tree, and a samovar were all featured. It is possible that this portrait, for which Queen Natalija wrote in 1904 that it should be sent to the writer Pierre Loti in Istanbul, was intended as a gift.
Following her divorce from King Milan in 1891, Queen Natalija lived in Biarritz, at Villa Sashino. Here, she organized social gatherings and hosted prominent figures from the political, social, and artistic spheres. She wrote to geologist and politician Jovan Žujović in 1897 and 1898 that she was at the center of social events, leading a high-society life. In 1897, the British fashion magazine The Queen, which regularly reported on high society women, announced that Queen Nathalie of Servia had purchased numerous chef d’oeuvres in the Paris branch of the Redfern fashion house. This renowned fashion house later supplied clothing to the Yugoslav queen, Maria.
It is interesting to note that the only high-fashion item in Serbian museum collections was created in the Paris branch of the Redfern fashion house. This is an evening gown worn by Elena Ristić at her engagement party in Paris in 1909. The dress was featured in the prestigious French fashion magazine Les Modes in the same year, in both the July and November issues, and is now part of the collection of the Museum of Applied Arts in Belgrade.
Museum Advisor – Art and Fashion Historian
Vlaho Bukovac, Queen Natalija, 1882; Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED / National Museum of Serbia
Queen Natalija; Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED / Museum of Rudnik and Takovo Area
Princess Julija, circa 1865, National Museum of Serbia; Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Uroš Predić, Queen Natalija, 1890; Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Evening Gown, Redfern fashion house, Les Modes magazine, Paris, July 1909; Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain / Gallica Digital Library