Pavlova's Dressmaker

Anna Pavlova Dressmaker Seamstress

The Dressmaker. Manya Charchevenikova

(Russian, mid-19th through mid-20th century).

Pavlova’s costumier, personal dresser, and trusted friend from 1911 to 1931. Photographer, Roger Wood.

A personal note from Peggy Turchette:
 

In 2022, twelve years after I began the Pavlova Project, I came across the woman in whose footsteps I had unknowingly been following since I started the project. She appeared in a 1956 book called “Pavlova: A Biography,” published by Burke Publishing Co. Ltd., and edited by A.H. Franks. It was produced in collaboration with members of a group called the Pavlova Commemoration Committee, to mark the 25th anniversary of Anna Pavlova’s death. Why I had never come across this important work before I do not know. I suppose it’s something that happens to anyone involved in research. A missing piece--one that you don’t even know is missing-- suddenly comes to light, leading to new revelations and new insights.

I recognized many of the book’s contributors: Laurent Novikov, Muriel Stuart, Kathleen Crofton, Sol Hurok, and Michel Fokine; people I’d read about who had known Pavlova and worked with her, now writing their remembrances 25 years later. There were also several plates of photographs, scattered somewhat randomly throughout the book, that I casually glanced at before I started reading.

The defining moment for me came as I reached page 112. I was in the middle of reading once again the lyrical “Pages of My Life” by Pavlova herself, which appears in many books, when I took a quick look at the plate opposite. There was a black and white photo of a middle-aged woman with glasses and pinned-up hair, sitting at a work table sewing a tutu. The accompanying caption said that this was Manya Charchevenikova, who had come to London in 1911 as assistant to “…one of the most exclusive costumiers in Petrograd…” The “exclusive costumier” remains unnamed, but her assistant, always called Mme. Manya, “…stayed with the company as Pavlova’s personal dresser.” The text went on to say that “In this capacity she remained with her until the great dancer’s death, gradually becoming an intimate and privileged friend.” I had never heard of her.

In all the books I’d read, and for all the years I’d sat at my own work table sewing, I’d often wondered about the seamstresses who had sewn the costumes for Pavlova. The men who sketched the designs got their names recoded for history: Bakst, Barbier, Benoit, Erté, Korovin, and many others. But what about the women who sat day after day with yards of fabrics, needle and thread in hand, working until that last sequin was attached, that last feather secured? Now I had a name, a face, someone who not only sewed Pavlova’s costumes but became a dear and trusted friend; Pavlova, who had admirers in the millions but so few real friends of her own. If the legend is true that as she lay dying Pavlova’s last words were “Bring me my Swan costume,” then surely it was to Mme. Manya that they were spoken.

I cannot fully express what it meant to me to not only discover the existence of Manya Charchevenikova but to see a photograph of her. I felt the wide gap in time between Pavlova’s life and my own suddenly close, and I was there, by her side, in the person of her friend and dressmaker. I had made my diorama “The Dressmaker” four years earlier, when I hadn’t known about Mme. Manya. Now I looked at it again with new eyes, and realized that all along I had had a sense of who this woman was. I’d even put my own dog Bertie in the scene. I was looking at myself.

Anna Pavlova Costume Sketch
Peggy Turchette Artist's Studio Pavlova Project
Peggy Turchette Anna Pavlova Gallery Exhibit Dairy Arts Center

People often ask me why I devoted so many years of my life to an art project that had no guarantee of recognition or monetary reward. The truth is, like most artists, I can’t fully articulate what drives me to create. But when I saw this photograph, I suddenly understood. Here was someone who had known and loved Anna Pavlova, who had been by her side as she travelled the globe spreading her message of kindness and respect for all people.

 

Now, 100 years later, I am the new dressmaker, tasked with ensuring that Anna Pavlova and the beauty, goodness and understanding she brought to the world will not be forgotten.

Peggy Turchette Studio Pavlova Costume Design

Peggy in her Studio