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Here’s an interesting twist on the “Kevin Bacon Game” for you: what is the connection between NYC fashion and the reign of the 16th-Century Russian Czar known to history as Ivan The Terrible?
You may never have heard of Roman Petrovich Tyrtov, but if you enjoy old movie musicals from the 30s or are a devotee of early Broadway theatre, you know him by his initials, “R.T.” - or as it was pronounced in French, “Erte.”
Czar Ivan IV (who was probably no more or less “terrible” than any of his contemporaries) was notable for transforming Russia from a small medieval kingdom into a vast, multi-ethnic empire; Erte’s earliest known ancestors were part of this ruler’s court and inner circle. Erte’s father, Pyotr Ivanovich, was a Russian Fleet admiral and headed the Russian Ministry of the Navy under Czar Nikolai Romanov just prior to the Russo-Japanese War.
It was into this remarkable family that a boy who would grow up to define NYC fashion during the Art Deco period was born in St. Petersburg on 23 November 1892.
As you might imagine, Erte’s father had other ambitions for him than that of a fashion designer. However, the young man named Roman had no desire to pursue a naval career, and left home at the age of 18 to go to Paris and become a designer of fine women’s clothing. Nonetheless, sensitive to his father’s pride and his family’s military tradition, he started going by his initials in order to spare the Tyrtov family any embarrassment.
Erte’s influence on NYC fashion was soon to be felt; in 1915, only twenty-three years old, he was hired by the first American fashion magazine, Harper’s Bazaar - a publication which still reports anything and everything you want to know about NYC fashion.
Although first hired by Hollywood, prominent New York producers Florenz Ziefield and George White soon took note of Erte’s designs. Erte was the creator of the lavish, Art-Deco themed costumes that adorned Ziegfield’s girls in his Follies of 1923 as well as George White’s Scandals.
Sadly, Erte’s contribution to NYC fashion over the course of his 97-year lifespan is largely forgotten today; in fact, the largest collection of Erte’s work is to be found not in New York, but in Tokyo. Nonetheless, Erte’s sleek designs continue to influence the world of NYC fashion well into the 21st century. And for modern women who feel pressured to measure up to a corporate definition of beauty in a commercialized world, here is some advice from the master himself: “A resourceful woman who is almost downright plain can achieve the reputation of a beauty simply by announcing to everybody she meets that she is one.”