Source: The Museum at FIT

Ballet & Fashion: A Never-Ending Pas de Deux

Sonya takes us through the history of ballet and its connection with the fashion industry.

Ballet and fashion have created a romance for the ages. Both revolve around the human form, enhancing movement and expressing a mood. They have relied on each other since the 1400s, and their duet shows no signs of stopping.

Origins of Ballet

Many would be surprised to hear that ballet originated as a male-only art form. Men of the court would show off their fashion by dressing in intricate adaptations of the typical courtly dress. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that ballet became professionalised and women began dancing alongside men. The ballet costuming still mirrored popular fashion, but the focus on the body’s curves and the raised hemlines on skirts deemed it inappropriate and scandalous. This polluted ballet’s image and viewed performing women as dishonourable.

18th Century Ballet

The Romantic Period and Its Influence on Modern Fashion

Ballet’s tarnished reputation was rescued in the 1830s by Marie Taglioni. Her natural talent and femininity made her very popular in the fashion world. Early 1800 women’s footwear consisted of satin pumps or flats which laced around the calf. These shoes are reminiscent of dancing flats and pointe shoes, popularised by Taglioni and still worn today. The dancing flats worn by dancers led to the creation of the ballet flat for professional wear in the early 1900s.

Popular 1830s Women’s Footwear

Modern Everyday Ballet Flats

Modern Pointe Shoe

Modern Ballet Slippers

Ballet bodices were modelled after a popular fashion. Women would wear corsets with an open neckline following the lines of their collarbone. To emphasise the decolletage, ballet costuming used open shoulders and a deeper chest. In the 1850s this wider neckline and the open shoulders came into fashion. The bottoms of these costumes popularised the romantic tutu, a drooping skirt made of tulle and cropped at the calf. These tutus sparked intrigue in the usage of tulle. In 1840, Queen Victoria was so taken by these tutus that she created the first recorded tulle wedding gown, a trend still seen today. Since then, tulle has exploded into evening wear, lingerie, ready-to-wear, and more. It was used throughout the 20th century to emphasise women’s femininity and provide a lighter and more graceful appearance, adding to the western world’s societal ideals of fragile femininity. Grace Kelly’s famous embroidered white skirt in Rear Window is just one instance of this.

Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide 

Typical Court Dress for Women in the Early 1800s

 Since then, tulle has been reclaimed to be a symbol of feminine strength. Giambattista Valli creates voluptuous, hyper-feminine statement pieces, like Ariana Grande’s 2020 Grammys dress, to promote strength rather than fragility. Jodie Comer’s sheer, pink dress in Killing Eve shows off her body rather than tulle’s traditional function of providing modesty (e.g. through veils in funerals and weddings).

Giambattista Valli – Paris Fashion Week Winter 2015/2016

Grace Kelly in Hitchock’s Rear Window (1954)

However, romantic ballet’s influence does not end with tulle. Christian Dior’s New Look from 1947 is one of the most iconic silhouettes in fashion history. The broad shoulders, hand span waist, and bell-shaped skirt ending at the calf have an almost identical effect to the romantic ballet uniform more than 100 years earlier. Additionally, Dior’s embroidery and beading techniques were all meticulously done by hand exactly as ballet costume designers had done for the last few centuries.

Dior’s New Look, 1947

The Classical Period and Its Influence on Fashion

As ballet evolved, it became more important in fashion. Ballet Russes’ collaborations with the most famous artists put them in fashion’s limelight and landed them a spot in Vogue. With bright colours and bejeweled clothing, ballet costuming and set design became more fun to watch. Big-name designers like Coco Chanel began working with other famous ballet companies. Now, collaborations with big fashion houses are seen as a rite of passage. It is one of the most honourable achievements in fashion as designers must have a deep understanding of anatomy and kinesiology.

Nevertheless, fashion collaborations were not exclusively on stage. Many designers have drawn inspiration from ballet in their ready-to-wear and haute couture collections. From Thom Browne’s to Moncler, ballet has adorned runways.

Romantic Tutus in the National Ballet Company’s performance of Giselle

Thom Browne S/S 2020, Moncler S/S 2018

The Modern Ballet and Its Influence on Fashion

Modern dance began to separate itself from the rigid structures of ballet. At the forefront of this movement was Isadora Duncan. Her fluid movements inspired many designers. One, in particular, was Madeleine Vionnet. Vionnet was known for her ethereal gowns and knowledge of anatomy. While Chanel is attributed to freeing women from corsets, Vionnet stopped using corsets in 1912, long before Chanel. Dance relieved women from the obligation of corsets.

A few decades after Vionnet, ballet’s aesthetic evolved dramatically. By the 1970s, ballet was considered too fragile. Thanks to the founder of American ballet, George Balanchine, the contemporary ballet was born. His focus on athleticism and movement created a minimalist aesthetic while still appreciating the historic ballet silhouette. The raising of the position of the ballet bun elongated the neck and shoulders and presented the clavicle. Balanchine’s use of belts overtop of leotards created a waistline without using corsets. Ballet costuming removed the full-body tulle silhouette and focused on functionality. This led to the popularisation of the leotard and bodysuit attributed to Calvin Klein and Donna Karan.

Balanchine’s Jewels at Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre

What This Means for Fashion and Ballet Now

Fashion and ballet will forever be intertwined because of their focus on the human body and movement. The ever-changing field of dance has yielded numerous opportunities for designers for and dance companies to collaborate. However, dance has been slow to abandon the gender binary; hopefully, fashion’s recent movement towards androgyny will rub off on dance in the near future.

Staatsballett Berlin, Snow White, Costuming by Jean Paul Gaultier (2012)

La Source, Paris Opera Ballet, Set and Costume Design by Christin Lacroix and Nadja Swarovski (2011)



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