The Pas de Deux of Fashion and Ballet

As a little girl, I watched prima ballerinas dress up in flowing tutus and sparkly leotards to perform seemingly impossible manoeuvres with only their bodies and a pair of pointe shoes. Slipping into my own tights, leotard, and shoes while pinning my hair into the tightest bun possible felt like a daily badge of honour. As a former ballerina, I can’t help but admire the intricate, graceful look of ballet costumes and how their designs highlight the elegance of a dancer’s body.

Ballet and fashion are inextricably intertwined, with each art form both inspiring and drawing inspiration from the other. Anna Pavlova, a world-renowned prima ballerina of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wore a particularly striking tutu in her 1905 performance of ‘The Dying Swan,’ a four-minute ballet choreographed by Mikhail Fokine. Pavlova performed the piece thousands of times over the course of her career, and her rendition influenced contemporary versions of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Her costume features a tight bodice with soft panels, reminiscent of a swan’s wings, on either side of her tutu and a feathered headpiece.

‘Cygne Noir,’ an evening gown designed by Christian Dior in the mid-twentieth century, reimagined elements of Pavlova’s timeless costume. The gown also incorporates a tight bodice and its skirt billows out in a waterfall of silk and velvet. Furthermore, the gown reconceives the silky panels of Pavlova’s tutu. If Pavlova’s costume embodies the demure fragility of the white swan, Dior’s gown radiates the mystery and seduction of the black swan.

Herman Mishkin, ‘Anna Pavlova, costumed as the dying swan,’ 1905. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Christian Dior, Cygne Noir (Black Swan)
Evening Dress
1949-1950 (made)
Victoria and Albert Museum

The leotard, a fundamental component of ballet costumes and rehearsal wear, has been consistently reimagined and incorporated into fashion. In 1943, Harper’s Bazaar introduced ‘The Leotard Idea’ based on designs created by Mildred Orrick. With sportswear dominating wartime fashion, fashion editor Diana Vreeland hoped to introduce the styles to young women, particularly college girls. She worked with renowned sportswear designer Claire McCardell and Townley Sports to create ‘variations of the leotard theme,’ but the designs were ultimately too expensive to manufacture. However, twenty-first century bodysuits recycle this traditional piece of balletwear into contemporary streetwear.

‘The Leotard Idea,’ Harper’s Bazaar, 1943.

Stella McCartney, ‘Stella Wear Modern Open-Knit Bodysuit’ via https://www.neimanmarcus.com/p/stella-mccartney-stella-wear-modern-open-knit-bodysuit-prod234870329

Twentieth-century camp also seized upon the connection between ballet and fashion. Franco Moschino designed a strapless dress for his fall/winter collection of 1989, combining a bustier top with the ballet pink of a leotard. The dress is an optical illusion, depicting a pair of legs in pink tights and pointe shoes posing in passé, underneath a cropped, pink tulle tutu that protrudes from the black skirt. The ensemble comes alive as the wearer moves; a simple shift in direction sends the legs on the skirt spiralling into a pirouette.

Franco Moschino (Italian, 1950–1994) for House of Moschino (Italian, founded 1983). Dress, fall/winter 1989. Courtesy of Moschino. Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2018. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ballet slippers and pointe shoes are another source of consistent inspiration in fashion. Ballet slippers were first introduced in the eighteenth century by Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo, a French dancer who preferred to perform in soft slippers as opposed to high-heeled shoes, breaking away from traditional dance footwear. A century later, Swedish ballerina Marie Taglioni pioneered the creation of the pointe shoe, which would be further advanced by Anna Pavlova. Pavlova also worked with Salvatore Capezio to create the world’s first international pointe shoe brand. Pointe shoes and ballet slippers were traditionally made for white female ballet dancers. Therefore, pale pink – perceived to be close to the colour of white skin – became the standardised colour for ballet tights and shoes.

Until as recently as 2018, dancers of colour were forced to dye their pointe shoes. As most ballerinas go through two to three pairs of point shoes per week, many dancers spent as much as eight-hundred dollars per year on dyes. However, ballet manufacturers like Gaynor Minden have finally recognised the need to accommodate ballerinas of colour, and ballet shoes are now available in a range of satin colours that represent a wider variety of skin tones.

‘Melle. Taglioni dans La sylphide,’ 1860. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Gaynor Minden’s satin shades for pointe shoes via https://dancer.com/satin-colors/

Modern, prêt-à-porter ballet flats echo their onstage ancestors. They exploded in popularity after Rose Repetto designed flats for Brigitte Bardot in 1956, which Bardot later wore in her film …And God Created Woman. Today’s ballet flats come in a range of colours and styles from various designers, and often feature the dainty bow and soft leather that define the ballet slipper. Brands like Repetto and Chanel continuously revamp the classic silhouettes each season. However, some feature modern twists, such as Simone Rocha’s combination of a ballet flat and trainer. Even the design’s crisscross straps resemble pointe shoe ribbons.

Simone Rocha spring/summer 2021 shoes via https://www.vogue.co.uk/miss-vogue/article/simone-rocha-ss21-shoes

Ballet and fashion have also been linked in popular culture and advertising. Stuart Weitzman released a series of advertisements for the 2019 holiday season called ‘Step Inside,’ featuring Misty Copeland, one of the foremost prima ballerinas of the twenty-first century. In one variation, Copeland wears a black bralette and black tulle skirt, modernising the traditional tutu. Her shoes change colour as she chaînés across the room, aligning the artistry of ballet with the ephemerality of fashion.

 

Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw wore a pink sleeveless bodysuit and white tulle skirt in the opening sequence of Sex and the City (1998-2004). With love of fashion being one of the show’s central themes, Bradshaw’s ballerina-meets-urban-woman look kicked off every episode, embodying the timeless elegance of the relationship between fashion and ballet. Although I am no longer a ballerina, ballet flats, bodysuits, and the occasional tulle skirt are staples in my wardrobe, and I can’t wait to scoop up more reinvented pieces that put me onstage again.

By Genevieve Davis

Sources:

Arnold, Rebecca. “Sportswear and the New York Fashion Industry during the Second World War.” In the American Look: Fashion and the Image of Women in 1930’s and 1940’s New York. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009.

Daher, Nadine. “From Ballerina Flats to Tutus, Ballet Has Left Its Mark on Fashion.” Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed February 11, 2021. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/ballerina-flats-tutus-ballet-has-left-its-mark-fashion-180974296/.

Marshall, Alex. “Brown Point Shoes Arrive, 200 Years After White Ones.” The New York Times, November 4, 2018, sec. Arts. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/04/arts/dance/brown-point-shoes-diversity-ballet.html.

Pike, Naomi. “It’s A Ballet Slipper, But Not as You Know It: Simone Rocha Has Created A Shoe We Never Knew We Needed.” British Vogue. Accessed February 11, 2021. https://www.vogue.co.uk/miss-vogue/article/simone-rocha-ss21-shoes.

Pointe. “1820s–1830s: Marie Taglioni and the Romantic Ballerinas,” August 5, 2020. https://www.pointemagazine.com/history-of-pointe-shoes-2646384074.html?rebelltitem=3#rebelltitem3?rebelltitem=3.

Staff, C. R. “The History of Ballet Flats.” CR Fashion Book, October 15, 2019. https://www.crfashionbook.com/fashion/a24663992/the-history-of-ballet-flats/.

Making A Pointe: A Short Discourse on Ballet and Sexuality

 

Sally Banes once wrote: “dance is often a metaphor for libidinous sexuality” in her book Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage. The relationship between the movement of the body for both artistic and sexual pleasure is one that has deep roots within history. Colleen Hill states that nineteenth century ballerinas often resorted to prostitution as a means to maintain financial stability at a time when dancers received minimal wages.

The association of dance and sexuality, however, extends far beyond the financial needs of the performers. The way in which a dancer moves their body has often been paralleled to the various corporeal rhythms performed during the sexual act. The similarities between these ‘dances’ is most keenly observed when considering a part of the body so often associated with fetishised —or even perverse —sexuality: the foot.

In a Vogue article from 1982, Alfred Kinsey is quoted as saying that during sexual activity “the whole foot may be extended [to] a position which is impossible in non-erotic situations for most persons who are not trained as ballet dancers.” Within this, it is possible to see how the motions of the foot are particularly susceptible to erotic pleasures. Kinsey’s assertion further demonstrates how the sexual act can make the foot mobile in ways previously deemed impossible without training in dance; almost as though eroticism can give someone the phalangeal flexibility needed to dance on pointe. In this sense, one can see how the ballerina on pointe might be viewed as in a continual state of erotic pleasure, her outstretched feet the very image of fulfilled desire.

The ballerina is a historical figure steeped with covert sensuality; her delicate feet becoming the desired object within male fantasy. Hill details a story of the discarded pointe shoes of Marie Taglioni. Within this tale, Taglioni’s worn-out shoes were cooked, garnished and eaten by a band of Russian admirers. If this story were more than mere fantasy, it would show the libidinous tendency to want to consume and digest the fetishised object of desire. Within this process, we may incorporate the object into our own psyche; a narcissistic gesture that enables our fetish to never part from our body.

The ways in which ballet has been long associated with sexuality is epitomised within the pointe shoe; an object reminiscent of the phallus in design, thus furthering is capacity to act as a fetishistic substitute for the male plagued by castrative anxieties. While the pointe shoe denotes an air of fragility it also, as Hill argues, represents the pain and discipline endured by the dancers. In this sense, the shoe becomes a paradoxical object of both pleasure and pain, desire and castration. The pointe shoe is ultimately an object imbued with sexuality and fetishised desire, a desire that extends to the very practise of ballet itself.

By Niall Billings

 

Further Reading:

Sally Banes, Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage, 1998

Colleen Hill, Ballet Shoes: Fashion, Function and Fetish from Dance and Fashion, 2014

Sherry Magnus, Feet, Sex and Power: The Last Erogenous Zone from Vogue, 1982

Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage

Chagall: Fantasies for the Stagea whimsical look at the costumes and sets Marc Chagall created for four theatrical productions, is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until January 7th. This exhibition examines the three ballets and one opera that Chagall designed. Beginning in 1941 with the ballet Aleko and ending in 1967 with the opera The Magic Flute the exhibition showcases Chagall’s artistic process in designing for the stage.

Using 41 costumes, 100 sketches, reproductions of the original backgrounds, and footage from both the 1942 production of Aleko and a contemporary production of The Firebird that continues to use Chagall’s designs, this exhibition guides the viewer through and examines the evolution of Chagall’s career in the theatre. The exhibition is divided into four sections each focusing on one show. Moving chronologically, the show begins with Aleko, then moves to The Firebird, then Daphnis and Chloe, and finally ends with Chagall’s only opera, The Magic Flute. 

In each section the original costumes, many of which were hand painted by Chagall, are juxtaposed with the sketches he created in the design stages. Seeing the costumes in both the design conception and realization phases is an invaluable look into not only Chagall’s process, but he way he translated his painting and drawing style into clothing as well. Take for example the design for The Firebird of the Sorcerer Koschei. The drawing has all the hallmarks of Chagall’s typical style – lyrical movement, folkloric subject material, and a masterful use of color. The costume takes these elements and plays with them in different ways. The fluid lines are found in draping folds of cloth and intricate embroidery, the folksy subject is found in the inspiration from Yiddish lore he used to create the firey sorcerer, and the mastery of color is found in the rich, bold fabrics.

In the final cycle of costumes for The Magic Flute Chagall has clearly become more comfortable with dressmaking. In his early costumes for Aleko he stayed in his comfort zone by relying mostly on hand painting plain fabrics, and occasionally adding in embellishments such as netting or beading. By the time he was designing for The Magic Flute in the 1960’s Chagall is using fur trim, feathers, and appliqué. The anthropomorphized lion costume he created consisted of hand painted cotton, chiffon, silk appliqué, and feathers. Even his preparatory sketches were more intricate than those he created for his previous costumes. In the paper designs for The Magic Flute he used bits of shimmering gold paper and fabric. He worked for three years on the costumes and sets for The Magic Flute and the intricacy and care shown in both the preparatory sketches and the clothes themselves shows how confident and successful Chagall had become in costume design.

There has always existed a tension between art and fashion. Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage demonstrates just one of the many ways that clothing and fine art can come together.

Olivia Chuba

All photos by the author.