By Chelsea Thomas of Dance Informa.
Since the very beginning of ballet, the dance form has both inspired and been inspired by high fashion. Taking a quick look into dance history shows a constant interaction between the ballet world and fashion world, both influencing one another in beneficiary ways throughout the centuries.
Perhaps this is due to ballet’s ethereal quality, an appealing trait to fashion designers seeking to give their clothing designs a sense of beauty and sophistication. Or perhaps this is due to ballet’s costume designers bringing their own style and professional fashion expertise to the stage. Either way, ballet’s association with fashion (and vice versa) is certainly undeniable.
Looking back at when ballet first originated, costume elements were already an important aspect to the creation and direction of the form. Ballet, which originated in Italian court and wedding dances in the 1400s, was often choreographed around the costumes’ best qualities and the dancers’ abilities to move in them.
As pioneering choreographer Jean-Baptiste Lully began his lifelong association with French King Louis XIV, ballet and fashion’s relationship continued to flourish as court dances grew more lavish in costumes and accessories. In the 17th century, Louis XIV, the King of France known for helping to found the first ballet academy, would often have extravagant costumes designed for hours-long court dances. The king was even nicknamed “the Sun King” for performing a ballet with lavish robes meant to evoke the sun god. In his lifetime, Louis XIV performed 80 roles in 40 major ballets, often having completely original costumes designed for each performance.
Coco Chanel's costumes for the Ballets Russes in 1928. Source: Tina Sutton’s The Making of Markova blog (www.themakingofmarkova.com)
This aspect of ballet performance requiring original costumes only grew more customary as time went on. In the 19th century when ballerinas such as Geneviève Gosselin, Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler experimented with new techniques such as pointe work, new shoe and dress designs were experimented with, often intriguing clothing designers. This brought forth the well-known balletic ideal of light and pure movement imagery. The Romantic Movement epitomized this with La Sylphide, a ballet portraying ballerinas as fragile, unearthly beings in costumes with pastel, flowing skirts baring the shins.
This balletic imagery has evolved again and again over the centuries, but it has always continued to inspire fashion trends. Ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his groundbreaking Ballets Russes were known for having a fruitful relationship with French fashion designer Coco Chanel. Chanel created costumes for four of Ballet Russes’ productions, notably Le Train Bleu in 1924 and Apollon Musagete in 1929. According to aNew York Time’s 2010 article, Diaghilev also hired boldface names like Picasso, Matisse and Georges Braque to design his costumes.
In 1949, Capezio dance footwear made the cover of Vogue and in 1952 received the Coty Award, fashion’s highest accolade.
Audrey Hepburn in 'Sabrina' wardrobe test shot on September 22, 1953. Photo © Paramount Pictures. Photo source: The Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund (www.audreyhepburn.com)
In the 1950s, film and fashion icon Audrey Hepburn made ballet flats fashionable in the movie Funny Face when she wore them with skinny jeans. Ballet flats are still being sold around the world today. Likewise, throughout the 1980s, films such as Fame, Flashdanceand Dirty Dancing made dance looks and themes trendy. Who doesn’t remember the fabulous 80s leg warmers? In addition to this, mainstream fashion was inspired by leotards, jazzy fishnets and slouchy t-shirts worn by dancers during rehearsals.
Another look fashion took from ballet is the conservative ballet bun hairstyle. While origins of the style date back to ancient Greece, the bun really received attention on the ballet stage, giving dancers the appearance of long necks. It soon became the height of style in the Victorian period and has continued into today. Classic ballet buns are still seen in various advertisements, films and on catwalks.
More recently in 2010, the controversial movie Black Swan starring Natalie Portman influenced spring runway lines. Chanel sent numerous looks down the catwalk that reflected the gothic, dark look of Portman’s Black Swan character.
Last year, Italian fashion designer Valentino Garavani designed costumes for New York City Ballet. It was reported that Garavani emerged from retirement just to create the costumes for three premier ballets. Actress Sarah Jessica Parker, a former dancer herself, helped plan the event.
Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci’s costumes in a new production of 'Boléro' at the Paris Opera Ballet in 2013. Photo by Opéra national de Paris/A. Deniau. Source: Paris Voque Magazine (www.vogue.fr)
And by no means was Garavani the first in recent years to design costumes for the world’s leading ballet companies. Even in the last few months ballet has been having a renaissance in the fashion zeitgeist. On May 8th of this year, luxury women's ready-to-wear clothing designer Joseph Altuzarra's ballet costumes made their debut in choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s pas de deux A Place For Us at New York City Ballet’s annual gala. In April, Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci’s moody, ethereal costumes debuted in a new production of Boléro at the Paris Opera Ballet, and David Hallberg, American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal, graced a spread in Vogue.
Just last year, the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, devoted an entire exhibition to the relationship between dance and fashion, highlighting ballet costumes designed by Christian Lacroix, Ralph Rucci, Viktor & Rolf, Akira Isogawa and others. “Ballet costumes really are works of art with their ornate designs and incredible craftsmanship,” said The Australian Ballet’s Artistic Director David McAllister on the exhibit.
Overall, fashion and ballet’s history are often interlinked, if not actual mirror images reflecting the whims and trends of popular culture. David McAllister is reported to have simply said, “Ballet and fashion have inspired each other for as long as performers have been dressing up and dancing.”
- The Lure of Perfection: Fashion And Ballet, 1780-1830. Chazin-Bennahum, Judith. Psychology Press. 2005.
- "Dancing King: Louis XIV's Roles in Molière's Comedies-ballets, from Court to Town." Prest, Julia. Seventeenth Century. 2001. University of Durham. Centre for Seventeenth-Century Studies.
- Ballets Russes Style: Diaghilev's Dancers and Paris Fashion. Davis, Mary E. REAKTION BOOKS. 2010.
- Apollo's Angels. Homans, Jennifer. Random House. 2010
- “Dance, expression and Audrey Hepburn.” Vashti, Lorelei. Behind Ballet, the official blog of The Australian Ballet. May 5, 2010. www.behindballet.com/dance-expression-and-audrey-hepburn.
- “Ballet & Fashion” exhibit at NGV International. The National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne, Australia. media.ngv.vic.gov.au/2012/11/01/ballet-fashion.
- “En Vogue, En Pointe: Fashion's Influence on Ballet.” Wyma, Chloe. Blouin Art Info International Edition. May 14, 2013. sg.artinfo.com/news/story/902640/en-vogue-en-pointe-fashions-influence-on-ballet.
- “Black Swan Inspired Catwalks.” Kim, Deborah. Trendhunter. August 16, 2011. www.trendhunter.com/trends/trash-couture-spring-2012.
- “Valentino to Create Ballet Costumes.” Kepler, Adam W. New York Times. June 3, 2012. www.nytimes.com/2012/06/04/arts/dance/valentino-to-create-ballet-costumes.html?_r=2&.