Ballet and Fashion: A Love Affair

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LONDON, United Kingdom — When Yves Saint Laurent’s 1976 Autumn/Winter couture collection referenced Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, reporter Bernadine Morris predicted that Laurent’s taste for dance would “change the course of fashion.”

Fur–clad models pirouetted down the runway to Stravinsky’s composition for The Rite of Spring, donning suede capes and long striped and floral skirts evoking Russian peasant–wear. Laurent simultaneously paid homage to Diaghilev’s eclecticism and to his 20th century choreographer’s artistic collaborators, upon many of whose shoulders Laurent stood, including Paul Poiret, Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli.

ballet and fashion

Yves Saint Laurent AW Couture, 1976. Vogue Italia

Laurent was successful because he brought a fresh perspective and an unprecedented wear–ability to ballet with his well–received couture collection. Fashion has been integral to ballet since its inception in 17th-century French and Italian courts. This long-term artistic synchronicity is evident from the abundance of exhibitions, publications and collaborations in the recent past.

The New York City Ballet debuted its autumn 2016 season showcasing the company’s annual fashion collaborations, featuring designers Dries Van Noten, Narciso Rodriguez and Rosie Assoulin. The spring 2017 fashion presentations were rife with balletic references, from the gossamer maxidresses modelled by professional ballerinas at Sachin and Babi to Phoebe Philo’s leather ballet pumps at Céline.

Ballet and fashion exist in continuous dialogue, largely because they share a common reference point: the body, which fashion historian Valerie Steele pointed out during the ‘Dance and Fashion’ exhibition in 2014.

The following charts significant exchanges between ballet and fashion, from collaborations to inspirations, reflecting particularly a cultural veneration of the ballerina body.

Romanticism

La Sylphide premiered at the Paris Opera House in 1832, created by Filippo Taglioni for his daughter and one of ballet’s first stars, Marie Taglioni.

Taglioni’s costume, a white skirt raised to her calves with bare shoulders and arms, is at the centre of this tragic narrative about desire, innocence and loss. In line with the success of the production, this ethereal costume became the de rigeur silhouette in ballet aesthetics.

La Sylphide’s influence endures today in dramatic wedding gowns. In couture, houses Valentino and Giambattista Valli are synonymous with sentimental femininity, favouring fluttery silk gowns in soft pastel shades that highlight the waist.

In the early 20th century, couturier Madeline Vionnet evoked the post–French Revolution penchant for Neoclassicist aesthetics, a fluid kind of romanticism. Vionnet used sheer fabrics to create her signature diaphanous gowns. Inspired by her muse, American dancer Isadora Duncan, Vionnet’s bias–cut dresses draped with unforced elegance.

ballet and fashion

Isadora Duncan in Vionnet, 1931, by Vogue, photographed by George Hoyningen-Huene.

The classic ballet look emerged in the broader public later in the 20th century. During WWII, American designer Claire McCardell championed ballet shoes as viable streetwear when materials were scarce, substantiating the versatility of the light pink ballet flat. Today, ballet–wear companies like Repetto sell luxury slippers and pumps to ballerinas and pedestrians alike, instilling the classical ballerina’s stylistic primacy within culture at large.

ballet and fashion

Repetto store display. 31 August 2013. Wikipedia Commons

Modernism

Twentieth century ballet saw vast departures from the previous classic era in ballet. The tutu silhouette was rendered antiquated in this era of avant–gardism; ballet became modern.

Often referred to as the father of modern dance, Sergei Diaghilev’s and his aforementioned “Ballet Russes” produced one of the most creative periods of dance in history. Late fashion editor Diana Vreeland once commented that “the influence of Diaghilev, that magician of the theatre, changed the culture of our century, and the page was forever turned on La Belle époque.”[1]

ballet and fashion

Left: Alexandrova Danilova and Serge Lifar. Ballets Russes in Apollo musagète, 1928. Costumes By Chanel by Coco Chanel, from 1928.Credit Sasha/V&A Images.

The success and influence of the troupe links to ballet russe’s fashion collaborators. In the 1900s, couturier Paul Poiret designed costumes for the troupe, inspired by Léon Bakst, artist and designer, who was the troupe’s main costume creator in the early 1900’s.

With a penchant for exoticism, the “Ballet Russes” eroticised ballet in productions like Le Train Bleu, featured costuming by Coco Chanel. Italian Futurist Giorgio de Chirico’s surrealist costuming and set design for Diaghilev’s Le Bal (1929) inspired Chanel’s greatest rival, Elsa Schiaparelli, in several collaborative projects with the troupe.

Vaslav Nijinsky and the orient served as inspiration to designer Rick Owens, who was particularly infatuated with the erotic overtones of The Rite of Spring for his Spring 2015 menswear collection.

The “Ballet Russes” weaved visual opulence, symbolism, allegory and eroticism into its productions, but in the mid-20th century, choreography became more about abstract athleticism than narrative. New York City Ballet choreographer George Balanchine spurred this shift, popularising the notoriously slim figure while choreographing some of the most vigorous ballets to date. In Balanchine’s “Black and White” ballets, dancers’ uniforms were revolutionary in their simplicity – the ballerina’s figure was the central focus, yielding to a minimalistic aesthetic emphasising the waist with black belts, with hair swept back into buns that exposed the neck, shoulders and clavicle.

The look effectively prioritised the body in motion rather than relying on elaborate sets and costuming. Leotards were also functional, allowing the greatest range of movement. In the 1970’s and 80’s, designers associated with minimalism, like Calvin Klein and especially Donna Karan, popularised leotards as viable for everyday wear, evoking the spirit of Balanchenian modernism.

ballet and fashion

New York City Ballet corps de ballet in George Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements
Photo: Paul Kolnik

Visually removed from the epoch of full–bodied tulle, this silhouette connects to an enduring cultural preference for constant reduction in design. Elizabeth Wilson has noted, the trim figure “fits with the modernist artistic love of form suggestive of movement and speed.”

Balanchine’s visuals continue to inspire choreographers and fashion designers. In 2012, Karl Lagerfeld’s designed the set and costumes for the Paris Opéra Bastille’s “Brahms-Schönberg Quartet,” giving Balanchine’s choreography a contemporary, yet Romantic rendering.

Contemporary Collaborations

“It is one of the dreams of a designer to design costumes for a ballet,” Riccardo Tisci declared in 2013 when he designed costumes for Bolero at the Paris Opera Ballet.

Today, it seems as if producing costumes for a ballet production is a rite of passage for fashion designers. Name a designer, and chances are they have had a hand in a recent production. Designers Kate and Laura Mulvey of Rodarte, who have always had an inclination toward the ethereal side of ballet, designed costumes for Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, and Rodarte, which worked with the New York City Ballet on Two Hearts (2012).

ballet and fashion

Rodarte’s costuming for NYC Ballet’s Two Hearts. 2012. Photography by Paul Kolnik.

Lagerfeld’s 2009 collection with Russian models wearing Cossack boots to Comme des Garçon’s 2005 patent ballet flats, and Christian Lacroix collaborated on La Source at Paris’s Palais Garnier in 2011. Designers continuously draw from the endless inspiration that is the trajectory of ballet, often conjuring (and sometimes subverting) the early romantic iterations of the ballet costume.

ballet and fashion

Comme des Garçons ballet flats, 2005. Museum at FIT.

If the critical success of Black Swan (Aronofsky, 2010) was any indication, it is the dualisms associated with the ballerina’s body as an object that embodies success and pain, discipline and disorder, and neurosis and strength that have come to cultural prominence most recently.

With respect to the body as central to both entities, ballet and fashion share values of aestheticism and art, grace and strength. As long as the two exist, ballet and fashion will always intertwine to reflect a broader set of cultural values pertaining to the body, to the way we dress now, and to art and aesthetics.

[1] Quoted in: Davis, Mary E.. Ballets Russes Style : Diaghilev’s Dancers and Paris Fashion. London, GB: Reaktion Books, 2010. Page 2.

Sources: 

Chazin-Bennahum, J 2002, ‘A Longing for Perfection: Neoclassic Fashion and Ballet’, Fashion Theory: The Journal Of Dress, Body & Culture, 6, 4, pp. 369-386.

Davis, Mary E. Ballets Russes Style : Diaghilev’s Dancers and Paris Fashion. London, GB: Reaktion Books, 2010.

Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. United Kingdom. I.B. Taurus, 2003. 146.

Wulff, Helena. “Costume for Dance.” Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: West Europe. Ed. Lise Skov. Oxford: Berg, 2010. 498–502.

Aimee Williams About the author

Aimee Williams is a New York City–based fashion writer and instructor. She holds a M.A. in Fashion Studies from Parsons School of Design, and is especially interested in the role of language in fashion.

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