The connection between theatre and fashion was already strong in the 1800s when the figure of the couturier was officially established.
Actresses were the real icons of style at the time, and magazines strengthened the theatre/fashion connection in the following century by publishing interviews with famous women who talked about their favourite couturiers: Eleonora Duse declared she was fond of Mariano Fortuny and Jean-Philippe Worth’s designs; Maria Melato commissioned her costumes to Milan’s Sorelle Gori and the Rome-based tailoring house Pasquali, but she also loved Jeanne Lanvin’s work.
One of the first designers who worked for the theatre, ballet and opera was Charles Frederick Worth, followed by Paul Poiret whose costumes were often characterised by bold colour contrasts.
Poiret started designing costumes in 1898 and, in the first decade of the 1900s, he was already considered as one of the most extravagant couturiers and costume designers as his extraordinarily exotic creations for Jacques Richepin’s Le Minaret (1913) also proved.
Some couturiers even managed to influence the world of fashion through their costumes: this was the case with Lucile’s delicate costumes for Edward Morton’s The Merry Widow (1907).
Covered with embroideries, beads and lace appliqués, the costumes were accessorised with large hats such as a black feathered hat that was later on defined as the ‘Merry Widow Hat’ and became quite popular both in Europe and in America.
Coco Chanel’s work for Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone (1922) and Diaghilev Ballets Russes’ production of Le Train Bleu (1924), marked the first collaborations between a designer and avant-garde artists.
Throughout the 40s and the 50s the connection between fashion and the stage continued with Pierre Balmain and Christian Dior: the former designed Arletty’s costumes in Les Compagnons de la marjolaine (1952); the latter collaborated with Marcel Herrand and Jean Giraudoux.
Some designers were introduced to the theatre and ballet world by talented choreographers: it was thanks to Roland Petit that Yves Saint Laurent started designing costumes, finding in Zizi Jeanmarie, Petit’s partner, a wonderful muse.
The 80s brought new designers on the stage, among them Christian Lacroix, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Versace.
Lacroix designed his first costumes for Edmond Rostand’s Chantecler in 1986 and, since then, he has worked with many different directors.
Lacroix considers the theatre as a fantastic world, the exact opposite of the somehow selfish and smaller universe of haute couture, a place where dreams can be turned into reality and everything is possible.
An exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore (until early June 2009), entitled "Christian Lacroix Costumier" is at present celebrating the French designer's costumes thorugh 80 spectacular costumes and 60 sketches from the collection of the Centre National du Costume de Scène (National Stage Costume Centre, Moulins, France).
Gaultier’s name is often remembered in connection with his flamboyant creations for Madonna, but his stage career started a few years before it thanks to French choreographer Régine Chopinot who asked him to work on the costumes for the ballet Délices (1983).
Their collaboration continued and for Chopinot’s Le Défilé (1985), a crossover between a ballet and a catwalk show, Gaultier created exclusive designs that influenced later creations by Alexander McQueen and Viktor & Rolf.
Versace designed his first costumes for Richard Strauss’ Josephlegende, staged at La Scala in 1982, and kept on working on many shows until his death in 1997.
His matryoshka costumes inspired by the 1700s and designed for Maurice Béjart’s Souvenir de Léningrad (1987) were among his most extravagant.
He was probably one of the most prolific designers and creator of costumes and an exhibition entitled "Versace Teatro" in 1991, celebrated his work for the opera and ballet, showcasing 150 of his costumes.
The list of designers who worked for the opera, theatre and ballet should also include Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, Missoni and Giorgio Armani.
But I’m happy to see that the tradition is continuing: in Italy young Federico Sangalli designed costumes for two shows featuring Italian dancer Luciana Savignano, who, in turn, opened his A/W 09 catwalk show at Milan Fashion Week.
Alexander McQueen recently created the elaborate costumes for Eonnagata, the new Sadler’s Wells production that recently brought together dancer Sylvie Guillem, theatre-maker Robert Lepage and award-winning choreographer Russell Maliphant.
Viktor & Rolf joined the list of designers who worked for the stage in 2004 when they designed costumes for “2 Lips and Dancers and Space” for the Netherlands Dance Theater.
The Dutch design duo have now worked on the costumes for Robert Wilson’s new staging of the romantic opera “Der Freischütz” (The Freeshooter) by Carl Maria von Weber.
For the Freischutz opera, V&R created extremely colourful designs.
The costumes for the choir are inspired by the traditional German costume in particular the ‘Dirndl’ and ‘Lederhose’ and are made of black neoprene.
A few of the looks call to mind the extravagant designs from the duo's ‘Flowerbomb’ (S/S 05) collection, with costumes made of multi-coloured flowers and full-scale bows and ribbons that seem to engulf the wearer, others recall the “No” (A/W 08) collection with their voluminous 3D shapes in saturated colours and words scrawled across the front panels and shoulders.
Different materials were used, such as organza, silk, satin, felt, lurex and jute, and the final touch was given by adding one million Crystallized™ - Swarovski Elements that will undoubtedly help creating wonderful special light effects.
Opera stars including Juliane Banse (Agatha), Steve Davislim (Max), Julia Kleiter (Ännchen) and Dmitry Ivashenko (Caspar) feature in the leading roles of “Der Freischütz” and Thomas Hengelbrock will conduct the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.
The opera will premiere in Germany’s largest opera house - the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden - on May 30th 2009 with a further performance taking place on June 1st and will open the 2009 series of summer festivals in Europe.
I really hope such amazing collaborations will inspire further young and talented designers to work for the theatre, ballet and opera. Fashion can indeed be a bit too limiting sometimes, whereas the stage, as Lacroix has proved so far, allows the designers to unleash their creativity.
You can learn more about the V&R costumes for “Der Freischütz” by checking out this video (bits of it are in German, other parts are in English).
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