Throughout the history of fashion, dancers and ethereal ballerinas clad in delicate tutus turned into recurrent motifs and inspirations for many designers. This connection keeps on returning decade after decade for pretty obvious reasons: ballerinas mainly represent grace and elegance, but also strength and dynamic energy, allowing designers to come up with wonderful links in their creations and collections. So let's have a look at some garments dating from different times and selected from museum archives that move from ballerinas.
The first garment in this post, on display at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, was part of a trousseau made for Lady Holmon's second marriage in Spring 1940: these peach silk georgette camiknickers by Hermine were characterised by a series of appliquéd purple lace ballet dancers that seemed to be delicately moving all over the garment.
Based at 164 Bond Street in the heart of London's elite fashion industry, Hermine supplied the most luxurious made-to-measure and intricately hand-worked lingerie. There is actually another pair of Hermine camiknickers in the same museum collection and they feature appliquéd ballroom dancers.
The second garment is instead a Schiaparelli evening gown from 1936, inspired by Impressionist painter Edgar Degas' ballerinas. The photograph doesn't make justice to it, but the print on this dress is a testament to Schiap's passion for art and fashion. Originally from Schiaparelli's London branch it was donated by Viscountess Gage to the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.
Moving on to London, you will be able to see in the fashion galleries at the Victoria &Albert Museum this fretwork silk and cotton mini-dress by Meadham Kirchhoff. The dress features a series of childish broderie anglaise ballerinas, a motif that contrasts with the sexy and provocative silk and sequins brassiere and knickers that can be seen through the gaps in the dress.
The Theatre and Performance Galleries at the V&A will instead provide glimpses of real ballerina costumes, such as the black tutu with gold lamé and braid decorations designed by Nicholas Georgiadis and worn by Margot Fonteyn as Odile in "Swan Lake", performed at the Vienna Ballet at the State Opera House in 1964.
While in more traditional tutus the classical "plate" shape was designed to show off the dancer's technique without inhibiting movements, this tutu is an example of the style of the 1960s and early 1970s, and features a skirt that softens into a gentle droop. This line suited Fonteyn at that late stage of her career.
At the centre front the tutu features a decoration of stylised foliage, made of beige net stiffened at the edges with gold braid and studded with pearl drops, but the costume designer respected the traditions when it came to the decorative elements around the waist area: since the ballerina's partner usually has to support her and too many appliqued elements may end up cutting or hurting his hands, decorations were reduced around the hips. Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev (who choreographed the ballet) were a huge success in the performance, receiving 49 curtain calls on the first night.
On the background in the same picture you can instead see the costumes for Michael Clark's "Because We Must", first staged at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1987. Featuring music ranging from Chopin to Bruce Gilbert, the performance included outrageously irreverent costumes by Leigh Bowery that were also displayed during the 2011 "Postmodernism" exhibition at the V&A.
Based on a clubbing outfit that Bowery wore, the costumes (used in a performance on the notes of "Venus in Furs" by the Velvet Underground) were made by Paris-based corsetier Mr Pearl (Mark Erskine-Pullin), who made sure the corseted look still allowed the dancers freedom of movement.
The male costume was worn by Leslie Bryant while Lisa Philips wore the femal version: both the costumes featured crewel work of flowers, with pink, orange, gold and green sequins and fetishistic masked cloaks. Pink satin fabric lined the costumes and the male costume included a padded codpiece covered with pink sequins, while the female costume featured a short cape and the bodice included exaggerated puffed out sleeves.
The last example is instead a pink tutu (1966) for Suzanne Farrell in George Balanchine's ballet "Bugaku", designed and made by Barbara Karinska. The costume - given to the V&A by Cecil Beaton - featured kimono sleeves and a skirt made with petals inspired by the overall Japanese theme of the ballet.
The costume was worn in the wedding scene of the ballet with a long, diaphanous cloak and also included a Japanese style female wig of heavily lacquered black woven horsehair cloth trimmed with various small ornaments and two hairpins.
In the background in same display case you can see a poster from 1897 showing the acrobatic act The Flying Zedoras with Pansy Chinery as "Alar the Human Arrow". Pansy (note the little arrow on her head), who travelled with Barnum and Bailey's Circus in those years, is pictured as she flies through the air piercing a paper target. Looks like there's more than just one inspiration behind ballerina costumes then!
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