The world of arts
The development of Ballet costumes
In modern ballet, one sees dancers often only in body tights, much
the same you see them at practice. Today, it is accepted as natural but
would have totally shocked everyone if they danced in them in the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
So, the tutu has travelled down the centuries transforming itself to
the beautiful and alluring costumes the dancers wear today from pristine
white to exotic colours.
From the body-fitting tutu to ........
During that time it would have been unthinkable for a girl to show
off even a hint of her ankle and it took almost a century, when girls
were even allowed to dance professionally.
It was cumbersome for them to dance in their stiff hooped skirt,
tight bodies and with elaborate hair-styles. So, they had to be content
with little more than graceful walking. For instance, if an effect of
flight was required where the dancer was requited to jump, she would be
hauled up and down by a complicated machinery.
To me, it really sounds funny but that was it.
But we all in ballet know, when the change came. Marie de Carmargo
was the first ballerina to appear in a shortened skirt; that too
slightly revealing her ankles. She was immortalised in the famous
painting of Lancret which is in the Wallace Collection in London.
One can see the effect that the painting had on the musicians playing
for her. One is concentrating at her twinkling feet more than on his
musical instrument. She was hailed for performing the first â€˜entrechatâ€™
and was noted for her brilliant footwork. To reveal this display, her
skirt had to raised but it took another fifty years before the skirt was
raised much more to reveal the dancing feet.
The other great ballerina at that time was Marie Salle who also
fought against the restriction caused by the costume of the day and went
on to dance in a flowing Greek tunic in the ballet, Pygmalion which
suited the subject. But she was not allowed to dance in Paris and had to
restrict herself in London. Then came the breakthrough with Mallotâ€™s
invention of body tights.
He was the costume designer with the Paris Opera Ballet. Under
lights, the dancer never appeared nude although it took some time for
acceptance. The Pope grudgingly allowed it on condition that the tights
should be in blue.
At last the barrier was broken. The freedom to move and dance came
easily. The arrival of the Romantic ballet saw a costume designed that
was to become the standard dress for the ballerina. It was the long
romantic tutu with its bell-shaped skirt cut just below the knee with a
To this date, we all can see ballets such as Giselle and Less
Sylphide in such costumes, created almost a century later. Ballets such
as Coppelia and Don Quixote introduced colourful costumes following the
Romantic era. By now, the ballerina was allowed to dance in short
classical tutus. This showed off their brilliant steps that were hidden
from the audience under long dresses.
With the entry of the twentieth century and with full liberty allowed
for dance, costume designers spread out in many directions along with
worldâ€™s top dress designers making their contributions as well.
So, the choreographers had the choice to costume their dancers the
way they wanted to.
Anthony Dowell, Derek Rencher, Peter Cazaler and John Fletcher are
some of the British dancers who took up to costume designing. Another
dancer called Normal McDowell who created the title role of Carterâ€™s
Witch Boy went over to professional costume designing.
And exotic colour.....
Every choreographer knows that costumes must be functional and not
overdecorative and make the ballerina comfortable and confident when she
dances. Fortunately the costumes are sensible than they were in the last
Especially during the exotic Diaghilev period. The French artists who
were attracted to the stage, could possibly not understood the
development of ballet and depended on their paintings for inspiration.
Ballet costumes always exerted fascination over designers because of
its physical connotations. It evolved side by side with artform. There
is no doubt that the costume is a part of the dancerâ€™s equipment for
vision and helps the dancer in controlling her characterisation.
The classical ballerinaâ€™s tutu maintained at its simplest form, will
liberate her to complete freedom to display her technique. It also does
wonders for the ballerina to enhance her individual personality.
For example, when Margot Fonteyn at fifty two years of age, danced
the fourteen-year-old Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, no one noticed her age
even against the youthful Rudolf Nureyev who was twenty years younger
than her. Along with her marvellous and immaculate dancing, it were her
tutus that made it possible.
The great Diaghilev may not have invented colours in the tutus but he
paved the way to its achievements. Today, we see the ballerina dressed
in pastel to bright colours in some ballets. Swan Lake may be an
exception where white is associated with. Or for that matter, The Dying
Swan remains an all-white ballet.
Personally, I feel that ballet costumes whether they are tutus or
otherwise, should remain pristine white the way they commenced centuries
ago. White, some how or the other, represent the all-important
classicism found in its syllabus. May be one of these days when I open
my piano, I will find the black/white keys have been replaced by colour.