The ballerina has long been an idol of fashion—combining virtues of classical grace and modern fluidity in the art of dance. In the first major exhibition devoted to ballet and its connection to high fashion, Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse discovers the genre’s enduring mark on designs from the 1930s through the 1980s. Opening this week, more than 90 ballet-inspired pieces—from tutu-ed couture gowns to ballerina-esque prêt-à-porter—comprise this latest showcase of style at New York’s Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT).
Evening gowns from couture greats Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, and Pierre Balmain are displayed at the fashion-focused exhibit alongside separates and activewear from designers Vera Maxwell, Stephen Burrows, and Bonnie August of Danskin. “Ballet has enjoyed a long connection with fashion, beginning in the 1930s,” curator Patricia Mears tells CR. “The emergence of female couturieres and the rise of women in fashion design, such as Chanel, Lanvin, Schiaparelli, and Vionnet—and later Dior and then Yves Saint Laurent’s embrace of ballet—helped position the image of the ballerina as an aspirational, idealized figure.”
It was only in the 20th century that ballet became an esteemed art form. By the ‘30s, intellectuals, artists, and socialites took an interest in dance and regularly attended performances. “Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes revolutionized ballet by bringing together the arts of set design, music, costuming, and choreography,” says Mears. “Modern American culture and the changing role of women also encouraged a revival of ballet in the west.” The ballerina herself became seen as glamorous—and her costuming in classical works Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty became a reference for fashion designers and magazines alike.Throughout the exhibition, themes of material, silhouette, and color illustrate ballet’s impact on style. Whether tulle or chiffon, tutus or bodices—or even “ballet pink” color palettes—many designers have taken cues from ballet dress. Ballerina opens with footwear—highlighting the ever-popular ballet slipper, a nod to Claire McCardell, the designer who sparked the ballet flat phenomenon by pairing her designs with Capezio slippers in 1942. Also shown are edgy, contemporary takes on heeled pointe shoes, including Christian Louboutin’s Fetish Ballerina and Noritaka Tatehana’s Lady Pointe shoes designed expressly for Lady Gaga.
Further connections between fashion and ballet are uncovered in the main gallery. A costume from the 1919 Les Sylphides production is shown alongside Charles James’ referential 1937 L’Sylphide gown. Artist Christian Bérard’s tulle-skirted costume for the 1932 Cotillon ballet production seems a likely inspiration for Chanel’s romantic, tulle gowns of the ‘30s era. A friend of the artist and a patron of the Ballets Russes, Chanel—as well as the intrepid designer Balmain—also alluded to Swan Lake’s “ballerina-as-bird” theme with her own feathered designs.
Ballerina also reveals the significance of ballet’s color scheme within fashion. Pink—in warm flesh tones or cool-hued “ballet pink”—makes its appearance in looks from knit tights and satin pointe shoes to evening dresses and specialty gowns. Sleeping Beauty’s bluebird blue and lilac fairy costumes led the way for Elsa Schiaparelli’s second signature color, “Sleeping Blue,” as well as the popular lilac-colored tea dresses of the ‘30s to ‘50s.
Later, renowned choreographer George Balanchine spurred the modern trend towards pared-down ballet costumes of leotards and tights, crossing over into activewear. Designers Tina Leser and dancers–turned–designers Valentina Schlee and Vera Maxwell created common ground between dance and wearable day fashions with legwarmers, leotards, and wrap skirts. Danskin director Bonnie August was a major force in the hybrid mode, styling along the brand’s theme of “Danskin, not just for dancing” with apparel that transitioned easily from day-to-evening and studio-to-street.
Another fashionable ballet influence, costume designer Barbara Karinska worked with style notables Christian Bérard and Cecil Beaton, before bringing the couture expertise to her partnership with George Balanchine. Marc Happel—Karinska’s successor at the New York City Ballet—has collaborated with major names in design for costuming. Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, and Iris van Herpen are just a few of the designers Happel has tapped in recent years.
Keeping with ballet’s increased diversity, the exhibition highlights African American figures with fashion as a forum. Dresses from ballet pioneers Debra Austin and Virginia Johnson are on prominent display. Austin, the first African American woman to dance with the New York City Ballet, and Johnson, a founding member, prima ballerina, and ultimately director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, are pinnacles of African American achievement in the dance arts. “I feel that the future of ballet will begin to look more like the composition of this country and our time,” comments Mears. “As in the fashion community, ballet will become more inclusive of people of color while women will have a greater voice in programming, as well as performance.”
The Ballerina exhibition discovers how ballet and fashion reflect the culture of the modern moment. Designers Jean Paul Gaultier, Valentino, and Giambattista Valli have all given ballet its fashionable due on recent runways. Misty Copeland—the first African American principal dancer for the New York City Ballet—pirouetted as the star of recent Stuart Weitzman ads, became the face of Estée Lauder’s Modern Muse perfume, and even designed her own collection for Under Armour. Even the realm of beauty has taken note with Essie’s cult baby-pink nail polish, Ballerina Slippers and MAC’s Blushing Ballerina collection. Indeed, the future of fashion and style looks to be every bit as ballet-inspired as its modern past.
Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse is now on view until April 18, 2020 at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
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