A Timely Turn for MFIT’s Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse

Symphony in C costume 2012 NYC ballet
Photos Laurel Marcus

Tulle and chiffon, crystals and feathers – oh my! From the 1909 debut of the Ballets Russes in Paris with its highly ornamental costumes to the 1930’s-50’s golden age of classical ballet in Britain and America with its signature corseted tutu, haute couture has clearly looked to the ballerina in performances of Giselle, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty for inspiration.

Sleeping Beauty “Princess Aurora” costume

Sportswear designers are just as influenced by a more contemporary ballet style based on separates of leotards, tights, legwarmers, ballet slippers and “pointe”- style toe shoes initially led by Freed, Danskin, Capezio and later Repetto. Between 1930 and continuing into the ‘70s, ballerinas were often featured in fashion magazines – not only were their performances covered, but they also modeled the latest in high fashion.

“Surprisingly, there had never been a large-scale exhibition nor comprehensive publication on the subject of classical ballet’s influence on fashion,” said Curator Patricia Mears. “My goal was not only to present the idea through costumes and fashion, but also to ask how and why this phenomenon occurred, and how the British and Americans took the lead in bringing ballet to the forefront of Western culture.”

George Balanchine “Jewels” 1967 costumes

During the morning press preview, Mears gave a comprehensive overview of a range of balletomania (on view through April 18). As you enter the anteroom, Freed special mannequins in ballerina poses (representational of the very thin and muscular ballerina form) display costumes from Choreographer George Balanchine’s 1967 “Jewels” – emerald green (representing Paris), ruby red (representing New York) and white (representing St. Petersburg).

Victor dE Souza couture

There’s a black ruffled tulle gown by New York’s own couture designer about town Victor dE Souza, once a ballet dancer himself! Across the way there’s a life-size homage to the jewelry box every little girl had – you open the mirrored lid and a ballerina twirls to music.

Margot Fonteyn Black Swan costume

The main room is positively aglow with exciting ensembles – Margo Fonteyn’s “Odile” or Black Swan costume (1964) along with costumes worn by Anna Pavlova, Alicia Markova, Maria Tallchief, plus several stars of the New York City Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Sara Mearns wedding gown (Marc Happel NYCB), Pierre Balmain ivory tulle,
Behnaz Serafpour evening dress

Fashion ensembles bearing the ballet influence are featured here as well including Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Halston, Alaia, Donna Karan, Stephen Burrows, Geoffrey Beene, Pierre Balmain, Balenciaga, Jean Desses, Schiaparelli, Charles James, Chanel, Norman Hartnell, Maggie Norris, Fortuny, and others. “To touch and handle these costumes is really the high point of my career,” remarked Mears. “This is what made ballet magical – these women of style.”

Margot Fonteyn wearing Dior feathered dress to a disco in photo

The wardrobe of Dame Margot Fonteyn gets a special section – a Brit who loved Parisian fashion and was a devoted Christian Dior client since the designer’s debut in 1947. The story of how she and Rudolf Nureyev came to dance together –- a neophyte in his early 20’s, just as she was considering retirement at the age of 40 is one literally for the ages.

Fonteyn worried about the age gap at the beginning of their famous partnership – “I thought it would be like mutton dancing with lamb,” she notably said. Remarkably, Fonteyn went on to perform another 20 years after that. “Her perfect proportions are why she could dance so long,” explained Mears.

In a time before Misty Copeland, African-American ballerinas were still a rarity. However, Debra Austin (discovered by George Balanchine) danced with the New York City Ballet and later became the first black ballerina with the Pennsylvania Ballet. Virginia Johnson, a founding member of Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Joy Williams Brown, who danced with Dame Margot in 1948 in Roland Petit’s Ballets de Paris and ran the American arm of the Royal Academy of Dance in the ‘70s both made their mark. Acknowledging women of color, ballet and toe shoes are now made in a range of tones to accommodate darker skin.

Patricia Mears, Hamish Bowles & Valerie Steele

I also attended the evening party which was fun to see how attendees interpreted the ballet theme. Weirdly, the team at Oscar de la Renta (the show was at 9 p.m. at the New York Public Library last night) must have gotten the memo.

Marilyn Kirschner & Robert di Mauro

Their runway was a vision of feathers and poufs abounded. Earlier in the day Wes Gordon at Carolina Herrera also picked up on the ballerina silhouette in a gown with a leotard-like top ending in a full-skirted flourish. Is it any wonder that the first letters of the ballerina are baller!

Jean Shafiroff and Victor dE Souza

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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