Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse

In the 1930s, women used to assist to ballets wearing sylph-like evening clothes, following a significant trend: in fact, couturiers both in Europe and in the United States were fascinated by dance, inspired by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and to work made by the aesthete Lincoln Kirstein and Russian choreographer George Balanchine to establish ballet in America. This was a trend that continued until the first half of the 20th century when some dancers started to be seen as real rock stars. Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev formed the most acclaimed couple both on and off stage: the perfect combo between their brilliant artistic performances and their modern attitude quickly made them socialites in the New York’s circle.

Today, the importance of the ballerina as a style icon is being celebrated in an exhibition at the Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, curated by the museum’s deputy director Patricia Mears with the collaboration of the New York City Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Having collaborated on  Dance & Fashion in 2013, Patricia Mears has carried on the discourse on mutual dance and fashion influences. While the previous exhibition focused on costumes, Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse investigates the dancer, using the complexity of her person as a source of inspiration. Many costumes from Balanchine’s works are displayed, on time with NYCB calendar revisiting the choreographer’s career.

Most of the ballerinas were fans of the Parisian couturiers, and vice versa, case in point, in Paris, this appreciation was much reciprocated as some ballerinas who attended Monsieur Dior’s debut show in Paris, 1947, later became his clients. Margot Fonteyn had an enviable wardrobe with many Dior’s creations – some of which are displayed in the exhibition. Alongside Dior’s, are many evening gowns by Gabrielle Chanel, Pierre Balmain and Charles James. In total, about 90 objects are displayed, coming both from the MFIT’s permanent collections and from some British institutions as the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Fashion Museum of Bath.

The idea of ballerinas as “mirrors of fashion” forms a part of the exhibition and, historically, finds its roots with Anna Pavlova and her dramatic interpretation of the Dying Swan. Created by Enrico Cecchetti, Pavlova was the image of the ballerina-as-a-bird. Birds have often appeared in ballets as allegorical figures, but no one like the swan has become an obsession: Pierre Balmain’s conspicuous use of feathers finds here an explanation. Sinuous and regal, swans reflect the ambiguities of the human soul through languid and nervous movements: the double character of the white/black swan so contributed to making Swan Lake (1895) the romantic ballet par excellence. A selection of tutus worn by Pavlova, Fonteyn and other dancers are displayed, together with a variety of footwear that opens the exhibition. Apart from pink and white, the public would see some costumes realized in lilac and bluebird blue, became popular in dance thanks to The Sleeping Beauty’s fairies. These shadows inspired many cocktail dresses realized by couturiers as Charles James from the 1930s to the 1950s. 

Nowadays, many fashion designers are inspired by dance. Sharing the passion for ballet with the founder of the Maison, for example, Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri invited Israeli choreographer Sharon Eyal and her Company for her SS2019 show. Dressed in embroidered bodysuits, the dancers expressed the astonishment and awe in front of the magical encounter between dance and fashion. Bodysuits, leggings and leotards were first used in dance in the 1940s (anticipating the 1970s’ activewear trend in fashion) by George Balanchine: “as they highlighted the ballerinas’ lightning-fast footwork and extended leg line”, Mears explained. This had influences on both dance and fashion: in the 1970s and 1980s, some designers such as Claire McCardell, Vera Maxwell and Bonnie August of Danskin made the activewear famous. In New York, for his Fall-Winter 2020/21 show, Marc Jacobs invited dancer and choreographer Karole Armitage: the performance expressed conflicting feelings of chaos and astonishment. A few weeks before, Marni’s Francesco Risso made of his AW20 men’s show a contemporary dance’s stage held by the choreographer Michele Rizzo who created a crowded atmosphere reflecting the deconstruction of the clothes. 

But how can a fashion designer transfer his artistic vision into both beautiful and danceable clothes? Marc Happel, the New York City Ballet’s Costume Director and a designer himself (who has collaborated to the exhibition), describes it as “an intricate process, that needs collaboration and comprise – helping fashion designers realize their two-dimensional vision into a three-dimensional costume that can be danced in, by a dancer who is an athlete. For the last eight years, NYCB has collaborated with nearly thirty fashion designers for the Company’s annual Fall Fashion Gala. In that time, I have learned how to help them better understand our world. It’s wonderful to work with creatives who appreciate dance, its athleticism, and who can imagine their designs in movement”.

Maybe, dance and fashion could find an elegant solution to the issue working together.

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