It goes without saying that tutus are pretty, but they’ve also got a certain je ne sais quoi that makes them pretty vogueish. They’re everywhere, from the catwalks of Paris to the bottoms of babes–in fact the name tutu is rumored to be French babytalk for backside. But while they may lend inspiration to fashion designers, artists, and little girls masquerading as princesses, they still owe their allegience entirely to ballet. In fact, I think their essential femininity and beauty come from the very fact that their design evolved in response to the elegant steps and body of the ballerina herself.
According to ballet lore, the tutu debuted on ballerina Marie Taglioni (alsoknown for her development of pointe work) in 1832, for a performance of La Sylphide at the Paris Opera house. Taglioni’s renowned technique demanded a new type of costume that would make her novel foot and leg work more visible. That now famous first tutu had a diaphanous mid-calf length skirt made from starched layers of sheer cotton muslin that created a look of simultaneous fullness and weightlessness. The dress was an instant success, and was later aptly christened the romantic tutu.
Since then, the tutu’s length and shape have been modified many times over with the driving force behind the shorter hemlines being the audience’s desire to see more legwork. The Degas tutu (named for the artist who painted them) is a bell shaped, knee length version of the romantic tutu. The pancake and platter tutus are the shortest varieties, both being constructed with wire hoops allowing them to stick straight out from the body– the platter tutu is the flatter on top than the pancake. The powderpuff tutu is a wireless and softer version of the pancake, designed expressly for the ballets of George Balanchine.
Balanchine worked closely with legendary tutu designer Barbara Karinska, a fellow Russian emigrée, to create a tutu that would have the fullness of the pancake without the distracting reverberating movements created by the wire hoops. Forty dancers appeared together on stage wearing Karinska’s powderpuff prototype for Symphony in C. Balanchine said of Karinska: ”I attribute to her fifty percent of the success of my ballets to those that she has dressed”–pretty remarkable considering she dressed seventy-five of his ballets.
Tutu design and construction are no simple matter. Countless hours of work are required to create the ethereal costumes that are an essential component of ballet’s magic. And the creation of the tutu must appear as effortless as the creation of the dance, the two blending together fluidly as one. The tutu’s bodice must fit a ballerina to absolute perfection. If it is too tight, it will impede movement and breathing; if it is too loose, it will move around her body, instead of with it, above all when she pirouettes. The decorations used to adorn it, whether jewels or feathers, also need to be strategically placed, especially if the tutu is for a dance in which the ballerina will be lifted by a male dancer.
The artistic challenge and creative opportunity of designing genuine ballet tutus has long proved irresistible to fashion designers. To honor Coco Chanel’s former costume designs for the Ballet Russes, Karl Lagerfeld (current creative director of the house of Chanel) recently designed a tutu for the English National Ballet’s production of the Ballet Russe’s own “Dying Swan”, performed by ballerina Elena Glurdjidze. More than one hundred hours of work went into the dress, many of those taking place solely at the studio of Chanel’s “plumassier”, or feather specialist. To a non dancer like me, the result was stunning, however it met with mixed reviews. One critic claimed “Lagerfeld’s tutu was conceived with cavalier disregard for the ballerina’s working body–the line of the neck broken by an egregious fluffy ruff, the waistline broken by a too-high skirt.”
Just last year another fashion legend,Valentino, designed costumes for the New York City Ballet’s “Bal de Couture”, and also received less than glowing reviews. Without a real understanding of balletic movement, I can imagine it would be extremely difficult to successfully bridge the two arts of fashion and ballet. There’s a big difference between a still dress on a hanger and a moving dress on a ballerina.
To me the real magic of the tutu is that it was born from the gracefulness of ballerinas. So even off the stage or entirely out of context, it is a reminder of that grace. There’s simply so much more to a tutu than a dress made of satin and tulle. And I’m even starting to understand why some collectors buy them for extravagant amounts of money. (A tutu Margot Fonteyn wore in Swan Lake sold for almost 95,000$). In essence, collecting tutus would be the same thing as collecting art. Although there is one big difference that immediately comes to mind: unlike paintings, tutus are supposed to be hung upside down.
Liesl Ferreira is a native of the Bay Area who developed a passionate interest in the arts while living in Paris for more than a decade. She believes that the arts belong everywhere, in every life, and that the ability to express our humanity, or be touched by an expression of this humanity, is inherent in us all. She devotes her life to her family, photography, and Iyengar Yoga. Liesl is a wonderful volunteer with Diablo Ballet.