From Tunics to Tutus: A Look at Ballet Costumes Throughout The Ages


              Of course here at Slippers and Tutus we think dancers’ clothing is important. We feel that what they wear sets the mood for the performance and helps to tell a story but we’re not the only ones. Throughout history a lot of thought has been put in to what was worn on the stage.

              Costumes made specially for ballet are said to date back to the early 15th century. Cotton, silk, and flax were mixed together and woven in to a semitransparent gauze. From 1550, costume designs began to be strongly influenced by classical Roman fashion. Examples of this includes large silk skirts and men’s costumes that were inspired by Roman armor. Usually the colors ranged from dark copper to maroon and purple. Masks were a part of a dancer’s look but they were also used to emphasize the character being played. Dancers who embodied rivers wore venerable beaded masks while those playing dwarfs and children wore oversized heads. Sometimes the dancers would place the masks on their knees, elbows, or chest to indicate that there was something more to the characters. Masks covering half the face were worn up to the 1770s when they were replaced by facial makeup.

              In the beginning of the 16th century, a male performer’s basic costume was often a tight fitting, brocaded cuirass (a type of shirt) with a short, draped skirt and a helmet decorated with feathers. Female dancers wore embroidered tunics in several layers that had fringes. Both wore wedged heeled boots which was the common fashion during the time.

              From the 17th century, costumes were embroidered with real gold and precious stones. Female performers would don formal wear while their male counterparts wore clothing that evolved in to a kind of uniform which was decorated to show the character or their occupation. An example of this would be scissors to show that they were a tailor. Some of the costumes’ details were exaggerated so they could be easier seen by members of the audience who were viewing them from far way.

              In the early 18th century, the costumes’ designs were similar to formal wear but more elaborate. Around 1720, the panier, a hooped petticoat which raised dancers’ skirts a couple of inches off the ground, appeared. The style was feminine using such touches as flowers, ribbons, and lace. Colors like pink, azure, and pistachio were the most used. Despite the designs resembling the more conservative fashions of the time large wigs and headdresses were still being used which limited the dancers’ movements.

              In the 19th century, Romanticism was the main influence of the time. This showed up in the introduction of floral crowns, pearls on fabrics, as well as the use of necklace and bracelets. Male dancers’ costumes stayed mostly the same. Because of changes in ballerinas’ importance to the performances as well as how the dances were being written tight fitting clothing became common and pointe shoes were worn all the time. Also, fantasy costumes became more popular.

              At the turn of the 20th century ballet costumes began to change again. The skirts gradually became knee length tutus to show off pointe work. Dancers stopped wearing corsets and showed off their natural silhouettes. Orientalism began to make its mark with performers wearing loose tunics, harem pants, and turbans. Colors choices became brighter like red, yellow, and orange to give an exotic feeling to the performances.

              In the modern and postmodern eras, the rules for the clothing ballet dancers wore began to loosen even more. While older designs are still used performers also wear a wide assortment of newer styles. Expression now rules out over tradition. This has allowed people to put on the kinds of performances that’s never been done before.

              Clothes may not make the dancer but they can make the story. Simple details like the color of a leotard or a flowing scarf can turn ordinarily people in to fantastical characters and transport the audience to another world. They are one of the many little pieces that make a performance work. This has been the case since the beginning of dance which is why people have spent so much time on them. While the dancers work to perform their moves to the best of their ability the people behind the scenes work so that they can truly shine on the stage.


              May Slippers and Tutus’ customers have many successful performances in the future.



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