Pas Des Deux: Fashion's Love Affair with Ballet

A few weeks ago I went to see Mathew Bourne’s modern adaptation of Sleeping Beauty at Sadler’s Wells. A long-term fan of Mathew Bourne, I was exuberant to see one of his productions live for the first time. It was thoroughly enjoyable, and I strongly recommend it (although, as with all Bourne’s recreations of the classics, I would offer a word of caution to traditionalists).

Aside from admiring the performances, I often caught myself studying the dancers’ costumes too. In this case, tutus were replaced with Edwardian gowns in the first half, and Noughties mini dresses and thigh high boots in the second; fashion was instrumental in telling a story that spanned more than a century. But it got me thinking more generally about the relationship between ballet and fashion, and how what has been worn on the stage has influenced what is worn off it.

Certainly dance has had a profound impact on my style. Having danced various styles since I was 3, it can be no coincidence that I love cross-over wrap cardigans and have a penchant for jazz shoes. Perhaps more surprisingly I wear a lot of luxe sportswear, especially tracksuit bottoms (Zoe Karssen being my favourite), in my down time – a result of my preferred style of dance being street. Designer Alexander Wang argues that “anyone can get dressed up and glamorous but it is how people dress in their days off that are the most intriguing”– and there’s no denying what I wear offers a direct insight into my interests and personal life.

But what about those who’s lives haven’t featured such a direct relationship with dance? Has dance, or more specifically ballet, had a wider impact on Fashion and style? After all, Professor Valerie Steel, director and lead historian of the Museum at FIT in New York states, “Dance and fashion are the two embodied arts forms [that are] all about the body”, and I would argue this has led to an equally complimentary relationship between the two.

There’s no doubt that fashion and ballet have been intertwined for years. For decades now, some of the biggest names in fashion have been invited to design stunning pieces for ballet companies’ latest programs. Gianni Versace was a natural fit thanks to the spectacular and theatrical nature of his collections, and he was first commissioned in 1982 to create costumes for theatre and ballet. Some of his most recognised works were for the esteemed choreographer Maurice Bejart, with Versace rising to the challenge of designing visually stunning pieces that still met practical requirements and enhanced the dancer’s movements.

Other top designers have flirted with this task too, often through the New York City Ballet. Since 2012, the company has invited fashion designers to create its costumes for its autumn gala (an initiative pioneered by its Vice-Chairman Sarah Jessica Parker). Its long lists of collaborations have included Olivier Theysken, Carolina Herrera, Prabal Gurung, Mary Katrantzou and Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen to name a few.

What’s more, these collaborations have influenced what has been presented on the catwalks. Versace’s creations often referenced his work with the stage, whilst Mary Katrantzou’s partnership with Justin Peck for Belles-Lettres (“Fine Writing”) featured her alphabet-inspired pre-spring 2014 collection. It isn’t clear which came first, but what is, is the profound effect their partnership had on one another’s work.

Even without a collaboration, it is evident how the movement of ballet has affected Fashion designers. The dance has frequently been referenced and, whenever it is, ‘ballet chic’ has become a trend. In January 2015 fluffed tutu skirts closed Valentino’s Haute Couture collection reflecting the graceful romanticism of the style, whilst conversely, Raf Simon’s January 2015 Dior nodded towards the energetic, sometimes attacking, athleticism of the dance style by featuring tulle crinolines and cat suits.

The trend was also alive in 2010 when Viktor & Rolfe’s S/S 2010 ready-to-wear collection quite literally sliced through ballet’s perceived gentile femininity when it presented large tulle balls gowns and skirts that had been chopped away at. At the same time, the Mulleavy sisters of high fashion label Rodarte co-designed the costumes for Natalie Portman’s 2010 Oscar winning film Black Swan. The collaboration itself resulted in controversy with the costume designer asserting that the Mulleavy sisters’ input was much less than was purported to be the case, but the consequence was that the ballet look was everywhere.

And the style continues to be referenced. Just look at last week’s Haute Couture shows: Giambattista Valli’s finale show-stopping gowns were a tulle explosion, whilst Guo Pei’s models wore heels with satin ribbons tied around their ankles, rather reminiscent of pointe shoes.

So what’s clear is fashion’s relationship with ballet is more than a just fleeting crush. It’s a full-blown infatuation that it has continued and will continue to keep coming back to. Think about that iconic tutu Sarah Jessica Parker wore in the opening titles to Sex and the City back in 1998 – it’s a look that continues to be emulated today. And you probably own at least one pair of ballet flats, which are seeing a resurgence in popularity having been ‘out of style’ for a few years.

But what is it that keeps this burning passion alive? It seems to be the element of movement that captivates fashion designers so much. Mark Happel – New York City Ballet’s current costume director – has said how “there is nothing like watching a ballerina suddenly go into a pirouette and [the designer] seeing their costume come to life”. As powerful as a runway walk may be, it will never show off a design to the same level of vibrancy as dancing can. At the very least, this appreciation pushes designers and fashions to recognise and consider more the importance of comfort, shape and movement in clothing.

So whether you’re a fan of ballet or not, chances are you’ve been affected by this obsession. Even if you’re uninterested in Fashion and trends per-say, there’s no escaping the fact that what is seen on the catwalk has a knock-on-effect on the styles being offered by other labels and the high street. At least when they’ve been inspired by ballet, they’re both practical and attractive. For example, we wouldn’t have been provided with the opportunity to enjoy the comfort and universal flattering shape of ballet pumps if it wasn’t for the fashion designers’ love of the dance.

Ultimately, ballet helps to reign in Fashion’s penchant for becoming more statement than substance. At times Fashion falls foul of losing its realistic purpose, becoming restrictive, gratuitous and pointless in the process. And this is what can make it so off-putting. But by aligning itself with another creative form where the practicality of clothing is as important as its visual impact, Fashion/style is inspired and reminded of its multiple intentions, offering more wide-spread appeal and encouraging it to be at its most effective.

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