STYLE

The Tipping Pointe: Ballet's Lasting Fashion Impact

24/09/2010 17:34 | Updated 22 May 2015

When did ballet suddenly become so cool?

Cheryl Cole's turned prima ballerina in her Promise This video, donning pointe shoes and an ethereal pink costume, while Kate Moss learned to pirouette for a short film co-starring famed dancer Baryshnikov. One of autumn's must-see movies is ballet thriller Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman in costumes designed by Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, and several designers have cited influences from the dance world as the inspiration for their spring/summer 2011 collections.

Ballerinas are graceful, disciplined, strong yet delicate and otherworldly, so of course we want to emulate them. Every time we pull our hair into a chignon or slip on some heels to elongate our legs, we're channelling some of that ethereal beauty.

Coco Chanel-designed costumes for the Ballets Russes' Apollon Musagette. Photo: V&A

This Saturday, Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929, a major retrospective of one of the most influential dance companies of the 20th century, opens at the V&A. Creative director Serge Diaghilev immediately established a relationship between fashion and other art forms, collaborating with artists, musicians and designers like Picasso, Matisse, Braque and Stravinsky. He not only changed the face of dance, but has impacted fashion through the years, influencing designers like Paul Poiret, Yves Saint Laurent (who referenced aspects of Diaghilev's work in his famed Russian collection from 1976) and Galliano, among others.

Jane Pritchard, the exhibition's curator, spoke to MyDaily about the Ballets Russes' links with the fashion world. "The quality and novelty of the productions made the Ballets Russes fashionable – so that leading composers and artists wanted to collaborate with the choreographers and dancers on the productions," explains Pritchard. So it's hardly a surprise that Coco Chanel herself got involved. "We feature Chanel, who in the 1920s became part of Diaghilev's inner circle and in effect adviser on costumes," she continues. "She was responsible for the sports clothes and bathing costumes worn in the ballet Le Train Bleu and also (uncredited) the costumes for Apollon Musagete. She also designed costumes for individual dancers in other ballets."

Another ballet-focused exhibition, "Royal Ballet Portraits," which features 17 photographs of the Royal Ballet's Principal dancers taken by designer Paul Smith, opened this week at the Paul Smith store on 9 Albemarle Street, another reflection of the strong ties between the dance and fashion worlds. Since ballet and fashion are both centred around movement and the body, the relationship between the two is a logical one, and the legacy set up by the Ballets Russes continues to be seen today as designers and ballet companies continue their collaborations.

Morphoses' Commedia, with costumes by Isabel Toledo

It is commonplace for fashion designers to try their hand at costume design nowadays. Morphoses, the ballet company founded by Christopher Wheeldon and Lourdres Lopez, believes in the confluence between art, design and dance and have had Narcisco Rodriguez, Isabel Toledo and Calvin Klein's Francisco Costa create costumes for specific ballets, while British designer Jasper Conran has collaborated with the Birmingham Royal Ballet on costumes for Tombeaux and Edward II. What's the difference between designing clothes and designing for the stage? "'With fashion, I'm talking about the here and now. With costume I'm telling a story with clothes, so there is a fundamental difference," Conran told us.

While designers can incorporate themes, elements and fabrics from the ballet world into their collections in any way they'd like, creating costumes for the stage is a feat met with several roadblocks. As Pritchard explains, "The biggest challenge for designers of dance costumes is certainly to create garments in which the dancers feel free to move. There are occasions when they produce very elaborate outfits but they have to create in conjunction with the choreography and be accepted as kinetic sculpture. The costumes for the Ballets Russes included those which looked wacky but limited movements and others that were far more liberating than anything the dancers had previously worn." Similarly, there are restrictions in terms of aesthetics: intricate details like embellishment may be cherished on a garment of clothing you bring home and wear in day-to-day life, but are insignificant for performances if they can't be seen from the stage.

The Royal Ballet's Johan Kobborg, photographed by Paul Smith, a costume by Braque for the Ballets Russes' Zephyre et Flore (Photo: V&A) and Morphoses' Fool's Paradise with costumes by Narciso Rodriguez (Photo: Morphoses)

Terry de Havilland, who created pieces for the recent production of Shoes (an homage to footwear of all kinds) at Sadler's Wells, elaborates on the designing-for-dancers process. "The shoes I've produced for the show are made on a setup that I developed in the 90s.," he explains. "I made a lot of footwear for stage performers back then so I knew that they were strong enough and comfortable enough for the dancers to cope with. I also decided to make them as lace-up boots tailored to the dancer's legs, which will give the best possible support round the ankles. Having said all this, the tap dancing element of the performance is a first for me so it's been quite a challenge."

While designers are turning their talents to the stage, influences from the ballet world are also ending up in our closets. Although the spring 2011 catwalk shows are only two cities of the way through, the ballet references have been impossible to miss. We've already seen the ghosts of the Ballets Russes in Erdem's collection, which was inspired by the company (he even created a special-edition scarf to be sold alongside the exhibition). J. Mendel's Gilles Mendel, who designed costumes for New York City Ballet's Call Me Ben, has ballet fever in both his cruise and spring/summer 2011 collections, David Koma's spring silhouettes are inspired by Swan Lake and Richard Chai looked to modern dance legend Martha Graham for his loose layers. Considering that everything from knit jumpers layered over leotards and paired with slouchy trousers to feather-and-jewel embellished tutus comprise the "ballet look," there is something in the dancer's wardrobe to appeal to most of us.

The story between ballet and fashion is far from over as ballet influences continue to inform the way we dress - and vice versa. So while most of us can't assume the perfect arabesque, at least we can look the part.

L-R: Erdem s/s 2011 (WireImage), J. Mendel cruise 2011 (photo courtesy J.Mendel), Richard Chai s/s 2011 (Getty) and David Koma s/s 2011 (PA)

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