The Never-Ending Scandal of the Tutu


 

Cleaning out her closet, Ballet to the People unearthed these exquisite vintage tutus from the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. Their tags reveal that they were made by Grace Costumes and Barbara Matera, leading costumers for ballet, theatre, opera and film for over five decades, for renowned ballerinas including Cynthia Gregory and Cheryl Yeager. Handmade, these tutus boast construction and embroidery to rival any couture wedding dress – but unlike wedding dresses they had to be built to permit extreme athletic movement, to withstand vigorous manhandling by the ballerina’s partner, and, given the cost (which ran to several thousands of dollars apiece) they had to last through many seasons.
 

Haight Street Ballerina

 

Searching for sugar plums in an alternate Candy Land

Haight Street Ballerina awaits the landing of her spaceship

 

The tutu was a radical and controversial invention. At the court of Louis XIV, whose enthusiasm for ballet led to significant advances in the art form, the noblemen who danced in his extravagant productions dressed in the height of fashion. Ballerinas’ movements were actually hindered by their heavy floor-length hooped skirts and petticoats. But as individual dancers with exceptional technique and artistry came to the fore, they made costume choices that showed off their best assets.

Marie de Camargo, who, in the 18th century, began to perform virtuosic steps formerly attempted only by male dancers, such as the entrechat quatre, shortened her skirts “to the calf so that her brilliant footwork (and sexy feet) might be better appreciated (a move that also led to other kinds of prurient speculation: was she wearing underwear?)… [This] was a marked shift toward a bolder and more openly seductive way of moving… a reminder of just how provocative women dancers could appear on stage, especially when they broke from the prescribed manners or the noble style.” (Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels)

So profound was the impact on her audiences, La Camargo became a rock star of her generation.

Her main rival, Marie Sallé, dressed “in plain (and revealing) Grecian drapery; she moved in disarmingly natural ways… to undercut the artifice and formality of the serious genre. In so doing, she moved the French noble style from the court to the boudoir… giving audiences a sensual and intimate reading of what had traditionally been a quintessentially heroic dance. It was a glimpse of the ways in which ballet could depict inner realms as well as ceremonial forms.” (Homans)

 

The long floaty Romantic tutu signaled the era in which women rose, literally on their pointes for the first time, to become the central figures in ballet. (Previously, men had dominated the stage.) Special effects permitted by the introduction of gas lighting and guy wires enhanced the theatrical experience: all of a sudden ballerinas were flying through the air amid ghostly lit scenery.

 

In the 19th century, Marie Taglioni created a sensation in La Sylphide: “her dancing was lyrical and spiritual. She had the ability to skim, apparently weightlessly, across the stage. Her high jumps ended in gossamer-soft landings. She personified a sense of shimmering magic and poetic mystery.” (Trudy Garfunkel, On Wings of Joy) Her costume featured an “unadorned, tight bodice [that] showed off her pale neck and shoulders and her softly rounded arms; the mid-calf-length bell-shape skirt of diaphanous white gauze revealed her ankles and feet.” Ultimately, “Taglioni’s Romantic tutu… gave her complete liberty of movement and enhanced the beauty of her arabesques and leaps.” (Garfunkel)
 


 

In late-19th century Russia, the importation of superstar Italian ballerinas with their glittering footwork led to a further shortening of the tutu. The skirt stood away from the body, flaunting the entire leg. This became known as the Classical tutu. The dazzling style of the so-called “Italian invasion” was exemplified by Virginia Zucchi whose “steely sharp technique thrilled audiences in the capital city. At one performance, a Russian prince literally showered her with diamonds.” (Garfunkel)
 

Dripping in diamonds: Princess Florine (Bluebird pas de deux, Sleeping Beauty)

 

In 1950, New York City Ballet’s costumer Karinska recostumed Balanchine’s Symphony in C, creating the “powder puff tutu,” a softer alternative to the traditional stiff “pancake tutu.” Karinska also revolutionized the bodice, bringing the Parisian couture practice of cutting on the bias to this highly fitted element of the tutu, “where the give and take of the cut could be used to accommodate the aerobic requirements of a dancer’s rib cage.” (Toni Bentley, Costumes by Karinska)

Curious as to how contemporary tutu-making has evolved, Ballet to the People approached Jared Aswegan, who trained under Barbara Matera and who took over her workshop after she died in 2001.

He explained that “ballet costumes in general have gone through an evolution in the past 15 years. The old standard was very structured and somewhat stiff by modern standards.  This was based, I think, on available materials, tradition, and an appreciation of the concept of longevity.  Costumes now have more flexibility through the use of more stretch fabrics and also a new thinking about using lighter weight and softer fabric choices that have proven to hold up over time.  The expectation of more challenging movement from the dancer has been the spark of this ‘revolution’.  As the demand for more ‘bravura’ performance has increased, so have the demands of the garments supporting the performers.  Ultimately, it is the dancer that must be supported, not some antiquated set of rules for costume making.  Everything evolves.”
 


 

Jared maintains that “every costume comes with challenges.  Among the many things I learned from Barbara, one of the most valuable was to not assume that you knew what was indicated in the sketch until you had truly studied it and explored it with the designer. When we made the costumes for Clark Tippet’s Bruch Violin Concerto, the initial thought was that the women would be in tutus, but in the creation of the costumes, they evolved into something closer to a skirt that implied a tutu. They had a very different kind of movement, much softer and freer. Nothing is written in stone…”
 

 

Perhaps the wildest take on the tutu to date has been Stephen Galloway’s minimalist, Spandex-infused design for The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, William Forsythe’s witty homage to classical ballet.

 

 

Not everybody loved this tutu. One critic described it as “seemingly modeled on a giant Pringle,” another said it had “all the flair and sophistication of a dime-store Frisbee.”

It seems the tutu is destined to continue provoking audiences.

It also continues to offer particular challenges to costumers, and to the ballerina’s long-suffering partner. He is steering blind as he cannot see the ballerina’s legs, and is often enveloped in clouds of tulle; he must avoid crushing the skirt, and endure the scratchiness against his face, arms and neck during lifts.

Jared acknowledges that “tutus come with very special demands, both aesthetically and in their construction. There are many aspects of tutu construction that are challenging.  In the skirt alone there can be up to seventeen layers of nets of different weights and stiffness all of which need to be joined and gathered to the appropriate fullness. The choice of what kind of net to use in each layer is a science unto itself. Questions about the choreography and the traditions of a specific role come into play as well as the aesthetic: whether it is Russian-, English- or French-based. The size and general stiffness of the skirt is always part of the debate.”

“There are dressmakers who understand bodice construction and those who are more prone to making a beautiful skirt.  Like dance, dressmaking has an element that is based on how your mind understands the physics of your ‘labor’.  Knowing how to handle miles of net with skill and efficiency is very different than understanding bodice construction. Ultimately I would hazard to say that the bodice work is more challenging as it is more exacting and demands more accuracy and more fitting finesse.  That’s not to say that tutus aren’t challenging.  Learning how to properly tack the layers is challenging to say the least.  A poorly tacked tutu can be a disaster.”

Do dancers often have input into the design of their tutus? Jared replies, “I’m going to go out on a thin limb and say that any designer who fails to listen to the dancer is a fool. The role of a costume is to support a performance, not define it. Whatever garment is created for a dancer should be one in which the dancer is allowed to feel ultimate confidence both in terms of their ability to perform and their appreciation of what is beautiful. Costumers and designers are not those people being asked to make the patrons sitting in their very expensive theater seat feel satisfied. That responsibility is solely on the shoulders of the performers. Their thoughts and concerns should be heeded, always.”

“Principal dancers often have strong opinions about their costumes and when you consider that they have spent years watching themselves in the mirror, I’ve always felt that they have more information about what works on them than anyone else. Most of them are more than willing to work within the context of any given design, but will have strong opinions about detail and proportion. Ninety-five percent of the time, I have found them to be right in the choices they are requesting. There is a balancing act that comes with this kind of accommodation, however, as the dancers are not designing the ballet, so one must always be mindful of the aesthetics being established by the designer and work within those parameters.”

Reflecting on his mentorship by Matera, Jared notes that “she created an entire generation of intelligent costume-makers, hopefully making performers’ lives easier. I was very lucky.”
 


 

It takes a village: a deep curtsey to Jared Aswegan (Head Costumer and former owner of Barbara Matera, Ltd.), Charlie Homo (photographer), Hilarie Jenkins and Caryn Wells (Wardrobe Mistresses, American Ballet Theatre), Maria Lee (hair and makeup), Veronica Sooley (stylist), Paloma Brooks and Sarah Small (dressers), Mary Sano (studio).

For more of Charlie’s work, click on: Charlie Homo Photography

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6 thoughts on “The Never-Ending Scandal of the Tutu

  1. This perspective on the tutu is so interesting! You always think about the dancer, and maybe about the designer, but you don’t think about the costumer who actually has to make the tutu, and what hard work it is! You also don’t think about what hard work it is for the men to partner the ballerinas in these contraptions.

    There should be a museum where you can see these old costumes, with photos and videos of the ballets they were in, and copies of the sketches by the designers. Your photos are AMAZING – they are not your average ballet pictures, they’re a little tough and in-your-face, but they are still works of art! Charlie Homo is an amazing photographer.
    However, I must agree with the critic: The Pringle tutu is very distracting, which is sad because the dancer is so beautiful and the choreography so cool.

  2. Great piece! I love Jared’s quote about how it’s the dancer who must be supported, not some old rules about how you build costumes.
    Did you know that Zucchi’s tutu caused a scandal? It was shorter than the Romantic tutus and the authorities at the Imperial Theater told her to lengthen it. She refused, saying she would not dance in a skirt suitable for her grandmother. She prevailed, but “tutu wars” continued in Russia for some years, with Moscow and St. Petersburg tolerating quite different hemlines.

    • Reader (and former dancer) Victoria Harbutt from Sydney also writes in with the story of English ballerina, Emma Livry, “who died in 1863 after her pre-tutu-length skirt caught fire on the gas flamed footlights; the charred remains of her skirt are in a casket in the Paris Opera Museum.” Victoria says “I have no proof, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this shocking accident – it took many months for her to die – could also have been a catalyst for shorter ballet wear. There is a small statuette of her in the Courtauld Institute.”

  3. Congratulations on winning le contest. This post was pretty tame as far as scandalous goes … but I LOVE these photos. In fact, some of these qualify to be some of my favorite ballet photos ever.

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