This is a piece of writing I have looked forward to sharing on my blog for some time. This was written in conjunction with my senior project, “Girls in White Dresses: A Study of Giselle,” material from which I hope to continue to condense into blog-able content! Enjoy!
Theatrical costuming is a crossroads of disciplines that fuse social and historical influences to create images and characters onstage. It can represent quintessential tastes or decided departures form the vogue of a given period. The Romantic tutu is an iconic element of ballet’s identity, famously used in Balanchine’s Serenade, countless roles in every Nutcracker, and of course, the Romantic ballets La Sylphide and Giselle. By tracing the roots of this silhouette, one can learn a great deal about ballet history and the culture that made it possible.
The evolution of ballet technique and performance is closely linked to changing standards of dress both on and off the stage. Seventeenth-century theatrical costuming was characterized by heavy emphasis on the ornate. This was mainly due to the lack of distinction between courtly fashion and clothes worn for performance. Heavy fabrics, hoops, and brocade abounded in the royal court, where most dance performances took place. By the eighteenth century, it became customary to design or allocate costumes specifically for performances. The French Revolution, with its overall condemnation of aristocratic flamboyance, marked a shift towards simpler fashion on the streets and in theatre.
Pierre Gardel presided as Ballet Master at the Paris Opera, which rotated through a series of official names throughout his tenure, during the tumult of the French Revolution. Gardel managed to create uniquely popular works that were palatable to the old regime, but soon moved towards expressing the ideas of the Revolution. Importantly, he changed the character of the leading lady from that of a coquette, as famously portrayed by longtime reigning ballerina Marie Guimard, to that of a beautiful, virtuous woman who embodied Revolutionary ideals. His ballets, which spanned 1784-1818, reflected the views of the changing audience, and marked important steps in the evolution of ballet costuming.
In the early nineteenth century, the styles of ancient Greece and Rome flooded the ballrooms and stages of Europe. As the Revolution progressed, women began to dress in simple white tunics, modeled on the image of Greek antiquity. Women’s dresses typically featured a high waist, which emphasized the bosom, and long, column-like skirts, which were often semi-transparent to show off elongated legs. Naturally, bare legs were unacceptable, so white wool, cotton, or silk tights were worn to cover the legs and to suggest the texture of Classical marble sculptures. The women were effectively dressing to mimic Greek statues. Ballet tights worn today descend from this fashion, and in a similar sense are worn to achieve a statuesque balletic image.
These tights and white dresses flourished largely because of the availability of muslin, a delicately woven cotton fabric made possible by expanding cotton crops in India and the American south, along with the advent of the cotton gin. It was easily washable and fell on the body in a way that called to mind the recently excavated statues of Pompeii. Because of its ease and elegance, it quickly became the standard for high fashion on the streets and the stage. As this lighter fabric came into use, and flat sandals rather than heels became popular, previously impossible technical feats became feasible for dancers.
For his new ballets, Gardel called for these simple Grecian-inspired dresses and flat sandals laced at the ankle or calf. Gone were the old hoopskirts, powdered hair, buckled shoes, and restricting fabrics; his ballet costumes were right in step with post-revolutionary fashion. Dancers in white muslin tunics became symbolic figures, representing ideals of purity or reason, which were seen in Gardel’s ballets through the remainder of the century. A decade later, a corps of dancers in white would be elevated even further, by Romantic poets in La Sylphide and Giselle, to the state of sylphs and wilis.
Marie Taglioni originated the role of the irresistible Sylph, a character who draws a Scottish man, James, away from his betrothed on his wedding day. He chases the Sylph into the woods where he meets her otherworldly companions. James attempts to capture her by means of a scarf, given to him by Madge, a witch. The scarf’s magic causes her wings to fall off, and the Sylph dies. La Sylphide established the structure for the two-act Romantic ballet, and reflected the popular literary notion of the unattainable, ethereal female. Originally choreographed by Taglioni’s father in 1832, the 1836 adaptation by Danish ballet master August Bournonville is the version still performed today and is among the oldest ballets in repertoire.
Ten years before La Sylphide, a sylph appeared in an 1821 opera, La Mort de Tasse. This sylph wore the column-style dress of the early 1800’s, but adorned with wings. Eugène Lami, who is typically credited for designing Taglioni’s costume, broke with this fashion to create the original Romantic tutu. This marked a shift in dance costuming in which the artistic vision for a character overruled the whims of fashion.
Unlike the form-fitting muslin dresses, Lami envisioned a voluminous gauzy skirt that would conceal the lines of the body. He meant to indicate that the Sylph was surrounded by a milky haze, and achieved this effect with layers of starched muslin, called tarlatan. Taglioni’s diaphanous skirt was paired with a tight fitting bodice that exposed her shoulders, and numerous adornments including a blue ribbon around her waist, wings on her back, a pearl necklace and bracelet, and a garland of flowers in her hair. Despite the now common use of a white tutu for this role and the corps de ballet, it is said that Taglioni’s tutu was actually a faint blue to suggest sky and clouds, the heavenly domain of the airborne sylph. To the audience, it appeared white under the gaslights onstage.
This tutu design reappeared in Act Two of Giselle, nine years later. Originally danced by Carlotta Grisi, Giselle, a young peasant girl, dies of broken heart (or, commits suicide) when it is revealed her love, Albrecht, was dishonest. In Act II, she rises from her grave and joins the wilis, ghostly maidens who died unmarried and brokenhearted. They seek revenge by forcing men to dance to their deaths or drown. Giselle begs their heartless queen, Myrtha, to spare Albrecht’s life; in saving Albrecht, Giselle is freed from the service of the wilis and may rest in peace. The ballet was choreographed by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli in 1841, and adapted by Marius Petipa in the 1880’s, which is the reference for most modern productions.
The costuming for Giselle has cycled through numerous updates, most of which are seen in the peasant costumes of the first act. However, the white calf-length tutu has remained a staple even in current productions, though the volume of said skirts has seemed to decrease with every passing decade. Simply compare recordings of Royal Ballet’s Giselle in 2005, to those of Margot Fonteyn or Carla Fracci from the 1960’s. The Royal Ballet’s tutus were slightly longer and of a more narrow A-line shape, and moved with a water-like fluidity, whereas the older versions of the costume were more voluminous and cloud-like. This can also be attributed to use of chiffon or softer fabrics in place of nylon or silk net.
The Romantic tutu can be considered bridge in the evolution of dance costuming. It was a compromise between the old hoopskirts and Grecian-inspired muslin dresses, and predecessor to the short, stiff pancake tutu that would dominate Petipa’s ballets in the late nineteenth century. It marked the decision to honor the image of a character above the fashions ladies in the audience would be wearing. The fact that it has not disappeared entirely speaks to its timeless beauty. At least in some form, it will likely remain a fixture on the ballet stage for the foreseeable future.
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