In the early days of ballet, when dance was a social court pastime, dancers wore their own clothes when dancing rather than specially designed costumes. For us today those everyday outfits resemble costumes. The men wore very elaborate, stiff brocaded coats, knee breeches, wigs and swords belted to their waists. The women were tightly laced in long-sleeved bodices and panniered skirts. These cumbersome, heavy outfits allowed for little body movement and the steps executed by the dancers had to be simple and dignified.
Marie Camargo was the first dancer to shorten her skirts. This enabled her audience to appreciate her intricate footwork. Her rival, Marie Salle, dared even further by discarding her petticoats to dance in a flimsy muslin dress. The French Revolution at the end of the 18th century also brought about changes in dancewear. Simple, lightweight, clinging robes inspired by Greek models became fashionable both on and off the stage. Also at this time, a man named Maillot, a costume maker and designer at the Paris Opera, is said to have invented tights. These new fashions and inventions caused great change in ballet practice clothes. Dancers finally found themselves in clothing that allowed for much greater freedom of movement and dance technique could develop beyond its previously limited boundaries.
The bell-shaped Romantic dress of the mid-1800s gave way to the tutu at the end of the 19th century. Connoisseurs of ballet, the Russians wanted to see the new technical feats and fancy footwork of their ballerinas. The new long, floppy, 16 layer tutus reached to the knee and allowed the female dancers much greater mobility in such technically demanding ballets as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Paquita. The late George Balanchine's athletic choreography later led to the creation of the shorter "powder-puff" tutu that is worn in Symphony in C. These tutus allow the entire leg to be seen.
Now a days the ballet costume we are most familiar with is the Classical Tutu. A very short, stiff skirt made with layers of netting that extends straight outwards from the hips in a flat pancake shape, and has a fitted bodice. The pancake style has more layers of net and usually uses a wire hoop and much hand tacking to keep the layers flat and stiff.
I found this documentary short while I was working on the post “Lessons from a Tailor”, which is also made by the filmmaker Galen Summer. It’s about the recreation of tutus for George Balanchine's "Theme and Variations". New York City Ballet is fortunate to have their own costume shop, where they are able to refurbish, maintain, and even design and create new costumes from scratch. Its wonderful that this movie give us the opportunity to take a peak behind the scene and observe the work of all those talented people who keep shows like this alive for generations.