King Louis XIV of France is seen in costume playing Apollo in a ballet in 1653. (public domain)

King Louis XIV of France is seen in costume playing Apollo in a ballet in 1653. (public domain)

Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova in 1925. (AP)

Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova in 1925. (AP)

English ballet dancers at the King’s Theatre, Hammersmith, London, 1936 (AP)

English ballet dancers at the King’s Theatre, Hammersmith, London, 1936 (AP)

A fashion designer sketches her ideas in 1948. (AP)

A fashion designer sketches her ideas in 1948. (AP)

Maria Tallchief, prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet, in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” in 1953. (AP)

Maria Tallchief, prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet, in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” in 1953. (AP)

Costume Time

Posted: May 1, 2020

Shh! Designers at work! 

 Ballet costume designers bend over their sketch books. They think hard about what dancers should wear in each ballet. Ballerinas must feel free to stretch their legs and point their feet. Great dancers use an incredible amount of strength. But they don’t look like they’re working hard. They must seem weightless, almost like flying birds. 

Ballets tell stories. But they use no words. They use only music, dance, and costuming. To make a ballet, many kinds of gifted artists must work together: dancers are part artist and part athlete, composers write music, musicians play instruments, choreographers work out dance movement, and costumers design and sew outfits. This intense teamwork has been happening for hundreds of years. 

Like every art form, ballet costuming changes as time goes by.

Rewind to the earliest ballets. In the 17th century, dancers donned heeled shoes. Men wore stiff, wired skirts. They looked a lot like tutus! Meanwhile, women dressed in heavy costumes. Their dresses had long trains (pieces that dragged on the ground behind them). Wigs, jewels, and leather masks completed the look. Can you imagine today’s ballerina dancing well with so much stuff attached? 

In the next hundred years, costumes got shorter. Skirts dangled just down to a dancer’s calf. Women slid on slippers without heels. This gave them freedom to create complex new steps. 

By the late 18th century, hoop skirts got the boot. Instead, dancers chose clothes that clung closely to their bodies. Tights were invented in 1790 so dancers would have complete freedom to move their legs. Around 1820, people created pointe shoes. Voila! Suddenly, ballet looked a lot more like it does today. Ballerinas could dance on their tiptoes. 

In 1832, a ballerina invented the “romantic tutu.” As years passed, this tutu got shorter to show the whole leg. And now? Many ballerinas still wear tutus. But many also dance in regular street clothes. This sends a message: Ballet isn’t just a page out of history. It’s part of modern life.