ON POINT:
From pointe shoes to Halston, a show at The Museum at FIT explores how dance and fashion have influenced each other

Dance fever has swept the fashion world. Not one, but four high-fashion designers will debut costumes for new works at the New York City Ballet’s fall gala, including the elegant Carolina Herrera and the quirky young Brit Mary Katrantzou. (Thom Browne, known for his playful deconstructions of all-American prep, and Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton round out the list.) Rick Owens electrified audiences last year with a runway show featuring step dancers recruited from American sororities. And barre classes have replaced yoga as the fitness regimen du jour among the fashion elite.

Capezio, “Duro Toe” pointe shoes, 1941

Capezio, “Duro Toe” pointe shoes, 1941

Dance—its visual allure, its romance, its grace and sheer athleticism—has long captivated couturiers. Of course, it has also enthralled other artists, including writers, painters, and filmmakers. But its relationship with la mode is particularly rich.
That’s the subject of Dance & Fashion, the current exhibition at The Museum at FIT, which runs through January 3, 2015. Featuring nearly 100 costumes and high-fashion pieces from the 19th century to the present, Dance & Fashion explores not only how dance has influenced designers from Chanel to Valentino, but also the myriad ways these two art forms have inspired and shaped one another. “The vectors of influence go back and forth between dance and fashion,” says museum director Valerie Steele, who curated the highly regarded exhibition. “I hope that after seeing the show people think more carefully about the relationship between fashion and the body, and also the decorative and fashionable aspects that go with dance costume.”

Balenciaga’s 1950 silk taffeta and cut velvet dress was inspired by flamenco outfits.

Balenciaga’s 1950 silk taffeta and cut velvet dress
was inspired by flamenco outfits.

Ballet originated in the Italian courts in the 15th century, flourishing in Paris in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the early days, dancers wore, essentially, the popular fashions of the time. For example, ballerinas in the Paris Opera in the 1700s performed in stays, hoop skirts, and high heels, while the dawn of the Enlightenment at the end of that century briefly brought Neoclassical garments—Grecian tunics, flesh-colored tights—to the stage. It wasn’t until the Romantic era, and the rise of the tutu, in the 1830s that ballet costume really came into its own.
Romantic ballet dress did adhere to certain fashion trends—corseted waists, lavishly embellished bodices, and pointe shoes that resembled the high heels of the time, which often featured ribbons. But skirts were much shorter, to emphasize the legs and the ballerina’s footwork. “It’s sort of a princess image,” Steele says, “very curvaceous on top with a very romantic skirt. So many fashion designers have been inspired by this romantic, hyperfeminine look that it has become deeply associated with classical ballet.”
Dance & Fashion begins with the rise of Romantic dance—and the evolution of a signature ballerina style. The show’s oldest piece, worn in 1836 by the great Austrian ballerina Fanny Elssler—famous for her sensual take on the Spanish-style cachucha—looks like a extraordinary ethnic-inspired high-fashion dress, with its full pleated skirt in pale pink silk, cinched waist, and black lace trim. But the skirts get lighter, and more abbreviated, from there. Wispy tulle replaces the more opaque fabrics of yore, and hemlines creep from mid-calf to above the derriere, in the form of the now-iconic flat, pancake-style skirt.

Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 1916, brought Orientalism into fashion

Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 1916, brought Orientalism into fashion

The Romantic tutu has remained ballet’s most persistent symbol, inspiring both contemporary costume—such as the ethereal pink dress for the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s 1980s Creole take on Giselle—and fashion—such as Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons biker ballerina collection featuring fluffy pink skirts worn with tough leather jackets. But dance has continued to evolve, and to borrow from and shape the fashions of its day.
No other ballet company did more to upend the classical tutu, and to influence fashion, than Sergei Diaghilev’s famous avant-garde troupe, the Ballets Russes. Its 1910 production of Scheherazade, with its jewel-toned harem pants, turbans, and short boleros, for example, launched a craze for Orientalism—and inspired such couturiers as Paul Poiret in the teens and Yves Saint Laurent in the 1970s. Diaghilev would later enlist Coco Chanel to create sporty costumes for his 1920s ballet Le Train Bleu, as Orientalism’s lush excess made way for Modernism’s minimal chic.

Halston’s costume for Martha Graham’s Tangled Night, 1986

Halston’s costume for Martha Graham’s Tangled Night, 1986

Modernism also helped bring the leotard from the rehearsal space onto the stage—with special thanks to Neoclassical dancers like Isadora Duncan in the early 20th century and Martha Graham a generation later. “If ballet was about the legs,” Steele says, “Graham’s style of dance was about the torso and being able to move fluidly from the torso.” Graham’s stretchy, bias-cut costumes—which Graham designed and sewed herself—changed not only choreography, but also fashion. They inspired American sportswear designer Claire McCardell to create a line of tights and leotards and made the ballet flat omnipresent among young women in the mid-century. (Think Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face.) Halston’s slinky Studio 54–era sheaths owed an enormous debt to Graham—so much so that when the dancer developed arthritis in her hands, the young designer offered to make her costumes for her, including a sexy snakelike number featured in the exhibition.
Fashion designers continue to look to dance for its costumes (the ruffled skirts of Balenciaga’s flamenco-inspired dresses, or the stretchy rehearsal sweaters of Ralph Lauren’s elegant sylphs) as well as its athleticism, poise, and grace (Geoffrey Beene’s body-hugging jersey dresses, which he showed on ballerinas, or Rick Owens’s aforementioned dance-stepping collection). But fashion has proved just as vital and inspiring to dance, as choreographers continue to seek new modes of expression and attract new audiences. Some of the exhibition’s most stunning examples of this kind of collaboration are Rei Kawakubo’s lumpy, misshapen checkered outfits for Merce Cunningham, which forced the choreographer to explore the tension between the dancers’ movements and the rigid, awkward costumes, creating something thrilling and strange and completely original. Or Iris van Herpen’s brilliant black anti-tutu designed for the New York City Ballet, made of little pieces of plastic whose intricate placement had to be determined through a computer program. (The slippers were radical too: fierce black pointe boots that articulate the dancers’ calves.)
Dance & Fashion pushes the idea of the standard dance costume beyond the tutu and its countless high-fashion variations. “I wanted to show that even from the beginning, ballet was never just this white-bread Eurocentric style,” Steele says. “There was always a wide variety of costumes and dances that drew on non-Western stereotypes and traditions. And those dances continue to have an influence today.”

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Fashion and dance entwine in Tara Subkoff’s sexy costumes for
Stephen Petronio’s 2011 choreographic work Underland.