Dance Attire Through the Ages
Too Heavy to Dance In
In the 1400's, dancers were ladened with so much costuming that one could barely relate the word ballet to their presentations. The attire consisted of layers and layers of weighty fabric that disallowed the performance of much more than graceful poses.
Later during the time of Catherine de Medicis, dancers wore masks, wigs, large headdresses and heeled shoes. Woman wore panniers and hoopskirts that draped at the sides for fullness. Men wore tonnelets, which were basically knee-length bloomers that bubbled out like pumpkin pants. Although balance and control were essential to this style of performance, the development of ballet technique was thwarted by these showy costumes.
Shocking Above the Ankle Dancewear
The French dancer Marie Camargo, however, rebelled and shortened her skirts to above her ankles. She danced in heel-less slippers to show her jumps and beats, or batterie. Her rival, Marie Sallé, also broke with custom when she put on Greek robes to dance in her ballet, Pygmalion, which was performed in 1734. Both dancers were required to wear "calcons de precaution," easily translated to "precautionary drawers," so as not to expose anything inappropriate.
In the year 1763, Jason and Madea was performed without masks or the huge costumes typically worn by ballet dancers of the day. This was considered a daring step for Jean Noverre to break from traditional costuming and shocked the audience.
Relaxing of the Dancewear Code
During the time of the French revolution, Salvatore Viganò, a theatrical genius of many talents,and his wife, were shown in much lighter costumes. His wife wore light flowing dresses cut similar to the French Empire line. Both Vigano and his
wife wore soft flexible ballet shoes.
Carlo Blasis published the technical manual Trait Elementaire et Pratique de la Danse, in 1820, which included drawings for which Blasis had posed, dressed in nothing but shorts and ballet shoes. Though Blasis did not recommend the wearing of shorts as practice wear for fear that the dancers might catch cold, he was very much concerned with the specifics of practice clothing and designed official dancewear. He thought that girls should wear white muslin dresses with black sashes at the waist, and males should wear white close fitting jackets and trousers with a black leather waistband for support.
The 1832 new Paris Opéra regulations replaced the long, loose trousers with knee breeches and silk hose since it had been decided that the long pants hid too many technical faults and anatomical defects. August Bournonville invented the "Bournonville slipper" for male dancer which is still worn today in all Bournonville ballets. These black slippers have a white, V-shaped vamp in the front, making for a betterlooking, long and pointed foot.
In 1832 Marie Taglioni's father choreographed a ballet for her to perform. La Sylphide, was one of the first major ballets and is still performed today. In La Sylphide, Taglioni wore a bell shaped dress with a fitted bodice, the fashion of
which would become the romantic tutu, fifty years later.
By 1844, it was reported that the dancers of the Paris Opéra were appearing in ballet class in attire sounding very much like the attire prescribed and outlined by Carlo Blasis.
On stage in the 1890s, Victorian sensibilities caused a return to very elaborate dancewear. Off stage in the rehearsal room, ballerinas wore very involved outfits that included a chemise tied at the waist with ribbon, then a little corset that was laced up tight, cotton panties and long cotton stockings that were fastened with suspenders and over that were bloomers. They wore a white sleeveless batiste bodice, with a ruffle around the neck and double tarleton skirts of the tutu with a sash around the waist.
The bell-shaped Romantic dress of the mid-1800s gave way to the tutu in the 19th century that extended only to the knee. This allowed the ballerina much more mobility and displayed her technique.
Mikhail Folkine, started to push the rules of costume in the imperial theatre during the early 1900's.In his Greek style ballet, Eunice, he made it look like the dancers were in bare feet by having toes painted on the dancers' shoes. Bare feet would have defied the rules of the imperial theatre.
It was in the early part of the 20th century that dance attire began to change. Isadora Duncan, one of the first innovators, was considered to be an extremist when she discarded her shoes and stockings and danced on stage in bare feet. Her flimsy Greek tunics soon became the practical and acceptable style of dancewear worn for rehearsal.
When in 1946, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein had formed the Ballet Society, they decided to discard the very constricting costumes designed for their premier performance. The dancers danced on stage in what were referred to as rehearsal costumes. This look allowed audiences to see the full dance and the costume style became common in Balanchine's ballets.
The Introduction of the Leotard
Not much longer would it be before dancers adopted the trendy one-piece bathing suit rompers became popular rehearsal dancewear. Needless to say, this was the predecessor of today's leotard. Dupont bagan commercial production of a fabric called nylon, synthesized completely from petrochemicals, in 1939 and it found its way into the hosiery market before the start of World War II.
Nylon was one of the first fabrics used in the manufacture of bodysuits. Black short sleeve leotards for kids were worn with nylon ankle socks and pink ballet slippers. Adults donned the classic long sleeve version of ballet leotard with a scoop neckline. Bare legs were never very popular with dancers for practice sessions, since the leg muscles should be kept warm. When nylon was used to create the early versions of tights, scratchy or not, they were a marvel.
It would not be until 1959 that Spandex, another man made fabric, would come to revolutionize many areas of the clothing industry, especially those dependent on fabrics that had the ability to stretch. It would take a few years to reach the marketplace, but fashions extended to include tank style and camisole or spaghetti strap style leotards, some with pinched fronts. Legwear became smoother, less scratchy and stopped bagging at the ankle. Dancers were set free to fly!
The Adaptation of Tights
First came the 100% nylon products introduced and marketed as durable, and they were. Classic pink mesh ballet tights were manufactured with a seam up the back and were practically indestructible, itchy, but indestructible. Then came versions of shiny tights that had a stretchy consistency, and tights that were named after what they did, they held and they stretched. These were made of a blend of mostly nylon with a little lycra added. Ballerinas could wear tights with their bodysuits, top them off with some knitted legwarmers and they were able to solve the long-time problem of keeping their muscles warm. But wait, it gets better. In the l990's tights started to be manufactured with a Supplex yarn added to their content. Ultrasoft and total-stretch, were descriptions new to dancewear shelves around the globe. All of the major manufacturers jumped on this one. One more problem solved was that dancers no longer had to slice the bottom of their tights to expose their bare feet when needed. The new fabric sparked the lightbulb that this stretchable factor could be extended far enough to stretch out over the foot. The end result was the new style called convertible, transition, adaptatoe and many other never before used words to describe tights. Companies like PrimaSoft and Body Wrappers were some of the first to recognize this and were joined by Capezio and Bloch early on. No more itch, no more baggy ankles, Supplex ballet tights have technique.