Ballet Costumes - Historical Development

Ballet was first introduced in the aristocratic courts of Western Europe, primarily in Italy and subsequently France. Ballet was initially a combination of professional acrobatics and folk dance and combined with the aristocratic grace of the courtier. Prior to Le Ballet Comique de la Reine, such performances had been seen in the Italian court since the Renaissance period.


The earliest known ballet performance was staged in Milan at the wedding of the Duke of Milan to Isabel of Aragon in 1489. Some observers point to 1581, when Catherine De Medici, to please her son Henry III, arranged an extravaganza for the wedding of Duc de Joyeuse to Maragarite of Lorraine. The name of the first ballet was Le Ballet Comique de la Reine, The Comic Ballet of the Queen. Ballet became a favorite pastime for Henry III and his court. Modern ballet clearly originated in Italy where it was employed as a court spectacle. In its infancy it consisted of song, recitation, music, and dance.


Classical ballet is movement based on the traditional technique of the 17th and 18th century French ballet and the 19th century Italian School. Ballet was carried to the French Court. The growth of court luxury under Louis XIII and Louis XIV provided the opportunity for ballet to grow in importance and it became a favored diversion. It was during the reign of Louis XIV that ballet was first performed on the public stage. Louis XIV created the most spectacular court in Europe and made many refinements in dance and costuming.


Early Dance Wear
As ballet was first developing in European royal courts there were no costumes specifically designed for practice wear. The clothes worn at the time look to us today as costumes since dancers simply wore their normal clothing, which were quite elaborate. Men's clothing at the time was not suitable for dancing. Their heavily brocaded tunics and coats were stiff and unyielding along with knee breeches, wigs and even swords belted to their waists. Women wore clothing even less suitable for dancing. Their outfits included stiffly laced long-sleeved, heavily boned bodices and panniered skirts. Such restrictive, cumbersome outfits allowed little possibility for elaborate athletic movement. Dance steps in early in history, were stiff and dignified looking and due in part required by the restrictive clothing.

Costumes Appear
Gradually by the 16th century dance steps became more refined. Aspects of the modern ballet, such as elaborate costumes began to appear as dancing became increasingly theatrical. The "ballet de cour" (court ballet) came to be more theatrical and feature elaborate scenery and beautiful costumes. Rituals such as precessions, poetic speeches, music, and dancing came together to create early ballets. The first recognized ballet known to us today was Le Ballet Comique de la Reine, which was performed in 1581 at the wedding of the queen of France's sister.

     Modern ballet first emerged in France. The development of ballet as a disciplined art form was the personal interest of French King Louis XIV. King Louis at the time was the most powerful king in Europe. Louis is best known as the "Sun King" and he sought to dazzle Europe with the splendor of his court and lavish dance productions. This was not merely for show, Louis wanted to make sure the important French nobles were with him at Versailles rather than making trouble in the provinces. Louis took a personal interest in dance. He commissioned the dance master Beauchamp, and trained daily with him. One of the roles he was famous for dancing was the Rising Sun, which gave rise to the term him the "Sun King". Louis eventually developed a school for dance named the Academie Royale de Danse.

Academie Nationale de Musique et de Danse
Louis XIV established the Academie Nationale de Musique et de Danse in 1661. At the Academy, Louis' dance master, Beauchamp, developed and codified basic ballet steps and recorded them. These recorded steps are the same steps, which are the basis of classical ballet performed today. Louis' interest in dance and the establishment of the Academie Nationale promoted the emergence of the first professional dancers in Europe. These skilled, highly trained dancers permitted the development of much more complex ballet techniques than had ever before been attempted.

Opera Houses
Ballets were initially court dances performed at the royal courts. The French court became especially known for these ballets. King Louis XIV in 1669 opened Europe's first opera house in Paris. Ballet was first seen publicly in the theater as a feature in an opera. The first opera produced with a ballet component was "Pomone". These early ballet's were created by Louis XIV's dance master, Beauchamp.

The public performances of ballet beginning in 1669 proved a great success. Promoters increased the number of performances to meet the public demand. Courtiers who danced as a hobby or daliance were not interested in fancying publically. Thus it was professional dancers who performed in the public opera houses. The Academie Nationale de Musique et de Danse was turning out well trained professionals who had undergone a difficult and demanding training program. The quality of dance was thus much improved over the court dances. But, the physical movement of these early professional dancers was severely limited by their lavish costumes, wigs, and headpieces. The dancers were litterly weighed down. In addition, there was a problem with their footwear. They wore the popular court shoes of the day, which consisted of stiff soles and tiny heels. These stiff soled shoes made it difficult to dance with the choreographic style of the pointed toe.

Women Dancers
Women had participated in court ballets. But, performing in public was a different matter. Women in Europe were not permitted to dance in public performances. They also did not perform in plays. For example, the female roles in Sheakespear's plays were performed by boys and men. Women first performed publicly in France in 1681. These female dancers quickly began to develop quick foot movements and multiple pirouettes into their dances. This resulted in women wearing "cal eons de precaution" (precautionary drawers) so as to keep their legs modestly covered. Even when practicing, dancers wore elaborate clothing. It was often difficult to determine if the dancers were at an active social gathering or warming up and practicing as leotards and tights were not yet available for dances. This clothing especially hindered female dancers covered up and made it difficult to perform elaborate footwork.

Shortened Skirts
Marie Camargo in the early 18th century was the first female dancer who dared tackle the problem that women faced with long skirts. She shortened her skirts to just above the ankle. Her audiences were shocked, but this enabled them to see and appreciate the intricate footwork and dramatic complex jumps that she had developed. In fact they often were as dramatic as those performed by the male dancers. Not to be outdone, a rival, Marie Salle, further shocked Parisian audiences by discarding cumbersome petticoats that enveloped dances and perform in a rather flimsy muslin dress. Perhaps because of these developments, female dancers in the 18th century became as important if not more important in attracting audiences.

Ballet Companies
The growing popularity of ballet gave rise to a new phenomenon--the ballet company. This was a major development in the history of ballet. A ballet company is a group of dancers who train and practice professionally. It allowed dancers to practice complex ballet routes together and afforded opportunities for younger dancers to develop professionally. The first true ballet company worked out of the Paris Opera beginning in 1713. Soon other companies were organizing in other important French cities.

Dance Wear
The French Revolution at the end of the 18th century brought about changes in what dancers wore during practice. The new French Republic looked to the democratic ideas of Greece and Rome. Soon fashion followed the political turns. Dancers began wearing simple, lightweight, clinging robes inspired by classical models. These styles became fashionable for women, both dancers and the general public. The transition to Napoleon's Empire had only minimal affect at first. The idea became the Roman Empire rather than the Roman Republic. These dresses became known as Empire dresses and the style became popular throughout Europe.

Tight became a major innovation utilized in dancewear during the late 18th century. A costume maker and designer at the Paris Opéra named Maillot invented tights. This new garment revolutionized the world of dance. Used at first for practice, dancers were no longer inccumbered by heavy restrictive clothing. Tights permitted a degree of freedom that dancers had never before experienced. Thus dancers and choreographers could develop dance techniques taking advantage of this freedom of movement. Dances were no longer limited to simple elegant steps. But were now afforded the ability to perform complex, dramatic athletic movement. This allowed ballet to progress far beyond its previous limited boundaries.

Carlos Blasis
The dramatic new developments in dance were promoted by one of the great dance teachers of all time--Carlo Blasis. He published a ground breaking technical manual for dance, the Trait Elementaire et Pratique de la Danse in 1820. This manual included drawings. Blasis himself posed for the drawings, dressed only short pants and ballet shoes to show the required body posture for each movement. As a dance teacher, he was interested in practicality for ballet practice and designed garments that revolutionized the clothing worn in the dance studio. Blasis insisted that his female pupils wear practice outfits composed of a "...bodice and skirt of white muslin and a black sash being worn around the waist". The male dancers he insisted wear "... a jacket which fits the shape close, with trousers, all of white cloth; round the waist a girdle of black leather is worn, confined and tightened by means of buckles, thus giving support ...." (After the French Revolution, knee breaches, a symbol of the Ancien Regime had begun to be replaced with long trousers and this trend was especially noticeable --even for gentlemen in polite society.) For Blasis, it was important that "The dress of dancers should always sit close to the shape, and fit perfectly well, that no part of the outline of the figure may be concealed; care being taken that the dress be not so tight as to confine or embarrass any of his movements or attitudes." Not only were the dancers in such garments freer to execute complex and demanding steps, but the teacher could better assess body posture and the execution of the required movements.

August Bournonville
There were other advocates for simple practical practice garments. One of the most important was August Bournonville--an important Danish choreographer. He was a strong proponent of practical dancewear. He had been elated with the Paris Opéra dancewear requirements when he danced there in 1826. Long, loose trousers were replaced by knee breeches and silk hose. Long trousers in fact hid many technical faults that needed to be corrected in practice. Bournonville also created practice wear. He is best noted for his "Bournonville slipper" worn by male dancers and an important step in the development of modern ballet footwear. They are still worn in productions of his ballets. Bournonville slippers are black and have a white, V-shaped vamp in the front. This helped give the impression of a long and pointed foot, a ballet ideal.

The Romantic Movement
After the fall of Napoleon in 1815 a new artistic movement began to develop. By the 1820s the "Romantic Movement", was in full swing. Romanticism emerged first in art and literature but dance was also affected by romanticism. By 1830, ballet as a theatrical art truly came into its own. Influenced by the Romantic Movement, which was sweeping the world of art, music, literature and philosophy, ballet took on a whole new look. The ballerina ruled supreme. Female dancers now wore calf-length, white bell-shaped tulle skirts. To enhance the image of the ballerina as light and elusive, the pointe shoe was introduced, enabling women to dance on the tips of their toes.

Paris Opera
By 1844, it was reported that the dancers of the Paris Opéa were appearing in ballet class in the following attire: "The girls are bare-headed and decolletes; their arms are bare, the waist confined in a tight bodice. A very short, bouffant skirt, made of net or striped muslin reaching to the knees. Their thighs are chastely hidden under large calico bloomers, impenetrable as a state secret. The men, without neckties, with throats bare, wear short vests of white material and breeches reaching half way down the leg, fastened at the waist by a leather belt." The bouffant skirt mentioned above was an early version of what we know today as the Romantic tutu, which is worn in such ballets as La Sylphide and Giselle. The puffy, multi-layered skirts reached well below the knee in the 1870s and are familiar to us from Edgar Degas' many sketches, paintings and sculptures immortalizing the female dancer.

Victorian Sensibilities
Victorian sensibilities caused a return to very elaborate dancewear. On stage in the 1890s, dance spectacle at its most lavish reigned supreme. Off stage in the rehearsal room, ballerinas wore quite complicated outfits: "First came a chemise tied at the waist with a little ribbon; then a little corset, laced up tight; then cotton panties and long cotton stockings fastened with suspenders and over these bloomers; then a white batiste bodice, sleeveless, with a ruffle around the neck and the double tarleton skirts of the tutu. A neat sash around the waist completed the picture." How dancers could possibly move in such outfits is impossible to fathom. It is easy to understand why dancers in old photographs are revealed with bent knees, flabby thighs and heavy leg muscles; teachers simply could not correct the technical and physical flaws that were hidden under all these garments. Of course, it was fashionable and desirable at the time for all women to be nicely rounded with voluptuous curves.

The Tutu
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.

Isadore Duncan
It was in the early years of the 20th century that dance clothes began to change to those that are commonly used today. Isadora Duncan, one of the first innovators, was considered to be an extremist when she discarded shoes, stockings and tutus and danced on stage in bare feet and flimsy Greek tunics. But soon many classical ballerinas, including Anna Pavlova, began to wear the practical, uncluttered tunic for rehearsals. At the same time, musical comedy and revue dancers started to practice in bare legs, while others adopted the trendy one-piece bathing suit, made famous by the long-distance swimmer Annette Kellerman, and/or rompers.

Modern dancers, on the other hand, wore the new leotard for their practice wear. Invented by the trapeze artist Jules Leotard, the original leotard consisted of a close-fitting suit of knitted jersey, which reached to the wrists and ankles; the woman's version came with a short fringed skirt. Today, the leotard is the accepted uniform of dancers around the world and is designed in many attractive patterns, colours and materials.

Leg Warmers
Bare legs were never very popular with dancers for practice sessions since the leg muscles must be kept continually warm. Today dancers wear not only leotards and tights but also leg warmers and/or plastic pants over their tights in order to keep their muscles warm and supple.

Written by Christopher Wagner
Edited by Lydia Harmon