Costumes Through the Ages

Elina WisungBallet, costumes, Education, history, student scoop Leave a Comment

BY MAYA HARIDAS from En Avant Magazine May-June 2022
student scoopWhen you watch a ballet performance there are a million things that tell you what is going on: the music, the scenery, the lighting, the choreography… But what the dancers are clad in plays an enormous part in your experience. The Nutcracker’s Mouse King wouldn’t be quite so frightening were he dressed in a suit and tie!
15th Century

Costume, like every other aspect of a ballet show, has evolved considerably over the years. Here we take a look at how ballet costumes have evolved through the ages. When ballet began in the Italian courts of the 15th century, the dancers in these early court ballets were mostly noble amateurs. Ornamented costumes were meant to impress viewers, but they restricted performers’ freedom of movement.

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17th Century

In the earliest ballets of the 17th century, dancers traditionally wore heeled shoes. Men wore the costume à la Romaine, or tonnelet, a stiff, wired skirt of brocade or similar material, resembling in shape the modern tutu. 

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Women wore heavy costumes reminiscent of court dress, with elaborate trains, wigs and jewels, and heeled shoes. 

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18th Century

Male and sometimes female dancers wore leather masks, comic or tragic in appearance, that represented the character portrayed and concealed all facial expression. 

In the early 18th century female dancers began shortening their skirts to show off their lovely footwork and a new heel-less shoe was worn, some dancers also began removing the leather masks that so restricted their facial expressions. 

By the late 18th century, choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre appeared on the scene and managed a complete costume reform. The panniers (overskirts draped over an existing skirt to add volume) and hoop skirts abhorred by Noverre were finally discarded in favour of clinging tunics inspired by Grecian robes. The leather masks were done away with entirely.

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pointe shoe costume 14Among other innovations were tights in 1790, which allowed the freedom of movement to develop new steps, and shoes with blocked toes in about 1820, enabling female dancers to dance on pointe. 

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Men wore doublets and breeches similar to regular fashions of the day. 

19th Century

Marie Taglioni introduced the “Romantic tutu” in 1832, a multilayered skirt reaching to midcalf, which by the 1880s was shortened to reveal the whole leg. The tutu became the standard costume in the 19th century.

Have a look at the amazing detailing of these costumes!

Marie Taglioni 18

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Through the late 18th and the 19th centuries the tutu was shortened gradually, as footwork became increasingly intricate. By 1870, a new, stiffer style of tutu, called the Classical tutu, sat high above the knee and came with ruffled knickers for modesty.

The second image is a vintage poster for Aladdin

For Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in the late 1870s, an even shorter skirt was needed to allow for the jumps, and a flared garment that barely covered the behind caused a minor scandal! Quickly dubbed the Pancake for its flat, wide shape, it was held with hoops and 10 layers of netting. It soon became the style worn by prima ballerinas to show off their strength and skill.

costumes 2820th Century

In the 1900’s, the influence of orientalism had spread from fashion to the stage and vice versa. Indeed, fashion designers like Jean Poiret had already used the tunic shape taken up by dancers in the prewar era, and, in the 1920s, costume designers updated classical Russian story ballets with exotic tunics and veils wrapped around the body. Ballet dancers were dressed in loose tunics, harem pants, and turbans, rather than in the established tutu and feather headdress.  

Zoom in on these intricate details!

The 1950s saw another shape emerge – the Powder Puff, which did away with the hoops, and used modern fabrics to create and retain its shape.

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In the late 1900’s a new style began to develop with dancers performing in leotards and tights, bodysuits, male dancers often bare-chested. Tutus and doublets were still in action but mainly for the older classical ballets, modern ballets now had their own look and feel. 


That was our costume journey through the ages. Stay tuned for more features on the less celebrated aspects of ballet: the music, scenery, lighting and more.

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