Museum  March 4, 2020  Angelica Frey

How 20th-century Ballet Connected Artists Across Disciplines

©The Museum at FIT

Barbara Karinska, “Emeralds” costume from Jewels, original designed in 1967. Lent by the NewYork City Ballet.

In the early-to-mid 20th century, ballet was the art form that connected artists and intellectuals across disciplines, intertwining high-culture, glamour, and working-class aspirations. Salvador Dalí worked on a production of Le Tristan Fou, Dorothy Tanning did the costumes for Balanchine’s The Night Shadow, and Max Ernst and Joan Miró worked on Diaghilev’s Romeo et Juliette. Les Ballets Russes owed much of their cultural impact to the costumes and set designs of symbolist painter Leon Bakst. Coco Chanel designed costumes for ballet productions, while Madeleine Vionnet, the pioneer of the bias-cut dresses, was directly inspired by Isadora Duncan in her creations, drawing from the free-flowing lines of ancient-Greek garbs. Fashion giants, as an exhibition currently on view at Museum at FIT titled Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse demonstrates, inspired and were inspired by the world of ballet.

© The Museum at FIT

Howard Greer, “Odile” black silk tulle and sequin evening dress, circa 1951. Lent by BeverleyBirks.

“Had it not been for [Ballets Russes founder] Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 we would probably not see ballet become the art form it is,” Dr. Patricia Mears, who curated the exhibition, said during a phone interview. “He completely reinvigorated, elevated it and also shocked audiences with this new modern avant-garde kind of ballet.”

Despite how influential the total work of art of Les Ballets Russes was in pre-World War II arts and culture, Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse, does not give it a lot of space. With the exception of the costume for a production of the avant-garde ballet Firebird, the exhibition focuses on the way iconic costumes such as Swan Lake’s all-white Swan-Queen costume and its black counterpart, Sleeping Beauty’s pink, court-dress-inspired inspired tutu, and Giselle’s and La Sylphide’s diaphanous, full-skirted tutus influenced the fashion industry. The reason? As much as the turbans, the harem pants and the “pagan-Russia-inspired” costumes you see in, respectively, Scheherazade and Rite of Spring were fashionable at the time, “those were not really ballerina costumes,” said Mears. Excluding the more avant-garde costumes was, thus, an editorial decision.

© The Museum at FIT

Elsa Schiaparelli, “Sleeping” blue wool, beaded bolero jacket, spring 1940. Lent by Hamish Bowles.

In the 1930s, mainstream fashion blatantly took cues from the world of dance. The catalyst was a production of Sleeping Beauty. Ever since the Tchaikovsky ballet premiered in 1890, it had been lauded for its rich color palette that emancipated ballet from the monopoly of the ballets blancs, which had a predominantly white palette in costume designs. “With its bright and sometimes clashing pigments, Sleeping Beauty recalibrated ballet’s palette and made an indelible impression on Sergei Diaghilev and his coterie of costume designers,” writes Mears in the essay “Ballet and Couture in the Mid Century,” that appears in the accompanying catalogue.

One of the signature performances in Sleeping Beauty is the Bluebird pas de deux, which had a male dancer clad in bright shades of blue. Elsa Schiaparelli’s second signature hue, after “Shocking Pink,” is “Sleeping Blue,” which was clearly inspired by the ballet. Another color whose trendiness was spearheaded by Sleeping Beauty was lilac, the color worn by the namesake fairy, who acts as the savior in the ballet. Once a color loosely associated with mourning, by the 1930s it was widely celebrated on the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and at Bergdorf Goodman. “It’s Lilac Time—fragrant exquisiteness,” read an ad copy promoting a gown.

© The Museum at FIT

Charles James, "La Sylphide" silk organza and satin debutante dress, 1937. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Mrs. John Hammond.

Jewelry was not immune to the charms of ballet either: the “ballerina cocktail ring” was invented in the 1920s and it consisted of “a halo of tapered, baguette-cut diamonds shimmering around a large round center stone,” writes Mears. The connection with ballet? If viewed from the above, the ring resembled a flared tutu. In 1939, Van Cleef and Arpels, debuted the Ballerina brooch, depicting a dancer mid-arabesque; in 1941, they released a Danseuse Espagnole brooch, while, in 1944, they designed one directly inspired by famous prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. After all, Louis Arpels was a noted balletomane.

© The Museum at FIT

Noritaka Tatehana, pink leather ballerina pointe-style shoes, 2012. The Museum at FIT.

Perhaps no ballet symbolizes this synergy of different art forms better than George Balanchine’s Jewels (1967) the seemingly plotless extravaganza in three disjointed acts: Emeralds, Rubies, Diamonds. What it is, however, is a tribute to dance, jewelry, art history, and history of ballet itself, the costumes a reflection of different ballet eras and traditions. Emeralds is a tribute to romantic ballet and has the dancers clad in calf-length tutus; Rubies, a celebration of America, has dancers dance to Stravinsky wearing red bodices with flaps; while Diamonds, a reflection of the legacy of Imperial Russia, came with short, powder-puffed tutus. Of course, all costumes were adorned with jewel-encrusted patterns.

”Many of the ballets reference princesses and members of royalty or some magical creature like a fairy, so what's better to invoke that sense than a jewel in the modern sense, as we can think about the ballerina as the jewel within the performing arts?” said Mears, referencing the fact that ballets tended to have their female lead play a role that could be a princess (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty) or some magical, ethereal being (La Sylphide, Giselle). As the story goes, Balanchine himself was inspired by looking at the windows of Van Cleef and Arpels on Fifth Avenue.

© The Museum at FIT

Cristobal Balenciaga for Hattie Carnegie, pink silk tulle and satin evening dress with silver metal embroidery, 1950. Lent by Beverley Birks.

Jewels are an apt metaphor for what the ballerina stands for. “She's a glistening, idealized beauty, something that's both real but also intangible at the same time.”

About the Author

Angelica Frey

Angelica Frey is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. She writes about art, culture, and food.

Subscribe to our free e-letter!


Latest News

The Return of The Portal, Connecting New York And Dublin

Last Monday saw the return of The Portal, a large live-streaming video…

Five Female-Driven Films That Celebrate Women in the Arts

While audiences have always loved a good biopic, finding the…

Christie’s, Sotheby's, and Phillips: Auction Highlights and Record Breaks

Despite the market’s slight lull in comparison to the last few years…

10 Must-See Works at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

A “must see” during any visit to

Charles III Reveals His First Official Portrait As King

Britain’s Charles III has unveiled his first official

Art and Object Marketplace - A Curated Art Marketplace