Tendu, jeté and grande plié are ballet terms that are a part of a ballerina’s vernacular. Comparatively, to a designer who constructs ballet costumes, the words structure, fit and durability are a part of their design vernacular. Tutus and costumes have a contrasting, dual responsibility: the garment should appear light and whimsically ethereal, but at the same time, there is a heavy emphasis on proper design, strength and durability of the construction of the garment. Additionally, costumes and tutus are often shared amongst dancers and reused in other productions. The costumes are put through the arduous task of withstanding the intense physics of ballet: the fabric must stretch and move with the dancer’s cardiovascular exertion and extreme range of flexibility, while absorbing the sweat produced by the dancer, in addition to surviving the storing process as time slowly erodes the delicate fabrics of the costume.
The ballet and the tutu have a deeply rooted and fascinating history. The French word “ballet” comes from the Italian word “ballare” which means, “to dance”. Moreover, the word “tutu” was derived from a colloquial children’s word meaning “bottom” in French (Looseleaf). Ballet terminology has remained predominantly French, however, ballet terms are a universal language amongst dancers, allowing performers from all over the world to precisely communicate technique and choreography. Furthermore, ballet first emerged in Italy in the late fifteenth century and was later reinvigorated in France when Catherine de Medici of Italy, wed King Henry II of France (Haskell 17). During this time, Catherine de Medici initiated early dance forms into the court culture of France (“A Brief History of Ballet”). Knowing how to dance was a revered accomplishment and a testament to one’s rank in society and social status.
Dancing was reserved only for women and became popular during the early nineteenth century where women would dance in white, bell shaped skirts with a hemline that stopped mid calf (“A Brief History of Ballet”). Furthermore, the tutu was credited to have been invented by French painter and designer, Eugéne Louis Lami (Zoppi). In 1832, the first “romantic” tutu designed by Lami and was worn by Italian ballerina, Marie Taglioni (Looseleaf). Taglioni was one of the first women to perform en pointe and she did so in the title role of the Paris Opera Ballet’s “La Sylphide” (“Marie Taglioni”). The tutu worn in “La Sylphide” was a “romantic” style tutu that featured a skirt with a longer hemline (see figure 1).
Often, ballerinas were fitted into corsets or bodices that featured over skirts or skirts with a long hemline and a hoop frame. French ballerina, Marie Camargo, simplified the design by eliminating the shoe’s heel and shortening the hemline of the skirt in 1726 (Haskell 20). Symbolically, the tutu was a simplified version of a gown from the nineteenth century that featured a form fitting bodice, a wider neckline that exposed the shoulders, an accentuated bust line and a broad skirt that featured a hemline that stopped at the ankles (Zoppi).
Special thanks to Ingrid Mida for allowing me to analyze this tutu from the Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. This gorgeous tutu designed by Göran Ljungburg (object ID#2014.08.025 and ID#2014.08.026), features a stunningly beautiful bodice and tutu that made its premiere on stage on May 1, 1985 in “Raymonda: Act III”, and featured the choreography of Terry Westmoreland and Marius Petipa (The National Ballet of Canada. Repertoire List 1980-1989) (see figure 2).
The story of Raymonda features the beautiful, only daughter of a noble family in Hungary. Raymonda is engaged to be married to a knight named Jean de Brienne but they soon separate when Jean de Brienne leaves to fight in the Crusades. Later in the evening, Raymonda has a dream where she is reunited with her love, Jean de Brienne. Jean suddenly disappears in her dream and is replaced by an Eastern knight who Raymonda does not recognize. Raymonda determines that her nightmare is an omen. In act II, a party is in full effect and an unexpected guest, Abderakhman attends. Raymonda recognizes Abderakhman as the unidentifiable knight from her dream. In an effort to win Raymonda’s hand in marriage, Abderakhman promises wealth and power in return for her love. Raymonda rejects Abderakhman, which enrages him and causes him to attempt to abduct her. All of a sudden, the knights who had fought in the Crusades return all at once, including Jean de Brienne. The King of Hungary suggests that the two knights fight to win Raymonda’s heart. Jean de Brienne wins the duel by killing Abderakhman and is reunited with Raymonda. Finally, in act III, Jean de Brienne marries Raymonda (Raymonda Ballet in Three Acts).
Thirty-three years have elapsed since this tutu graced the stage but I can still feel the energy and the brilliance that emanates from this gorgeous ballet costume that features a sweetheart neckline, cap sleeves that drape off the shoulders, a cream coloured damask boned bodice with lace, gold metallic trim and a plethora of pearls, iridescent rhinestones (see figure 3), along with a white tutu that features a gold painted skirt plate with a gold lace overlay (see figure 4).
This tutu is a “bell tutu” (see figure 5), because it is directly attached to the panty and features a softer, more flexible skirt in contrast to the significantly longer hemline of a “romantic tutu” and the stiffer skirt and shorter hemline of a “classical tutu”. The “bell tutu” shows off the dancer’s toned legs and the intricacies of each and every choreographed step.
The gender of this garment is distinctly female and is intended for a female ballerina who has a 33–inch bust line, a 25-inch waist and 33-inch hips. The main fabrics that have been used to construct the bodice are predominantly natural, such as a thick, cotton canvas with boning (see figure 6), to emphasize proper fit, structure and durability.
The gold lace and cream coloured tulle in the tutu accentuate the delicateness of this garment and the daintiness of the dancer who wears it. As previously mentioned, costumes are often shared amongst dancers and evidence of this is found in the tags stitched into the bodice and written on the tutu’s waistband. Two tags read “Alberta Ballet” and “National Ballet of Canada” respectively (see figure 7).
In addition, the names of five ballerinas who previously wore this costume are written on labels adhered to the inside of the costume. The names Dennis, Misa, Gavin and an additional name that is partially covered, are found written on the inside of the bodice. The surname, Witkowsky, is written on the waistband (see figure 8). Gizella Witkowsky was born in Toronto and began to perform with the National Ballet of Canada in 1975. Witkowsky had a prolific career that spanned over two decades with the National Ballet of Canada, where she performed numerous lead roles in many classical ballets (Quinte). Witkowsky is now retired from professional dance but continues to teach master classes to this day (Quinte).
The dominant colours are cream and gold and the tutu features a floral motif of embroidered flowers decorated with rhinestone rivets. One of the most unique aspects of this garment is the amount of embellishments, which cause it to be heavier than other tutus. Usually, tutus are less complex in design, lighter and not as extensively embellished. An embellished tutu such as this one states the wealth, glamour and power of the character personified in the ballet, as well as the maturity and seniority of the ballerina who wears it. Specifically in act III of Raymonda, Jean de Brienne returns from the Crusades to marry Raymonda in this costume, which is why this tutu is so richly ornate.
As a classically trained dancer with over a decade of professional performances on my resumé, I truly treasure a tutu as sumptuously magnificent as this one because not all tutus are created equal and it is a rare characteristic to have a customizable fit. For dancers, it is not “one size fits all” but rather “one small fits all”. I marvel at the craft, foresight and the workmanship invested into this garment that is demonstrated by a second line of “eyes” in order for each dancer to customize the fit of the bodice to their body (see figure 9).
The details such as a pearl lined neckline and bustline, a metallic gold braided trim, a bedazzled bodice, a gold lace overlay, delicate sleeves, a flattering sweetheart neckline, a “bell tutu” and flesh coloured elastics at the shoulders to hold the bodice up firmly, are evidence of a well constructed dance costume (see figure 10).
There is something magical about the tutu and how it makes the wearer feel when it is worn. According to Adam, “enclothed cognition” is used to describe, “the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes” (1). Tutus have a way in making the dancer feel like the goddess of her realm. At the same time, behind the smile, the tightly coifed bun and the stage makeup, the ballerina dances across the stage as the tutu bounces with every movement, while simultaneously trying to disregard the pain emanating from her feet as she continues through the graceful art of dance. Furthermore, the embodiment of boning within the bodice of a dance costume is a double-edged sword. On one hand, a bodice without boning feels like something is missing because it lacks the firm structure, but on the other hand, boning can restrict movement causing the dancer to make subtle modifications in choreography where fashion may hinder movement. This ornate tutu is a symbol of a technically advanced dance career culminating to a high point.
This costume is extremely fragile and should be handled cautiously and stored appropriately to prevent causing further damage. This garment shows wear on the panty and the colour of the floral embroidery on the skirt has faded over time (see figure 11). In addition, the delicate lace has become discoloured over the years and the hook and eye closure on the back of the bodice looks timeworn. Do better procedures exist to preserve delicate costumes?
Similar to how actors say “break a leg”, dancers say “merde” to one another prior to gracing the stage. The ballerinas who wore this tutu certainly heard this term often, which in this context, means “good luck”. For some, ballet is a form of creative expression that guides the dancer, as well as the viewer, on a journey to an artistic escape. The tutu is the final piece of the puzzle that allows the ballerina to enter her ultimate realm of artistic expression through fashion and athleticism.
“A Brief History of Ballet.” Atlanta Ballet, 2018, https://www.atlantaballet.com/resources/brief-history-of-ballet. Accessed 19 February 2018.
Adam, Hajo, and Adam D. Galinsky. “Enclothed Cognition.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol 48, no. 4, 2012, pp. 918-925.
Haskell, Arnold L. Ballet: A Complete Guide to Appreciation, History, Aesthetics, Ballets, Dancers. Vol. A122, Penguin, 1951.
Looseleaf, Victoria. The Story of the Tutu. Dance Magazine, 2 October 2007. http://www.dancemagazine.com/the-story-of-the-tutu-2306873745.html. Accessed 19 February 2018.
“Marie Taglioni.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marie-Taglioni. Accessed 24 March 2018.
Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object Based Research in Fashion. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
Quinte Ballet School of Canada. Gizella Witkowsky, Ballet, Pointe, Repertoire. http://www.quinteballetschool.com/admin-staff/. Accessed 20 March 2018.
Raymonda Ballet in Three Acts. Bolshoi, 2015, https://www.bolshoi.ru/en/performances/63/libretto/. Accessed 19 March 2018.
“The National Ballet of Canada. Repertoire List 1980-1989”. The National Ballet of Canada Archives, https://national.ballet.ca/Tickets/Archives/RepertoireList/1980-1989. Accessed 19 February 2018.
Zoppi, Sabrina. Vogue Italia Encyclopedia The Tutu. Vogue Italia, http://www.vogue.it/en/news/encyclo/mania/t/the-tutu. Accessed 20 February 2018.