Tutu Many Sparkles
When ballet was born in the early 1400s, it most certainly didn’t look like the ballet of today. It started as a social dance in ballrooms for French and Italian nobility. Participants would dance for special occasions like a royal birth or an important marriage. They wore the clothes of the times. The dresses had layers upon layers of heavy fabric that made them hard enough to stand in, let alone dance in. The men wore full wigs, blouses, jackets, and bloomers. Since ballet began as a social dance for special occasions, it started out very simple. Footwork, arm positioning, and poses were in basic and easy to learn patterns, as were floor movements, which were in simple patterns like lines and circles. These origins define the rudimentary structure seen in all ballets, old and new, although multiple innovations have transformed the genre into something quite different.
Companies, or troupes, emerged later with hired performers and members of the duke’s court that performed to impress the nobility. Then, things started getting more complicated. During the time of Catherine de Medici, dancers wore masks, wigs, large headdresses, and heeled shoes. The masks portrayed different characters or character types like devils, fairies, or dwarves. Women wore panniers and hoopskirts that looked very similar to the full dresses of Disney’s Belle, Cinderella, and Enchanted’’s Giselle, but with long, puffy, heavy sleeves. Men’s outfits took on a more costumed appearance as well. Tiptoedancewear.com says that male dancers “wore tonnelets, which were basically knee-length bloomers that bubbled out like pumpkin pants.” As a result, ballet technique fairly primitive in the early stages of development because of these weighty, showy, and constrictive costumes. The dances, also called “pieces” and “choreography,” consisted mostly of poses, upper body and arm movements, and floor patterns.
The first shocking change happened when Marie Camargo shortened her skirt to just above her ankles, like the performer we see in the picture above from Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Giselle. For the times, this was scandalous. An innovation like this would have spread all over Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and traditional news mediums had it happened today. Masks changed as well with the costumes. In 1763, Jason and Madea performed without masks or huge costumes. In fact, masks became less popular and started to fade out. Performers transitioned to half masks, and in the 1770s, stage make-up replaced most masks.
The next big change in the costumes happened after the French Revolution during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Women wore Grecian style dresses that were made out of lighter fabrics and showed off the dancer’s body. The bodice, the part of the costume that fits the torso from the shoulders to the hips, was fitted like earlier dresses, but the sleeves also became fitted and shorter, and the skirt hung closer to the dancer’s body. Men began to wear fitted jackets and breeches. Since both men’s and women’s costumes became more contoured, the performers could dance together in a pas de deux, the dance of two. Lifts and turns became easier since, because of the loose fabric in the previous costumes, men’s hands were more likely to slip and the woman would be more likely to fall.
Then, a significant innovation changed the nature of performances in a memorable way. The women dancers also wore flat shoes instead of small heels, which allowed them to rise up onto demi-pointe. Demi-pointe means to rise up onto the ball of your foot as if to reach for something on the top shelf. As pointe shoes developed, they allowed ballet dancers to turn and balance on their toes, as we see in the picture to the left. Marie Taglioni is credited as the first ballerina to dance en pointe. This allowed for ballet technique to grow along with the costumes. Greater athleticism was required to match a clothing innovation.
Before too long, form and function began blending into an even more comfortable marriage. In 1832, Marie Taglioni performed in the ballet La Sylphide in a fitted, bell-shaped dress in pointe shoes, as we see again in the picture above. This was the first resemblance of a tutu, and she wore it to show off all of the little steps and complicated footwork in her pointe shoes. This bell-shaped dress turned into the now-named Romantic Tutu, after the Romantic Period from which it originated. In the same year, the Paris Opera thought that the loose pants the men wore hid too many faults and physical defects. They then switched them over to “knee breeches and silk hose.”
During the mid-1800s, the Romantic tutu was shortened to the knees under Michel Fokine in order to show off more of his dancer’s pointe work, or dancing on top of the pointe shoes such as balancing, traveling, intricate steps, and multiple turns en pointe. The audience then wanted to see more pointe work and hard technique as sub-elements of the same culture challenged the discipline to reach even greater technical and aesthetic heights. This gave way to the classical tut, which was first worn by the Italian ballerina Virginia Zucci in the mid 1880s which looked like a current “bell,” or even Romantic tutu.
From what I’ve seen of Romantic tutus, they’re worn to show off intricate footwork and huge jumps. This type of tutu coincides with the Romantic styled ballets such as La Sylphide, Giselle, and A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. In La Sylphide and A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, the fairies run around the stage with quick feet, dance fast yet simple steps, make fast little jumps, and take huge leaps on and off stage. In Giselle, the vengeful spirits, called “Wilis bourrée,” take quick small steps en pointe across the floor with veils over their heads and upper body. The Romantic tutu, along with the veils, only allows the audience to see the dancer’s feet moving quickly and effortlessly. Giselle, the main character, dances with clean, simple steps juxtaposed with daring leaps, one after another. The Romantic tutu emphasizes footwork because of the length of the tutu, either cut at the knees or ankles, and big jumps since the tulle flows and has an airy feeling as it falls back down. This helps the dancer look like she stays in the air longer, and it also hides bad technique more easily compared to today’s Classical tutus.
As years went by, the tutu became what we all see in pictures and advertisements. The most popular one is the Classical tutu, which is flat and set on the dancer’s hips. It has many different names, such as the “Pancake,” “Platter,” “Plate,” or “Russian” tutu. The second type of classical tutu is the Powderpuff, or “Balanchine” tutu, a variation of the flat Classical tutu. The bell tutu stands alone without a stage of ballet costumes even though it remains very close to the Classical tutus. Today’s bell tutu combines the looks of the Classical and Romantic tutus for its own distinctive appearance.
Classical and bell tutus show off technique and are iconic towards the ballet scene. From what I’ve noticed, the stars prefer the Classical tutus, especially the ones with the most embellishments and sparkles, usually topped off with a tiara. They become the stars by rising to the occasion and being the best, so the tutu becomes a visual representation of their small and big achievements along the way. It proves that this dancer worked her butt off and succeeded. I remember when I wore my first Platter tutu. I was excited beyond belief. My director even said I was the only student who could wear it since it shows all of your mistakes.
This means I had perfected multiple parts in the piece that I practiced. I felt proud of my accomplishment. Every little girl looks up to these girls because they are technically advanced, beautiful, and they get the most beautiful costumes. I got to be one of them. It brings a huge smile to my face each time I think of it. The Classical tutu became the icon of success and beauty for me and others.
Ballet and its costumes have come a long way from the social dances with huge dresses, wigs, and masks. To review, these cumbersome, constrictive ballroom dresses slowly transitioned to the Romantic tutu that first went to the ankles then the knees. The audience then demanded more visible technique, such as dramatic jumps, multiple turns en pointe, and flexibility. Consequently, the Classical tutu emerged. Today, the Platter and Powderpuff tutus are the two types of Classical tutus. The most recent type, the bell tutu, combines the Platter and Romantic tutus, as shown below. The tutus described in every one of these evolutionary phases of ballet attire, except for the ballroom dresses, are worn on today’s stages by professional and non-professional ballet dancers alike. Dancers have performed through each stage of costume attire until the iconic Platter tutu achieved a high level of technique and beauty. It feels like dancing through history.