The Genteel
April 17, 2021


Odile from Swan Lake, designed by Santo Loquasto. Photograph by Setareh Sarmadi.

In 1832, Marie Taglioni weakened the knees of audiences across Europe with ethereal floating leaps and her prodigious use of pointe shoes; Taglioni swept high-society off their feet and into a hypnotic infatuation with the ballerina. Appearing in La Sylphide, she wore a fitted bodice and a light, bell-shaped skirt - costumery that would quickly come to define the 19th century Romantic style of ballet and serve as a template for ensuing generations of ballet fashion.  

Rudolf Nureyev and Karen Kain as Prince Florimund
and Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty
(ca. 1973). First performed September 1, 1972.
Designed by Nicholas Georgiadis. 

Ever since Taglioni's beguiling performance in La Sylphide, ballet has continued to enamour artists and designers throughout the historical thread: Edgar Degas' Impressionist paintings of ballerinas practicing and performing helped elevate his work into fame; movie starlets such as Marilyn Monroe and Sarah Jessica Parker (as Sex & The City's Carrie Bradshaw) were photographed and filmed wearing the iconic tutu; and in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, Rodarte affirmed its mastery in fashion design.

Ballet's complexity is attractive to many - choreographers, dancers, designers and composers are forever exploring the awe-inducing art form. However, rarely does the public receive an invitation to step into the private world of ballet. The Design Exchange (DX) and The National Ballet of Canada are making an exception with an exclusive exhibit entitled 60 Years of Designing the Ballet, allowing the public to step behind the curtain and celebrate the interlacing design elements of the ballet. The exhibit is curated by former resident designer and wardrobe supervisor of Canada's National Ballet School (1989-2007), Caroline O'Brien. I had the pleasure of interviewing O'Brien to discuss the exhibit, the seduction of the tutu and the interdependence of fashion and costume design. 

Alina Kulesh: The National Ballet of Canada is an iconic dance institute - what makes it so?

Caroline O'Brien: It's related to a tradition in the ballet and a standard of excellence. We have international relationships with other top-notch (international) dance companies in the world. I would emphasise that the standard of excellence extends not only to choreography and ballet as a dance, but the standard of design and production. 

I think it's always about reaching towards the elegance and dignity that we do not always have in our daily lives.

AK: Does ballet, as an art and entertainment form, still hold the same cultural status and significance as 10, 20, 30 years ago? What has changed, if anything? 

CO: In my experience, it does with the particular audience - with the ballet audience. It's an esoteric art form, and I would say the numbers in the audience have remained stable, if not, even increasing.

AK: What can the attendees of 60 Years of Designing the Ballet expect to learn about Canadian ballet production? 

CO: They can expect to learn about the design process. This is the main thing. The audience of the exhibition will be introduced to the production team and the design team and the interrelation between dancers, dance and costumes, and how costume is absolutely integral to a performance.

AK: Can you identify and elaborate on the role of "design" in ballet? What is its primary goal? 

CO: In the ballet, the primary goal for design is to enhance the movement and the narrative that the dancer is trying to express. Design really evolves through the sessions with the choreographer so that whatever the choreographer is trying to access, the costume is another piece of vocabulary that helps to articulate what a movement is about.

AK: There are several elements of design in a ballet - props, set, lighting and costume - what is the relationship between them? 

(Caroline laughs at this question, explaining that she teaches a first year theatre course that discusses exactly this for six weeks.)

CO: My experience has been that the choreographer calls together the creative team at the beginning of the process - maybe even before the choreography has been done - to talk about ideas. Usually one of the first ones to be discussed is costume; everybody wants to know what are they going to wear, what's it going to look like, what are the colours, what are the shapes, what are the fabrics - are they soft, are they light? And that helps to inform how the music might be composed.

The lighting designer certainly comes in a little bit later on. The lighting can suggest things like, is it day time or night time, is it inside or outside? But the lighting also has to always somehow complement the colours that are in the fabrics.

Props and sets are also really important because they define the space and something that is particular to designing for the ballet is that it's all about movement. Costumes cannot constrict the movement of the dancer, but set and props also have to allow enough space to perform whatever it is the dancers want. The idea is to fill the space without filling it at all.

Willis from Giselle, designed by Desmond Heeley.
Photograph by Setareh Sarmadi.

AK: Living in a society that relies on visual discourse, dress has become a prominent element of expression and identity. How does costume design in ballet serve as a discourse or a communicator? 

CO: The discourse relates to colour and choice of fabric and costume design also has to refer to the clothes that people wear. So there's always a reference to fashion, whether it's historic fashion or contemporary, so that people have some sense of recognising the shapes and the clothes.

But there's also a sense in ballet that you want something suspended - suspend the imagination or suspend the belief, so that the enchantment or sense of wonder are amplified through how we dance as dancers. 

AK: Over the course of several decades, ballet costume-inspired fashion has popped up in popular culture: Sex & The City's Carrie Bradshaw incorporated the tutu into her wardrobe, the costumes in the film Black Swan created a lot of buzz, and how can we not forget the still existing trend of leg warmers! Why are ballet costumes so appealing to the fashion world?  

CO: It relates again to the sense of wonder and enchantment, and it [ballet fashion] refers more specifically to the classical work, so [the prominent references we see are] the princess and the glittery tutu. When we see that ballerina enter the stage, we have no way to relate to her except for the fact that she is a ballerina performing in front of us and the costume really amplifies whatever it is she is going to do. If we can recognise the grace and elegance she offers by imitating her…it's [dressing like a ballerina is] a way of adopting or adapting what it is that she does without having any reality.

And the leg warmers, like all the accessories for the dance, is all about her [the ballerina] having a private life and a public life. In her private life, she is wearing her practice clothes, and our aspiring to those sorts of things. I think it's about reaching towards the elegance and dignity that we do not always have in our daily lives.

AK: What correlation can we make between ballet and fashion and the importance of dress in both industries? 

CO: The one thing that I always say about costume for the ballet is that the tutu is one of the most recognised and imitated articles of clothing in the West and we use it in so many different places - little girls, brides for a day, drag queens, prom dresses... There are so many places that this kind of shape is imitated and this is yet another way where people who don't have [daily] access to the world of ballet can imitate and try on those characters and those roles in a way that I call, "princess for a day." 

AK: Is ballet's costume design influenced by fashion? How does fashion - as an art form and culture identifier - influence ballet costume design? 

CO: Yes, definitely. One of the things is the fabrics that are available. Costume designers shop in the same places that fashion designers shop so they use similar fabrics, but probably combine them differently.

In history, when I think of ballet's roots, its roots were really influenced by what was going on in fashion - the orientalism that was going on in the early 20th century. Chanel even designed for the ballet. Even now in the 21st century, Isaac Mizrahi has designed for the ballet, Armani has designed for the ballet - so we get these superstars of fashion design working with the superstars of the ballet world and the arts world, and when they work together, it really exaggerates and amplifies whatever it is that they are trying to do.

Juliet ball gown, Act I costume
sketch from Romeo and Juliet.
First performed November 16, 2011.
Designed by Richard Hudson. 

AK: You are conducting "BALLET TALKS: Talking Tutus with Caroline O'Brien" on July 24 as part of the exhibit. What is the historical significance of the tutu in ballet? 

CO: When the historical significance of the tutu first started, it was in 1832 with Marie Taglioni. In the romantic ballet, the sense of imperialism in the art form was very well established, we call it the start of "the cult of the ballerina". And so the ballerina was really revered in the 19th century and the dress was so particular. Her dress was based on an extraction from clothes that were worn everyday but it never really looked like clothing that was worn every day either. I think rooted in that cult of the ballerina there was always some heroic aspect to what she did and how she remained aloof from the public so that we still carry that tradition; it's part of how that tradition has come down. 

The other thing that I think is so important is that the dance steps, or the choreography, evolved in tandem with the design of the costumes, so that if they wanted to do choreography that didn't work in the clothing, they evolved the clothing to make it work, and vice versa. And that's how we come down to the shape of the garment today. 

AK: Does the tutu hold the same prominence in contemporary ballet - as an integral part of costume design and symbol - as it did in the past? 

CO: There are two strands that we can talk about. One is the non-narrative contemporary work which usually does not include a tutu. It has as little clothing as possible or really soft, fine, feather-weight spandexes and chiffons. But when we are talking about the classical work, the tutu is essential. Ballets like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, still sell the most seats. People still want that fantasy or that story in what they want to see when they go to the ballet and the tutu is integral to that. 

And its prominence is based on the fabrics that are chosen: the brocades and silks are usually related to what was worn in court in St. Petersburg or the court of Louis XIV - the two main courts when ballet was at its strongest. The bodices are based on the corsets so that they fit and the way they are cut and built fits the form so beautifully that it adjusts the way people stand, their posture, and how they hold themselves so that everything is taken up a notch. 


The enigmatic, rarefied society of the ballet has served as a muse for some of the world's greatest works of art, literature and design. Many have tread the stage in pursuit of performance perfection, surrounded by the delicacies of painstakingly crafted mise-en-scène. For in the enchanted realm of the ballet stage, every detail must excel in order to perpetuate the sense of wonder we all feel when witnessing the cult of the ballerina.

60 Years of Designing the Ballet will be on display at the Design Exchange from July 11 until September 2.  



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