Topical Review: On the Ballet Russes & Fashion


Here and elsewhere, I often write on fashion history between the early 1900s and the 1930s. It is easy to become fascinated by the Ballet Russes, as well as the length and breadth of influence that they had on the design world as a whole. The ballet troupe and the subject of my current research, Natacha Rambova, also have many links and associations. Thus, I’ve been hot on the trail for any new publications along these lines for some time.

Following on Jenna’s review of Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes now on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum through January,  many publishers, authors and museums took this event as an opportunity to produce a number of publications. The three books I’ll focus on today are: Ballets Russes Style: Diaghilev’s Dancers and Paris Fashion by Mary E. Davis; Goncharova: The Art and Design of Natalia Goncharova by Anthony Parton; Marie Cuttoli: Myrbor et l’invention de la tapisserie moderne by Dominique Paulvé.

Ballets Russes Style: Diaghilev’s Dancers and Paris Fashion by Mary E. Davis (Reaktion Books)

Publication Date: October 15, 2010

A wonderful addition to the large body of literature available on the topic, this contribution by Music historian, Mary E. Davis, is a small, compact and well-organized book focusing specifically on the impact the troupe had on designers working at the time of Diaghilev (1909 to 1929). Three chapters focus on locations: Paris, Russia and the East with two final chapters discussing the Ancient World and the Modern World. It’s full of photographs of the dancers themselves, and the fashions they (or more accurately their costumes) inspired. It is exactly the kind of reference I need for my own work on Natacha Rambova’s early career as a ballet dancer in the US and abroad.

Key individuals and couture houses included in the discussions are well known to the fashion studies scholar, and include: Paul Poiret, Georges LePape, Leon Bakst as well as Coco Chanel. What is nice about this particular volume is the links drawn between specific theatrical designs or performers and the couture they inspired. Particularly interesting in this slim volume, the introductory material provides a brief history of popular notice of the Ballet Russes in modern times, from Yves Saint Laurent, to various exhibitions of theatrical costumes (including Diana Vreeland) as well as auction histories leading up to current times.  I will be spending considerable time with this book in the coming months.


Goncharova: The Art and Design of Natalia Goncharova by Anthony Parton (Antique Collectors’ Club)

Publication Date: November 16, 2010

As Jenna mentioned in her post, several commercial fashion designs by Natalia Goncharova are on display at the V & A’s exhibit – and to that end I wanted to let you know about a brand new monograph celebrating that artist/designers work. Goncharova: The Art and Design of Natalia Goncharova by Anthony Parton. A huge (8 X 11) well-illustrated volume focused on the entirety of her career as a painter, illustrator, set and costume designer, as well as fashion designer. Of particular interest to Worn Through readers are Chapters 7, 9 and 10 which focus on her theatrical designs and especially Chapter 11 “Dressing the Body and Dressing the Room: Goncharova, Couture and Interior Design, 1919-1939.” This chapter is ripe with interesting and useful tidbits:

“Goncharova’s first substantial work in the field of fashion was undertaken in Moscow as early as 1912 when Lamanova employed her to make an extensive suite of designs for her famous fashion house. These included a series of fashion designs inspired by the theme of the solar system.”

and in another instance:

“Despite the close link that existed at this time between the design of costumes for the sage and fashionable clothes, Goncharova was quite clear that they represented very different aspects of creative activity. . . Goncharova argues that whereas a theatrical costume should reveal the nature of the stage character for whom it is intended, ‘the costume fo daily life is intended to cover, to enhance, to conceal, to show off to advantage, to protect, in short to make the life of a human being amongst their peers comfortable and, as far as possible pleasant.'”

(Le Coq d’Or peasants costume From The Art of Natalia Goncharova)

These chapters include many beautiful color illustrations (art, theater designs and commercial fashion illustrations) by Goncharova, that have never before been published and are of great value to historians studying this period. My interest stems from some attribution mysteries surrounding Goncharova’s commercial design work and that of Natacha Rambova. Anne Coleman wrote briefly on this mystery (“Myrbor and other mysteries: questions of art, authorship and émigrées.” Costume, 2000, No. 34), and I’ve been researching it since 2004. Goncharova: The Art and Design of Natalia Goncharova would also be of interest to those studying the connections between art, theatre and fashion; the impact of post-revolution Russian immigration on the cultural arts of Europe; and more broadly those museums whose collections include Ballet Russes Costumes, or Goncharova designs.


Marie Cuttoli: Myrbor et l’invention de la tapisserie moderne by Dominique Paulvé (Norma Editions)

Publication date: June 24, 2010

Following along these lines another new book, Marie Cuttoli: Myrbor et l’invention de la tapisserie moderne by Dominique Paulvé is out in conjunction with an exhibition on view in France this past summer. This book, in French, looks at the impact Marie Cuttoli’s design salon, Myrbor, had on the design and art worlds beginning in the 1920s. Though the exhibit and the book focus on Cuttoli’s work in the world of tapestry and modern art (including those carried in her boutique created by artists like Picasso, Rouault, Leger, Braque, Dufy, and John Lurcat), the book also includes a section focused on Cuttoli’s commissioning work for couture designs by Goncharova and others, and offering them for sale in her shop. I’ve yet to dig very far into this volume (as admittedly, my understanding of French relies heavily on Google translation tools), but hope to find some jems.

For further information:

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929

The Ballets Russes and the Art of Design (2009)

Beauty in Exile: The Artists, Models, and Nobility Who Fled the Russian Revolution and Influenced the World of Fashion

The Art of Enchantment: Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 1909-1929

Also see Tove’s post on The Original Vamps: Silent but Deadly, which includes a discussion of  The Ballet Russes’ performance of “Schéhérazade” in 1910. Additionally, THE BALLETS RUSSES: CELEBRATING THE CENTENNIALwas on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art [Hartford, CT] in 2009.

*Mikhail Fokin and Vera Fokina in Sheherezade. 1914. Collection of Anna Winestein © Anna Winestein Collection (Via Ballet Magazine)

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1 Comment

  • Jenna November 17, 2010 06.31 pm

    Thanks so much for this insightful review of the new and existing literature surrounding the work and design influence of the Ballets Russes! I hope this post brings interest in their legacy to a fever pitch, and encourages more research in turn!


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