Parisian Insights: Ballet and Fashion

During one of my lazy and cosy Sunday press reading, I came across two news that immediately caught my eye: Riccardo Tisci has designed the Opéra Garnier’s actual show, the  Boléro’s costumes and Azzedine Alaia imagined the choreographer, Angelin Preljocaj’s latest touring spectacle’s costumes, inspired by the One Thousand and One Nights, Les Nuits.

Ballet and fashion are certainly two of the most delectable pleasures of my personal life: when both meet, I am thrilled. I highly appreciate Riccardo Tisci’s work but what mostly seduces me here is the evocation of the sublime Boléro which is certainly the tune that most makes me shiver. I was also curious to discover what the Italian designer would propose after he had imagined Rihanna’s latest tour stage outfits: two parallel worlds united by costume design…

Concerning Alaia’s contribution to Les Nuits, I must admit that, this time, the simple allusion to the designer’s name is enough to seduce me: I am an enthusiastic fan of the couturier.

My earliest encounter with ballet costume design is a personal experience: my first important ballet show, at the age of 7. I started practising ballet very young and I was a rigorous pupil what made me part of the Parisian antenna of the Royal Academy of Dance: foolish pride! For our first major show, we were little mice and I can recall the absolute pleasure of putting on the exquisite and precise outfit the costume designer had imagined. The spell was cast: I had become a real mouse! This anecdotal souvenir makes me realise how important costumes are, not only for the spectators but also for the dancers themselves. Just like actors do, a dancer entirely becomes the character just by dressing up. As an adult, today, I can also appreciate the clear reference to ‘le petit rat de l’Opéra’: the common and charming name given to the prestigious school’s students.

Le Train Bleu costumes by Coco Chanel. Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum Collections.

Le Train Bleu costumes by Coco Chanel.
Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum Collections.

By investing the world of stage, these fashion designers pursue a long tradition that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. When Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes arrived in Paris, in 1909, the art of costume design is renewed: the creative avant-garde gets its hands on what was until then the privilege of stage costume specialists. From the late 19th century, fashion houses and couturiers had already provided clothes for leading actresses. However, in 1924, Coco Chanel will be the first fashion designer to imagine proper costumes (fancy knits) for a show, the now iconic, Le Train BleuArtists and couturiers have now wholly integrated the world of theatre, ballet and opera.

In 1965, a significant partnership is demonstrated by  Yves Saint Laurent’s designs for Roland Petit’s Notre Dame de Paris. Today, Christian Lacroix and Jean Paul Gaultier are certainly the most prolific contributors to costume design.

Other fashion designers also try their hands on this particular discipline, like Valentino who, in September 2012, created 16 original designs for the New York City Ballet’s Fall Gala.

New York City Ballet Fall Gala. Copyright: Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet Fall Gala.
Copyright: Paul Kolnik

Even the eccentric Belgian designer, Walter Van Beirendonck (I mentioned in my post about the Fashion Monster’s exhibition) was asked to design costumes for the Opéra Garnier for Sous Apparence at the end of 2012.

The Boléro was composed in 1928 by Maurice Ravel who conceived a repetitive and mesmerizing tune with a progressive crescendo. The 2013’s version of the ballet is choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet who, alongside the popular contemporary artist Marina Abramovic, in charge of the scenography, and Riccardo Tisci, highlight the obsessive feel of this music. The ballet evokes a trance with a magnetic and kinetic centre that entraps the dancers. The space is blurred and dancers twirl in an organised chaos just as the repetitive and intense tune of the Boléro does.

Bolero. Copyright: Agathe Poupeney/ Opéra National de Paris

Copyright: Agathe Poupeney/ Opéra National de Paris

Riccardo Tisci imagined  multi-layered nude tulle catsuits embroidered with ivory lace that forms a skeleton. The layers are shed during the dance like flowers loosing their petals, emphasising the cycle of life and the near coming of death. This encounter between nudity/the skin and the skeleton evokes an ambiguity between life and death. The costumes therefore emphasize the choreography’s narrative.

Bolero. Copyright: Agathe Poupeney/ Opéra National de Paris

Copyright: Agathe Poupeney/ Opéra National de Paris

 It is not Azzedine Alaia’s first experience as a costume designer: he had already imagined outfits for Carolyn Carlson in 1996 (I, unfortunately, have found no significant text nor images about this collaboration). This year, he is in the centre of two projects. Angelin Preljocaj’s Les Nuits ballet and the opera, The Marriage of Figaro for which he designed costumes (with many knitted pieces, dear to the couturier’s predilection) that has just ended playing at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Alaia chose to make the characters dress up on stage. Figaro arrives with a bare chest and wearing his trousers while a barefoot Suzanne wears a silk slip. This choice brings an effective touch of reality and intimacy to the performance. 

Les Nuits. Copyright: Jean-Claude Carbonne

Les Nuits.
Copyright: Jean-Claude Carbonne

For Les Nuits, he created rather customary costumes: fluid dresses and skirts and body clinging catsuits and vests. If I were a professional dancer, I would surely be 100% confident in having Alaia design an ensemble for me. He has such a precise knowledge of how to embellish women’s bodies while promising much comfort, he is surely an excellent costume designer. 

Les Nuits. Copyright: Jean-Claude Carbonne

Les Nuits.
Copyright: Jean-Claude Carbonne

Designing a ballet costume requires to think of the body and its movements more than fashion demands. Another significant point is to never forget about the dancing partners: a misplaced ornamentation can scratch or even hurt! I still practice ballet today and I know how important it is to feel comfortable and free in one’s moves.

Even if a fashion designer introduces his own style, he has to adapt himself to particular and common odds: dancers are not models and their bodies and moves are material designers are not always used to. Costumes must act like a second skin.

Ballet costumes can adopt multiple aspects: they can be purely decorative (yet dazzling) like the traditional tutus tend to be or minimalist when they take the form of nude catsuits or fluid dresses. Still, some costumes succeed in telling a story, becoming part of the narrative and a significant element of the choreography.

Moreover, some choreographers assume to let the costume deny, refine or add reflection to the writing of their dancing moves. The costume can, therefore, suggest new volumes, new lines, extend or hinder the body…These choices encourage the dancers to move in a different way and provoke a new language while their bodies reveal a stimulating stress.

An interesting example illustrating such a reflection is the 1997 collaboration between Merce Cunningham and Rei Kawabuko. For the choreographer’s Scenario ballet, the designer imagined costumes inspired by her notorious Body Meets Dress/Dress Meets Body collection. The choreographer asked for padded and irregular designs that altered the dancers’ balance, moves and relationships to the environmental space. This is a fabulous example of the deliberate impact of costumes on the spectacle.

Scenario. Copyright: Jacques Moatti

Copyright: Jacques Moatti

Finally, a fashion designer can be importantly inspired by his work on a ballet. When in 1991, Issey Miyake imagined the 400 pieces of William Forsythe’s creation, The Loss Of  Small Detail, he desired to create garments that would perfectly marry the dancers’ moves while composing unexpected volumes and ingeniously and gracefully coming back in shape after various moves and jumps. The future Pleats Please line was born!

Fashion designers’ take on ballet costume design is an extensive theme and it features various concepts. In general, fashion designers fulfil their role with much effectiveness and they can count on the dancers and their creative colleagues to advise them and reach a common, successful goal. However, some collaborations seem to meet with less success in particular when fashion designers tend to disguise the dancers. Thus, dance costume design is a singular discipline that emphasises one question: can all fashion designers be costume designers?


Further Resources:

 When I was at l’Ecole du Louvre, I enjoyed a seminar at the CNCS that is the National Stage Costume Museum of France. It is a worldwide unique example where all the costumes from the Opéra Garnier, the Comédie Française and the Bibliothèque Nationale are conserved. I can only suggest you visit this beautiful museum (in the middle of nowhere, in Moulins) if you get the chance to come to France.

The V&A Museum website has interesting content about dance costume design.

L’Opéra National de Paris presents a well illustrated virtual exhibition.

There is an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, exploring Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes adapted from the V&A’s 2010 show.

And the National Gallery of Victoria, in Australia, just ended the presentation of Ballet & Fashion.

Noisette, Philippe. Couturiers de la Danse. Paris: Editions de la Martinière, 2003.

Kahane, Martine, Lacroix, Christiand and Pinasa, Delphine. Christian Lacroix Costumier. Paris: Les Editions du Mécène, 2007.

Kitamura, Midori and Miyake, Issey. Pleats Please. Berlin: Taschen, 2012.

Saillard, Olivier. Jean Paul Gaultier/Régine Chopinot – Le Défilé. Paris: Les Arts Décoratifs, 2007.

Marsh, Geoffrey and Pritchard, Jane. Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929. London: V&A Publishing, 2010.

Bell, Robert. Ballets Russes: The Art of Costume. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia: 2011.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at :, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.