Dance and the Constraints Dress Imposes

Until two-hundred years ago, dancers wore what they normally wore – their street clothes – though often in a more elaborate form. If the dancer’s dress in the normal course of events was a laced corset or a farthingale, that would also be what she wore on the dance floor. Dancers conformed to social norms and a view of what was expected and proper, but their dancing would be restricted to the sort of fairly sedate and ordered activity that was possible in such a costume. Since the early 20th century, choreographers have needed to give their dancers greater freedom of movement, designers being essential to providing this freedom.

Elegance Gives Way To Provocative Romance

The earlier mass-market ballroom dances – waltz, fox-trot, mazurka – were hallmarked by elegance of style and that was reflected in what the dancers wore. Then came the tango, rumba and samba and dance finally accepted openly the sensuous style that has always lain at its heart. The courtship ritual hinted at by these dances began to make itself clear in their outfits.

Martha Graham and Halston

Choreography and the costumes that dancers wear are closely entwined. Some of the great choreographers had very clear ideas about what they wanted their dancers to wear (and, for that matter, the sets before which they performed) and had the power to make it happen. Pina Bausch married costume designer Rolf Borzik – an indication of the importance she placed in designers’ work. Martha Graham was well served first by Halston (actually Roy Halston Frowick, but always referred to simply as Halston) and then by Russell Vogler who worked with her during the last years of her life. As well as the work he did for Graham, Halston’s designs in the mid-70s went a long way to defining what disco dancers would (indeed, could) wear. Nor did he restrict himself to dance. Remember the pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy so famously wore at her husband’s inauguration? That was one of Halston’s.

Isadora Duncan and Paul Poiret; Twyla Tharp and Scott Barrie

Isadora Duncan, though not herself a designer, had a profound influence on artists like Rodin, and her free-flowing, natural style of dance influenced not only their works but also that of the French fashion designer Paul Poiret. When Twyla Tharp adapted the Beach Boys song for the ballet Deuce Coupe, she had Scott Barrie design the costumes, and his streetwise brashness was both a revelation and a triumph.

Ballets Russes and Chanel; Yumiko Takeshima

Costume design for the Ballets Russes was dominated by Chanel, De Chirico and Bakst; two, if not three, of the greatest names in the business. Dance never rests on its laurels, however, and today we have Yumiko Takeshima. Takeshima is a dancer who made herself a leotard in 1993, was talked into making more for friends and colleagues at the Dutch National Ballet, and now divides her time between dancing and designing. She stresses that costume design does not stand alone: “The choreographer’s vision comes first, and you must also work closely with the set designer.” What do these costumes look like? Well, romantic skirts are very much in but the tutu has had its day for now. “You can never say never; to return to the past and redesign it is a mark of creativity.”

Modern Ballroom Outfits

Romantic skirts bring us firmly into the world of modern ballroom. Crepe, georgette and satin; lace, masses of beads, lace layered with net and detailed with a string necklace – these are the places the modern designer is taking us to allow every female dancer the freedom to be as athletic or as calm on the floor as she wishes.

George Balanchine

Of course we cannot end without mention of George Balanchine. When modern dancers appear on stage in what looks like their practice wear, his is the name that should come to mind. The designer he worked with in 1946 for his work The Four Temperaments was Kurt Seligmann – but Balanchine felt that Seligmann’s costumes, dramatic though they were, prevented the audience from seeing the dancers. When he staged the piece again, he abandoned the Seligmann costumes and told the dancers to take the stage in what they wore to practice. The instantly identifiable Balanchine style was born.