Christian Dior gown, 1947

Louise Dahl Wolfe, courtesy The Museum at FIT

Inside Fashion's Love Affair With Ballet

You couldn't have missed Stuart Weitzman's holiday campaign this year. Footage of Misty Copeland twirling and strutting in a black tulle number and sky-high gold heels flashed across New York City taxis and TV screens everywhere.

Ballet and fashion today seem naturally joined at the hip. But this hasn't always been the case.

A new exhibition at The Museum at FIT running through April 18, Ballerina: Fashion's Modern Muse, traces ballet and fashion's intertwined mid-century history. The show reveals how the relationship between the two industries began in the 1930s and grew through the 1970s, setting the stage for their continued association today.

The exhibition begins with the iconic Jewels and Sugar Plum Fairy costumes, on loan from New York City Ballet, interspersed with high fashion items such as pointe shoe-inspired footwear. In the vast main gallery, evening gowns are placed next to tutus, outfits for the street next to those for the stage.

Most interesting are the vivid examples of the specific ways that we can see ballet affecting fashion:

Pigments have traveled from the studio to the runway.

Colors popularized by ballerinas onstage and in class made their way to the runway: "ballet pink," of course—a color the museum uses as an opportunity to showcase progress among pointe shoe companies now incorporating a broader range of skin tones into their lines—but also blue and lilac.

The exhibition points to designer Elsa Schiaparelli's "Sleeping" blue color. Schiaparelli used the brilliant tone in various garments, including a wool bolero jacket with black beaded detailing from spring 1940. Sleeping Beauty fans might draw the connection made here between the hue and the costumes worn in the "Bluebird" variation. The ballet had been recently restaged in 1921 by Sergei Diaghilev.

Lilac, a color historically associated with mourning, lost this connotation mid-century, thanks in part to Sleeping Beauty's benevolent "Lilac Fairy."

Elsa Schiaparelli, "Sleeping" blue wool, beaded bolero jacket, spring 1940. Lent by Hamish Bowles.

Courtesy The Museum at FIT

High fashion has borrowed classic ballet materials like tulle.

Materials such as tulle and feathers also began to pop up in high fashion: In the 1930s longer dresses with tulle skirts became trendy, mimicking the Romantic-era tutu style.

Coco Chanel, for example, who was a patron of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, created such gowns, including a stunning navy blue "Etoiles" dress from 1937. It features gold, sequined star detailing on the bodice and skirt. The piece looks like something we might see on a celebrity during awards season.

In fact, singer Maggie Rogers wore to the Grammys a vintage Chanel gown (from the Pre-Fall 2014 collection) made of filmy black silk tulle with gold star accents. Almost 80 years later, and the label is still using its ballet-inspired tulle.

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, "Etoiles" navy blue tulle and sequin evening dress 1937. Lentby Beverley Birks.

Courtesy The Museum at FIT

The Balmain house was particularly influenced by ballet's aesthetics. A 1949 evening gown with a pink bodice and full, off-white skirt is replete with coq feathers. Ballet's penchant for ballerina-bird characters—think Swan Lake, Firebird, The Dying Swan, and more contemporary creations, like Justin Peck's The Most Incredible Thing and Alexei Ratmansky's remake of Michel Fokine's The Golden Cockerel—was one the fashion world noted. (The exhibit also displays the Dying Swan tutu and headpiece that Anna Pavlova wore, on loan from the Museum of London.)

Pierre Balmain, pink and off-white evening dress with coq feathers, 1949. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Barbara Louis.

Courtesy The Museum at FIT

Fashion has also had an influence on ballet.

But the pathway of influence wasn't just flowing in one direction. The reverse was happening too: Outside of the studio, mid-century ballerinas wore high fashion items, helping to elevate ballet as an art form and profession. We see pieces of Margot Fonteyn's by designers including Christin Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. Couture dresses for Maria Tallchief, Alicia Markova and Alexandra Danilova show the ballerinas' careful wardrobe curation.

In one corner of the exhibition, three garments present the most exciting example of the continued conversation between the industries. NYCB director of costumes Marc Happel's new tutu design for Balanchine's Symphony in C stands next to the scallop-edged 1950 Balenciaga gown that inspired it, which in turn is next to Fonteyn's "Princess Aurora" Sleeping Beauty tutu, which likely inspired the gown. Together, the pieces show layers of influence: from costume to couture to costume.

Mark Happel, Symphony in C costume, white silk satin, synthetic net, Swarovski crystals, 2012. Lent by New York City Ballet.

Courtesy The Museum at FIT

Cristobal Balenciaga for Hattie Carnegie, pink silk tulle and satin evening dress withsilver metal embroidery, 1950. Lent by Beverley Birks.

Courtesy The Museum at FIT

Oliver Messel, Margot Fonteyn's "Princess Aurora" costume from The Sleeping Beauty,1960s, original designed in 1946. Lent by Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Courtesy The Museum at FIT

Latest Posts

Getty Images

I'm a Professional Dancer With Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Here's Why Dance Companies Need to Start Prioritizing Mental Health

My name is Abi Stafford, and I have generalized anxiety disorder.

I've had this "hook" in my mind for how I'd open an important essay my entire dance career, but I was never ready to talk about it, until now.

I might be the only dancer to say this, but the best change to result from the coronavirus shutdown is company class moving to Zoom.

As a kid, my teachers encouraged competition between students. While it undoubtedly helped push me, all these years later I still struggle with unhealthy levels of competitive feelings in class. But on Zoom, I don't have to compare myself to anyone, and it feels great. I can dance freely because no one is watching and critiquing my abilities.

When the shutdown started, I was preparing to return to New York City Ballet after a hiatus. I had taken a leave of absence since December 2019, the middle of Nutcracker season, to focus on my mental health.

As NYCB underwent leadership transitions during the last few years and the culture among the dancers shifted, I had developed new feelings of anxiety. Some dancers felt more emboldened to ask for roles they wanted, envisioning exciting career possibilities. Others quietly wished casting choices would remain the same and sensed a more uncertain path. With my brother as artistic director, workplace dynamics collided with my personal life. Casting disappointments jabbed me painfully, and it became hard to find a corner in the theater where my soul felt safe.

It was difficult to officially inform the company that I needed to take a leave because I'd been burned when I'd shown my anxiety before. Back when Peter Martins was in charge, I had an anxiety attack backstage prior to Theme and Variations. I felt too insecure, too scared, too tired, and I couldn't fathom performing. He offered me en­coura­ge­ment at the time, but, several years later, he brought up the episode unexpectedly, pointing to that painful moment to explain why I wasn't reliable. The experience solidified that I should never show emotional vulnerabilities or weaknesses.

Fast-forward to December 2019. When I finally let myself stop dancing, literally mid-rehearsal, some colleagues tried to talk me out of it. While well-intentioned, their words made me feel worse because I started to question my choice. But it was the right decision for me. I have been focusing on my mental wellness, family and pursuing my law degree to heal my spirit as quarantine carries on.

I have lived and performed with (sometimes crippling) anxiety for my entire career, and I'm nowhere near the only one who's struggled. I know of a dancer who picked up her bag and quit in the middle of a rehearsal. One time a young dancer timidly asked a group of older dancers whether ballet company life was hard for them. Upon emphatic replies of "yes," he said, "I thought it was just me. Everyone walks around like they are just fine."

Dancers feel immense pressure from management to constantly be perfect onstage. Yet, we are at the mercy of our bodies. Those two factors are an excellent recipe for anxiety. Some dancers cry a lot. Others call out sick when they're too anxious to perform. Some even choose to retire altogether—far too young.

There needs to be more mental health support within dance companies. Psychological services should be made available to all dancers and artistic staff—including ballet masters. At my company, they're under an intense amount of pressure to prepare the vast repertory, and all are former NYCB dancers who shared similar experiences, stresses and pain during their own careers.

Overall, everyone needs to listen more. Artistic management could send out anonymous surveys to assess what areas need improvement. Companies could hold talk-back sessions with dancers to open up the lines of communication about what's working and what's not. We need to make it acceptable for dancers to take care of their mental health. We need to stop training dancers (explicitly and implicitly) to hide their anxiety for fear of losing performance opportunities.

It is time to begin the conversation, because I worry about the ongoing suffering of dancers if this is not addres­sed. I worry that company leadership will continue to view my very real struggles with my mental health as a weakness. Most of all, I worry that the next generation of artists will continue to suffer as too many of their predecessors have.