Photograph by Fernand Fonssagrives/Trunk Archive.
Like two sisters sharing a closet, fashion and ballet have borrowed freely from each other for over a century. Taking their cues from dancers, fashion designers have proposed, and women have gladly adopted, gowns with fitted bodices and puffy skirts like tutus, leotards and leg warmers, and, in the wake of Schéhérazade—an Orientalist fever dream that Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes presented in Paris in 1910—harem pants and turbans. Likewise, choreographers have seized on the latest fashion trends for ballets that mirror society, set in ballrooms and drawing rooms; draping and construction from the haute couture have been appropriated for the stage. Fashion designers from Chanel to Rodarte have been commissioned to create ballet costumes.
It’s fun to document these parallels, as Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse, by Patricia Mears, does in fastidious detail, with a rich assortment of photos. Additional essays, by the dance critics Laura Jacobs and Joel Lobenthal and the curators Rosemary Harden and Jane Pritchard, amplify the scope. (The deputy director of the Museum at FIT, Mears has also curated an accompanying exhibition, which debuts in the FIT galleries in February 2020.) But despite their hall of mirrors fascination, these similarities only go so far, and they reside mostly on the surface. There is a kinship between fashion and ballet that is less apparent but maybe more auspicious—one that, on some deeper, more fundamental level, has to do with training the eye and transforming the body.
In the early 1930s, two young Swedish women who had founded their own school of dance in Stockholm took part in an international competition in Paris and won a prize; one of them, Lisa Bernstone, stayed on and studied ballet under Lubov Egorova, a Russian teacher who had danced for Diaghilev. In Strasbourg 20-some years later, 9-year-old Manfred Thierry Mugler began to study classical dance. At 14, he joined the corps de ballet of the local opera company. Also in the ’50s, in Linköping, a small city in southern Sweden, Mats Gustafson, age 7, began ballet classes under Tatiana Niordson, a local teacher, half-Russian, who had trained under the legendary Mathilde Kschessinska.
Though their involvement in ballet ranged from a brief two years of lessons (Gustafson) to a six-year professional career (Mugler), these three had something else in common. Bernstone, who married two photographers—a fellow dancer named Fernand Fonssagrives and, later, Irving Penn—became Lisa Fonssagrives, one of the greatest models of the 20th century. Mugler went on to become a brilliant designer whose witty runway shows were among the most innovative statements of the 1980s and ’90s. And Gustafson became one of the most sought-after fashion illustrators, whose sublime images have defined the styles of designers and brands (Romeo Gigli, lately Dior) and articulated the mood of a particular moment in a kind of visual poetry.
You might think it’s a coincidence that all three of these former dancers ended up in fashion. (I, too, embraced that world after my own ballet training.) Or that three isn’t a statistically significant subset, given the hundreds of people that the field employs at its highest level. Or that there’s a great difference between Fonssagrives’s pensive mermaid posed in a Rochas gown and Mugler’s Amazons in leather bustiers and Gustafson’s lithe figures cocooned in organza. But for all their differences, there’s something they share—a refinement, an elegance, a sublime way of seeing and presenting the female body—that’s rare, even in a field whose objective is (or was, for much of the past century) to make women look beautiful.
Ballet teaches dancers to objectify their own bodies, for better or for worse. Let’s dwell here on the better side. You work in front of a mirror, scrutinizing the performance of a body that happens to be your own. Every day you measure yourself against an ideal of perfection: 180-degree turnout, high extension, clean beats, plumb turns, big jumps, and clean landings. And every day you fall short.
You make note of how a turned-out leg appears longer, more continuous, more tapered, and ultimately more generous than a leg with the knee facing front. You extend your arm toward the corner; the teacher comes along and, simply by raising your hand a few inches, shows you how to make that diagonal more visually interesting. Most of all, you learn about line. “Line” is the term teachers and coaches use to describe the arrangement of limbs in space. Some angles, some positions are more pleasing than others, and although beautiful line depends largely on factors that are god-given—the curve of your instep, the suppleness of your back, your overall proportions—genetics alone isn’t enough. Part of a ballet dancer’s training is educating the eye, using it to coax the body into more beautiful positions and then, ultimately, to reproduce those positions without the help of the mirror.
Like ballet, fashion is founded on the impulse to present the body at its most becoming. Just as ballet’s perpetual fascination with the human physique is played out in the geometry formed by arms and legs and a torso, fashion builds shapes around the body, fitting cloth to its contours here, creating volume that disguises it there. Each new generation contributes to this ongoing project, expanding and updating the lexicon, alluding to and commenting on the tradition, celebrating and building on it.
In Fonssagrives’s era, fashion photographers used Polaroid cameras to take a test shot, to check the pose, the dress, and the lighting. She was one of the few models who insisted on seeing the Polaroid, which she would study for ways she could improve the line she was presenting to the camera. “That girl,” she would say to herself—always in the third person, as if she were looking at a picture of someone else—would look better if she would turn her ankle more or pull her shoulders back or make some other adjustment. Ballet had given her a sense of how to critique her own performance as a model and improve it.
When Mugler began ballet classes as a child, he “found a world,” he says—one that was worth the considerable effort. He calls ballet the “complete, extreme fulfillment of the human body through technique,” and it shaped him, not only physically but also mentally and creatively. “It’s the ballet that made me understand deeply that without technique, there is no artist,” he says. At age 24, ready for a change, he moved to Paris and discovered that he could make a good living selling sketches to fashion companies. At night he hit the clubs, immersing himself in another kind of dancing.
Eventually, as the head of his namesake label, he staged his runway presentations as a performance that called on all his talent and experience—casting the show, fitting the clothes, choosing the music, supervising the lighting. Mugler specialized in precision-cut clothes, fitted close, with strong shoulders and a narrow waist, and some evoked the ballerina’s narrow bodice and voluminous skirt, though never literally. His women owned their sexuality. If they looked invulnerable—like avatars of the female superheroes, now legion, who populate today’s movies—that was at least in part a function of the times, when we needed a way to dress for lives very different from those led by the women who had come before us. Femininity, his clothes seemed to imply, was a performance.
For Gustafson, the early exposure to ballet was formative on a more subliminal level. As a ballet student, he was one of a handful of boys in the class. “I probably wasn’t very good,” he says. “But I took it seriously, and it opened up something.” Beyond teaching him the positions and the movements, ballet’s impact on Gustafson had less to do with actually dancing than with seeing dance and starting to collect images of ballet in books. Even after he stopped taking classes, he continued to pay attention to ballet “as a visual interest,” he says, and when he drew, he often chose dancers as his subject. The pictures he saw of dancers back then were a lot like the fashion photos of the time: posed. In costume or in the latest styles, dancers and models were depicted frozen in a split second intended to convey an eternity—a character, a story, a life of glamour, the promise of love.
Fashion photography was a flat, static art, and though ballet consisted of movement, in three dimensions, it was at its most basic level a series of positions—like highlights strung together—that made for striking images. And then, Gustafson notes, there was the added element of textile and movement: a piece of fabric that could extend and accentuate the choreography, like Juliet’s chiffon stole held overhead, flying out behind her as she runs, or Giselle’s tutu, a cloud of tulle that softly settles as she jumps and lands. As an illustrator, he acquired the skill to convey sheer fabric layered in thin applications of gouache.
It’s impossible to view the cavalcade of images in Ballerina without registering the political changes that transpired over the five decades it depicts, beginning in the 1930s, to say nothing of what has happened since. As women have come increasingly into their own and taken charge of their lives, the ballerina has evolved too. Designers’ infatuation with the ballet has ventured away from the confectionary nostalgia at the heart of Christian Dior’s New Look, in 1947, and into a more pragmatic realm, adopting the leg warmers, leotards, and tights that constitute dancers’ daily uniform for work in the studio. As life has become increasingly casual, so, it seems, has ballet: Newer works feature dancers in sneakers and practice clothes straight out of that clumsily named wardrobe category athleisure.
The ballerina’s pink tulle skirt and tiara have survived as the favorite dress-up costume for little girls everywhere, and it still connotes the epitome of femininity. In 1987, Vogue went on location with Dancers, to capture Julie Kent wearing a long tutu and a jacket belonging to Mikhail Baryshnikov, her love interest in the film, draped over her shoulders as she leaned on a scooter—the fragile heroine protected by a man. Eighteen years later, Rei Kawakubo’s Ballerina Motorbike collection, for Comme des Garçons, offered an amusing update: tutus with fitted black leather jackets that clearly belong to the women wearing them, equal parts vulnerable and tough.
Today, the most obvious trait that fashion and ballet share is a similar body type, slender in the extreme. A closer look, however, reveals some telling distinctions. Dancers achieve their streamlined appearance through methodical exercises that endow them with muscle and contours that many models lack, no matter how fit they may be. Likewise, models may have good posture, but a dancer’s posture is erect to an exaggerated degree, the product of years spent stretching the neck and holding the shoulders back and down, flattening the natural curve of the upper spine. Ballet training creates a singular physique, and its effects are, in many cases, lifelong. Even after Audrey Hepburn had discontinued her dance studies and made the switch to acting, her extraordinary carriage and physical command were that of a dancer, and they set her apart. This was before athletes like Serena Williams and Megan Rapinoe broadened our understanding of what a strong woman could look like.
Transformation is at the heart of ballet—aspiring to beauty that lies beyond our natural state, remodeling ourselves through hard work and discipline. And fashion, for the better part of the last century, subscribed to this same goal, albeit on more modest terms, urging women to approximate a set of standards that were, for most of us, hopelessly out of reach. At a time when African, Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and other types of beauty have gained representation in fashion (and, to a far lesser degree, ballet), when bodies of all shapes and sizes are featured in ads for lingerie, when we dress as who we are rather than as someone we’re trying to be, it’s hard not to see Ballerina as a monument to an era that has come and gone. The ballerina lives on, but she’s one of us now.