Photo Thomas Dallas Watson
The tutu has taken on many different shapes, weights, fabrics and characters. But despite its countless guises, its full-circle silhouette is universally recognised icon in the ballet world. On stage, the tutu fully exposes a ballerina’s technique while enhancing her aesthetic flair. These breathtaking constructions requires imaginative design and intricate craftsmanship, as well as careful consideration for the dancer who will perform in them.
In the French Courts of the 16th century, costumes were big and heavy, only allowing restricted movement. This is because dancers were average men and women of the courts, dancing with one another to flirt, impress and show off their wealth. So costumes were really just clever and more elaborate adaptations of their everyday attire. But when Louis XIV founded the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661, ballet moved from court to stage and the art form became more complex and athletic; costumes were bound to evolve. Marie Camargo is credited for popularising the above-the-ankle skirt so she could perform complicated footwork. At the time this was thought of as shocking. Of course when ladies attempted to incorporate pirouettes into their dances, their whirling skirt revealed more than just techniques, so caleçons de precaution – or precautionary panties – were quickly added to the ballerina’s wardrobe.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Italian ballet dancers were performing cutting-edge ballet. Dancers begun wearing floppier, sixteen-layered, just-below-the-knee skirts as trickier technique demanded more freedom in attire. This particular bell-shaped design was called the ‘tutu italienne’ and later appeared in Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. Today this classical variation of costume design is commonly referred to as the ‘romantic tutu’. It wasn’t until George Balanchine’s athletic Symphony in C that dancers began wearing the ‘powder-puff’ tutu which exposes the entire leg.
The basic structure of the tutu has evolved in countless ways. The groundbreaking Divergence tutus were made from air-conditioning filter mesh, and the bustias from vaccuum formed polyurethane foam, similar to the foam used for wet suits for divers. Approximately 15 metres of mesh was used to make each tutu and because the mesh was translucent, and needed to be black, the tutus had to be sent to an automotive spray painter! In 2003, some of Australia’s best fashion designers came together to create their own interpretation of the tutu for The Australian Ballet. Collette Dinnigan, Toni Maticevski and Dinosaur Designs, among many others, all played with the tutu’s form, creating skirts from fabrics, bottle tops, emu feathers, diamonds, beads and resin – even old pointe shoes! The results were modeled by the dancers at a special parade and have since been displayed at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Dana Stephensen in Divergence. Photo Jim McFarlane
The tutu familiar to ballet audiences today is a technically extraordinary creation, with secret seams and a hidden supporting hoop adding to its mystery. Piecing together the short, stiff skirt which extends outwards from the boned bodice uses about ten metres of tulle per tutu. A basic tutu, excluding beading, appliqué and layers of extra fabric takes about one week to construct, but some can take as many as three weeks and can cost upwards of $2,500.
Before performing in their specially designed tutus, dancers need to check the elastic isn’t too tight and the fabric doesn’t chafe. For Principal Artist Lucinda Dunn, performing in a tutu has its pitfalls: “You can’t see your toes, your technique is exposed and, worst of all, the tulle gives you an itchy bottom!”
And while male dancers might not wear tutus, it doesn’t mean they don’t have to grapple with them. “Partnering a ballerina who is wearing a tutu can have its moments,” said former Principal Artist Steven Heathcote. “If you stand too close, you might bump your partner off balance into the orchestra pit. And, when ‘lifting’, we often get tutu burn on our chest (although you can always tell your mates it’s a surfboard rash!)”