The history of the Tutu – the ballerina’s signature outfit

Tijana Radeska
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tutu

Ballet costumes constitute an essential part of stage design and can be considered as a visual record of a performance. They are often the only survival of a production, representing a living imaginary picture of the scene. Fashion may be fickle, but tutu chic is bigger than ever these days.

Anna Pavlova in Giselle, wearing a romantic tutu. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Anna Pavlova in Giselle, wearing a romantic tutu. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Indeed, the tutu has a storied past. With a name probably derived from the French children’s word “tutu” — meaning “bottom” — the costume is a product of evolution that made its debut in 1832, an instant classic, so to speak, that’s been swathed in magic ever since.

Alexandra Ansanelli wearing a pancake tutu. By Scillystuff - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5875365

Alexandra Ansanelli wearing a pancake tutu. Source by ScillystuffOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Tracking the tutu’s first appearance back in time, the furthest we get is the skirt that Marie Taglioni wore in 1832 at the Paris Opera Her skirt was gauzy white skirt cut to reveal her ankles, designed by Eugene Lami for La Sylphide and today known as Romantic tutu.

Marie Taglioni wearing a Romantic tutu. By English Wikipedia user Mrlopez2681, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6579670

Marie Taglioni wearing a Romantic tutu. Source by Mrlopez2681, CC BY-SA 3.0

Since the late 1800’s the tutu was getting shorter so that the dancer can move easily and at the same time show off her legs. Today, the shortest tutu is known as Classical one and it barely touches the ballerina’s legs.

Alicia Alonso wearing a pancake tutu, 1955. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Alicia Alonso wearing a pancake tutu, 1955. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Ballet costumes have been a challenge for fashion designers for a long time now. Designers as Cecil Beaton in England, Christian Lacroix in France, and Isaac Mizrahi in the United States they all have designed tutus.

Costumes by Barbara Karinska for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo: from left – Coppelia (act 2), Coppelia (act 1), and Giselle (act 2). Displayed at Beit Ariela, Tel Aviv-Yaffo. By Talmoryair - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15476278

Costumes by Barbara Karinska for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo: from left – Coppelia (act 2), Coppelia (act 1), and Giselle (Act 2). Displayed at Beit Ariela, Tel Aviv-Yaffo. Source by TalmoryairOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0

However, when it comes to tutu-designers, the most famous of them all is Barbara Karinska (1886-1983), costumer for the New York City Ballet for many years. Her tutus still remain known as one of the most ellegant, beautiful, and durable.

Barbara Karinska was costumer of the New York City Ballet, and the first costume designer ever to win the Capezio Dance Award, for costumes "of visual beauty for the spectator and complete delight for the dancer". Wikipedia/Public Domain

Barbara Karinska was a costumer of the New York City Ballet, and the first costume designer ever to win the Capezio Dance Award, for costumes “of visual beauty for the spectator and complete delight for the dancer.” Wikipedia/Public Domain

The modern tutu has a few versions. First, there is the classical skirt consisted of 10-12 layers of stiff tulle sewn on a pantie and basque at hip level. The lower, short layers of tulle support the top layers, making them jut out from the hip.

A pancake tutu. Par Fanny Schertzer — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9421893

A pancake tutu. Source by Fanny SchertzerOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The other types are the Pancake tutu, which is supported by a hoop and is very flat, with few ruffles; the Platter Tutu which looks like the pancake one but instead of the hip it is sitting at the waist; And there is the American tutu which is also known by the name of its creator – Karinska, or as the Balanchine, or powder-puff tutu: it has very short ruffles of tulle which are loosely sewn on to a pantie to give a soft effect.

A colourfully decorated platter ballet tutu, on a dress form. Автор: Photograph by northbaywanderer, background removed by Editor at Large - Original image posted to Flickr as Ballet Shoes, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1943556

A colorfully decorated platter ballet tutu, on a dress form. Source by north bay wandererCC BY-SA 2.0,

The Romantic Tutu still has the shape of Marie Taglioni’s original costume, but is made of modern materials that make it lighter and more transparent. The hem falls between the knee and ankle.

Emma Livry 1862, wearing a romantiv tutu. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Emma Livry 1862, wearing a romantic tutu. Wikipedia/Public Domain

The Inverted Bell tutu is midway between the classical tutu and the Romantic tutu. It is made of several layers of tulle which jut out similar to a classical tutu, but the layers are longer and have a downward droop, usually to mid-thigh.