Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse; Exhibit Highlights

The Museum at FIT recently opened Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse on February 11 (open until April 18, 2020), curated by Patricia Mears, and features a variety of stunning ballet and ballet-inspired ensembles. The highlights in this post will focus on the items on view that fall within 1880-1930.

Dance has always been a wonderful way to evoke emotional and expression through movement. Those movements, of course, accentuated by the costumes the ballerinas wore. While ballet is seen as one of the ultimate feminine art forms, the physique and training requires a toughness that parallels the athleticism of any professional athlete along with a theatrical component. Costume can set the mood of the scene and create an allure. The Museum notes, “So profound was ballet’s impact that it asserted influence on many fields of creativity, one of the most important being fashion.” For many years, ballerinas’ costumes reflected current fashion, with beautiful feminine imagery, but had little impact on other realms of creativity.

Ballerina Fashions Modern Muse

This post will highlight objects from the exhibit up until the 1930s. The Museum notes that the 1930s were the era of the turning point in which “balletomania” took over, largely due to the influx of Russian dancers on the stage, and ballet became an influence for couturiers rather than just reflecting current styles (but acknowledging the decline of the ballerina as muse beginning in the 1980s).

Below is a photo from 1905 that on view at the Museum of Anna Pavlo, Russian prima ballerina, in her role as “The Dying Swan.” It is this role for which she would become, perhaps, best known and would be her breakout performance as a star of the stage. She was incredibly influential throughout her career and formed her own ballet company in 1911. You can watch Pavlova dance here, thanks to the Huntley Film Archives.

// Anna Pavlova, “The Dying Swan,” from Swan Lake, 1905. Photograph by Herman Mishkin. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Like the photo above, the outfit on display is the “Dying Swan” ensemble worn by Pavlova below. This constitutes what often comes to mind as the classic ballerina ensemble with a wide tulle, tutu skirt, wrapped point shoes, a delicate headpiece (hair back in a bun), and a body-hugging leotard bodice.

Pavlova dying swan
Madame Manya designed “Dying Swan” tutu and headpiece, ivory silk satin, silk and cotton net, metal sequins, goose feathers, paste stones, ca. 1920, Museum of London; Romeo Nicolini designed pointe shoes, ca. 1920, Museum of London

The swan, and other birds, have often been associated and referenced in ballet costumes and in couture that later referenced ballet. Another example of this, like the “Dying Swan,” is the red feathered cape below created by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (the costume to the right is a contemporary example). The cape references “The Firebird,” a ballet created in the 1910s based on a Russian folktale.

Left: Gabrielle Chanel, red silk crepe de chine trimmed with coq feathers, ca. 1927, The Museum at FIT; Right: Geoffrey Holder, “Firebird” costume, satin with rhinestone and coq feathers, the Dance Theatre of Herlem

The cape was created around 1927, and thus began the change from ballet pulling from fashion influences to create costumes to ballet’s influence on couturiers. Below is a photo of Russian ballerina, Vera Fokina, as the “Firebird” in 1910 (picture the feathers in a bright red).

Vera Folkina, 1910, Unknown photographer for the Ballets Russes. / Public domain

The momentum of ballet’s influence upon designers grew, and another example below (front dress) shows the pale pink color that had long been associated with ballet. This color was used because it was close to the skin tone of many European and Russian dancers. More appropriately now, this “flesh” tone color had expanded in range to include ballerinas of all skin tones, but in the 1930s this light pink color still held a close association with ballet. The Lanvin dress below was made in this “ballet pink” color.

Jeanne Lanvin, pink cotton organdy and silk tulle, ca. 1928, The Museum at FIT; behind highlighted dress: Tina Lesser, pink rayon, ca. 1950, on Loan from Beverley Birks

These examples give a small glimpse of the wide range of ensembles, both for the stage and inspired by the stage, that are on view at the Museum at FIT. There are many more to see, and plenty that fall after 1930 on display. I would highly recommend this exhibit as a source of glamorous costumes and an ode to the ballerina!

If you’re in the New York City area, you can view the exhibit at the Museum at FIT at 7th Avenue at 27th St until April 18 or your can view the online exhibit HERE.


-Danielle Morrin

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like these other posts on fashion exhibits: French Women, Fashion, and the First World War; Exhibit Review and Fashion Unraveled; Exhibit Highlights.

Follow me for updates on new blog posts and additional social media posts:





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s