Many of today’s trendsetters are artists or pop icons; in 18th-century Paris, it was ballerinas who led the way. Marie Anne de Cupis de Camargo was one of the first ballerinas to influence fashion. The Paris Opera soloist performed steps previously reserved for men and shortened her dresses to give herself freedom while jumping. Believing that dance should be expressive and unhindered by cumbersome costumes, she caused a scandal when she discarded her panniers, corset and skirt in exchange for a light muslin dress. Similarly, Marie Taglioni did future ballerinas a huge service by kicking off her heels, replacing them with more flexible ballet slippers. This was a new dawn for ballet, a time when artists began to go beyond the rigid structures of court dancing.
When Taglioni danced La Sylphide in 1832, sporting peacock-feather wings above a white corset and a bell-shaped diaphanous tutu, she appeared to float over the stage, as if suspended in the clouds. It was in her role as the Sylph that Taglioni came to exemplify the Romantic era. Using rudimentary foundations made of cardboard and glue, she pioneered the technique of dancing en pointe to create the illusion of an otherworldly, supernatural being. The sylph aesthetic became a popular theme in fashion during this period, accompanied by a Taglioni mania that had a wide-ranging influence on style. After one of her performances in Russia, in 1842, a pair of her ballet slippers were sold for 200 roubles, then cooked in a special sauce for the enjoyment of a ravenous group of fans.
Like the fashion designer Paul Poiret, Isadora Duncan did much to promote the liberation of the female body. Mariano Fortuny designed the Grecian-style Delphos Gown that Duncan immortalised. It was made from exquisitely pleated silk and was simply cut, draping loosely around the shoulders. The Delphos Gown’s silk was dip-dyed numerous times, creating a multi-faceted colour that responded to light and movement – the technique is used in many ballet costumes today. Duncan was well-known for her gypsy-ish style and faux-Grecian fashion preferences. The ecstasy and generous emotion of her dancing embodied the libertarian spirit of the age, influencing designers such as Leon Bakst, who shared her fascination with oriental exoticism.
When George Balanchine began staging ballets stripped of plot, elaborate costuming and spectacular sets, the essentialist focus was reflected in the shift toward leotards. Black-and-white leotards became so synonymous with Balanchine’s neoclassical style that the ‘black-and-white ballet’ is now its own genre. Suzanne Farrell, the quintessential Balanchine dancer and his most important muse, starred in many of these productions throughout the 1960s. At this time ballet was following man into space, becoming more streamlined, more eclectic, more reported than ever before. In her leotard and chignon Farrell was the prototypical Balanchine ballerina: tall, graceful and dignified but overflowing with passion. Remarking on her personal style, she once said, “I’m thought of as a cool, unemotional dancer, but inside I’m not. As soon as I hear music, something in me starts to vibrate”.
The Paris Operá étoile turned international-megastar-for-hire Sylvie Guillem is the ‘bad girl’ of the ballet world, and her image reflects a somewhat unorthodox career. She long ago broke with convention by sporting a fringe with long auburn hair, her trademark bangs counterpointing ballet’s traditional chignons.
She has appeared in various guises on stage throughout her career. For her leading role in William Forsythe’s ballet In the middle, somewhat elevated, Guillem mesmerised with a mischievous page-boy haircut, a la Louise Brooks. Starring in Maurice Bejart’s Bolero with The Tokyo Ballet in 2008, she seduced a ritualistic circle of male ballerinas, her interpretation exuding a feminine, pagan energy. Her hair, cascading down her back and whipping the air, was an integral visual component of this performance.
The most daring image of Guillem is the one she created when she photographed herself nude for Paris Vogue. Adorned only by her long mane, her body’s extreme physicality rivals the geometrical shapes formed by her camera tripod.
With their unique styles and fearless innovative spirits, these women gave ballet an injection of oomph that can still be felt today.