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Karinska's Costumes: The designer who changed the shape of ballet

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Principal Artists Dimity Azoury, Benedicte Bemet and Amy Harris, Jewels (Balanchine) 2023
Photo Simon Eeles

When you think of the tutu, a glorious concoction of fabric and carefully placed embellishments, you think of ballet. The two are forever connected, a relationship so entwined that one does not exist without the other. As ballet has evolved and the tutu along with it, one designer remains the benchmark for this iconic item of clothing, Karinska.

Born in Ukraine in 1886, Varvara Andryevna Zmoudsky would later be known as Barbara Karinska, Madame Karinska or more simply, Karinska. She was one of choreographer George Balanchine’s most significant collaborators and together they worked on 75 ballets including Serenade and Jewels, but her most groundbreaking innovation came during the 1950s with the ‘powder puff tutu’ for Balanchine’s Symphony in C.

This invention revolutionised the pancake tutu, giving the skirt structure without the need for a metal hoop and cutting the bodice to be more flexible and allow for more freedom of movement from the dancer.

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Artists of The Australian Ballet, Ballet Imperial (Balanchine) 2008
Photo Jim McFarlane

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Artists of The Australian Ballet, Theme & Variations (Balanchine) 1998
Photo Jeff Busby

Yet before the powder puff, before Balanchine and before the ballet, Karinska was a formidable figure in history.

As a child she learned Victorian embroidery from her German and Swiss governesses and later studied law at Kharkiv Imperial University. She moved to Moscow in 1916 where her she became a pivotal part of the arts scene, hosting a salon every evening after the theatre or ballet.

During this time, Karinska experimented with different methods of painting and applying coloured silk to photographs and drawings. She exhibited her pieces in a prominent Moscow gallery to great critical and financial success.

Following the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Karinska returned to Moscow in 1920 where she opened an embroidery school and couture design studio to dress the wives of Russia’s Soviet elite. In the same building, she ran a tea shop that became the meeting place for Russia’s prominent artists, academics and government officials each day at 5pm.

After the death of Vladimir Lenin and the uncertainty of the new regime, Karinska left Moscow with her children, smuggling diamonds she had sewn into her daughters' hat and US$100 bills in her sons' schoolbooks, along with antique embroideries of Russian royalty, out of the country.

Karinska and her family settled in Paris where she began designing for film, theatre and ballet. A newly formed company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo commissioned her to make the costumes for their inaugural season which featured choreography by George Balanchine. In 1933, Karinska constructed the costumes for Balanchine and Boris Kochno’s short lived company Les Ballets.

Karinska expanded her costume empire in London during the 1930s and left for the US as the impending threat of WWII grew nearer.

The American Era

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Gypsy Rose Lee with costume designer, Karinska
Photo Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Gypsy Rose Lee

The legendary burlesque performer believed Karinska understood her unique style of performance, and that her costumes allowed her the freedom to express herself fully. Karinska worked alongside her former rival, Hollywood costume legend Irene Sharaff to help realise Lee’s vision.

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Film star Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc 1948
Photo © RKO Radio Pictures

Hollywood

Karinska’s costumes would grace the biggest stars of the 1940s and 50s as she took her designs to the film industry. In 1948, her costumes for the Ingrid Bergman film Joan of Arc won the Academy Award for Best Color Costume Design. This was the first year the costume design category had been split into two, one for black and white productions and one for the newly created technicolour films. Karinska also received a nomination for her costumes in the 1952 film, Hans Christan Anderson losing out to Marcel Vertes for Moulin Rouge.

“I attribute to (Karinska) fifty percent of the success of my ballets to those that she has dressed.” — George Bal­an­chine
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Marilyn Jones, Serenade (Balanchine) 1970
Photo The Australian Ballet Archives

Irène Karinska

The daughter of Barbara Karinska took over the Paris costume atelier founded by her mother, and after the liberation of Paris in 1945 reopened the studio. There she constructed costumes for the Academy Award – winning musical Gigi as well as executing the designs of Yves St Laurent and Cecil Beaton. Most of Irene’s work was credited as ‘Costumes par Karinska’, leading to confusion as to which Karinska, elder or junior, was the creator.

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Principal Artist Benedicte Bemet, Jewels (Balanchine) 2023
Photo Kate Longley

New York City Ballet

The connection Karinska had made all those decades ago in Paris when she had been commissioned by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to create costumes for George Balanchine would become one of the most significant collaborations in ballet history. In 1964 Balanchine invited Karinska to join him at the New York City Ballet, where for the next 13 years they would create a multitude of costumes. It is here that Karinka created the iconic costumes of Jewels, bright bejewelled tutus and bodices that embody the history of dance costuming. From the flowing Romantic era Emeralds, sharp, short style of Rubies and symbolic structure of the powder puff tutu for Diamonds, Karinska’s costumes have adorned the most renowned dancers in ballet. Karinska’s legacy lives as these shimmering, sparkling and revolutionary designs continue to take centre stage in the theatres and opera houses the world over.

You can see Karinska's exquisite costumes in our Adelaide season of Jewels.

Jewels