Long ago, when ballet was more of a social court activity and less of an exhibition, dancers wore their own attire. These outfits were typically the elaborate fashions of the day, including men’s wigs and swords still worn at their side during their dance. Women were tightly corseted with panniered skirts. Obviously, being dressed in this manner enabled neither gender to move around freely, making dances quite understated and formal.
The First Dancewear
In 1661, Louis XIV created the Academie Nationale de Musique et de Danse. This was when ballet became a professional pursuit, rather than a ballroom pastime. It was also at this time that technique grew more complicated, involving quicker foot movements and pirouettes for female dancers. Because of the twirling, women needed attire to prevent accidental visibility of their legs during the movements. Called “precautionary drawers,” the first dancewear officially came into being.
Sometime after 1726, Marie Camargo changed her footwear from heeled shoes to flat slippers. She also popularized the first ballet tights and short ballet skirt that brushed at the calves. Audiences loved Camargo’s unparalleled grace and technical skill, made possible in physical strength said to be as impressive as her male counterparts’. Likely because of this unique talent, her wardrobe changes were not seen as scandalous or improper. As a result, the first ballet tights, loose skirts and slippers became standard dancewear.
At the end of the 1700s, dance apparel changed even more because of the French Revolution. A time of change, this era ushered in wear of Greek-inspired lightweight fabrics that clung to the body. A costumer named Maillot perfected the tights. Dancers embraced their improved freedom of movement and how the absence of material formality enabled them to show off their technique.
Dancewear in the 19th Century
In 1820, dance instructor Carlo Blasis published a dance technique manual that quickly became a highly regarded resource. In that manual, Blasis executed poses for instructional drawings. He wore only ballet shoes and shorts for these images to better show form and technique. As a result, people could see the impressive human form created during execution of the movements and poses.
Instead of recommending others wear his short ensemble, Blasis defined the official French dance wardrobe to include:
- Female student wearing a white muslin skirt with black waist sash
- Male student wearing a close-fitting white jacket, white trousers and black leather waist girdle with buckles
- Professional dance attire that showed the outline of the figure and fit closely and loosely to the form for easy movement
By 1826, these recommendations changed to the standard of knee-breeches and silk hose for men. Danish choreographer August Bournonville who had danced at the Paris Opera, invented his own slipper for men, called the Bournonville slipper that is still worn in all Bournonville ballets. This men’s slipper is black with a white, V-shaped front vamp. It elongates the foot and makes the dances appear more defined and graceful.
In 1844, Parisian dance attire changed again. The standard for females included bare head, decolletes and arms. These dancers still wore their tight bodices to define their waist, while undoubtedly cutting back on their ability to breathe freely. Skirts became short bouffants of striped muslin or netting that brushed at the knees. They wore calico bloomers to conceal their thighs during movement.
At the same time, men changed to short white vests without a neckerchief. Their breeches were also white and stopped at the knees. Men continued defining their waists with a black leather belt.
By the 1870s, female dancers’ skirts became slightly puffier with multiple layers. They also extended below the knee in the form made known through Edgar Degas’ paintings of ballet dancers.
In the 1890s, dance wardrobes again became more elaborate and complicated to meet Victorian sensibilities. Female chemises tied at their waists with a delicate ribbon. Ladies also wore a tightly-laced corset on top of this, then layered with a sleeveless bodice. Below the waist, females wore cotton suspender stockings with cotton panties and a second layer of bloomers. Tutus consisted of double tarleton skirts with a waist sash.
When Modern Dance Apparel became Popular
Dance apparel continued to evolve until the early 20th century, when Isadora Duncan danced on stage without shoes, stockings or tutus. She wore only flimsy Greek-style tunics. The one-piece “bathing suit” style of dance wardrobe for women became popular when long-distance swimmer Annette Kellerman hit the sports scene at about the same time.
Jules Leotard, a trapeze artist, invented the leotard that modern dancers soon adopted as their own practice wear. Originally, this form reached all the way to the dancer’s wrists and ankles. The women’s version include a short skirt. Today’s dancers still wear similar practice wear and don similar forms on stage, but with some costume enhancements.