NEW YORK, N.Y. – A crowning jewel of the new exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology is a feathered white tutu. It may look, to the untrained eye, like any ballet costume. It is, however, anything but.
Worn by the iconic Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in her most famous role, the Dying Swan, the tutu contains 1,537 feathers. Curators at the Museum at FIT know this because the feathers had to be counted to get the tutu through the permit process to arrive in the United States, from Britain. At FIT, the tutu resides in its own alarmed case with 37 screws keeping it safe and secure.
The launch this week of “Ballerina: Fashion's Modern Muse” was timed to coincide with New York Fashion Week, taking advantage of all the editors in town. But the connection is more than logistical: The exhibit argues that ballet has had a major influence on fashion both high-end and casual, starting in the early 20th century and up to the present time.
The exhibit features 90 items, including ballet costumes, couture gowns and athletic wear, or what we today call “athleisure.” Ballgowns or party dresses from top labels like Dior, Chanel and Lanvin are displayed along with the ballet costumes that inspired them.
To Patricia Mears, curator of the exhibit and deputy director of the Museum at FIT, ballet's influence is “everywhere.”
“So (if) you're looking at a formal gown made out of silk tulle that is covered with spangles and has a satin bodice, immediately you think of a ballerina's tutu," Mears says. ”If you look at the flat ballet slipper, millions of women wear that kind of shoe today. And then the leotard, the leggings ... all these things have found their way into fashion. It's ubiquitous."
While ballet's popularity dipped somewhat at the end of the 20th century, Mears feels it's gained considerable ground over the past decade, partly due to the popularity of “Black Swan,” the 2010 film that won Natalie Portman an Oscar, and partly due to the use of social media by dancers to connect with audiences. Some dancers have become familiar cultural figures (none more than Misty Copeland, for example, who has crossed over into mainstream stardom.)
And fashion has played a role in the phenomenon, argues Mears: “The collaboration between high-end designers and ballet companies has been a really important force in making this change as well."
The most obvious example: New York City Ballet, which has contributed nine costumes to the exhibit, including the late costume designer Karinska's famous tutus from “Jewels” by George Balanchine, and a 2012 costume for “Symphony in C” by current NYCB costume director Marc Happel. The company's annual fall fashion gala brings in noted designers to create costumes for new ballets every year.
Also on loan from NYCB: the lovely long pink tutu worn by the Sugarplum Fairy in “The Nutcracker” — a character that is “every little girl's dream,” says Happel. “She has two costumes — she's one of the only characters that does. This one is made of a very beautiful satin bodice and several layers of tulle, which are different colors. That can be very subtle, but it creates more depth in the classical tutu."
Echoes of that tutu, in fact, can be seen in a very modern item Happel has contributed to the exhibit: the wedding dress he designed for Sara Mearns, NYCB's star ballerina and a good friend, for her 2018 marriage, a stunning pink dress with spaghetti straps and a jewel-encrusted bodice.
In one section, the exhibit departs from the European high fashion elements — the Lanvin, the Chanel, the Dior fashions inspired by ballet — to look a particularly American phenomenon of the 20th century: activewear.
“I think one of the most surprising parts of the exhibit are the activewear elements,” says Mears, “the leotards, the leggings. Today, ‘athleisure’ is everywhere. But actually the phenomenon started in the 1940s. and we have a whole group of American women designers like Claire McCardell to thank for that. They were actually looking at dancers as a source of inspiration.”
The exhibit runs through April 18.