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The Male Costume in Ballet--history question

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My question is when did the male ballet costume change to what it is now? IE for the Premier Danseur we have in classical ballet tights and a short shirt. I know that there used to always be more to the costume (as there was for women) from the old pictures--at the least some sort of shorts. I also vaguely remember Nijinsky causing a scandal when he decided the shorts limited his dancing and went without them in... Giselle? Les Sylphides? Some ballet. However I was surprised, looking at my mom's old programs, to find a Bolshoi program from the early 60s where the men still had quite old fashioned outfits. Does anyone know around what era this changed?

Thanks guys for any details--I'm a theatre major and costuming is my elective and I was hoping to do something on dance/ballet costuming.

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OK, let's go back, back, all the way...well, not all the way, but way back anyway.

Male dress evolved, for a number of reasons that need not concern us here, into a form where the torso was covered by a tunic and the legs were covered by leggings. This development has a lot to do with the nature of work, and the rise of the middle, horse-owning, class. By medieval times, the hauberk-and-chausse set was practically required for anybody who was anybody. During the Crusades, there were quite a number of people who outfitted themselves with equitation tack, whether they were going to the war or not! The leggings proved difficult of fit around the pelvic girdle, and it was easier to make them legs-only, the ends of which were drawn up and over a belt at the waist. The genitals could then be covered with trunks, or "slops", and later, the codpiece, about which much humor exists.

Gradually, the leggings grew less functional and more decorative, as did the trunks, which became breeches. The form of the breeches-and-stockings set varied, the former being rather blousy in the seventeenth century, but more fitted in the eighteenth. The stockings could be rather ornate, too. Of all people, George Washington orders a pair of plaid hose, probably for hunting. His Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was rather vain about the fine form of his calves and would frequently wear red silk stockings to make sure that people looked at them!

I think we've about come down to the point where you can make out the breeches-and-hose familiar from the Bournonville ballets. Hosiery seems to have dominated over entire tights, as the latter are extremely hard to fit properly, requiring a gusset in the perineal area. Also, tights were generally expensive as they had to be made of either silk or very fine worsted wool, both of which fabrics are difficult to maintain. So, the economical solution was to use some sort of variant on the breeches-and-hose. It isn't until the advent of the mechanized knitting machine that tights become more feasible to use as costume. Where this trend really takes off in ballet comes, as does so much, with the designs of Bakst and Benois for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. In "Les Sylphides", the Poet figure wears a black long gilet, but no trunks, just the tails of his waistcoat covering the hips. The Rose in "Spectre de la Rose" wears an entire "shape suit" (unitard) of silk. One surviving example from the Ballets Russes days I've seen shows many many repairs of runs in the delicate fabric.

Audience taste has to be accounted for here, as the Victorians were actually known to sew pantaloons for their piano's "limbs" and were averse to putting the books of male and female authors next to one another on the bookshelf, unless the author and authoress were married. Your great-grandmother might have cautioned your grandmother, "Dear, that dress is too revealing, you can discern your FORM!" So, the pubic area had to be de-emphasized at all costs. In the west, the nineteen-twenties took care of most of this squeamishness, but while the rest of the world roared in the twenties, Russia was recovering from Revolution and Civil War. When they settled back down, a sort of puritanical reactionism exerted itself, and ideas of decency remained stuck pretty much where they were in 1915!

Lest we task the Russians for too much backward-looking thinking, fast forward to the 1960s, when the 3rd Infantry, "The Old Guard", the US Army's ceremonial organization, was first outfitted in their now-signature eighteenth-century uniforms, a senior General, showing the new spectacle off to his wife was told by her, "I think it's obscene! Their FORMS are showing!" Their waistcoats were lengthened to obviate the Lady's objection!

Gradually, gradually, the whole-tights look prevailed over the trunks, which became rather quaint, in their own way. The expansion of mass production and the development of synthetic fabrics make tights the only way to go today.

That had to cut a lot of corners, and if I've missed anything, ask me about it.

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That's fascinating, Mel, and thanks for bringing it up, Eric. I wonder what a Bluebird looked like in its early performances, or a Siegfried for that matter. Since some of the difficulties involved in the dancing were the same back then, I suppose the older bulkier garments didn't restrict technique--but that's bound to have changed a lot in ways you can explain if you have time, i.e., whether variations in SB and SL were as 'electric', for lack of a better word--I guess I'm asking if the modern tights do, as they would seem to, allow far more freedom to dance athletically than these tunics, etc. Love the use of the word 'FORM', since it has obviously applied to both front and back, male and female, and not only in ballet. I'm trying to remember if baseball players in the 60s wore more loose-fitting uniforms, I think somebody told me they did.

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I believe the bluebird in the reconstructed Sleeping Beauty costume is correct--it looks a lot like the pictures we've seen of Ceccheti in the costume, albeit a bit streamlined--since we at least have Act III filmed you can see his costume (and the Prince's in the Grand Pas) pretty clearly.

I think you're right that baseball players did wear more loose fitting outfits... It looks that way anyway. As Mel said part of this is due to what new fabricks we have, and part of course due to what society deems as acceptable. It's also partly what you get used to--even the most conservative of modern ballet goers wouldn't think twice about the men's outfitst anymore (or the amount of flesh a modern guy in the Corsair pas de deux--or a female bayadere for that matter--would wear).

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So tights were sometimes already worn back in the original Petipa? I've seen lots of Bluebirds, so there must have always sometimes been 'no expense spared' for tights. Or maybe that's the wrong emphasis. For the Puritan and Victorian, codpieces, etc., would cause as much hysteria as tights ever would, including those tassle-like things like Olivier wears in 'Hamlet'. In fact, a codpiece would freak out people on the streets in my neighborhood, although only because of the novelty, I guess.

I just returned McDonagh's book on Martha Graham, and rg will remember exactly where it happened that a couple of House members wanted to take issue with Martha's great willingness to show male flesh--as in Bertram Ross's Oedipus costume, much later in all of the men's in 'Adoration', in general a lot more naked buttock got shown, something like a Rio back swimsuit. She was like this cultural ambassador by this time, sent by the Govt. on European and Asian tours, and more, and always honoured by the government from the time Eleanor Roosevelt had her perform in the White House, so nobody paid attention to this couple of prudes. That was a related, but different, example, since the Graham men weren't just wearing tights and bringing up only the frontal concerns, but were determined to be revealing too much buttock for some tastes to easily abide...Martha sewed costumes all her life until there was not more time for it, so I'm sure she loved these racy costumes for the men as well as those stretchy things she made for the women. I do think Bertram Ross looks good in 'Night Journey'.

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Welcome to Ballet Talk and Ballet Talk for Dancers, Eric....

as you are a theatre major, I am sure that you will find more costume history information in your college/university library. There are many, many knowledgeable people on this site, and there is a great deal of information on this topic online as well.

You will be very well served if you go to the costume shop at your university and interview the persons working on dance costumes there. Nothing has been written that can touch the depth of knowledge carried in these memories and fingers. The same is true for the staff of a ballet costume shop---as long as you make arrangements in advance, the designers and technicians are more than happy to share knowledge.

Some very rudimentary starting points for your reading are:

How to Dress Dancers: Costuming Techniques for Dance/by Mary Kent Harrison

Tutus and Other Costumes for the Danseur and Danseuse/by Virginia Murray

Designing for the Dancer/by R. Strong, I. Guest, R. Buckle, B. Kay and L. Da Costa

A web site you may enjoy is:


Many of the Ballets Russes costumes on exhibit for "From Russia with Love" are staggering in the amount of detail, but also inspiring for the breathtaking use of colour and inventive design elements.

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Thanks Juliet and thank you for the warm welcome--I'm already quite addicted to this site, and talking to people who have similar interests and questions to me.

I have exhausted the UVIC theatre department's costume library--we're encouraged to look elsewhere, and since the univercity is not dance oriented, I'll have to. I think I'll focus on the Diaghilive era--as my post on the Kirov/Nijinsky DVD showed, I'm sorta warming myself towards that era anyway--and it's a manageable 20 years. But it's GREAT to have the history of the costume for men before (thanks Mel!) and put it in detail.

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There were "precautionary drawers" (camelons d'exigence) which were worn by the women to keep people from looking up their skirts. They were rather like knee-length bloomers.

I've also seen them described as "calcons de precaution", and you can see glimpses of them in some of Degas' painting of dancers. But I thought people might be amused by this quotation from the journal of Mrs Arbuthnot who was one of the Duke of Wellington's flirts. It's dated 28 July, 1821:

"I went to the Opera where the Duke (of Wellington) came to me. We were admiring the ballet and the Duke told me he would tell me a very odd story if I wd.promise not to be shocked or angry. He said that when Bonaparte came to Paris from Russia the whole town talked of nothing but the loss of the army and it was felt to be very desirable to give them some other topic of conversation. Bonaparte's expedient was to make the women dancers at the Opera dance without their undergarment! and actually sent an order to that effect! The women, however, positively refused; but did any one ever hear of such a proposal? Tho' the Duke said that, if the women had consented, he did not doubt but that it would have obliterated all recollection of the Russian losses, for in that country they have not the decency which, in this, wd. cause women so dressed to be hisssed off at once. This anecdote he said he knew for a fact."

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