The History Of The Ballet Tutu

The tutu has become an iconic and integral part of the ballet aesthetic over the years. Though they are now created in thousands of dazzling colors and styles, their origin was originally for function over fashion. The skirt that we know today as the “Romantic tutu” traces all the way back to 1832 to a dancer named Marie Taglioni (1804-1884). Marie was a Swedish ballet dancer. Her father Filippo was an Italian choreographer and her mother was also a ballet dancer. They moved to Vienna when she was very young where she began her ballet training. Her father felt her technique was not up to standard, so he created a rigorous six month training program that required her to hold positions for 100 counts. Because she had a slight curvature in her back, she worked hard to disguise it by increasing her range of motion and strength. At age 23 Marie joined The Paris Opéra. 

Marie Taglioni La Sylphide

It was here that the ballet “La Sylphide” premiered, which her father had created for her to dance in. This was a historic moment in dance history, because it was the first time dancing on pointe was featured in a professional ballet. Prior to this, dancers had worn only floor length skirts- but Marie’s skirt, designed by Eugene Lami, was shortened to calve length to showcase her delicate pointe work. There are several theories of how the tutu got its name. The word is not recorded anywhere until 1881. Some say that it comes from the two layers of tulle in dancers skirts. Another theory is that it derives from the French word “cul” (which translates to ass in English) and was used as slang to refer to women’s crotch and bottom area. This term was used by the rich male patrons of the Paris Opera ballet, who favored the very front rows so that they could enjoy the scandalous view. During that era these men were encouraged to mix with the ballet girls in the foyer and arrange dates. Some theories suggest that the term came from the men playfully patting the back of the tulle dress with the saying pan-pan tutu (French for i’ll smack your bottom). 

The tutu had a slow evolution. Little by little, Marie’s “romantic” tutu was shortened and became more voluminous until it became what it is now the most widespread model, that of the short tutu. Over the years sleeves would also disappear and the décolleté became more pronounced. It took until the 1870’s for tutus to become shortened above the knee for ease of movement, into the “Classical tutu” which exposes the full leg. 

Today, five types of tutus are generally worn in ballets. 

The romantic tutu emphasizes airyness. It is a long flowing skirt typically made from 6 layers of tulle, reaching the mid calf. 

The bell tutu (made famous Degas paintings) is short and stiff. The layers of netting are not supported by a hoop and fall into a bell shape. 

The pancake tutu jets straight out at the hips and is supported by a wire hoop embedded in it’s layers. It is short and stiff. True to it’s name, it looks like a pancake.

The platter tutu is quite similar to the pancake, but has a flat top which is often decorated instead of pleated. It does not have a wire hoop.

The Balanchine tutu (aka powder puff) is a short tutu that doesn’t stick as far out as the pancake or platter. It does not have a wire hoop and has a softer full appearance. 

Degas dancers in bell tutus

Ryerson Theatre School assistant professor Caroline O’ Brien states “As one of the last vestiges of courtly life, classical ballet expresses manners and gesture that are no longer a part of the modern world.  The tradition of ballet costume is rooted in history and has evolved in tandem with the dance and fashions of each period. The tutu as we know it today is composed of short stiff layers of nylon netting attached to custom knickers that project out from the hips parallel to the floor.  The layers are controlled with an intricate system of hand stitches and are supported by a 1/4” wire threaded through a mid layer of the netting.  The tutu skirt is then attached to a basque and a stiff bodice. Now, in the twenty first century, that tight little bodice and plate of frothy net combine to create one of the most evocative and provocative garments in history. The dress moulds to the shape of the dancer, contouring the silhouette, conforming to the implicit form that balletic training has produced.”

After over 185 years, beautiful ornate tutus are still helping to bring audiences into the fantasy world of ballet, where anything is possible. Given their versatility and rich history, i’m sure they will be for hundreds more.

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