Fashion’s Modern Muse
February 11 – April 18, 2020


Legendary choreographer George Balanchine succinctly stated: “Ballet is Woman.” Indeed, few art forms are as decidedly female as classical ballet. Its reigning practitioner, the ballerina, is a respected artist who embodies modern ideals of beauty and grace, but her elevated position is a relatively recent phenomenon. For centuries, ballerinas were relegated to the margins of society and had little impact on other creative fields such as fashion.

Although ballet consistently reflected the latest modes, fashion rarely borrowed elements from classical dance costumes. Beginning in the early 1930s, however, this one-sided relationship changed. Thanks to the tremendous impact of early modern Russian dancers, a widespread and enduring craze for ballet, or “balletomania,” took hold in the west, particularly in Great Britain and America. Ballet ascended into their pantheons of modern high culture and influenced other creative disciplines.

The ballerina blossomed into a revered figure while, for the first time in history, couturiers appropriated elements of her glamourous raiment. This phenomenon can be seen in this exhibition’s selection of dazzling tutu-inspired gowns, functional ready-to-wear separates that resemble leotards and tights, and footwear ranging from “ballerina” flat slippers to fetishistic “pointe” shoes. These fashions, when placed alongside costumes of legendary performers such as Anna Pavlova, Margot Fonteyn, and stars of the New York City Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, dramatically illustrate the ballerina’s mid-century impact.

Ballet’s sway on fashion diminished by the onset of the 1980s. Even so, ballerinas benefited from the shifting cultural winds that elevated their art, and they have not lost their emancipated position. The revered ballerina, one of fashion’s modern muses, remains a cultural icon whom we embrace to this day.

Patricia Mears, Deputy Director