Leading ballet costumiers talk tights and tutus with Anna Winter and reveal where the traditions come from, how the outfits are made, what goes into cleaning them after a show and the importance of ‘double jocking’
A pristine confection of net and sparkles crafted into a singular shape: nothing symbolises the rarefied realm of classical ballet quite like the tutu. Its frills and fineries might evoke fairytale perfection, but the tutu was born out of a much grubbier reality.
At the Paris Opera of the 19th century, most female dancers weren’t respected artists but vulnerable girls from impoverished backgrounds, nicknamed ‘little rats’, forced by economic circumstance to make assignations with the opera house’s wealthy patrons – abonnés – in the foyer de danse, where the dancers practised in what amounted to underwear.
On stage, noted ballerinas began to raise their hemlines in order to show off their footwork – Marie Taglioni, pioneer of the pointe shoe, is said to have debuted the gauzy tutu, a soft bell-shaped skirt cut to reveal her ankles, at the Paris Opera in 1832.
While the shortening of skirts showcased female dancers’ increasing technical proficiency, it inevitably piqued the prurience of male ballet patrons. The word ‘tutu’ probably comes from the French ‘cul’ meaning buttocks, which mutated to tutu via the baby talk ‘cucu’. It’s easy to imagine how sexualised slang and upskirt leering would have been de rigeur around the foyer de danse at this time.
It’s not just female bodies that came under scrutiny in ballet’s bygone years. In the first decades of the 20th century, the infamous male ‘bulge’ began to make an appearance, as the combination of tights and a short tunic took over from a rather more trussed-up look involving roomy breeches.
In 1911, Vaslav Nijinsky drew scandalised gasps and was fired from St Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet for refusing to wear a pair of ‘slops’ or breeches during a production of Giselle – conveniently enabling him to dance full-time for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Designs for the latter company’s production of Les Sylphides show the gradual shortening of the principal male’s jacket over time, revealing a franker anatomical outline.
Nowadays, audiences take the beauty and dignity of tutus and tights for granted, as well as the artistic and athletic stature of those wearing them. Still, the potentially revealing nature of ballet costume is a factor that’s constantly monitored by the wardrobe department at Birmingham Royal Ballet. “We make sure the focus is on the dance and not anything weird,” says BRB’s head of costume Elaine Garlick.
“We cringe if something is going up someone’s bottom or they’re not covered properly. We police that. We would never put someone on stage in shop-bought knickers, for example, because they’re not wide enough on the crotch. Sometimes we’ll sew the back of a dancer’s leotard or tutu to their tights to stop it from moving.” A kind of toupee tape is a solution to the potential problem of – whisper it – camel-toe or buttock revelation.
Meanwhile, underneath their tights, male dancers must contend with a dance belt, a kind of padded jock strap with a thong back that hoists a ballerino’s bits in a northerly direction, creating a neat outline. If white tights are required, they’ll need to “double jock” – wear two dance belts – “to smooth off the lines”.
The bulge might draw uncomfortable titters, but the alternative would be a dubious aesthetic prospect, as well as unsupportive for the dancer’s groin. “If you’ve ever seen somebody put a pair of tights over standard underpants, it’s just… hard to concentrate,” notes Garlick. “It looks dreadful. They’re leaping around, so it needs to be safe, secure and hygienic.”
These are the underlying gusset-level concerns around tutus and tights, but how are they made in the first place? Ballet companies tend to get men’s tights from a German company called Klaus Schreck. Lycra is key. There’s a big choice available in terms of thickness and finish (matte or shiny) while white tights can be dyed into any colour specified by a designer.
Men’s ballet tights go right up to the ribcage and are kept in place by two elastic braces that are hooked into lingerie straps, small loops on the inside shoulder seam of the dancer’s tunic. This stops the elastics from sliding forwards and being seen, especially if the dancer’s costume has an open neckline. “They’re all stapled and sewn and poppered and glued into place,” says Garlick. Despite this, dancers “will do weird and wonderful things to their tights”, she says. “They’ll cut the toes out so they can feel the floor better or cut the waistband out and rely on the straps if they don’t like feeling restricted.”
There’s no such chopping and changing with a tutu. In English National Ballet’s busy atelier, where tutus are often made in-house, senior costumier Serena Fusai explains that each one is made from “an average of two or three nets, depending on the style and design. For a flat tutu, the typical classical tutu, we alternate a medium stiff net with a very stiff net and then softer net for the frills around the legs of the dancer.” A tutu can comprise up to 14 layers of net but the ENB standard is 10 or 11 layers. (Russian tutus tend to be longer and softer, while French ‘pancake style’ tutus have 13 layers and a stiff, upright look.) A single tutu can involve 12 to 15 metres of net in total.
The layers are cut to proportion, “starting from a small frill right next to the legs of about 8cm” through to the longest top layer, which can vary from 12in to 17in. A Swan Lake tutu extends 15in from the body. All the net is attached to in-built knickers – “you wear a tutu as you’d wear underpants,” Fusai says. For hygiene and modesty reasons the dancers don specialist underwear covered by tights, over which the tutu goes.
Within the skirt, or plate, a metal hoop is sometimes inserted to help keep the shape up. The plate is attached to a basque, a fitted section that goes around the hips. Everything is secured together to ensure the tutu moves with the dancer, rather than lagging behind and distorting the effect.
Threads called ‘swing catches’ connect the layers together, stopping them from flying up. These swing catches often get damaged during performances, especially if the dancer is being hoisted up and down by a partner. The worst tutu mishap reported at BRB involved a male dancer’s unhooked top becoming attached to the ballerina’s tutu knickers – ripping ensued.
Bodices are attached to tutus but are easily removable, meaning the skirts can be shared between dancers. The top skirt of the tutu, the uppermost layer on to which elaborate decoration goes, is also removable.
When it comes to washing, the spin cycle isn’t an option. Tutus are sponge cleaned after a show, to remove make-up, or dry-cleaned, and they’re hung upside down in storage to keep the shape as perky as possible. They’re only starched occasionally, says Fusai, “if the tutu is very tired and we need to stretch it until the end of a production”.
Over time nets have evolved to contain nylon but “tutus are not soft garments at all. They’re heavy and uncomfortable, they scratch the dancer’s partners and that’s the beauty of them because you don’t see all this on stage”, Fusai smiles. “The dancers make them look so beautiful and magical. You don’t know what’s behind the scenes. That’s why I love them so much.”
She considers the insubstantial material from which tutus are crafted. “Net is insignificant, it’s very flat, it tells me nothing, it’s not silk or a special fibre. But then with the specific construction of a tutu it becomes something iconic, which is brilliant.” Their history might be slightly salacious, but today the tutu remains triumphant, a twinkling testament to the artistry of its wearer and its maker.