NEW YORK — For the New York City Ballet Gala last month, top-tier fashion designers collaborated with the company’s costume shop to create the looks for four works. This intersection of high art and Seventh Avenue was not unusual: The designers in question, including Carolina Herrera and Thom Browne, were following in the footsteps of such couturiers as Oscar de la Renta, Rodarte, Stella McCartney and countless others who have leapt at the chance to get their measuring tapes around the supple waists of dancers.
Meanwhile, Valentino has sent couture tutu skirts down the runway, and Dior evening gowns have featured cascades of flamenco ruffles. In their spring 2015 leather laceup bodices, Givenchy models looked like edgier cousins of ballet’s dirndl-wearing heroine Giselle. Of course, dance-related looks are well-known to fashion followers, who long ago made wardrobe staples of such studio gear as leggings, ballet flats and wraparound shrugs.
Fashion inspires dancewear, and dance — more than any other performing art form — inspires fashion. This sartorial symbiosis gets a dramatic showcase in “Dance & Fashion,” a thoughtfully curated and beautifully staged exhibit at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, through Jan. 3, 2015.
Dualities abound here, testimonies to the allure across time and culture of dance and its accouterments. One can’t help but compare the fetishistic platform pointe shoes that Noritaka Tatehana made for Lady Gaga with the green satin slippers of 19th-century ballerina Fanny Elssler. Narrow and tapered was the style for both women. Elssler’s shoes look like sharp little gardening tools. You could pot mums with them.
The Austrian Elssler was a Gaga precursor: She was known as a sensuous, voluptuous performer who made a fortune on her world tours and attained a fanatical following. She was also a woman of willpower (with, presumably, a high pain threshold). She danced on her toes in those tiny slippers, without the stiffening effects of glue and burlap that later dancers used.
Elssler, like Lady Gaga, had a keen eye for fashion. Her footwear demonstrates “the extent to which the vectors of influence shot back and forth from fashion to dance costuming in the 1830s,” says Valerie Steele, the exhibit curator and director of the museum. This is why: Next to the ballerina’s shoes is another antique pair, identical except in black. They sport the same ankle ribbons but were made for daily wear, not the stage. Romantic ballerinas such as Elssler tied on their slippers with crisscrossing ribbons because that was the street style of the day.
In other words, what underpins the iconic look of the ballerina’s toe-dancing — unchanged even today — is the must-have shoe trend of 200 years ago.
This tracing of origins is the exhibit’s organizing principle, and it makes for fascinating associations. The displays are interwoven as if by invisible threads, connecting, for example, a magnificent 1949 Christian Dior haute couture evening dress, dubbed “Cygne Noir” (“Black Swan”), with the seductive black-tutu-wearing antiheroine of “Swan Lake.” The black gown’s ballet references include its snug bodice, fitted all the way down the torso, and the exaggerated, winglike peplum at the hips.
Even the mannequin is posed with choreographed grace, its black-gloved arms lifted in the pantomime gesture for “dance.”
Did the museum hunt down special dancer-size mannequins for this show? No, Steele says, but they were carefully chosen from among its collection. A 1950 white silk Hardy Amies gown for famed English ballerina Margot Fonteyn required the use of a 19th-century mannequin, with its doll-like proportions, because Fonteyn’s waist was “minuscule.”
Fonteyn came by her petite midsection naturally. The forcibly sculpted wasp-waist is not on view in this gallery; that’s part of another exhibit at the museum, “Exposed: A History of Lingerie,” where some of the corsets are so radically narrow they make your insides clutch just to look at them. No such torture devices were needed to carry off the designs on display in “Dance & Fashion.” Here, slender isn’t an accessory; it’s an occupational requirement (or a hazard, some might say).
Halston’s clingy one-shoulder costume for Martha Graham in the title role of her “Clytemnestra,” specially made for a TV broadcast, is a smooth column of iridescent purple and gold. It would be marred by the slightest bulge. You can be assured Graham had none.
In fact, the discerning modern-dance pioneer described Halston’s garments as “like another skin.”
Yet there are a few garments not made for the thin physiques of conventional dancers and models. Full-figured young women from various step teams, who perform a competitive dance practiced by primarily African American fraternities and sororities, modeled Rick Owens’s spring 2014 collection in Paris. They rocked the runway with their foot-stomping vigor, and you get a sense of that power from an all-black ensemble from his show — shorts under a long tunic sized for an ample upper body and slashed at the hem to accommodate muscular thighs, and worn with chunky, thick-soled shoes.
The voluminous white skirt worn by Judith Jamison for her solo “Cry”attests to what made Jamison so prized by choreographer Alvin Ailey, and by the audiences who lined up for her performances. Like that costume, which enshrined her as a larger-than-life icon of eternal womanhood, Jamison was outsize in every way. Standing nearly 6 feet tall with majestic arms and legs, she defied the norm. Here was a modern dancer, a black dancer, an American dancer praised by critics and audiences alike in the 1970s, at a time when wispy foreign-born ballerinas were the rage.
This show moves beyond ballet to encompass modern dance and a little flamenco; adding any more genres would take up more room than she had, Steele says. Experimental downtown dance makes a strong presence. A Narciso Rodriguez costume for Stephen Petronio’s “Locomotor,” which premiered in April, stands out in its energetic simplicity: It’s a black and tan long-sleeved leotard, color-blocked in a nod to current fashion, and at once minimal and memorable.
Male dancers tend to be undressed onstage, but Ralph Rucci flips this notion. His sheer organza ballgown-like skirt for a young male entrant in this year’s Youth America Grand Prix competition plays with the tensions between covered and uncovered, delicacy and power.
The treasures from the past are especially fine, including Elssler’s full-skirted, pink and black Spanish-inspired dress from her most famous dance, the Cachucha; a Ballets Russes harem-pants ensemble by Leon Bakst from “Scheherazade,” and a stunning 1930s evening gown by Elsa Schiaparelli in pale blue-gray, with a red and orange lining that would peek out when the wearer walked. (This borrows one of the dance-costumer’s most delightful tricks.) Thinking about the scrupulous care taken here with preservation makes the heart leap. Storing costumes is notoriously expensive, and with dance being an underfunded art form, the vast majority of its costume history has been lost.
“It’s a miracle that clothes exist at all,” Steele says. “Costuming for dance is even more transitory. They’re hardly ever saved.”
While the historic pieces are a point of special pride, Steele expressed regret over the current designs she couldn’t include because they are still in use, onstage. These include Jean Paul Gaultier’s dreamy, revealing creations for Ballet Preljocaj’s “Snow White,” and Christian LaCroix’s color-saturated dance-hall designs for “Gaite Parisienne,” which is in the active repertoire of American Ballet Theatre. But LaCroix’s blindingly bright yellow tutu for “punk ballerina” Karole Armitage is on display.
Examining the two “embodied” art forms on view, and their rich connections, should prompt visitors to think more deeply about their own closets and their own bodies, Steele says.
“I like people to look back and forth between dance and fashion,” she said. “It’s useful to think, ‘How can I look beautiful and also move freely?’
“Think about your own fashion choices in terms of freedom of movement or the constraint which would be imposed on the body,” she continued. “If the wearer also wants to have freedom of movement, what else does she — or he — need in the clothing?”
It’s a good question, especially in light of the popular fashions that don’t help much in navigating the choreography of daily life: pencil skirts, sky-high pumps, bandage dresses. Dance costumers and fashion designers know how to frame, compliment and liberate the human body like nobody else. There are countless inspirations in this exhibit, the chief one being that the ability to move well in what you’re wearing is a wardrobe must-have.
‘Dance & Fashion’ at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Seventh Avenue at 27th Street, New York City, through Jan. 3, 2015.