Rounding up – the Romantics cared about fantasy, the ballet, and expressing their ideological alliances through fashion. Those three things, then, were fused in the new Romantic ballet costume, which included the white tutu and what would become the pointe shoe.
Fashionable ball gowns provided the basic shape; sleeves were puffy, skirts were full and supported by petticoats, the waist was laced and the bust and hips were padded. The impression was that of a small torso enveloped by flimsy, curving lines. Although inspired by current trends, the tutu had not been worn before by any group at any point in history. It was not a sudden breakthrough – it developed after the Revolution, which popularised Greco-Roman tunics and sandals. Since the Romantic costume was only worn by women on stage, regardless of the origin of their characters, the tutu was purely a gender marker.
La Sylphide (1832), considered the first Romantic ballet, introduced the pointe technique. Pointe work – or toe dancing – had already been seen, but it was used only on occasion as an acrobatic gimmick. However, with La Sylphide the audience saw a ballet consistently danced on pointe for the first time. In 1832, Marie Taglioni – who played the lead role – wore normal slippers with extra darning on the front; the blocked pointe shoe, with a box at the front, did not appear until later in the century in Italy. Pointe work transformed the dancer’s body and its lines, which became vertical and elongated. Stances, poses, jumps and turns changed, helped by a thorough shift in the style of the costumes, which were now approached as a tool to contribute to the expression of character and authenticity.
The aesthetic of Romantic ballet was related to the Gothic boom, which played up everything otherworldly and mysterious. Lit by gaslight (fire hazard and all), the dancers’ figures became translucent; their clothes were lighter than those worn by other women, and their movements seemed surprisingly free. It is not that designers turned their backs to the search for authenticity, but rather that they played up the split between ‘real’ characters and supernatural ballet blanc scenes, which eventually proved more popular. This ethereal aesthetic placed the ballerinas at a distance from real, flesh-and-bone women, and identified them further with the characters they played. The world onstage, then, was a place for fantasy.
Male dancers were not included in that discourse; playing Romantic heroes, they were the avatars for the librettists and critics, and they belonged to the real world. Technique split between genders, with women becoming more prominent – in fact, many male roles were played by women. This is not to say that masculine dominance disappeared. Instead, it shifted backstage, since men were still teachers, administrators, and could extend their dancing careers as choreographers, a possibility that was not open for women until the midcentury.
Théophile Gautier – Romantic critic and ballet librettist, wearer of medieval outfits, male gazer extraordinaire – remarked that ballerinas must work on their physical beauty as well as their technical training. That beauty was, first and foremost, white. Of course, this aesthetic only underscored racist stereotypes that continue to this day; dancers of colour are still exceptions in most Western companies.
Michael Marrinan credits the painter Eugène Lami with the first design of the Romantic tutu for La Sylphide (1832), while Judith Chazin-Bennahum points to Paul Lormier’s work for La Péri (1843). Lithographs show that the costumes were quite similar, although the hem in La Péri appears to be slightly higher. In any case, it is remarkable that the tutu-wearing protagonists of both ballets are fairies – the ballet costume articulated the Romantic ideals of modernity and escapism. This way, ballerinas and supernatural women were threaded into the current cultural discourse of Romanticism.
However, while the characters’ costumes do give off messages of delicate, essential femininity, it can signify something different on the ballerina as a real woman. Ballerinas showed more flesh than most women; the exposition of their bodies was controlled by costume designers, producers and writers, and expected by professional critics and general gazers. On top of that, critics like Gautier and Jules Janin didn’t bother to disguise their sexualized reading of dancers in general. Dancers were morally condemned not only for showing flesh, but also for using their bodies professionally.
Some lead ballerinas, though, were almost regarded as deities; they rose from performers
to cultural icons – the four in the 1845 Pas de Quatre (pictured above) most of all. Their reach expanded across Paris through marketing devices like posters and press releases, along with memorabilia such as special illustrated volumes in fine paper. Those books would include portraits of dancers or actresses and showcase their fashion, both in and out of character; their influence in style was also reflected in dress-up dolls and other merchandise.
There are very close ties, then, between popular culture, fashion and costume design, Romantic political statements, fantasy, and the Gothic – and all of those elements were articulated in the ballerinas that caught Paris by storm in the 1830s and 1840s. Those implications might have been lost in time, but the image of the ballerina persists. And boy, is it fascinating.
Should I learn more about Romantic ballet? Yes, if you enjoy pretty stories and images with chilling, disturbing undertones. Don’t suppress your feminist sensibilities – watch with them, and hit me up to discuss it. Also, Marie Taglioni’s uncle – a dancer and choreographer, like many in her family – was shot multiple times when he was mistaken for a revolutionary in 1848, survived, fell down the stairs and broke a bunch of bones while he recovered, survived, and died years later of a perfectly normal illness. So, there’s a guy to research. To learn more, take a look at the Royal Ballet’s “Ballet Evolved” series of videos and listen to this cool Stuff You Missed in History Class episode about Marie Taglioni.
What are some Romantic ballets with chill? There… aren’t any.
So, then? Try out Giselle (1841), the most famous one. If you have already seen that, Matthew Bourne’s punk version of La Sylphide, Highland Fling (1994) is super interesting.
What should I accompany this with? Vanilla yoghurt and granola for sweet softness and hella energy underneath, to be eaten while scrolling social media for your favourite celebs.