As the 1920s and 1930s ushered in a new obsession with health, and the healthy body, women across the UK, the US, and beyond, began developing new techniques, regimes, and moves designed to create the elongated limbs and taut torso which was desired at the time. One of the most well-known groups to come out of this was the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, a group who encouraged movement as a way to achieve peace. The league held women-only classes, had uniforms and rules, and focused on synchronised, repetitive movement. This allowed the League to develop into something much more than just a weekly exercise class: it became central to friendships, romances, health, and for many women, life.
Another key player at the time was Margaret Morris Movement (MMM). Morris was born in London in 1891 and from a young age starred in plays and ballets. Through Raymond Duncan (Isadora Duncan’s brother), Morris learnt Classical Greek Dance, which through its focus on lyrical dance, she felt offered more freedom and movement than traditional ballet. In the early 1910s, Morris set up a hugely successful dance school, and her style of unbound movement was growing in popularity. By the mid 1920s, the school was opening branches in French, Scottish, and English cities.
A 1923 newsreel courtesy of the British Film Institute shows a group of MMM students performing their dance moves on Harlech beach, in North Wales. Appearing under the title ‘Miss Margaret Morris’ Merry Mermaids’ the women and girls dance along the waters’ edge with fervent energy. The dancers simultaneously appear to be free, flowing, and natural in their movements whilst also clearly performing a choreographed and synchronised set of movements. The women then form a circle through their joint hands and run around in this formation on the damp sand. This frame feels familiar in the way that it is reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s 1910 painting, ‘The Dance’. Matisse’s painting depicts five figures holding hands and dancing in a circle on the grass, with a blue sky behind them.
A little while back, I stumbled across Margaret Bourke-White whilst looking up 20th Century female photographers, discovering her work among others such as Germaine Krull and Grete Stern. It goes without saying that each of these women were respectively brilliant at working behind the lens, and each are deserving of a writeup, but I was especially drawn to Bourke-White’s photographs of Marina Semyonova (fig. 1).
Taken at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, this photo shows Semyonova – the first Soviet-trained prima ballerina – preparing herself ahead of a ballet performance. Semyonova’s body is folded into itself, revealing the physical contortions and movement required of her in order to reach and tie her ballet shoes. Her posture is considered, and the chair acts as a prop to help elongate her body and better display her ballet shoe all the while creating a tension between her body and the billowing tutu which surrounds her and presses upon the back of the chair. Semyonova is artfully staged, and her pose emulates the exaggerated stillness of the photographic form, reinforcing the expectation for ballerinas to always appear elegant, not just during a performance. Her left leg is deliberately aligned in a nod to her profession, recreating one half of the en pointe position and her outstretched arms provide an extension of the en pointe motif. This creates a clear shot for which Bourke-White could effectively capture Semyonova, allowing Bourke-White to play with light to illuminate Semyonova’s body and project a shadow onto the far wall.
With that said, what I found most appealing about this photo, is despite this photo having an editorial-like feel, the loose threads on Semyonova’s ballet shoes offer a reminder of the countless hours of practice required to become a ballerina, displaying the real-life implications of such a profession. This suggest that whilst Semyonova displays poise and elegance, these attributes have been mastered over time. However, the loose threads could also be linked to the USSR in relation to its second five-year plan which sought to prioritise agricultural and self-sufficiency ahead of consumer goods and frivolity, and the loose threads thereby reveal the unravelling of previous political and cultural practices.
Through considering such a beautiful photo, I wanted to discover more about Bourke-White’s work, particularly as this photo was taken during the political unease of the Soviet Union. My research revealed that Bourke-White excelled as a photographer and whose accomplishments were plentiful. Born in 1904, Margaret Bourke-White would go on to set up her own photography studio in 1928 in Ohio, but her work would soon take her abroad, namely to the likes of Russia, South Korea, India and Pakistan where she was commissioned to document moments of political divide, wars and social unrest.
To name but a few of her impressive feats, Bourke-White was the first US photographer to enter the Soviet Union, the first US accredited female war photographer during WWII and responsible for the first cover for LIFE Magazine (fig. 2).
This cover highlights Bourke-White’s unique ability to take an imposing architectural structure and create a striking and an arresting image. She was commissioned to photograph this multi-million-dollar project of the Columbia River Basin and the construction of its impressive dam. The angle at which Bourke-White captured this photo and its emphasis on the symmetry of each of the concrete structures makes them appear – at least in my mind – as gigantic chess pieces bearing a similarity in shape to the ‘Rook’, with the two individuals symbolically positioned as pawns within this almighty chess board. The vibrant orange of the cover contrasts with the black and white image, at once cropping and framing the two individuals stood at the foot of the structure. The shot appears to reinforce the idea that these structures are in fact man made, with the two individuals attesting to the labour required to build such structures, and yet conveys the structures as colossal, unnatural, and otherworldly. Indeed, the editors notes that in commissioning Bourke-White they unexpectedly received, ‘a human document of American frontier life which, to them at least, was a revelation.’ This very observation highlights the talents of Bourke-White, and her ability to capture life within an otherwise intimidating concrete structure. This style of photography also calls to mind El Lissitzy and his photomontages for the SSSR na stroike (trans: USSR in construction) in 1932, with the overall global emphasis on self-sufficiency, driven by its workforce, who become the centre of El Lissitzy’s photomontage (fig. 3). This theme is echoed in Bourke-White’s photography, and the two share similar aims in trying to establish the strength of their respective cities and nations. To this effect, Bourke-White’s photography could be considered an artistic response to Constructivist periodical layouts and El Lissitzy’s earlier work.
The final photograph I would like to discuss is a self-portrait, rumoured to be Bourke-White’s favourite self-portrait, made with the U.S. 8th Air Force in 1943 (fig. 4).
In a similar vein to Bourke-White’s cover for LIFE Magazine, this photo marries machinery and industrial elements with humanity. While the airplane’s jets have been switched off, this photo conveys the necessity to be on constant standby, responding to any changes quickly and efficiently. Bourke-White has a tight hold of the large camera, figuratively and literally held down by the camera, and carries her flying helmet and goggles in her other hand with comparative ease. To this effect, this photo is suggestive of the precarity of the war and the need to be on constant alert as well as Bourke-White’s role to document the events. This is further reinforced by the inclusion of the plane in the frame – its proximity reinforces the fact that it is only a matter of time before this unit needs to reembark the plane.
At the same time, Bourke-White’s stance is relaxed yet upright, smiling as the wind blows through her hair. The tongues of her shoes are flopped over, giving the impression of a rare moment of respite, reinforced by the fact that their surroundings appear bare and uninhabited, suggesting a minimised threat or danger. The aviator jacket is fit with shearling trimmings, and complete with matching trousers, also lined with shearling, featuring leg-long zips and stained with a white powder residue. The crease patterns, particularly on the trousers, suggest the cramped conditions of the plane and it would appear as though Bourke-White has barely stepped off the plane. While her stance is relaxed, and she is surrounded by an expansive empty landscape, the trousers act as her ‘second skin’ and become a reminder that she did not have the luxury of space a few moments ago, and the trousers have not yet and will not likely get the chance to mould to their new surroundings, complete with the luxury of space, or Bourke-White’s standing pose.
Sadly, Margaret Bourke-White contracted Parkinson’s disease in 1953 and completed her last assignment for LIFE in 1957. With that said, she displayed great determination in trying to overcome the symptoms of her Parkinson’s, undergoing risky surgeries, and in true documentary photographer style, publicised and documented her fight against the disease, cementing her status as a formidable character and individual (fig. 5). She sadly passed away in 1971 but while her career was cut short by Parkinson’s, Bourke-White was rightly recognised in her lifetime as a true pioneer in documentary photography, particularly as a female photographer for her ability to uniquely capture people and places in and amongst periods of great change, showcasing their struggles and strengths.
As a little girl, I watched prima ballerinas dress up in flowing tutus and sparkly leotards to perform seemingly impossible manoeuvres with only their bodies and a pair of pointe shoes. Slipping into my own tights, leotard, and shoes while pinning my hair into the tightest bun possible felt like a daily badge of honour. As a former ballerina, I can’t help but admire the intricate, graceful look of ballet costumes and how their designs highlight the elegance of a dancer’s body.
Ballet and fashion are inextricably intertwined, with each art form both inspiring and drawing inspiration from the other. Anna Pavlova, a world-renowned prima ballerina of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wore a particularly striking tutu in her 1905 performance of ‘The Dying Swan,’ a four-minute ballet choreographed by Mikhail Fokine. Pavlova performed the piece thousands of times over the course of her career, and her rendition influenced contemporary versions of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Her costume features a tight bodice with soft panels, reminiscent of a swan’s wings, on either side of her tutu and a feathered headpiece.
‘Cygne Noir,’ an evening gown designed by Christian Dior in the mid-twentieth century, reimagined elements of Pavlova’s timeless costume. The gown also incorporates a tight bodice and its skirt billows out in a waterfall of silk and velvet. Furthermore, the gown reconceives the silky panels of Pavlova’s tutu. If Pavlova’s costume embodies the demure fragility of the white swan, Dior’s gown radiates the mystery and seduction of the black swan.
The leotard, a fundamental component of ballet costumes and rehearsal wear, has been consistently reimagined and incorporated into fashion. In 1943, Harper’s Bazaar introduced ‘The Leotard Idea’ based on designs created by Mildred Orrick. With sportswear dominating wartime fashion, fashion editor Diana Vreeland hoped to introduce the styles to young women, particularly college girls. She worked with renowned sportswear designer Claire McCardell and Townley Sports to create ‘variations of the leotard theme,’ but the designs were ultimately too expensive to manufacture. However, twenty-first century bodysuits recycle this traditional piece of balletwear into contemporary streetwear.
Twentieth-century camp also seized upon the connection between ballet and fashion. Franco Moschino designed a strapless dress for his fall/winter collection of 1989, combining a bustier top with the ballet pink of a leotard. The dress is an optical illusion, depicting a pair of legs in pink tights and pointe shoes posing in passé, underneath a cropped, pink tulle tutu that protrudes from the black skirt. The ensemble comes alive as the wearer moves; a simple shift in direction sends the legs on the skirt spiralling into a pirouette.
Ballet slippers and pointe shoes are another source of consistent inspiration in fashion. Ballet slippers were first introduced in the eighteenth century by Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo, a French dancer who preferred to perform in soft slippers as opposed to high-heeled shoes, breaking away from traditional dance footwear. A century later, Swedish ballerina Marie Taglioni pioneered the creation of the pointe shoe, which would be further advanced by Anna Pavlova. Pavlova also worked with Salvatore Capezio to create the world’s first international pointe shoe brand. Pointe shoes and ballet slippers were traditionally made for white female ballet dancers. Therefore, pale pink – perceived to be close to the colour of white skin – became the standardised colour for ballet tights and shoes.
Until as recently as 2018, dancers of colour were forced to dye their pointe shoes. As most ballerinas go through two to three pairs of point shoes per week, many dancers spent as much as eight-hundred dollars per year on dyes. However, ballet manufacturers like Gaynor Minden have finally recognised the need to accommodate ballerinas of colour, and ballet shoes are now available in a range of satin colours that represent a wider variety of skin tones.
Modern, prêt-à-porter ballet flats echo their onstage ancestors. They exploded in popularity after Rose Repetto designed flats for Brigitte Bardot in 1956, which Bardot later wore in her film …And God Created Woman. Today’s ballet flats come in a range of colours and styles from various designers, and often feature the dainty bow and soft leather that define the ballet slipper. Brands like Repetto and Chanel continuously revamp the classic silhouettes each season. However, some feature modern twists, such as Simone Rocha’s combination of a ballet flat and trainer. Even the design’s crisscross straps resemble pointe shoe ribbons.
Ballet and fashion have also been linked in popular culture and advertising. Stuart Weitzman released a series of advertisements for the 2019 holiday season called ‘Step Inside,’ featuring Misty Copeland, one of the foremost prima ballerinas of the twenty-first century. In one variation, Copeland wears a black bralette and black tulle skirt, modernising the traditional tutu. Her shoes change colour as she chaînés across the room, aligning the artistry of ballet with the ephemerality of fashion.
Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw wore a pink sleeveless bodysuit and white tulle skirt in the opening sequence of Sex and the City (1998-2004). With love of fashion being one of the show’s central themes, Bradshaw’s ballerina-meets-urban-woman look kicked off every episode, embodying the timeless elegance of the relationship between fashion and ballet. Although I am no longer a ballerina, ballet flats, bodysuits, and the occasional tulle skirt are staples in my wardrobe, and I can’t wait to scoop up more reinvented pieces that put me onstage again.
By Genevieve Davis
Arnold, Rebecca. “Sportswear and the New York Fashion Industry during the Second World War.” In the American Look: Fashion and the Image of Women in 1930’s and 1940’s New York. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009.
Daher, Nadine. “From Ballerina Flats to Tutus, Ballet Has Left Its Mark on Fashion.” Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed February 11, 2021. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/ballerina-flats-tutus-ballet-has-left-its-mark-fashion-180974296/.
Marshall, Alex. “Brown Point Shoes Arrive, 200 Years After White Ones.” The New York Times, November 4, 2018, sec. Arts. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/04/arts/dance/brown-point-shoes-diversity-ballet.html.
Pike, Naomi. “It’s A Ballet Slipper, But Not as You Know It: Simone Rocha Has Created A Shoe We Never Knew We Needed.” British Vogue. Accessed February 11, 2021. https://www.vogue.co.uk/miss-vogue/article/simone-rocha-ss21-shoes.
Pointe. “1820s–1830s: Marie Taglioni and the Romantic Ballerinas,” August 5, 2020. https://www.pointemagazine.com/history-of-pointe-shoes-2646384074.html?rebelltitem=3#rebelltitem3?rebelltitem=3.
Staff, C. R. “The History of Ballet Flats.” CR Fashion Book, October 15, 2019. https://www.crfashionbook.com/fashion/a24663992/the-history-of-ballet-flats/.
Sally Banes once wrote: “dance is often a metaphor for libidinous sexuality” in her book Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage. The relationship between the movement of the body for both artistic and sexual pleasure is one that has deep roots within history. Colleen Hill states that nineteenth century ballerinas often resorted to prostitution as a means to maintain financial stability at a time when dancers received minimal wages.
The association of dance and sexuality, however, extends far beyond the financial needs of the performers. The way in which a dancer moves their body has often been paralleled to the various corporeal rhythms performed during the sexual act. The similarities between these ‘dances’ is most keenly observed when considering a part of the body so often associated with fetishised —or even perverse —sexuality: the foot.
In a Vogue article from 1982, Alfred Kinsey is quoted as saying that during sexual activity “the whole foot may be extended [to] a position which is impossible in non-erotic situations for most persons who are not trained as ballet dancers.” Within this, it is possible to see how the motions of the foot are particularly susceptible to erotic pleasures. Kinsey’s assertion further demonstrates how the sexual act can make the foot mobile in ways previously deemed impossible without training in dance; almost as though eroticism can give someone the phalangeal flexibility needed to dance on pointe. In this sense, one can see how the ballerina on pointe might be viewed as in a continual state of erotic pleasure, her outstretched feet the very image of fulfilled desire.
The ballerina is a historical figure steeped with covert sensuality; her delicate feet becoming the desired object within male fantasy. Hill details a story of the discarded pointe shoes of Marie Taglioni. Within this tale, Taglioni’s worn-out shoes were cooked, garnished and eaten by a band of Russian admirers. If this story were more than mere fantasy, it would show the libidinous tendency to want to consume and digest the fetishised object of desire. Within this process, we may incorporate the object into our own psyche; a narcissistic gesture that enables our fetish to never part from our body.
The ways in which ballet has been long associated with sexuality is epitomised within the pointe shoe; an object reminiscent of the phallus in design, thus furthering is capacity to act as a fetishistic substitute for the male plagued by castrative anxieties. While the pointe shoe denotes an air of fragility it also, as Hill argues, represents the pain and discipline endured by the dancers. In this sense, the shoe becomes a paradoxical object of both pleasure and pain, desire and castration. The pointe shoe is ultimately an object imbued with sexuality and fetishised desire, a desire that extends to the very practise of ballet itself.
By Niall Billings
Sally Banes, Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage, 1998
Colleen Hill, Ballet Shoes: Fashion, Function and Fetish from Dance and Fashion, 2014
Sherry Magnus, Feet, Sex and Power: The Last Erogenous Zone from Vogue, 1982