A professional ballerina has a disciplined, graceful, elegant, and feminine body. However, they represent a specific view of femininity: extremely thin, long legs and neck, small breasts, and small hips. It is very difficult for average women to attain this type of body without the rigorous training, but there are ways to imitate a ballerina through adornment. Throughout several decades, mainstream fashion has appropriated and re-appropriated dance attire in order to demonstrate this type of femininity and traditional visions of gender roles. Appropriation is the act of taking or borrowing an object or element from one culture and redefining it in terms of a different culture or group. By emulating the uniform of ballerinas, women hope to gain their grace, poise, and elegance, while defining themselves as a woman.
The purpose of dance wear from the very birth of the art form is to emphasize the female form. Similar to lingerie, it is made, “with the purpose of experiencing feminine identity” through, “controlling your bodily performance in social life” (Jantzen 177). It is meant to lie flat against curves without disrupting any of the lines the body is able to create. It is tight and form fitting to display the lean body of the dancer that they use their discipline to attain (Foucault). Rehearsal wear is practical and meant to keep you warm while still able to see the body. The classic combination of a black leotard with pink tights and pink ballet slippers is meant to also display discipline. It is uniform of sorts. Today, ballerinas are able to demonstrate a bit more self-expression, but the more serious you take your dance wear, the more discipline you demonstrate as an artist. Costumes have not altered much over the years either. All of the costumes you see ballerinas wearing in the classical ballets have barely changed since the beginning of the art form in the 15th century. The appropriation of these styles in mainstream fashion shows the desire to look like these feminine, graceful dancers.
One example of the average woman copying dance attire is the ballet bun. Over the years we have seen many celebrities and models on the runway wearing this chic, polished look, paired with a daytime outfit or for formal occasions. The classic ballet bun should be flat against the head with no loose ends and very sleek against the head. The “topknot has come in and out of style over the years, adding a twist to the ballet bun. Both styles emphasize the neck while elongating it. A topknot can be undone, messy, or reconstructed to add a bit more edge to a look, but the typical topknot does not stray far from a ballet bun.
Other popular appropriations of the ballet uniform include ballet slippers, leotards, tights, and legwarmers. Within the example of ballet slippers, studio wear is reconstructed and worn on the streets. Ballet flats are trying to emulate the femininity of the female dancer. As Simmel puts it, “Fashion is the imitation of a given example and satisfies the demand for social acceptance” (Simmel 543). Flats can be embellished or made different colors, but they still resemble the general form of the ballet slipper.
A slightly different example of dance-wear appropriation is the trend of 1980’s workout fashion. In this style, mainstream fashion re-appropriates the ballet uniform with bright, loud patterns along with colorful legwarmers and tights. Leotards are worn extremely high cut and paired with headbands. While this style still demonstrates femininity, it is not in the traditional sense. This trend shows that, “The very same apparel ensemble that ‘said’ one thing last year will ‘say’ something quite different today and yet another thing next year” (Davis 150). The meaning of the leotard and tights changes: it looses the sense of discipline that a ballet uniform usually implies and shows the female form in a more sexual way. The goal is no longer to look like a graceful female; it is to look sexy.
A classic item which has been appropriated and re-appropriated over time is the tutu. Designers use the tutu in their designs every season, creating the epitome of feminine fashion. A longer, flowing tulle skirt is an obvious imitation of the classical ballet skirt, while a shorter tutu is more “fun”, chic, and “girly”. This is one example of designers, “acquiring subculture as if it were ready-to-wear” (Greif 3). Traditionally, the tutu was meant to signify a prima ballerina: someone who has worked hard enough to earn the right to wear a tutu. A more embellished tutu could signify a more important role. A younger ballerina who is not as trained wearing a tutu is not only breaking the convention; they are disrespecting those higher in rank. Therefore, designers creating a tutu for any woman to wear, “represent[s] the contemporary disconnect between symbols and their original meanings” (Khaled 6).
In an opposite example, the tutu and tights in punk culture mean something totally different. Punks re-appropriated these items to show rebellion and non-conformity. By pairing a disheveled black tutu, ripped or fishnet tights, and clunky heels or combat boots, they are creating a bricolage of the ballet uniform, subverting the original meaning of femininity. Similar to distressed jeans, “disfiguring them becomes a way of distancing oneself from those values”, in this case, the values of gender norms (Fiske 4). The outfit is meant to poke fun at the traditional image of an effeminate woman, displaying that they don’t conform to the norms of society.
The act of appropriating and re-appropriating ballet clothes and dance wear reinforces a traditional image of femininity and grace specific to the ballerina. As trends in dance wear evolve and change, the traditional style of the ballet uniform continues to influence mainstream fashion today. Whether it’s through hairstyles, shoe trends, or various forms of dress, the style of the ballet uniform is appropriated beyond the studio or stage and onto the streets for women. If a woman can’t attain the disciplined body of a ballerina, imitating their fashion is one way to achieve their obedience, grace, and elegance.
Davis, Fred. “Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” Fashion Theory: A Reader. By Malcom Barnard. London: Routledge, 2007. 148-58.
Fiske, John. “The Jeaning of America” Understanding Popular Culture. Boston: Unwin-Hyman, 1989. 1-21.
Foucault, Michael. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books. Print.
Greif, Mark. “The Hipster in the Mirror” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Nov. 2010. Web. 06 May 2014. <www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/books/review/Greif-t.html?pagewatned=all&_r=0>.
Jantzen, Ostergaard, & Viera. “Becoming a ‘woman to the backbone’: Lingerie consumption and the experience of feminine identity”. Journal of Consumer Culture. Sage Publications: July 2006. 177-202.