Inextricably bound up with the history of costume and women’s fashion, the chignon has become one of the ballerina’s characteristic features. From the technical necessities intrinsic to the evolution of dance to its elevation to the status of myth, we look back over the history of this emblematic hairstyle from the world of dance.
Although founded in 1661, the Royal Academy of Dance did not allow female dancers to appear on stage until 1681. These ballerinas, representatives of “la belle danse”, wore costumes that, from head to toe, were very similar to those of the court. Their hairstyles thus resembled those worn at Versailles: heavy powdered wigs, often adorned with crests of feathers, as can be seen in the engraving of Marie-Thérèse de Subligny in 1700 or in the sketches of costumes by Jean Bérain made between 1704 and 1726.
These cumbersome headdresses were rapidly pared down from the beginning of the 18th century onwards. The way people danced changed, becoming, with the “narrative ballet” both more technical, requiring speed, virtuosity and ever greater freedom of movement. Marie Sallé and Marie-Anne de Camargo were the greatest exponents of this period, appearing bare-headed on stage. It was at this period that costumes became lighter and better adapted to dance.
Their aim was to avoid hampering the dancers. The fashion for Antiquity at the end of the 18th century was to sacralise very simple costumes and hairstyles with loose hair, like that of Madeleine Guimard, shown here in an engraving.
In spite of the establishment of a wardrobe service in 1805, with an official hairdresser to ensure a form of harmony and uniformity amongst the dancers, the portraits of ballerinas that have been found from this period demonstrate that discipline was not the order of the day and each ballerina was free to arrange her hair in the manner that suited her.
Little by little, wigs disappeared entirely. At the beginning of the 19th century, the fashion was for flat braids, both in town and on stage. Dancers, like the celebrated Fanny Elssler, helped to popularise them.
What began as a solution to a technical imperative gradually changed into the quest for an aesthetically pleasing line. In his writings on dance, Théophile Gautier, a great lover and chronicler of opera and ballet, mentions above all the dancers’ bodies, their legs and the gracefulness of their arms; the evocation and appreciation of their hair occurs only from this perspective: “Mlle Elssler should also arrange her hair to accentuate the back of her head; her hair, knotted lower, would soften the straight line of her shoulders and neck”, wrote T. Gautier in 1837 in Le Figaro1. Dark haired dancers were also appreciated for the contrast their hair made against their white skin; again referring to Fanny Elssler, T. Gautier remarked that “her hair shines like the wing of a raven framing a mask of pale marble.2”
Thus the chignon was subsumed little by little into the attributes of the ballerina and contributed to the construction of her figure. During the 1830’s, this image crystallised completely around the character of the Sylphide interpreted by Maria Taglioni. The tutu of white gauze, the pink satin shoes and the chignon worn low, sometimes with a coronet of flowers, constituted the dancers’ uniform. The image of the ballerina includes all these elements, chignon included, and has persisted right up until today.
The romantic “white” ballets of the 19th century thus sacralised this vision of the ballerina. Thanks to new rules in 1880, the Opera Ballet more rigidly enforced the wearing of what had become the ballerinas’ uniform, from the costume to the hairstyle. Thus, hair worn in a low bun for the now emblematic ballets like Giselle, Swan Lake and La Sylphide has been adopted by dancers from that day to this.
The model that inhabits the collective imagination was not however unanimously appreciated when it was first established. Spanish ballerinas and “bayadères” also met with great success with their long hair worn loose, a sign of sensuality that contrasted with the cold elegance of French ballerinas. Once again, Theophile Gautier’s account provides us with information as to the taste prevailing at the end of the 19th century, notably through his eulogiums on Mlle Priora, a Spanish dancer: “Her noble and regular head forms an antique cameo. A forest of black hair (...) gives to her beauty a sort of savage accent that differs from the pale grace of ballerinas3.”
In spite of everything, this orientalist vein gave way to the queen of hairstyles that the chignon had become. If the fashion was for turbans (La Source by Arthur Saint-Léon, La Bayadère by Marius Petipa) or for ballets largely inspired by folklore (Coppélia), and even for improbable accessories (Fanny Elssler’s headdress of feathers in La Chatte métamorphosée en femme by Jean Coralli), all these elements used the chignon as a basis.
Firmly established among the accoutrements of the ballerina, the chignon has taken on more or less varied shapes over the years, above all following the rhythm of feminine fashion - the little crimped bun, placed higher or lower on the head - it has been deployed in an infinite range of possibilities without ever disappearing.
Contemporary choreographies still include this timeless hairstyle. Although ballerinas are sometimes called upon to wear their hair loose on stage, it is often to convey the intensity of a situation, as in The Rite of Spring, or the despair and abandon of a heroine killing herself as at the end of Romeo and Juliet.
Unchanged since the crystallisation of the portrait of the ballerina in the middle of the 19th century, the chignon has imposed itself in both artistic representations of the ballerina and in the practices of dancers from their earliest age at the School of Dance.
1 Le Figaro, 19 October 1837
2 La Presse, 26 September 1853
3 La Presse, 1st December 1851