The word “tutu” only entered current usage around 1881. Where did the term originate?
Martine Kahane: The term “tutu” has three possible origins, although none of them have been confirmed. First of all, we think it may refer to the costume’s double layer of tulle. However, “Tutu” could also be interpreted as an endearing term for a young girl's behind. Then again, the word may find its root in the suggestive expression “panpan tutu” (a French term for a spanking) used jokingly by the Opera’s subscribers in days gone by.
How did the tutu come into being?
M.K.: It marks a stage in the evolution of dance costumes. If we go back to the costumes for the court ballets, we can see they tried all types of costumes made out of fabrics somewhat on the heavy side. The advent of the tutu is also interwoven with the history of textiles: as time passed, court, civil and stage costumes all became increasingly lighter—until the Victorian era would once again constrain women with starched, high-neck collars, long floor-length skirts and long, tight-fitting sleeves.Essentially speaking, the advent of the tutu in the 1830s coincided with an extremely rich artistic environment. Initially—and particularly in the case of La Sylphide—the romantic tutu resembled a summer dress, falling to mid-calf, with a modest décolleté and little “balloon” sleeves. With the passage of time, the dress would become shorter and take on greater volume. The sleeves would disappear and the décolleté become ever more pronounced. Finally, decorative elements would be added to the bustier and the platter to result in the tutu we know today—that is to say, a shorter one which facilitates the movement of the legs and the upper body. The fantasy value of the tutu would be such that long, short, and straight versions of the tutu would follow.
What image of a woman was moulded by the different artistic and literary movements of the 19th century?
M.K.: In the eyes of many of the great romantic artists, the world had been spoiled by materialism and they would strive to make it a magical place again. All the artistic movements would conjure up mysterious creatures, ethereal women who existed more as spirits than actual creatures of flesh and blood. A woman was neither a wife nor a mother: she was an eternal fiancée, who, just as in love, could only find fulfilment in death. A woman was condemned to wear white, the colour of purity. Henriette de Mortsauf, the heroine in Honoré de Balzac’s Lys dans la vallée, is testimony to the quasi-equivalence between literary heroines and the female characters in romantic ballets.
What were the reasons for the transition from the (longer) romantic tutu to the (shorter) academic one?
The entire history of the dance costume is linked to technique and body
developments, in turn linked to the canons of beauty and to health and decency.
As the movement of the arms and legs became more pronounced, there was a desire
to show more of the body in order to better highlight the technique. This would
ultimately lead to the leotard, the symbol of a completely liberated body. With
the increased popularity of sport, a healthy body became something that needed
to be shown off. Finally, cinema also changed our notions of acceptable
behaviour as well as our relationship with the body: given that the body is not
physically in front of the audience, the actress, like the spectator, could
free herself of many things. Of course, tutus also got shorter after the First
World War, as they did again after the Second due to the fact that raw materials
were so hard to come by.
What types of academic tutus were made when you first arrived at the Atelier Flou?
Other than not having a cerclette, how can you differentiate a g lette tutu from a cerclette tutu?
What are the principal stages in the making of a tutu?
*The Atelier flou is the workshop responsible for making the women’s costumes (at the Palais Garnier, it makes costumes for the ballet productions, and at the Opéra Bastille costumes for the lyric ones).
Your reading: The tutu, queen of dance costumes