The tutu, queen of dance costumes

An interview with Martine Kahane and Anne-Marie Legrand

By Anna Schauder 03 January 2018

© Eléna Bauer / OnP

The tutu, queen of dance costumes
As the year draws to a close, Don Quichotte marks the return of shimmering tutus to the stage of the Opéra Bastille. First introduced at the Paris Opera and consecrated with La Sylphide in 1832, the tutu has become emblematic of the classical ballerina. Rudolf Nureyev told his dancers they needed to “wear the tutu”, in the sense that they should assume the costume and learn how to present it to the audience’s gaze. But what is the story behind the tutu that made it synonymous with the ballerina? We talked to Martine Kahane, former director of the Paris Opera’s Library-Museum, and Anne-Marie Legrand, in charge of the Palais Garnier’s Atelier flou*.

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.    

Marie Taglioni entourée des danseuses Carlotta Grisi, Lucile Grahn et Fanny Cerrito en 1846
Marie Taglioni entourée des danseuses Carlotta Grisi, Lucile Grahn et Fanny Cerrito en 1846 © AKG Images

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?

M.K.: 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?

Anne-Marie Legrand: When I arrived at the Paris Opera in 1982, they were still making "cerclette" tutus. Up until then, they had epitomised the Paris Opera’s style. These were comprised of a band of tulle which in turn was gathered and inserted into the centre of the flounces to reinforce the tutu and ensure its durability. The process that went into making them was a jealously-guarded secret and, at the time, it was only passed on by word of mouth. We could not be trained outside the studio. When Rudolf Nureyev arrived, he asked us to make "galette" tutus for Raymonda (1983), Swan Lake (1984) and La Bayadère (1992) among others. Compared to the "cerclette" tutus, the amount of tulle used for each flounce is far greater. The platters are larger, which gives the dancer a wider port de bras. By rule of thumb, the radius of the tutu should correspond to the length of the dancer’s arms so that the latter can touch the rim with her fingertips.   
Dorothée Gilbert (Cupidon) dans Don Quichotte, Opéra Bastille 2017
Dorothée Gilbert (Cupidon) dans Don Quichotte, Opéra Bastille 2017 © Svetlana Loboff / OnP

Other than not having a cerclette, how can you differentiate a g lette tutu from a cerclette tutu?

A-M. L. : The galette tutu is heavier than a cerclette tutu, due to the greater density of tulle. For current productions, we’ve gone from thirteen to eleven flounces for reasons related to production time, weight and cost. The edges can be straight or denticulated. You can identify these by the hand-cut ruffles which are also a characteristic of the galette tutus of Rudolf Nureyev's times.


What are the principal stages in the making of a tutu?

A-M. L. : A tutu is composed of a trousse (a term used for the panties) onto which we sew the flounces, from the shortest to the longest (11 to 13 flounces). We then fit a yoke approximately 6-cm high on top. When that operation is complete, the tutu resembles a large rosette. The whole thing is then “banded” by a multitude of long, loose, hand-sewn stitches which constrain the garment and give the tutu that “pancake” shape which we called a tulle platter. Then, depending on the artistic specifications, it can be trimmed with lace, pearls, sequins, etc.… as per the designer’s inspiration. Finally, we add the bustier, which completes the costume. Due to the large number of flounces, a tutu with a so-called “English” tulle platter requires a longer production time: approximately three and a half days, whereas the skirting for a romantic tutu with four flounces only takes a day and a half to complete.    

*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).

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