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Fashion Is Obsessed With Dancewear

From leg warmers to leotards, ballerinas are always in style.

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When I quit ballet after 16 years, what I came to miss the most was not the muscle aches in the arches of my feet and small of my back, the frustrated corrections from my instructors, nor the constant struggle to improve my turnout and better my posture, but, rather, the clothes. They made me feel beautiful. I treasured the pair of high-waisted purple knit pants that made my legs seem long and lithe; the cropped pink wrap-around sweater that gave the illusion of an hourglass figure; and the plunging, tight black leotards that emphasized my hard-earned muscles.

“[Ballet clothes] are body conscious,” Paulina Waski, a dancer in the corps de ballet with the American Ballet Theatre company, tells me. “Cleaner looks show off your line. If you wear a T-shirt [in class], it cuts off your waist and your hips. You can’t see every little muscle.”

The clothes are flattering out of necessity. “It’s about showing off every muscle in your body, and making sure the instructors can see that you’re doing the steps correctly, so you can’t cover up any mistakes,” Waski says. “It’s better to not wear too much.”

Dancer Amanda Derhy, shot by street style photographer Edward Berthelot.
Photo: Edward Berthelot / Getty Images

The ballet uniform — typically a simple leotard and tights — has long maintained a dynamic relationship to the fashion industry, which took the practicality and simplicity of dance gear and made it stylish. For Waski, the reason behind ballet’s enduring influence on fashion is simple.

“Ballet is classy and elegant,” she says, “and people want to mirror that image of a ballet dancer and her gracefulness.”

There are some obvious garments that have been passed down from the dance studio to the fashion world. The ballet flat — chic, perfect for everyday wear — is the easiest example. The crop sweater, especially popular now, and sheer tights and leggings arguably also have their roots in the ballet studio. And back in the ’70s and ’80s, leg warmers were an especially popular trend.

“Originally, [dancers] cut off the sleeves of old sweaters and pulled them on over our legs and feet, and wore them between rehearsals or in the theater wings to stay warm before going on stage,” Genia Blum, former ballet soloist at Luzerner Theatre and founder and artistic director of Dance Art Studio Ballettschule Luzern in Switzerland, explained to me. “I remember seeing the first commercially knitted leg warmers in the ’70s. Dancers would continue wearing the leg warmers after class, out into the street, until normal people picked it up.”

Leg warmers are probably one of the few — if not the only — items that originated in the dance studio and found their way directly to the general population. Still, ballet’s impact has been deeply felt in the fashion world.

According to Bjorn Bengtsson, former vice president of design for Theory menswear and adjunct professor at Parsons School of Design in New York, “ballet has had a big influence, despite having so few garments.”

Waski sees that influence translated to clothes for non-dancers all the time in her regular life.

“I see people wearing bodysuits with high-waisted jeans. I could do the same thing with a leotard from my dance drawer,” she says. “At cocktail parties, you see women wearing tulle skirts. It’s feminine, very princess-like.”

The leotards and bodysuits wallpapered across Instagram these days may owe some of their popularity to Kim Kardashian, but their appeal stems from the fact that outfits worn in the ballet studio are meant to be revealing. For young, stylish women who prefer a minimalist look, there’s almost nothing that could be more alluring than a simple skin-tight top that makes your style seem effortless.

The magnetism of ballet gear in fashion goes beyond aesthetics, though. It also has to do with creating an emotional reaction in the wearer.

Repetto ballet flats in a boutique.
Photo: Thomas Samson/Getty Images

Take Waski’s point about the tulle skirt, a cousin of the iconic tutu worn by dancers during performances. It’s what the tutu represents — a conventional image of femininity — that makes it so appealing to the everyday woman. Across the board, ballet dancers embody qualities that many women are encouraged to covet — especially when it comes to their bodies.

“Dancers are slim, lithe, attractive, athletic, and young,” Blum says. “Our active stage careers are over by the time we turn 30.”

Bengtsson agrees. He thinks the dancers themselves are the real reason why ballet continues to show up in the fashion industry.

“Ballet dancers are almost like models,” he explains. “They wear minimal makeup and they have natural-looking faces, and so you have the industry copying that and drawing similarities. That translates to the collections. Sophistication, purity, and grace are all equally important in fashion as in dance. Ballet is a very old art form, so it ties back to tradition, too.”

The ballet dancer’s physical presence, combined with the imagery common in ballet productions, creates an inviting palate for the inspiration-hungry designer.

“Ballet shows up in the mood boards of designers all the time: the color white, innocence,” Bengtsson says. “There’s something very sweet and romantic about ballet. If a designer wants to bring out those feelings, he or she would use images from ballet.”

Ballet-inspired style allows women to project what the dancer herself represents — a woman of incomparable poise and beauty — without looking dowdy or aloof. She’s flawless, but she doesn’t have to try very hard. This may be a novel idea in fashion, but it’s not new to ballet.

“I think the image of the modern woman is marketed to be feminine yet fit, and ballerinas have been doing that for years,” Gretchen Gales, who danced for 13 years before taking a break to focus on school, tells me.

As with other modern women, dancers are busy, and they often rework dance clothes — even looks they normally might not choose — to fit into their regular lives.

“I usually wore black tights for classes and rehearsals,” Meg Johnson, a former member of the Kanopy Dance Company in Wisconsin, tells me. “Even though I was rotating through many different pairs, they would end up with lots of rips in them. Eventually, I started wearing black dance tights with rips on purpose.”

“After dance class, I'd normally just shimmy shorts over my leotard and wear it like that out to eat,” Gretchen Gales says. “Never thought I'd see it as a style, but I see it all the time on my urban campus.”

The fascination with dancers means some trends get lost in translation on their way into the fashion world.

According to Waski, she and her colleagues rarely wear cropped sweaters. There isn’t a lot of layering in a typical ballet class, either. Waski likes to keep her outfits during rehearsal and in class simple, although she sometimes wears leg warmers that stretch up to her thigh in order to keep her muscles and joints warm. Usually, dancers don’t want any extra material getting in the way of choreography, and fewer layers help them prepare their bodies to be on stage in only their costumes.

Italian fashion designer Rocco Barocco surrounded by ballet dancers.
Italian fashion designer Rocco Barocco surrounded by ballet dancers.
Photo: Damien Meyer/Getty Images

But that’s what makes stealing from ballet such an exciting prospect for designers: It’s so adaptable. A comfy cropped knit sweater, chunky socks, and feminine lace all bring to mind different aspects of ballet, while still playing into fashion trends. Creating something fresh from centuries of tradition is a challenge for the fashion world, which, like ballet, is most innovative when it pays homage to the classics by reinventing them.

In the ’60 and ’70s, Martha Swope, a dancer herself at the time, began photographing rehearsals at the New York City Ballet. She captured ballerinas in their candid moments, as they watched their peers or learned a step for the first time. When I discovered the thousands of pictures she had taken, archived on the New York City Public Library website, I began to understand why fashion is so drawn to ballet: Both use women’s bodies to create timeless fantasies.

The magic of ballet and the glamour of fashion exist only because of the body — it’s there that they find their ultimate inspiration, their reason for being. So one might venture to say that dance and fashion are two sides to the same coin of the body: On one side, it’s physicality, and on the other, it’s aesthetic. It should be no wonder they complement each other so well.

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