A tutu is a dress worn mostly as a costume in a ballet performance. Made of tarlatan, muslin, silk, tulle, gauze or nylon, it is mostly worn with a bodice. No one knows how the word “tutu” came to be. It wasn’t even recorded until 1881. One of the most widespread theory is that it may have come from the word “tulle”. Others say it is derived from the then French baby talk for bottom, “cucul”. Basically, there are two types of tutus – the “Romantic” tutu that is soft and bell shaped, reaching the calf or ankle, and the “Classical” tutu that is short and stiff, projecting horizontally from waist and hip.
The Romantic tutu first made its appearance at the Paris Opera in 1832, where dancer Marie Taglioni wore a gauzy skirt cut out to reveal her ankles. Designed by Eugene Lami for “La Sylphide”
, the costume consisted of a tight-fitting bodice that left the neck and shoulders bare and a bell-shaped skirt. Made of layers of stiffened tarlatan, or highly starched sheer cotton muslin, it gave the illusion of fullness without being weighty. And there it was! A new fashion statement was born.
From the 19th century onwards, the tutu steadily shortened for ease of movement and to show off the dancer’s legs. Eugene Lami is not the only designer who designed for ballet. Other designers like Cecil Beaton in England, Christian Lacroix in France and Isaac Mizrahi in the United States, too, have designed tutus. But the leading tutu designer was Barbara Karinska (1886-1983), who was a costume designer for the New York City Ballet. She is known to have designed and constructed the most extraordinarily beautiful and durable tutus for recitals.
By 1870, Italian ballerinas started wearing their tutus above their knees. Known late as the Classical tutu, it was made famous by ballets like Swan Lake. As years rolled by the tutus kept becoming shorter and by the 20th century, the skirts were really short but the added tarlatan layers gave it a full body effect.
Fashion, true to its nature, keeps changing, but the tutu never seems to go out of fashion. Tutus are a big thing in Hollywood as well. Think Bjork
, who caused a sensation when she draped a white tulle dress with a swan’s head wrapped around her neck for the 2001 Oscars. Even now, designer Christian Lacroix continues to design ballet frocks of organza and tulle, the most famous being a $94,800 tutu design for Margot Fonteyn that she wore in Swan Lake.
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