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Dance Costume Design

Costume for Princess Aurora in Act l of 'The Sleeping Beauty', designed by Oliver Messel, 1960. Museum no. S.301-2001

Costume for Princess Aurora in Act l of 'The Sleeping Beauty', designed by Oliver Messel, 1960. Museum no. S.301-2001

Dance costume is a highly specialised field and as well as having to reflect the overall concept of the work, body movement, the demands of the choreography of a particular work and the effects of different fabrics in motion all have to be taken into consideration.

Ballet costumes may be an adaptation of everyday dress or, as in ballets like Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty, follow tradition or the requirements of the particular dance technique. All dance designs have to allow maximum freedom of movement and care has to be taken when placing decoration, lest it injure a dancer's partner (especially around the waist where a dancer is supported and often held). Fabric or loose bodices may slip in lifts.

The tutu

Tutu translates as 'botty' and derives from French children's slang. By association (as this is the part of the anatomy just covered by the skirt) it came to be applied to a particular type of costume.

At first, the tutu was a filmy calf-length bell-shaped skirt of layers of tulle, adapted from the flimsy ball dress of the 1830s for the great ballerina Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide in 1831. This became the uniform for spirit roles, like the Wilis in Giselle or Les Sylphides, but later the style was adapted for a wide variety of costumes.

During the 19th century the skirts of the Romantic tutu became shorter to show off the dancers' increasing virtuosity - especially turns - and by the end of the century it was cut to above the knee. This evolved into the classical tutu - a horizontal plate extending from the lower hips, with the top skirt supported by a hoop or layers of graduated frills, sewn onto integral knickers and then attached to a hip basque, to which the base of the bodice is sewn.

For The Nutcracker, Sue Blane designed square tutus representing liquorice allsorts. However, the shape and the weight of the extra net threw the dancers off-balance until a way was found to minimize the weight without losing the shape.

Construction of a tutu

A tutu skirt takes approximately 12 metres of net and nearly two metres of narrow steel to provide the supporting hoop. There can be up to 12 graduated layers in a skirt, with the hoop inserted around layer seven. Stringing bars are stitched through the various skirt layers to hold them in position. The skirt is mounted on a basque which fits from the waist over the upper hip. The depth has varied considerably over the years and from dancer to dancer. The present fashion is for a very short basque with the skirt sticking out from high on the hips. This is in contrast to  mid-late 20th century design where the starting point was on level with the crotch/upper thigh.

The attached knickers used to be frilled and continued the line of the underskirt. With the skirts rising up the hips in recent years cotton gussets, which could be bulky, have been replaced by Lycra (which fits better and is more comfortable to wear but may not present a very alluring sight to an audience).

Body tights

Body tights were first worn by circus and dance acts, such as contortionists, over 100 years ago. The fabrics that were used at the time tended to crease. This changed with the development of modern elastic fabrics for sports wear. The first Lycra costume was made for the film Superman in 1978.

Allover body tights allow for maximum movement combined with clarity of line. The dancer's body becomes a 'canvas' on which the designer and costumier creates fantastic shapes and patterns. As each elastic material has a different stretch, great skill is needed to transfer the pattern onto the body. Some synthetics will not take dye or paint at all and paint has to withstand repeated washing without losing colour and texture.

Contemporary dance often uses very simple costumes made in fabrics that become part of the movement pattern.

Theatre costume, Barbara Karinska, 1966. Museum no. S.387-1985

Theatre costume, Barbara Karinska, 1966. Museum no. S.387-1985


George Balanchine was inspired to create Bugaku after a Gagaku (a company of musicians and dancers maintained by the Imperial Japanese Household) visited the United States. He made no attempt to reproduce authentic Gagaku movements, instead freely translating the Japanese idiom into Western academic ballet terms. Yet the ballet evokes a powerful sense of Eastern culture.

A programme note describes the costumes as 'a free fantasy … on the traditional Japanese court dress.'  The freedom extends to the ballerina's tutu, a variation on the traditional 'plate' with the top-skirt formed of two layers of long petals, highlighted with diamante. The only obvious Japanese touch is in the deep 'kimono' sleeves and the wig of lacquered woven horsehair cloth, trimmed with Japanese flowers and ornaments en tremblant.

The bodice is joined to the skirt by elastic ties, and there is only the shortest of 'basques' below the waist, decorated at the edge with diamante clusters. Usually the bodice is firmly fixed to the skirt and an undecorated basque provides grip for a partner's hand. However, the changes here were possible because there is no partnering in the particular sequence in which the tutus were worn.

The diameter of the tutu skirt is 34cm at its maximum, with the hoop inserted at 25cm from the centre. The gusset is extremely wide and, unusually, fastens with press studs.

Journey to Avalon

Production photograph for Barry Moreland's ballet 'Journey to Avalon', Royal Festival Hall, London, 1980

Production photograph for Barry Moreland's ballet 'Journey to Avalon', Royal Festival Hall, London, 1980

Nadine Baylis is one of the most successful designers of dance costumes today, particularly for contemporary dance. Particularly skilled at designing body tights, she can convey, through this most minimalist of costumes, the mood and character of each particular work.

Body tights are usually associated with plotless works but occasionally Baylis has used them for characters in a themed work. On the face of it, to use body tights for such an iconic figure as King Arthur may seem perverse.

Baylis's creations fitted perfectly with choreographer Barry Moreland's stylized treatment of the Arthurian legend. The brilliant touch is the ragged silver knitting which stretches across the body and suggests decaying armour, downfall and disintegration. It is an imaginative development of stage chain mail which was traditionally silver-painted knitted string. The stretch machine-knitting of this costume simply takes the idea a step further.

The knitted armour helps date the ballet. There was a revival of interest in knitting and knitted fabrics in the 1970s and in experimentation with yarns and abstract forms. For a while, theatre costumes dripped knitted appendages, like tropical growth in a rainforest.

Body tights are all-revealing, so the textile painter is often required to make people look slender and more elegant. Creating a highlight down the front of the leg and very high over the hipbone, and then shading either side can make the leg look longer. Similarly, hips and waists can be slimmed and various bumps disguised.

Theatre costume, Sophie Fedorovitch, 1944. Museum no. S.308-1985

Theatre costume, Sophie Fedorovitch, 1944. Museum no. S.308-1985



Frederick Ashton's ballet Nocturne was set in 1890s Paris. Although at first sight the design appears to be a variation on a conventional ballet dress, with its fitted bodice and calf-length net skirt, Fedorovitch uses enough period detail for it not to look out of place among the other costumes on stage which were closer to 1890s fashion.

The square-necked bodice, with its vestigal leg-of-mutton sleeves, hints at the period together with the swathed black net, finished in a large bow at the back, which follows the idea of fashionable dress. These are no more than suggestions but, when on stage, amid dresses that are more in period, it perfectly conveys the idea of a poor flower seller amid the richly dressed women of Paris. The subtle low-key greys and off whites also help to set the dancer apart.

Photographs from the first production show the skirt with an opaque top layer over the net underskirts. The removal of this layer may have been due to a change in the perception of the character, emphasising her vulnerability, or maybe the top fabric simply did not move well enough in performance.

Fedorovitch's designs were evocations rather than detailed patterns and she was constantly available during the making process, working closely with her chosen costumiers. In the design for the Poor Girl, her sweeping lines imply that the finished costume should not be an accurate reconstruction of period but almost the remembered essence of a time.

View an interactive 360-degree rotation of Fedorovitch's  Flower Girl costume (requires Flash)

Production photograph for Kenneth Macmillan's ballet 'The Invitation', England 1960. Photograph by Anthony Crickmay

Production photograph for Kenneth Macmillan's ballet 'The Invitation', England 1960. Photograph by Anthony Crickmay

The Invitation

Kenneth MacMillan's ballet The Invitation is set in an unidentified tropical region pre-1914. Edwardian dress with its constricting corseting and elaborate frills would not seem a propitious period for the extreme movements of the choreography, but Nicholas Georgiadis succeeded in creating costumes that not only distilled Edwardian fashion but also signalled information about the character and context.

In this dress for one of the leading female characters the Edwardian period is evoked simply by use of the high neck, hinted leg-of-mutton sleeves and a high full hairstyle. There is no waist seam which maintains the long line of the period.

The choreography requires total freedom from the hips, so the diagonal cut and open side of the skirt is dictated by the needs of the choreography, not by historical accuracy. The lower and upper fabrics have to be firmly fixed together at the waist as loose surfaces would slip and make it impossible for the wearer's partner to support and lift her. To keep the costume in place, it is put onto stretch panties, which help keep it rigid on the body and stop it from riding up during extreme movements. To soften the line of the unadorned fabric, two drapes of chiffon have been added between the legs.

The neckline is cut slightly asymmetrically as is the lower skirt, both implying some disturbance in the character. The fabrics are light and the lace motifs and decoration are fixed to the underlayer and 'smudge' when seen through the chiffon top layer; they imply heat and haze, reinforcing the feeling of a humid, tropical climate. The single lace applique on the top surface, on the hip, is a subtle touch.

View an interactive 360-degree rotation of Geogiadis's The Wife costume (requires Flash)


Costume for the Buffoon’s Wife in the ballet 'Chout', Diaghilev Ballet Russes, 1920. Museum no. S.758–1980

Costume for the Buffoon’s Wife in the ballet 'Chout', Diaghilev Ballet Russes, 1920. Museum no. S.758-1980

Some costumes wear the performer rather than vice versa. Chout costumes were most unpopular with the dancers, who found them heavy and cumbersome, and before the dress rehearsal Diaghilev had to threaten them with fines before they agreed to wear them.

The exaggerated, jokey costumes followed the theme of the ballet, which was a knockabout series of practical jokes played by a Buffoon and his wife on their dull neighbours. This costume for the lead female dancer was particularly difficult, with its cane panniers and inflexible skirt.

Once the brilliant costumes were seen against Larionov's dynamic scenery, they merged into each other, making it difficult to see the choreography. Dance critic Cyril Beaumont admired the sets but complained that 'the colour contrasts, accentuated by the angular shapes composing the design, were so vivid and so dazzling that it was almost painful to look at the stage, and the position was not improved when brilliantly clad figures were set in motion against such a background.'

Thus, however original and striking when seen in isolation, the costumes were not really successful in the context of the ballet. The costumes were made from poor quality fabrics and the conclusion is either that the Diaghilev Ballets Russes was in financial difficulties or that Diaghilev did not see the ballet as a lasting contribution to the repertory and was reluctant to spend much money on it.


Costume for a Finial in Alwin Nikolais’s dance piece 'Allegory', 1959. Museum no. S.455–1979

Costume for a Finial in Alwin Nikolais’s dance piece 'Allegory', 1959. Museum no. S.455–1979

Choreographer Alwyn Nikolais did not use his dancers as emotional individuals but required them to transcend their individual personalities and become part of the total theatrical environment. Sometimes he extended the human body by attaching props to the costumes; sometimes the props themselves took over and the performer began to disappear.

In Allegory he merged the dancer, shape, light, colour and sound in a new realisation of abstract dance. The Finials sequence represented the ultimate in dehumanizing the performer - the costume is not dictated by the shape of the body but gives shape to it so that the dancer becomes an abstraction in an overall scheme.

The placement of the hoops around the waist and knees was determined by the need to obscure the obvious body shape while maintaining a clear outline. Using a stretch jersey allowed the fabric to expand over the hoops and then curve before belling over the next hoop. The result is dehumanised, almost a parody of a human body.

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