Ballet has a complicated history when it comes to race and costuming. Various individuals and organizations have been working towards progress for some time. Here in Columbus, BalletMet is taking steps to make dance more equitable, even through hosiery and shoes.
Ballet has strong roots in Renaissance-age France and Italy—a time where modern tights were not worn, but a period that is crucial to understanding ballet costuming’s evolution. The art form originated in rigidly gendered court dances of the era. Ballets were then incorporated into operas, where the patronage and pockets of the arts ran deep and the extravagance of ballet costumes matched the financial abundance. In the Baroque era, performance attire for women involved silk, masks, floor-length tunics, and embellishments. Men often wore ornate helmets and breastplates. Movements were much smaller than they are today, and so the costumes were better suited for the royal balls and masquerades of ballet’s origin than our present-day understanding of the stage.
As a response to the Baroque period’s density the art world moved towards a celebration of the natural, artistic, aesthetic, and beautiful: Romanticism. Ballet began to highlight the feminine body and movement, resulting in aesthetically—and physically—lighter costumes. It was during this period, specifically in the late 18th century, when tights were introduced into costuming. They began as something for men to wear under their costumes to give them greater freedom of movement. When women tried wearing tights instead of drawers, however, audiences had never been so scandalized. The illusion of a woman’s bare leg was nothing short of blasphemous to the patrons. It was even deemed worthy of prohibition by the Paris Opera in the 1790s. This did not stop ballerinas like Marie Camargo and Maria Viganó, who made their skirts slightly shorter with tights underneath to allow them to expand their repertoire of skill.
Tights on women were considered so unseemly because the color was chosen to be as close to nude as possible while still being noticeably covered. However, ballet at the time was dominated by Europeans. The color that best suited this goal, given the paleness of the dancers, was a very light pink. Skirts continued to rise in the 19th century and soon, despite modesty concerns, tights became a necessity. Due to the lack of racial diversity very few dancers stopped to think about why their tights were that particular shade of pink and how that might exclude others from the art form. Ballet pink tights thus became synonymous with the classic ballet look for nearly a century.
This all changed in 1974 when Llanchie Stevenson of the Dance Theatre of Harlem expressed that the shade difference of her arms and legs made her limbs appear “disjointed.” From then on, Director Arthur Mitchell made flesh-toned tights and pointe shoes the norm for his company. Other companies gradually began to question the ballet pink tradition as well and adopted flesh-toned tights.
Today, flesh-toned tights are much more common. Dancers were seen in BalletMet’s Director’s Choice performance wearing flesh-toned tights or no tights at all, depending on the preference of the choreographer and costume designer. Our costume department makes our flesh-toned tights as inclusive as possible by dyeing them with a unique formula for each dancer’s skin tone. Costume shop manager Caitlin Headley says that to achieve a continuous line for a dancer, tights can be used to blend the color of the pointe shoes and ribbons with the dancer’s own skin. This aids in the visual effect of an explosive leap or an endlessly high leg extension.
Much of the history of ballet is rooted in inequality. This history shows itself in unexamined traditions quietly kept up since the Renaissance. It is important to continually question why we do things the way we do them, especially as ballet creators, presenters, and audience members. Inclusive hosiery is another step towards reflecting our community in classrooms and on the stage.
-Written by Sarah Josefine Lonser and edited by Sara Wagenmaker
Salvatto, G. (2021). Dancing While Black: 8 Pros on How Ballet Can Work Toward Racial Equity. Dance Magazine. https://www.dancemagazine.com/black-dancers-ballet/.
Ballet Costume History. Tutu Étoile. http://tutuetoile.com/ballet-costume-history
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2011). Ballet Costume. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/ballet-costume.
Mitchell, B. (2021). Dance Schools Are Updating Their Dress Codes to Become More Inclusive. Dance Magazine. https://www.dancemagazine.com/dance-dress-codes/.
Howard, T.R. (2020). Is Classical Ballet Ready to Embrace Flesh-Tone Tights?. Dance Magazine. https://www.dancemagazine.com/ballet-flesh-tone-tights/.