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Fashion's waltz with the dance world.

If, at some point in your life, you've played dress-up in a tutu or worn leg warmers in public, you know that the allure of dancewear extends well beyond the theater. Ever since an extravagantly costumed Louis XIV played the sun god, Apollo, in a French court ballet, dancers have influenced the fashion habits of regular folks. But why do nondancers and dancers alike embrace dance fashion? Is it because fit people with good posture look great in their clothes? That youthful dreams of a dance career die hard? Or that the clothing implies a certain creativity, daring, and in some cases, liberation?

Fashion--with its tantalizing promise that you can enhance, or even transform, yourself--is built around physical ideals and cultural trends, often inspired by artists and other celebrities. People use fashion either to say something about their own lives and times or to play at being someone else--maybe someone more dramatic or colorful. Although some dance fashion is dictated as much by the cultural climate that produced it as by the dancer's physical needs--especially social and world dance styles--the intersection of dance and society often produces dramatic results. In the Jazz Age, for instance, flappers cast aside corsets, shortened their floor-length dresses to the knee, and favored bobbed hair over elaborate pompadours, giving them greater mobility on and off the dance floor.

Ballroom dance, with men in sleek suits squiring women in elegant gowns, did much to offset the grim economic times of the Depression, as did the costumed excesses of Busby Berkeley's kaleidoscopic musical dance sequences; the vivid colors and patterns of swing-dance fashions provided some relief amid the military drab of World War II. In the second half of the twentieth century, dance fashion began to reflect a series of rebellions--the black leotards and footless tights of modern dance emerged on college campuses and in coffee houses, go-go dancers scandalized the Eisenhower generation with micro-minis, disco dancers scorned ragtag hippie garb with form-fitting Lycra bodywear, and hip-hoppers and ravers made baggy chic. Now, as fashion casts around for new looks, everything has resurfaced at least once. (Swing Kids alone was enough to send '90s kids rummaging through their grandparents' closets.)

Popular dance continues to shape fashion, but well-known professional dancers, who confer a certain glamour on whatever they wear, have played tastemakers as well. Isadora Duncan was remembered as much for her flowing Grecian tunics and the long scarf that caught in a car wheel and strangled her as she was for her work. Josephine Baker, too, was admired by the fashion-conscious French for the Dior gowns she wore to walk her pet leopard, Chiquita, through the streets of Paris. Rudolf Nureyev's fur hats and leather pants were a hit with both sexes, and '80s kids copied Michael Jackson's white glove and Madonna's crucifixes.

Sarah Kuhn, a graduate of London's College of Fashion and a contributing writer and stylist to fashion and culture magazine The Blow Up, is among those inspired by dance and dancers. She has drawn concepts from her student experiences dancing Cinderella and The Nutcracker with Nashville Ballet as well as from early Ballets Russes costumes and photos from her grandmother's back issues of DANCE MAGAZINE. "THE productions I was in as a child heavily influenced my life in terms of costuming, fashion, and dressing up," said Kuhn, whose shoots have incorporated black ballet flats and pink scanted tights, leotards pinned in the front, and tights cut up into tops. "Dancers know how to move and how to present themselves, and they tend to have a great sense of style."

Of course, nondancer celebrities also have adopted dance fashion, with mixed results: The pink tutu-like frock Sarah Jessica Parker wore in the opening credits of Sex and the City didn't attract much public comment, but Lara Flynn Boyle's ballerina getup at the 2003 Golden Globe Awards was near-unanimously declared, in op-ed pages and Internet chat rooms, a travesty.

The proliferation of TV, movies, and music videos greatly heightened dancers' visibility--generations of kids tuned into American Bandstand and Soul Train to see how their peers dressed as well as danced. Saturday Night Fever helped transform leotards and matching wraparound skirts into club apparel, just as Fame popularized leg warmers and jazz T-straps as streetwear. But Jennifer Beals's torn sweatshirt neckline in Flashdance may have been the mother of all dance-fashion trends, launching a craze that persists, especially in studios, to this day. Flashdance also exposed suburban kids to street dance and fashion, as did the Breakin' and Wild Style movies and MTV. Now, even small-town kids sport the brand-name athletic garb, 'do-rags, and camouflage associated with breakdancers and hip-hoppers. Greater worldwide media access has also helped bridge cultural gaps, for better or worse, exposing Americans to Bollywood musicals and Indians to music videos with a bindi-wearing Gwen Stefani.

Dance has a saleable mystique, which has ensured that live (and in at least one instance, dead) dancers have appeared in ads for such un-dancey products as cell phones and vacuum cleaners. Dance language also has seeped into fashion--in May, Neiman Marcus advertised a "ballerina flat"; in June, Allure magazine offered a series of them, followed by Time Out New York's box on "Ballet-Style Sneakers" in its June 26-July 3 issue. The arbiters of fashion--fashion magazines--have long recognized the draw, running photos of professional dancers in both editorial profiles and ads, from the Blackglama fur campaign that grouped Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn with Martha Graham to Carmen de Lavallade in Eileen Fisher clothing and Movado watch ads starring such American Ballet Theatre principal dancers as Paloma Herrera and Irina Dvorovenko.

Dancers sometimes appear in themed spreads as well, although more often models are styled to look like dancers, in the long ruffled skirts and spit curl/rose-behind-the-ear-combination of flamenco, or ballet-like tulle skirts and wraparound sweaters. This applies to makeup and hairstyles as well--fashion magazines have touted theatrical devices like rhinestone appliques, liquid liner, false lashes, even tiaras as party wear. If there's one thing that the multiple images of dance in fashion suggest, it's that for every kid who dreamed of becoming a dancer, there's an adult who, at least once, has looked like one.

Heather Wisher is an associate editor at DANCE MAGAZINE.
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Title Annotation:how styles in dance influence fashion
Author:Wisner, Heather
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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