Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive

A Study of a Ballet Costume from Symphony in C: Part 1

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How a plain white tutu donated by the National Ballet of Canada reveals more than meets the eye.

Part one explores the artifact in detail in order to learn how a classical tutu was made by the wardrobe department at the National Ballet of Canada.

symphony-in-c-tutu-sketchesDrawing by Teresa Adamo 2016
Top and underside views of the Symphony in C tutu.

At first glance, there does not seem to be anything particularly interesting about the classical white tutu laying on the table in the Fashion Research Collection. It is one of several costumes donated to Ryerson by the National Ballet of Canada in 2014. This tutu was worn by a member of the corps de ballet for a production of the Balanchine ballet Symphony in C in 1984. It is of course both delicate and pretty as all tutus are, but nonetheless appears rather plain since the decoration was removed from the skirt for reuse on other costumes by the Wardrobe Department at the National Ballet . Even so, it is compelling to study in order to learn about how classical tutus are made. My research revealed that there is much more history behind this plain white ballet costume after all. This artifact provided me with a learning experience about construction methods which will be discussed in this blog post. A subsequent post will discuss the nature of design aesthetics for dancewear, the dance history surrounding two national dance companies, as well as insight into the influential work of costume maven Madame Karinska.

In general, tutus are made of three main parts, the skirt, the basque, and the bodice. The skirt can be separated further into three pieces; the panty, tulle base, and decorative plate (note 1). This particular artifact (FRC2014.08.033) contains the tulle base and panty. The first thing that one notices is obviously the wide, flat skirt. Interestingly, the skirt is not a perfect circle, but slightly oval in shape. At its widest, the skirt is 30 inches in diameter. The skirt has a hip measurement of 28 inches, but since the foundation is made of stretch material it could fit several sizes.

The fluffy layers of the tulle skirt are perhaps the most iconic aspect of classical ballet costumes. The tulle base for the Symphony in C costume is made up of 12 total layers of fabric. The layers increase in length from the bottom to the top layer, the shortest being one-inch long, and the longest being approximately 8 inches long. The 5 innermost layers are made of soft flexible netting, the next 5 layers are stiff and the netting is slightly coarser (the second layer from the inside being the stiffest tulle used in this tutu). The final 2 layers on top are once again quite fine and soft. In order to hold the layers together there are basting stitches made vertically through all the layers. These stitches having been made with a doubled length of thread. The tacking is applied in order to help control the volume of the tulle and maintain its shape (Note 2).

symphony-in-c-tutu-panty-rufflesDrawing by Teresa Adamo 2016
Detail of innermost tulle layers next to the leg openings on the underside of the tutu.

The volume in the skirt of the tutu is created with a meticulous process of layering tulle. The layers of tulle have been very finely pleated rather than gathered. Each pleat is only ¼ inch wide with a ⅛ inch overlap. These tiny pleats give the impression of gathering or shirring which in actuality would be bulky and difficult to control, and could not give the classical tutu it’s smooth, flat appearance. The seams connecting the panels of tulle to each other are machine stitched and have a seam allowance only ⅛ inch wide. In order to hold a plate-like shape while on a dancer, a wire hoop has been inserted into a channel made by stitching 2 layers of tulle together (Note 3).

The layers of the skirt are attached to a panty which serves as a  foundation. This costume has a panty made of stretchy open mesh; this has discoloured over time from an off white cream colour to a dull beige hue. There is a 6 inch opening at the back of the tutu where the tulle is not sewn shut along the seam allowance so that the dancer is able to step into the skirt. It can then be fastened with 3 sets of hooks and eyes. Raw edges on the inside of the panty are hand finished using a catch-stitch. There is also extra elastic catch-stitched into the panties which are attached at the front of the crotch seam and extend to the back of the panty.  These extra elastics were sewn into the panties when they had stretched out excessively (Note 4). Elastic has also been sewn into channels around the leg openings in order to keep the fit close to the dancer’s body.

symphony-in-c-tutu-panty-cross-section
Drawing by Teresa Adamo 2016
Diagram of extra elastic placement in the panty.

Clearly, this costume is deceptive in its simplicity. The techniques used to make this skirt and plate show an immense attention to detail. Not only is the costume structurally impressive, but certain design features also show concern for the comfort of the dancer. The softest tulle is closest to the legs so the sharp edges of the netting is less abrasive. The extra elastic around the legs makes wardrobe malfunction less likely and would make the dancer feel more confident. The skirt is easy to slip on and fasten quickly which would cut down pre-performance prep time and make quick changes easier. The opportunity to closely study these artifacts provided me with an incomparable learning experience about the construction methods and reasons behind them.

Notes:

Note 1: For more information about tutu construction, visit “The Composition of a Tutu,” The National Ballet of Canada, accessed November 18, 2016, https://national.ballet.ca/Tickets/Virtual-Museum/The-Tutu-Project/The-Composition-of-a-Tutux.aspx
Note 2: Ibid.
Note 3: Ibid.

Note 4: Email correspondence with the National Ballet of Canada

References:

Mida, Ingrid and Alexandra Kim. (2015) The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. New York: Bloomsbury.
Mida, Ingrid. (2016) “A Gala Performance Tutu,” Dress 42.1: 35-47.
“The Composition of a Tutu,” The National Ballet of Canada, accessed November 18, 2016, https://national.ballet.ca/Tickets/Virtual-Museum/The-Tutu-Project/The-Composition-of-a-Tutux.aspx

One thought on “A Study of a Ballet Costume from Symphony in C: Part 1

  1. Thank you for presenting this document that has been researched, well written and good layout of instructions on how the costume was made. atk

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