Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive

Elite Syncopations Leotards: Part One, The Shy Girl Costumes

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Part One provides a detailed observations of two seemingly identical dresses with their accompanying tights.

Within the Ryerson Fashion Research collection, there is a group of quirky outfits that stand apart from the other classical and romantic ballet costumes.  The Elite Syncopation costumes donated by the National Ballet of Canada are colourful, spunky, and appealing.  These garments have a completely different visual language than the costumes from Symphony in C and Sleeping Beauty that I have previously studied, and so sparked my interest in this energetic ‘leotard ballet’.  I have carefully observed two identical dresses and their coordinating tights, as well as a corps men’s costume in various stages of the construction process.  While each of these artifacts are compelling on their own, it is only when viewed together that the artistry and labour behind the Elite Syncopations costumes can be fully appreciated.  Part One recounts observations and comparisons of two Shy Girl costumes and.

Elite Syncopations DressShy Girl Todd costume, front view (2014.08.041) Drawing by Teresa Adamo

The ballet costumes are based on the original designs by Australian designer Ian Spurling (1937-1996) who created them for the Royal Ballet’s premiere of Elite Syncopations in 1974.  The FRC received two of these Shy Girl costumes, and taking a close look at the similarities and subtle differences reveals another layer of their story.  I have confirmed that this design was referred to as the “Shy Girl” costume due to the handwritten label found sewn to the seam allowance on the center back inside the costume.  Furthermore, the dancers’ names found written in permanent marker on off white twill tape sewn on the inside next to the National Ballet label prompted me to refer to 2014.08.040 as the “Salas” costume and 2014.08.041 as the “Todd” costume.  Je-an Salas was a soloist with the company and as of 2014 is the resident dancer with the ballet from (Note 1).  I suspect that the “Todd” being referred to is dancer Deborah “Todd” Thompson, as she was with the company from 1978-1988 and so would fit in the timeline of this costume’s use (Note 2).  

EliteSyncBackShy Girl Salas costume, back view (2014.08.041) Drawing by Teresa Adamo

This design features a long sleeved leotard with a high collar, and short circle skirt with panties underneath.   The silhouette is reminiscent silhouette of a figure skating costume.  The skirt allows for lots of swinging flirtatious movement.  After the silhouette, the next most noticeable aspect of the costumes is the graphic quality of the lines and colors decorating the fabric.  Spurling used vivid magenta, purple, ocean blue, emerald, and even bright scarlet.  There is a beautiful ombre starting as off white at the shoulder and gradually darkening to pink, magenta and finally plum at the wrists.  The Salas costume has much brighter colours when compared to the Todd costume, and the shapes and lines are more crisp.

Another striking feature of the Elite Syncopations  costumes is that they are painted in a trompe l’oeil style.  Black outlines give the impression of the dancer wearing a dress with thin straps over a the long sleeved shirt.  To further the illusion, the “dress” was painted slightly more pink than the “shirt” which was left white.  The sharp graphic quality to the design is also seen in the repeating motif of circles and waves on the body and along the skirt.  The circles on the skirt are consistent and perfectly round, suggesting they may have been applied with a stamp.  The repetition of waves and circles create a rhythm around the body contributing to a sense of movement.

As for the construction of these garments, they are machine stitched with either small zig zag or small overlock stitch about ¼” wide for all seams with the exception of the National Ballet and name tag labels which were sewn by hand.  While on the Todd skirt, zig zag stitching attaching the skirt to the leotard is clearly visible on the outside, the Salas skirt has been set in the seam giving it a cleaner appearance.  The leotards are made with center front, center back, and side seams.  Having multiple seam lines means that the costume will contour to the body better.  They could also potentially be used for adjustability of fit, as each of the original designs were fit specifically for each dancer (Note 3 article).  The hem of the skirts is left unfinished on both dresses, as the knit will not unravel and avoid having a slightly bulkier seam which would weigh the skirt down and change its movement.  On both costumes there is a zipper at center back with a hook and eye set above it.  Salas uses a plastic zipper, whereas Todd has a metal one.  One interesting detail on the Todd costume is the appearance of a slit 3” into the skirt, possibly for a longer zipper to be installed but which was then closed at some point.  

As with many of the National Ballet costumes, these costume endured years of wear and tear during performances.  In general, there are minor tears and small fabric pulls on the costumes but both are in fair condition which suggests that the wardrobe team were knowledgeable and skilled at constructing the leotards.  Signs of wear on both of them are in similar places which is to be expected, as the dancers would be performing the same choreography.  There is pilling on the inside of the arms, and the underarm seams are pulling.  

EliteSyncTightsShy Girl Tights Front and Back, ‘Salas’ Pair (2014.08.040) Drawing by Teresa Adamo

While doing intermediate research about the costumes, I came across a video of the Royal Ballet performing Elite Syncopations recorded in 2010.  I immediately noticed that the Shy Girl costume would have been worn with green tights decorated with hearts. (Note 4)  Luckily, the FRC had both pairs of tights corresponding to the dresses.  Once again, the tights can be differentiated by their name tags.  The name Mawson appears beside Todd but has been crossed crossed off.  

The tights are decorated by rows of painted hearts down the center front and back.  There is a slight stylistic change between the costumes since the Salas tights have 8 hearts while the Todd tights have 9.  The colour and crispness is again different on each of the tights which is consistent with the corresponding leotard.  Though both are turquoise green with bright yellow-green hearts, the Todd tights have faded.  You can clearly see the brushstrokes outlining the faded and blotchy hearts.  They are both constructed with a crotch seam as well as seams along the back of each leg and ending under the toes.  The feet are fully enclosed meaning that they are worn inside the pointe shoes.  They both have elastic waistbands though Todd’s waistband is completely enclosed with a self fabric casing while Salas is simply attached with a zigzag stitch.  

As one would expect, it is easy to see how the tights have worn particularly on the feet and ankles.  The soles are quite dirty and discoloured and appear brown rather than green.  The center back seam on the ankle area appears to have been repaired at some point as one can clearly see this area was reinforced white thread.  Additionally, the Todd tights have some curious orange streaks all over them, which could have transferred from another costume during use or storage.  The elastic on the Salas waistband has lost its elasticity and seems quite loose, while the Todd costume seems quite taught.

In conclusion, having two sets of dresses and their accompanying tights to study allowed for a more complete understanding of the Elite Syncopations costumes.  Being able to study two duplicate costumes was an exercise in spotting small differences.  Even though they appear to be “the same” artifact, they are still individual, which speaks to the nature not just of hand painted costumes such as these, but of all hand made objects.  In turn, the differences between them also raises more questions about the objects.  Given the subtle changes in design and finishing, I speculate that wardrobe department looks critically at their work and adjusts accordingly to make better costumes when they were remade around the year 1998 (Note 6).  Perhaps they were not given complete details from Sperling and the Royal ballet about construction and had to come to their own conclusions, or they simply adapted them to their own particular methods.   

Part two focuses on two unfinished costumes which reveal more about the painting and construction methods of the Elite Syncopations outfits.

Notes

Note 1: “Alumni: Where are They Now?,” The National Ballet of Canada, accessed 17 July 2017, https://national.ballet.ca/Meet/Alumni/WATN.  

Note 2: Ibid.

Note 3: Karen Bell, “The Art of the Costumes (for the National Ballet’s Elite Syncopations)”. Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada 28, no.1 (1993): 19, accessed July 17, 2017,http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-pr

oquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/224893640?accountid=13631.

Note 4: Elite Syncopations ; the Judas Tree ; Concerto. Film, Directed by Acosta, Carlos, Leanne Benjamin, Yuhui Choe, et al. Opus Arte, 2010.

Note 5: Note 3

Note 6: Ibid.

Bibliography

Bell, K. (1993). “The Art of the Costumes (for the National Ballet’s Elite Syncopations)”. Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada 28, no.1 (1993): 19. Accessed July 17, 2017.http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/224893640?accountid=13631.

“Alumni Where are They Now?,” The National Ballet of Canada. Accessed July 17 2017, https://national.ballet.ca/Meet/Alumni/WATN

“Ian Spurling; Obituary.” Times (London, England), Apr. 15, 1996, p. 21. Academic OneFile,go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=rpu_main&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA115106285&it=r&asid=5d8bbb8ec92dea1882c9c96030f75b2b. Accessed 17 July 2017.

“Elite Syncopations & Song of a Wayfarer & Chroma Ballet Note” (2012) The National Ballet of Canada. Accessed July 17 2017, https://national.ballet.ca/Tickets/Archives

/Ballet-Notes/elite-syncopations-ballet-notes-(2012).aspx

Elite Syncopations ; the Judas Tree ; Concerto. Film. Opus Arte.

Mida, Ingrid and Alexandra Kim. (2015) The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. New York: Bloomsbury.

2 thoughts on “Elite Syncopations Leotards: Part One, The Shy Girl Costumes

  1. Pingback: Elite Syncopations Leotards: Part Two, The Mens Corps Costume | Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

  2. Pingback: Elite Syncopations Leotards: Part 3, Contextualizing the Ballet | Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

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