In 1832, ballerina Maria Taglioni caused a sensation in a new ballet called La Sylphide. She wore a white muslin dress, dubbed a "tutu," with a formfitting bodice and bell-shaped skirt unlike anything ever seen on stage. And on her feet, a special pair of satin slippers with darned tips allowed her to balance momentarily on her toes. Ballet has never been the same.
Not many clothing innovations from the 1830s have endured, but try to imagine ballet classics such as Swan Lake, Symphony in C, and Jewels without tutus and toe shoes. "A tutu gives you presence as a ballerina," says New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Megan Fairchild. "It makes you stand up straighter — a tiara helps, too." As for toe shoes, George Balanchine once remarked, "If no pointe existed, I would not be a choreographer."
New York City Ballet's production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker is an unofficial celebration of tulle and toe shoes, with nearly 50 tutus in all, and dozens of ladies twirling on pointe. The designs for the costumes seen today originated in 1954, when NYCB first performed the ballet. Their creator was the Russian émigré Karinska (1886-1983), a celebrated costumer for Broadway, Hollywood, and, especially NYCB, where she designed costumes — including countless tutus — into her nineties.
In 1950, Karinska helped revolutionize the look of the tutu with her short ivory tulle and satin gowns for Balanchine's Symphony in C. The prevailing tutu at the time, called the pancake, had a wide, flat skirt with a wire hoop at the outer edge. But when dancers moved quickly in groups, their hoops bumped and tipped. Working with Balanchine, Karinska devised what came to be known as the powder puff skirt: multiple layers of gathered net that were soft and light, and that moved naturally.
She also created a new template for the bodice, using up to a dozen fabric panels, including several cut on the bias, for a sleek couture fit. "Bias-cut fabric molds to the body, creates a smooth, fitted look, and breathes with the dancer," says NYCB costume director Marc Happel.
For classic productions like The Nutcracker, the costume department takes a curatorial approach to the original designs, caring for the costumes year after year, and creating new costumes to replace worn-out ones. Tutus typically last 10 to 15 years, but net and tulle lose their color with age. This season the Snowflakes sport new costumes virtually identical to Karinska's creations, and notably brighter than those seen in recent years. "People get used to the faded colors," Mr. Happel says, so sometimes the new costumes can be a bit shocking at first. When new costumes for Dewdrop and the Flowers in vibrant pinks were unveiled last year, "I had to go over to Peter Martins and say, 'This is the way they were originally,'" he recalls.
Karinska was known for adding surprise details that only the dancers could see, like tiny portraits of Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein in the Victorian pendants worn by the ladies in the Hot Chocolate section of The Nutcracker. For the Snowflakes, she embedded tiny jewels in the under layers of tulle, a special touch retained in the new costumes. "That attention to detail makes a dancer feel important, and that gives you a happy dancer," says Mr. Happel.
The dancers of course have their favorite costumes. Soloist Sara Mearns loves putting on Dewdrop's smart little tutu. "It's light, feminine, and figure-friendly," she says. "And it's small, so it's easy to dance in it." Megan Fairchild favors the Sugarplum Fairy's pas de deux tutu for its color. "Not many tutus are green satin," she says. Because of its formality, dancing in a tutu can be nerve-wracking, she adds: "If I fell in a tutu, it would be really embarrassing." But she appreciates the drama and history sewn into each seam. "This is what you always imagined a ballerina wore, when you were growing up," she says.
Compared to tutus, toe shoes are downright ephemeral. The Company runs — literally — through thousands of pairs a year and has an annual shoe budget of $500,000. "The ladies can each use a pair a day when they're performing and rehearsing," says NYCB ballet shoe supervisor Angel Betancourt.
In addition to the sturdy box, made from layers of fabric and glue, that supports a ballerina on pointe, a toe shoe has an outer sole that touches the floor, an inner sole to reinforce the instep, and a shank, or supportive spine, sandwiched in between — today's toe shoes are a far cry from Taglioni's. But they're still hand-turned, which means the shoes are sculpted and stitched inside-out on foot-shaped forms called lasts, then turned right-side-out by hand for the finishing touches. "And that explains the cost," says Mr. Betancourt. The shoes, made mainly by Freed's and Capezio, come in pink, white, or black satin; ribbon, in the precise shade of pink selected by Balanchine, is ordered in bulk.
Most dancers feel a bond with their shoes, even if they wear them only for one performance. The toe shoes used at NYCB are custom made, and dancers can request a reinforced wing block to strengthen the front of the shoe and a lower or higher vamp or sides, which can affect comfort, appearance, or both. "I like my shoe a lot, but I'm still tweaking it, adjusting how much fabric I want on the side and changing the position of the ribbons, so it fits perfectly," says Megan.
Indeed, since being promoted to soloist, Sara trades in her shoes more frequently. "In the corps I could reinforce my shoes with glue and use them over and over," she says. "But now I want my shoe a certain way because it affects my dancing — as a soloist, you're all alone out there."
Terry Trucco writes frequently about design, travel, and the arts.