Grace and Poise: Meet the Tutu

Does the word “tutu” evoke visions of slim dancers in puffy, pink skirts? It may surprise you to learn that the tutu was originally designed as a long, elegant ballet costume.

Practical Evolution of the Tutu

The first tutu appeared in Paris in 1832. Marie Taglioni wore a costume designed by Eugène Lami for her performance in La Sylphide. This costume featured a tight bodice that left the neck and shoulders bare. Its long skirt hung above the ankle and was made of a heavily starched cotton muslin called tarlatan. The “Romantic tutu,” as the new costume was called, quickly became a staple on the European ballet scene.

It soon became evident that the tutu would require further refinement. The long skirt with its five layers of fabric posed a fire hazard to dancers navigating the gaslights onstage. Also, although the tutu’s skirt featured sheer fabric, dancers were reportedly dissatisfied with its construction. They wanted to show more of their poses and footwork.

Thus, the skirt was shortened to fall above the knee by 1870. Meanwhile, ruffled drawers were added to create the famously flared effect of the “classical tutu,” which previously featured 10 layers of tarlatan.

Dancers Immortalized in Art

The French Impressionists at the close of the nineteenth century were dedicated to capturing profound moments in day-to-day living. Ballet proved to be an inviting subject for some of these artists. Edgar Degas produced paintings and sculptures depicting the reality of life for ballerinas in the Paris Opera Ballet. The ballerinas in his works are shown wearing short tutus with ruffled skirt layers.

Twentieth-Century Innovation

The early twentieth century brought some design changes to the classical tutu. Tulle made from stiffened silk or synthetic material replaced the original cotton tarlatan. This, along with the addition of wire hoops in 1940, made the skirts flare out from the dancers’ hips. These innovations supported important changes in the ballet industry. Tutus were increasingly designed to fit the unique performance styles of the modern era.

Styling the Tutu Today

To this day, the tutu remains an essential part of any ballerina’s costume. It has spread to modern popular entertainment, as well. Icelandic musician Björk turned heads when she wore the designer Marhan Pejoski’s “swan dress” on the red carpet at the 2001 Academy Awards. The tutu-style skirt topped by a mock swan’s head and neck ruffled feathers, but it was later copied by Valentino to great acclaim.

More recently, performers such as Gwen Stefani, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift have worn tutus on the stage and in music videos, inspiring a new generation to wear this showstopping garment. Among the sweetest — albeit impractical — interpretations of tutus are the handmade skirts for young children using strips of tulle knotted around elastic waistbands. 

Because the tutu has a history in professional dance performance, it isn’t often the first choice for making a fashion statement away from the stage. However, the grace and poise of the original version provide plenty of styling ideas for the modern-day trendsetter.