The Tutu Project

What is a Tutu?

The classical tutu is an iconic image of the ballet and remains among the most coveted and imitated articles of clothing in Western culture.  A tutu must be designed and fit to move with the dancer, providing both the mystique that we associate with the fairy tale and the constraint that is the remnant of women’s fashions in history.  The tutu becomes compelling for adults and children alike, evoking romantic ideals of beauty, strength and majesty.

As one of the last vestiges of courtly life, classical ballet expresses manners and gesture that are no longer a part of the modern world.  The tradition of ballet costume is rooted in history and has evolved in tandem with the dance and fashions of each period.

The tutu was first made popular by Marie Taglioni at the Paris Opera in 1832 in her performance of La Sylphide.  The costume consisted of a form fitting décolleté bodice of silk or linen and a bell shaped diaphanous skirt of tarlatan or muslin that reached to the calf muscle.  The tight bodice and masses of billowing skirt became known as the Romantic tutu.  While the bodice continued to reflect the existing fashions of the times, by the end of the nineteenth century the tutu had been shortened to knee length in order to reveal the virtuosity of the ballerinas' footwork.

In the image of the ballerina we can witness the way the costume is worn, the gesture and facial expressions and the embellishments added to the form of the classical tutu; all of these collude to enact a performance about ballet culture.  The tutu as we know it today is composed of short stiff layers of nylon netting attached to custom knickers that project out from the hips parallel to the floor.  The layers are controlled with an intricate system of hand stitches and are supported by a 1/4” wire threaded through a mid layer of the netting.  The tutu skirt is then attached to a basque and a stiff bodice. Now, in the twenty first century, that tight little bodice and plate of frothy net combine to create one of the most evocative and provocative garments in history.  The dress moulds to the shape of the dancer, contouring the silhouette, conforming to the implicit form that balletic training has produced. 

Written by Caroline O'Brien - Contributing Artist, Assistant Professor at Ryerson Theatre School and PhD Candidate in Visual and Material Culture, National College of Art and Design, Dublin  

Learn more about how a tutu is constructed

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Top image credit: The National Ballet of Canada tutus on display. Photo by Setareh Sarmadi.