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“Oh, wow,” gasped a wide-eyed eight-year-old girl mesmerized by the displays before her.

By Mary Stringham.

Clad in bright pink pants and a cheetah hat, she stared up at the frothy gowns and sumptuous costumes by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel and Christian Berard. These clothes were made for, and inspired by, the ballerina: a cultural icon we all know and admire. The gowns are all a part of The Museum at FIT’s most recent special exhibition, Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse. The show uses costumes alongside couture and ready-to-wear pieces to tell the story of the ballerina’s rise from social outsider to fashion influencer.

George Balanchine, world-renowned choreographer said it best that, “Ballet is a woman.” This exhibition affirms just that. Outfit upon outfit inspired by the elegant female dancer line the walls of the museum. Beginning in the early 1930s, ballerinas emerged from the outskirts of society as “balletomania” took hold. Modern Russian dancers, like superstar ballerina Anna Pavlova, popularized the art in western countries from Great Britain to the United States. The museum states that, “Ballet ascended into their pantheons of modern high culture and influenced other creative disciplines,” fashion being one of them.

The 1930s-1970s were the golden years for ballet inspired dress, rising in tandem with American-sportswear. As the artform’s popularity continued to grow, tutu-esque skirts began to be seen in evening gowns. Even Queen Elizabeth (yes, the Queen Mother herself) had a frothy gown of her own, created by London couturier Norman Hartnell. As time went on designers created for ballerina’s off-duty looks. Suddenly the dancer was both a style guru on the stage and in the streets. Familiar names like Paul Poiret and Donna Karan appear on placards around exhibition, showing attendees just how influential the ballerina was. That is until the 1980s when the artform’s influence began to wane. Even so, dance still inspires the designers of today, just look at Dior’s 2019 Spring/Summer Ready-to-Wear Collection.

The show spans across two large rooms. Descending underground into the special exhibition space attendees enter the first room. Enveloped in darkness, except for distinct spotlights shining down, the area resembles a theatre. Attendees hold a reverent tone as they quietly whisper about the clothes before them. To the right of the entrance stand mannequins dressed in exquisite costumes and ballet-inspired garb on a pseudo-stage. They are poised and ready to go, as if they are about to come to life and start pirouetting to the “Waltz of the Flowers.” To the left slowly turns a pink corseted dress with a tutu skirt, the iconic ballerina outfit. Like a figurine spinning in a jewelry box, the costumes goes round and round while Tchaikovsky hums quietly in the background. Even the little girl in the cheetah hat couldn’t help but practice her twirls when she saw the rosy dress rotate.

What would a ballet inspired fashion exhibition be without its point shoes? Claire McCardle’s “ballerina” slippers are on display nearby. Initially championed by the ever-iconic Diana Vreeland in 1941, American sportswear designer McCardle was the one to actually popularize the footwear. Her 1942 collection premiered with ballet flats due to wartime restrictions and the rest is history. Since then, designers have continued to reimagined the shoe, like Christian Louboutin’s edgy 2014 black patent leather “Fetish Ballerine.”

The second room opens up to reveal dozens and dozens of dresses, leotards and suits. Tulle, jewels, feathers and more embellish the clothes. To properly illuminate ballet’s influence on fashion, costumes are shown alongside nearly ninety fashion objects. Get-ups worn by Anna Pavlova are positioned across from Dior suits worn by Margot Fonteyn. Pieces from the New York City Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem are included too. A must see from the show includes the dreamy 1949 Pierre Balmain pink and off-white evening dress that is absolutely dripping with feathers, harkening back to FIT’s depiction of “ballerina-as-bird.” This is thanks to Anna Pavlova’s famous role as the dying swan in Swan Lake (whose costume you can also see on display!).

An educational exhibition with stunning clothing, Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse is a must see. It will be up through April 18, 2020 so be sure to stop by for your fashion history fix.

Photos courtesy of: Museum at FIT