“Dance & Fashion” is a far-reaching exploration of the relationship between two intrinsically linked art forms. The show, organized by the Museum at FIT’s director Dr. Valerie Steele, features original costumes created by fashion’s elite.
Ms. Steele opted to focus on performance dance rather than social dancing, a term encompassing everything from 1950s jive to disco. Working with institutions such as the Paris Opera Ballet, choreographer Martha Graham, American Ballet Theater and Dance Theater of Harlem Ms. Steele curated almost 100 dance costumes, enough tulle to make any aspiring ballerina swoon.
Ballet has enjoyed a recent renaissance among the fashion crowd. Editors are swapping yoga pants for pointe shoes and ballet-based fitness classes, master couturier Valentino Garavani created 25 costumes for the New York City Ballet’s 2012 Fall gala while Hedi Slimane relaunched the Saint Laurent ballet pump with Gracie Van Gastel last year. Yet fashion’s love affair with dance is longstanding. Serge Diaghilev invited Coco Chanel to design swimwear-inspired costumes for Darius Milhaud’s 1928 performance Le Train Bleu, more legendary than ever, today.
Marc Happel, director of costumes for the New York City Ballet, played a large part in sourcing the designs for the display. “He was really important,” according to Ms. Steele. “Identifying dance costumes created by fashion designers and explaining the processes involved in working with them to create dancer’s costumes.” Ultimately, Mr. Happel taught her “how different it was to do a dance costume than regular fashion.”
Among the designers on display to have worked with the NYCB are Olivier Theyskens, Rodarte, Valentino Garani—whom Mr. Happel describes as “the last great couturier”—and Gilles Mendel. Mr. Mendel, who designed for a production of Call Me Ben, told the museum, “The key difference between fashion design and costume design is one of perspective. In dance, the garment needs to register from 20 feet away. But the true alchemy comes down to the dancer, whose grace and athleticism bring the costumes, quite literally, to new heights.” Mr. Happel describes designing for a dancer as akin to “clothing an athlete.”
Dance influences designers just as much as fashion makes itself present in the theater. Both John Galliano and Dior drew inspiration from ballet and Cristóbal Balenciaga was influenced extensively by flamenco. The 1950 Cristobal Balenciaga dress is a statement piece rich with silk taffeta and cut velvet that would not look out of place at a peña flamenca, while dresses by Elsa Schiaperelli, Oscar de la Renta and Ralph Lauren all make a star appearance in the exhibition’s “flamenco” section.
Of course, couture costumes are not just reserved for the female dancer. Designs worn by two of the world’s most famous male ballet dancers—Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov—are on show, as is a particularly eye-catching Jean Paul Gaultier men’s costume for a 1993 performance of Façade. Meanwhile, a 2011 Stella McCartney piece designed for the NYCB’s production of Ocean’s Kingdom on display—an utterly outlandish tattooed body stocking complete with spiked mohawk—is not only a testament to Ms. McCartney’s unrivalled ability to marry athleticism with style in her designs, but is proof of just how fashion-forward the NYCB can be.
The beauty of this exhibition lies in work by Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garçons and Prabal Gurung sitting comfortably among the 1830s ballet tutus that line the walls. As does a Rick Owens ensemble. He was so enamored by African-American step dancers he had a fully-fledged step dancing group named Team Vicious perform on the runway for his spring/summer 2014 collection. The performance was deemed by Vogue to be “major.”
And no fashion exhibition in the past few years would be complete without a touch of Lady Gaga. For this occasion a lust-worthy pair of “Lady Pointe Shoes,” designed by Noritaka Tatehana for the singer’s video Marry the Night, are on display. A gravity defying 18-inches-tall, the shoes were paired with a ballet-inspired costume made from pink latex in true Gaga style.
Decades before Gaga, there was Josephine Baker, who stepped on to the stage at the Folies Bergére in 1926 wearing nothing but a banana skirt. Causing more than just a stir, Baker became a fashion icon in Jazz Age Paris with the world’s great couturiers scrambling to dress her. It’s no coincidence then that Prada’s 2011 banana skirt—surely a nod to the indomitable Baker—is one of the many standout pieces of “Dance & Fashion.” With bananas plastered across a frilled hemmed skirt, the piece is, perhaps the perfect example of the many ways in which dance filters down into fashion.