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One skirt truly stands out

Making one isn't easy. It calls for tulle galore. A partner's hand can get stuck in it. And yet the tutu endures.

June 12, 2005|Victoria Looseleaf | Special to The Times

FRENCH designer Christian Lacroix's latest made-to-measure gowns are airy as souffles, whipped up to perfection in feather-light fabrics and cotton candy colors. With their ostrich-trimmed hems and sparkly puffball skirts, these balletic frocks of organza and tulle might well be dubbed tutu chic.

Indeed, the tutu -- the archetypal ballerina costume -- has much in common with high-end couture. Not only are fine tutus beautiful garments, but, like elaborately conceived dresses, they can take long hours to construct and can cost thousands of dollars.

Mostly, though, the tutu is an aesthetic signifier. It sets off a dancer's long legs as she executes the iconic poses and combinations of steps that define her art form.

On June 20, millions of TV viewers will see 21st century versions of the costume when PBS' "Great Performances" broadcasts the latest American Ballet Theatre "Swan Lake," designed in 2000 by Zack Brown. "I love dancing in a tutu," says ABT principal Gillian Murphy, the production's Swan Queen. "If it's light and beautiful, it creates part of the magic."

That spell-weaving has been going on for nearly two centuries. With a name probably derived from the French children's word tu-tu -- meaning "bottom" -- the tutu is a product of evolution that dates from 1832. That was the year that Marie Taglioni, dancing the title role of Paris Opera's production of "La Sylphide," wowed audiences by performing on pointe (also a novel development then) wearing a costume credited to Eugene Lami.

Dubbed a "romantic" tutu, that costume consisted of a tight-fitting bodice, which left the neck and upper shoulders bare, and a bell-shaped skirt made of layers of stiffened tarlatan, or highly starched sheer cotton muslin that gave the illusion of fullness without being weighty. The skirt fell halfway between Taglioni's knees and ankles.

By 1870, other Italian ballerinas, bent on perfecting pointe work, had begun wearing tutus cut above the knee. Known as "classical" tutus and made famous by such ballets as "Swan Lake," these garments allowed more freedom for leg and footwork. Then, when ballet entered the 20th century, the tutu became even shorter, with more layers of tarlatan added for support. By the 1940s, the insertion of wire hoops enabled the skirt to stand out from the hips, although tulle, a stiffened silk, nylon or rayon fabric, soon replaced tarlatan, making the addition of a hoop more a creative decision than a necessity.

Still, there's a lot more to the tutu than, well, tulle.

The exterior splendor is made possible by an interior that not only supports the dancer (the upper portion, or bodice, which allows "give" and enables the ballerina to move freely) but absorbs perspiration, while the voluptuousness of the skirt ingeniously conceals the panties.


Living history

Who are today's tutu makers, the behind-the-scenes artisans plying their craft without benefit of much modern technology? Sixtysomething Jeanne Nolden is one -- a native Southern Californian and retired medical secretary whose fingertips constantly crack from hours spent pulling needles through tulle. She came to tutu-making because of her love of ballet.

"People of my generation learned to sew," explains Nolden amid bolts of fabric at Montclair's Inland Pacific Ballet studio, where she's been making that company's costumes since 1995 under the auspices of artistic director Victoria Koenig. "I learned by doing. My first tutu was for my daughters' recitals."

Nolden says it takes her about 60 hours to make a basic tutu, with 25 to 30 yards of fabric required per garment. Working from her own patterns, she begins with the bodice, cutting out 16 panels (half are for the lining) before inserting boning. Like that in a corset, the latter can be either bendable metal or flexible polyester. Nolden uses polyester, encasing it first or sewing it directly into the bodice.

But let's face it: If it doesn't fit, the ballerina can't acquit herself properly. Says San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Tina LeBlanc: "If the material doesn't give, in combination with the boning, the bodice can restrict your movements, making it very difficult to get the feeling of freedom that you're used to."

Thus, before constructing a skirt, Nolden painstakingly bastes the bodice panels together by machine and, with fishing line, sews as many as 20 double hooks and eyes onto the back of the garment. At that point, she's ready to fashion the basque, the piece connecting the bodice and the panty and to which the tutu is attached. Cut on the bias and generally made of Lycra, it too is lined.

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