Irina Baronova at Jacob's Pillow in 1941.

Hans Knopf, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival Archives

Dancewear Through the Decades: 100 Years of Studio Fashion, From the Chiton to the Leotard

In March 2020, American Ballet Theatre principal dancers James Whiteside and Isabella Boylston taught a class on Instagram Live with the theme "Vintage Ballet." Boylston dressed as Scottish-born ball­­erina Moira Shearer (star of the 1948 classic film The Red Shoes) and Whiteside as Rudolf Nureyev, and they encouraged viewers to join in. Dancers around the world followed suit, posting their vintage-inspired looks online. Looking at this wide range of styles made me wonder: What did dancers wear before they had a wardrobe of stretchy leotards to choose from? Below, we look at some of the ballet-class fashions that have graced studios over the last 100 years.


1910s–1920s

For much of the 20th century, there was no stretch fabric and no ready-to-wear dance clothing. Dancers often made their own outfits or adapted items of street clothing. However, just like today, what was worn in the studio reflected the fashions of the day.

In the 1910s and '20s, influenced by the movement and costume of modern-dance pioneer Isadora Duncan, the female uniform for class was the chiton, named and modeled after the long tunic worn in ancient Greece. The early-20th-century chitons were often made of silk or knitted jersey (which allowed some stretch), and gathered under the bust and around the hips.

Black and white photograph of a group of dancers in tunics and dress clothes posing.

The Ballets Russes rehearsing in New York in 1916. Note the different colored chitons and headbands worn by the women.

Courtesy Library of Congress

Lydia Sokolova, a British dancer with The Ballets Russes, wrote in her memoir Dancing for Diaghilev that before World War I the company's female dancers wore: "For class… white tutus and pink silk tights, but for rehearsal… we wore crêpe-de-chine dresses which took three and a half meters of material to make. They were caught in with one bit of elastic under the breast and another around the thigh, and they fell in pretty draperies just below the knee."

Sokolova wrote that these chitons were easy to move in, and each dancer had theirs made in a different color. But in the 1920s, these rehearsal dresses were simplified and shortened. "Diaghilev came into class one day and announced that since it was more than ever difficult under war conditions to get nice material and keep things clean, all the girls in the ballet should wear black tunics in rehearsal," wrote Sokolova.

Men's practice clothes during this time consisted of white loose-sleeved shirts and dark trousers cut below the knee, with knee socks and leather shoes. The influence of this look is still seen today in many ballet-school uniforms, where men wear white socks and tights.

Black and a white photograph of dancers at the barre, outside, in floral practice clothes.

Anton Dolin leading a class for Ballet Theatre dancers in the Tea Garden at Jacob's Pillow, 1941. The women wear cotton playsuits.

Hans Knopf, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival Archives

1930s–1940s

In the 1930s and '40s, the long chitons were replaced by shorter tunics and skirts. Dancers often took advantage of ready-to-wear items that could be repurposed for dance class. Men exchanged trousers for shorts, knitted tights and leggings. In a series of photos taken at Jacob's Pillow in the summer of 1941, ballerinas Alicia Markova and Irina Baronova take class wearing floral playsuits, which were the height of fashionable beach and leisure wear at the time. These would have been made of cotton and had little to no stretch in them. However not all dancers could afford, or had access to, ready-made clothing, and many still made their own practice wear.

The recent exhibition "Ballerina: Fashion's Modern Muse" mounted at The Museum at FIT showed several examples of homemade practice wear from this era, including a sweater and a short, full skirt made by the mother of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer Joy Williams Brown

Exhibit photo of two mannequins wearing vintage practicewear.

Hand-knitted wool tights and hand-made cotton practice tutu, circa 1943, from the collection of Joy Williams Brown.

Ben Rosser, Courtesy The Museum at FIT

1950s–60s

In the early 1950s, dancewear started to become more streamlined. Female dancers wore high-waisted briefs over tights and with short blouses. Tunics were still worn, but were often tucked in at the front to give the illusion of a one-piece garment.

In this black and white photo from the 1960s, a group of female dancers stand in fifth position wearing black leotards, tights and pointe shoes. A man in a white short-sleeved shirt, bow tie and black pants stands to the left holding a clapperboard.

Maria Tallchief being filmed in the early 1960s conducting a class for a television program. The dancers wear early style leotards.

Courtesy DM Archives

In the 1960s, the leotard became more common as practice wear. The leotard was created by 19th-century French acrobat Jules Léotard. Up until the 1960s, leotards were worn mainly by circus performers and gymnasts. The first leotards for ballet were made of knitted cotton fabric, which allowed for some stretch but easily became baggy. This was followed by Bri-Nylon, which offered stretch but would still become misshapen.

The 1960s saw the invention of a stretch fabric that would not bag and lose shape. Spandex, known under the brand name Lycra, was patented in 1958 and released to the public in 1962. It was initially used in the underwear industry but eventually made its way into dancewear, revolutionizing first practice wear and then stage costumes.

Ad image of of two women wearing bright red long-sleeved leotards, sitting side by side with their hands on their cheeks.

A Danskin advertisement from 1982.

Courtesy The Museum at FIT

1970s–80s

The 1970s and '80s brought the rise of stretch one-piece leotards, unitards, leggings and tights. Primarily used in the fitness industry (particularly gymnastics), these items became popular with dancers. These new clothes closely fitted the body, retained their shape and were easily washed. They could also be produced in a huge range of colors and styles.

Soon companies began producing lines of ready-to-wear dance clothing, leading us to today. Now we are spoiled for choice, with many professional dancers releasing their own designs. Next time you reach into your drawer for your favorite leotard and tights, think of the generations of dancers that came before you and what they wore.

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Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

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Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

Michael Cousmano, AKA Madame Olga. Courtesy When I'm Her

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