Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 30 September 2020

The complete history of the tutu

With Serena Williams in the news so much lately, we decided to take a look at the history of the garment she made famous at the US Open

Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open. AFP
Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open. AFP

The distinctive netting skirt ballet dancers wear (which is actually an all-in-one with a tight bodice), the tutu was first worn in 1832 by Marie Taglioni. The Swedish ballerina took to the stage at the Paris Opera wearing a skirt scandalously cut to show her ankles.

Made from 30 yards of tulle, net and tarlatan, the bell-shaped skirt was dubbed the Romantic for its elegant sway. However, so much fabric has its drawbacks, as Emma Livry found out in 1862, when she danced close to the stage lamps and suffered burns when her skirt ignited.

As the century progressed and the dance form’s footwork became increasingly intricate, the tutu began to shorten. By 1870, a new, stiffer style of tutu, called the Classical, sat high above the knee and came with ruffled knickers for modesty.


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For Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in the late 1870s, an even shorter skirt was needed to allow for the jumps, and a flared garment that barely covered the derrière caused a minor scandal. Quickly dubbed the Pancake for its flat, wide shape, it was held with hoops and 10 layers of netting. It soon became the style worn by prima ballerinas to show off their strength and skill. The 1950s saw another shape emerge – the Powder Puff, which did away with the hoops, and used modern fabrics to create and retain its shape. To hold the shape, short, flared tutus are stored upside down until today, and most professional tutus are entirely handmade, taking up to 60 hours to create. A basic tutu can cost up to $2,000 (Dh7,300).

Tutus are no longer restricted to the stage; Bjork wore one (complete with swan head and egg) to the Oscars in 2001, while Lacroix and Valentino have looked to the ballet for inspiration. Meanwhile, Serena Williams played at the US Open in an asymmetric tutu dress (pictured).

Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open. AFP
Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open. AFP

Updated: September 10, 2018 05:53 PM

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