New book explains ballet’s fashion influence, from streetwear to Chanel

In Paris in the early 1900s, a stage-to-street drama was unfolding as leading fashion designers took style cues from the ballet and translated them into haute couture. In turn, the ballet took its cues from what women of that time wore in their daily lives.

Mary E. Davis, professor and chair of Case Western Reserve’s Department of Music, explores this high culture exchange in Ballets Russes Style: Diaghilev’s Dancers and Paris Fashion (Reaktion Books).

In her book, Davis examines the work of ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev—the founder of Ballets Russes, the Russian ballet company that took Paris by storm in the early 1900s—to illustrate the symbiotic link between art and fashion. Ballets Russes comes on the heels of her previous book, Classic Chic, about music, fashion and modernism.

As Davis demonstrates, the Ballets Russes inspired fashion designers, such as Paul Poiret, Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. Art and fashion magazines, including Vogue, Comœdia Illustré and La Gazette du Bon Ton, published pre- and post-performance articles, photographs, drawings and paintings, which fueled the stage-to-street dialogue.

“The Ballets Russes became finely attuned to Parisian fashion, responding to the tastes and trends, and adapting the latest styles for its artistic presentations,” Davis wrote. “The boundaries between stage and street collapsed…haute couture met high culture on a new ground.”

In fact, Davis said, the merger of art and fashion created a setting in which audience members in their couture were, in a sense, performing from their seats as dancers performed on stage in costume.

Diaghilev was integral to the fashion drama unfolding; his personal vision unified the visual and physical arts. “Diaghilev felt you could take these arts and move toward a new mode of expression that was modern and meaningful,” Davis said.

To realize his vision, Diaghilev had to conduct his work in Paris, the epicenter for art. The Ballets Russes, which performed from 1909-29, became the incubator for many great artists—from costume designer Leon Bakst to Russian composer Igor Stravinsky to choreographer Michel Fokine. Among the dancers were the great Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina and Ida Rubenstein.

After the Ballets Russes’ first successful season in 1909, Diaghilev produced Scheherazade, the Arabian story of One Thousand and One Nights. Diaghilev, with the help of Bakst’s costuming, brought a new and modern look to the exotic and familiar tale.

“Parisians had long been fascinated by the East and what they imagined as its opulence and decadence,” Davis said. “The idea resonated in works ranging from Montesquieu’s Persian Letters to the odalisques painted by Ingres.”

The early 20th century fashion world, led by Poiret, made its own contribution, and soon the most adventurous women were wearing harem pants, head wraps and tunics.

The First World War put an end to these fantasies.  During the war years, theaters were shuttered and the Ballets Russes struggled; frivolity went out of fashion.

The new moment belonged to a different designer, one who preached simplicity, comfort and stripped-down style: Coco Chanel. By 1914, Chanel’s star was ascending and her “look” was all the rage; by 1920 she was well-connected and wealthy enough to finance the revival of the Ballets Russes’ greatest pre-war hit,  The Rite of Spring. Thus she linked herself to the stage, and to Stravinsky, with whom she had an affair in the winter of 1920.

In 1924, she became one of the Ballets Russes’ artists, creating costumes based on her own everyday designs—signature black bathing suit, caps, accessorized with slippers and the Kodak cameras—to outfit the dancers for Diaghilev’s popularizing ballet Le Train Bleu (The Blue Train), which follows a group of holiday-makers who take the brand-new tourist train south to the Riviera.

In retelling the Ballets Russes story, Davis’ book has become a companion to an exhibit catalogue created for the Victoria and Albert Museum centennial exhibition of the Ballets Russes.

Ballets Russes Style teases out the influence of fashion on art and art on fashion—a trend that continues today.