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In the early days of ballet, when dance was a social court pastime, dancers wore their own clothes when dancing rather than specially designed costumes. For us today those everyday outfits resemble costumes. The men wore very elaborate, stiff brocaded coats, knee breeches, wigs and swords belted to their waists. The women were tightly laced in long-sleeved bodices and panniered skirts. These cumbersome, heavy outfits allowed for little body movement and the steps executed by the dancers had to be simple and dignified.

With the establishment of the Academie Nationale de Musique et de Danse by Louis XIV in 1661 and the emergence of the first professional dancers, ballet technique became more complex. When women began performing on the professional stage, they incorporated quick beats of the feet and multiple pirouettes into their dances. Whirling skirts necessitated the wearing of caleons de precaution "precautionary drawers" so as to not reveal too much of the leg. In the classroom, the dancers' outfits were so elaborate it was difficult to tell whether the dancers were at a tea party or warming up their bodies. (Leotards and tights had not yet been invented.)

Marie Camargo was the first dancer to shorten her skirts. This enabled her audience to appreciate her intricate footwork. Her rival, Marie Salle, dared even further by discarding her petticoats to dance in a flimsy muslin dress. The French Revolution at the end of the 18th century also brought about changes in dancewear. Simple, lightweight, clinging robes inspired by Greek models became fashionable both on and off the stage.   Also at this time, a man named Maillot, a costume maker and designer at the Paris Opéra, is said to have invented tights. These new fashions and inventions caused great change in ballet practice clothes. Dancers finally found themselves in clothing that allowed for much greater freedom of movement and dance technique could develop beyond its previously limited boundaries.

This was further emphasized by the great dance teacher Carlo Blasis, who in 1820 published the technical manual
Trait Elementaire et Pratique de la Danse, which included drawings for which Blasis had posed, dressed in nothing but shorts and ballet shoes. Though Blasis did not recommend the wearing of only shorts as practice wear because the dancers might catch cold, he was very concerned with the specifics of practice clothing and designed official dancewear.

Blasis wrote: "The dress worn by the pupils at their lessons... is composed of bodice and skirt of white muslin, a black sash being worn around the waist. The dress of the males is composed of a jacket which fits the shape close, with trousers, all of white cloth; round the waist a girdle of black leather is worn, confined and tightened by means of buckles, thus giving support....

    "The dress of dancers should always sit close to the shape, and fit perfectly well, that no part of the outline of the figure may be concealed; care being taken that the dress be not so tight as to confine or embarrass any of his movements or attitudes."

August Bournonville, the great Danish choreographer, was also an advocate of practical dancewear and was thrilled with the new Paris Opéra regulations when he danced there in 1826. The long, loose trousers had been replaced by knee breeches and silk hose since it had been decided that the long pants hid too many technical faults and anatomical defects. Bournonville himself invented the "Bournonville slipper" for male dancers. Still worn today in all Bournonville ballets, these black slippers have a white, V-shaped vamp in the front, making for a better-looking, long and pointed foot.

By 1844, it was reported that the dancers of the Paris Opéra were appearing in ballet class in the following attire:

    "The girls are bare-headed and decolletes; their arms are bare, the waist confined in a tight bodice. A very short, very bouffant skirt, made of net or striped muslin, reaches to the knees. Their thighs are chastely hidden under large calico bloomers, impenetrable as a state secret. The men, without neckties, with throats bare, wear short vests of white material and breeches reaching half way down the leg, fastened at the waist by a leather belt."

The bouffant skirt mentioned above was an early version of what we know today as the Romantic tutu, which is worn in such ballets as La Sylphide and Giselle. The puffy, multi-layered skirts reached well below the knee in the 1870s and are familiar to us from Edgar Degas' many sketches, paintings and sculptures immortalizing the female dancer.

Victorian sensibilities caused a return to very elaborate dancewear. On stage in the 1890s, dance spectacle at its most lavish reigned supreme. Off stage in the rehearsal room, ballerinas wore quite complicated outfits:

    "First came a chemise tied at the waist with a little ribbon; then a little corset, laced up tight; then cotton panties and long cotton stockings fastened with suspenders and over these bloomers; then a white batiste bodice, sleeveless, with a ruffle around the neck and the double tarleton skirts of the tutu. A neat sash around the waist completed the picture."

How dancers could possibly move in such outfits is impossible to fathom. It is easy to understand why dancers in old photographs are revealed with bent knees, flabby thighs and heavy leg muscles; teachers simply could not correct the technical and physical flaws that were hidden under all these garments. Of course, it was fashionable and desirable at the time for all women to be nicely rounded with voluptuous curves.

The bell-shaped Romantic dress of the mid-1800s gave way to the tutu at the end of the 19th century. Connoisseurs of ballet, the Russians wanted to see the new technical feats and fancy footwork of their ballerinas. The new long, floppy, 16 layer tutus reached to the knee and allowed the female dancers much greater mobility in such technically demanding ballets as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Paquita. The late George Balanchine's athletic choreography later led to the creation of the shorter "powder-puff" tutu that is worn in Symphony in C. These tutus allow the entire leg to be seen.

It was in the early years of the 20th century that dance clothes began to change to those that are commonly used today. Isadora Duncan, one of the first innovators, was considered to be an extremist when she discarded shoes, stockings and tutus and danced on stage in bare feet and flimsy Greek tunics. But soon many classical ballerinas, including Anna Pavlova, began to wear the practical, uncluttered tunic for rehearsals. At the same time, musical comedy and revue dancers started to practise in bare legs, while others adopted the trendy one-piece bathing suit, made famous by the long-distance swimmer Annette Kellerman, and/or rompers.

Modern dancers, on the other hand, wore the new leotard for their practice wear. Invented by the trapeze artist Jules Leotard, the original leotard consisted of a close-fitting suit of knitted jersey, which reached to the wrists and ankles; the woman's version came with a short fringed skirt. Today, the leotard is the accepted uniform of dancers around the world and is designed in many attractive patterns, colours and materials.

Bare legs were never very popular with dancers for practice sessions since the leg muscles must be kept continually warm. Today dancers wear not only leotards and tights but also wool leg warmers and/or plastic pants over their tights in order to keep their muscles warm and supple.

Many 20th century choreographers have chosen to have their dancers appear on stage in these close-fitting outfits in order to accentuate the lines and movements of the body. Over the past 300 years of theatrical dance, there has always been a close parallel between stage and rehearsal dancewear.

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