Ballet began in Italy and France during the Renaissance. Costumes were created specifically for this form of dance in the 15th century. Most dancers wore special costumes and masks for the ballet, and the average costume was luxurious.
Made from silk or cotton, ballet tutus had flax was mixed in to make a gauzy material that was partly transparent. Men usually wore a formfitting brocaded cuirass and women wore fringed silk tunics that were elegant and rich. During the latter half of the 15th century the costumes were similar to exaggerated and detailed street clothing.
In the 17th century the tutu became far more elegant and decorative. Gold, satins, silks, precious stones, and other costly materials decorated the ballet outfits. Elements were added to men’s costumes to denote their trade, while women’s costumes remained unchanged. The first Russian ballet troupes dressed in the European styles, with the men dressed in freeing clothing while women wore heavy dresses that restricted their movements. Men dancing as women usually wore knee length skirts.
When the 18th century rolled around, Paris was the center of ballet in Europe. Stage costumes were similar to costumes worn at court with elaborate and decorative trimming. The panier began to be popular in the 18th century, and flowers, ribbons, and flounces soon become popular decorations for the popular soft, pastel colored garments. Women began to dance more in men’s roles during this period, but large headdresses and wigs were still the rage at the time.
Romanticism was popular during the 19th century, and the female ballet dancers wore costumes that reflected this ideal. Their costumes were formfitting, and they wore crowns of flower. Men’s costumes remained modeled in the Neoclassic styles. Around 1832 costumes became more formfitting and showed off the legs. Pointe shoes were now worn by all ballet dancers. Fantasy costumes were popular during this period, thanks to Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and other fairy tale ballet pieces.
Ballet costumes were altered in the beginning of this century, with the tutus only going down to the knees in order to show off the fancy leg and footwork. Ballerinas were freed from corsets by Isadora Duncan, and the natural silhouette was also introduced by this famous ballerina.
The prewar tunic shape became very popular around the 1920s, with many additions of Oriental cultures like turbans, harem pants, and veils of bright colors. Most restrictions on ballet costumes were removed after Serge Diaghilev died in 1929. There are currently no limits on what costumes can be worn, but many of the costumes that are worn today – such as the tutu – were heavily influenced by the designs of Diaghilev.