A Brief History of Tutus, From the Romantic Era to Today

December 21, 2020

The tutu has become the symbol of the ballerina. But what is the history of this strange protruding skirt which allegedly gets its name from the French children’s word cucu, meaning “bottom”? Pointe took a look back at some important moments in innovation.

The Romantic Tutu

In 1832 the ballet La Sylphide premiered in Paris with ballerina Marie Taglioni in the title role. This work sparked the Romantic era of ballet, and Taglioni’s dress of a white bodice and bell-shaped skirt instantly became the model costume for a ballerina.

Tutus were strongly influenced by current fashion and the advances of the Industrial Revolution. They were made from cotton muslin and gauze, which had previously only been available from India but was now being grown in the Americas and woven in British factories. The turn of the 19th century also saw the invention of a weaving machine that could create “bobbinet” (now known as tulle), previously made by hand. The muslin, gauze and tulle were stiffened with starch derived from corn and wheat, and were layered to form the skirt of the tutu. These light fabrics gave the illusion that the dancer was floating.

In this antique drawing, a ballerina balances on pointe in a low arabesque, with her left hand resting on her chest and her right arm out to the side. She wears a white Romantic tutu with floral details, a floral head-wreath and small fairy wings on her back.
Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide. Courtesy Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library
In this antique drawing, a ballerina stands with her arms low with hands clasped gently and her right foot crossed over her left. She wears a white, off-the-shoulder Romantic tutu with a green leaf design trimming the bottom, a gold sash and a red beaded necklace.
Emma Livry, a protegée of Marie Taglioni, died after her costume caught fire on the stage’s gaslights. Courtesy New York Public Library.

New advancements in the theater—particularly in lighting—played an important role in tutu development. In the late 18th century, theaters were lit by candlelight and ballet costumes were made of heavy silk, woven with metallic thread and decorated with spangles and sequins, which glittered in the flickering light. By the early 19th century, brighter and more even gaslighting had been invented, which created a very different effect. The new tutus glowed bright white in this light.

However, the combination of lighter-weight fabrics and gaslighting was a dangerous duo. Many ballerinas tragically died when the skirts of their tutus caught fire. The most famed was Taglioni’s protégée Emma Livry, whose costume caught fire during a rehearsal. Although fireproofing was available, many dancers refused because it made the costumes stiff and dull. Eventually, new ways of fireproofing were developed, and lighting was made safer.

The Classical Tutu

By the end of the 19th century, ballet technique had continued to evolve and so, too, had the tutu. As the demands of pointework increased, the tutu was shortened to just above the knee. While the Romantic period had favored the diaphanous quality, the late-19th-century tutu had a more defined shape and elaborate decoration on the corseted bodice. This new, shorter costume allowed more of the legs to be visible, drawing attention to new styles of footwork, petit allégro and turns.

Carlotta Brianza, the original Princess Aurora in Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty at the Mariinsky Theater in 1890. Courtesy the Petipa Society.

Tutus and the Ballets Russes

By the turn of the 20th century, the tutu was the ballerina’s stage uniform, whether she was playing the role of a gypsy or a princess. This shifted with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which rebelled against this aesthetic and designed costumes that echoed the ballets’ themes. For the premiere of The Firebird in 1910, Tamara Karsavina in the title role wore elaborate feathered trousers and a tunic; the costume was later changed to a tutu.

In this antique black-and-white photograph, a ballerina wears a tall feathered hat, an ornate bodice and loose, calf-length pants covered in feathers and sparkly adornments. She stands in profile, in a slightly turned in B+ position and stretches her right arm out in front of her.
Tamara Karsavina as the title role in The Firebird at the Ballets Russes, 1910. NYPL Digital Collections.
In this antique, sepia-toned photograph, a ballerina stands in sous-sus on pointe with her arms raised in a V position and looks towards her left. She wears a dark, dropped waist tutu covered in lace and feathers.
Ballets Russes ballerina Felia Doubrovska in the same role, updated with a tutu. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In 1921, the Ballets Russes revived The Sleeping Beauty, renamed The Sleeping Princess. Léon Bakst designed elaborate tutus that can be seen to reflect both the 1890s and 1920s styles. The tutus are almost dropped-waist, with the plate emerging from low on the hips.

Lubov Egorova as Princess Aurora in the Ballets Russes’ The Sleeping Princess, 1921. Bassano Ltd, National Portrait Gallery.

Mid-Century Tutus

In the 1930s and ’40s, shorter tutus emerged featuring a more recognizable fitted bodice, basque (the section between the bodice and skirt) and plate. The tutu plate was now often reinforced with a metal hoop to maintain the shape and look of the shorter and higher tutus. This was the forerunner of what we know as the “pancake” tutu today.

In this video, Alicia Markova’s costume reflects this style as she dances the Nutcracker‘s Sugarplum Fairy variation at Jacob’s Pillow in 1941.

Karinska and the Powder Puff Tutu

In the late 1940s, George Balanchine wanted a tutu that allowed viewers to see the dancer’s movements uninhibited by a large, hooped skirt. Costume maker and designer Barbara Karinska created the “powder puff” tutu to solve this. This new style was smaller, shorter and lighter and used only six to seven layers of net, with no hoop.

Karinska was not new to the tutu. She had started making ballet costumes in the early 1930s, and one of her first innovations had been introducing bias (cut on the cross-grain of the fabric) to the side of the bodice, which allowed for both movement and a tight fit.

Costume designer Holly Hynes describes Karinska’s tutus as works of art. “She often would combine different colors of tulle, mixing them like paint,” says Hynes. “The illusion onstage would be one color with a lot of nuance. She also was very inventive, trying to find trims and decoration that would appear heavier onstage than they really were.”

In this black-and-white photo from 1957, a ballerina in a very short, light-colored tutu and tiara stands in retiré and pulls off her left leg slightly. Her partner, in white tights and princely tunic, holds onto her waist and left hand and stretches his left leg out in tendu.
Maria Tallchief and Andre Eglevsky at Jacob’s Pillow, circa 1957. Note the costume’s tightly fitted bodice and puffy skirt. John Lindquist, copyright Harvard Theatre Collection, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow.
This close up photo shows a long Romantic-style tutu with a gray velvet bodice, gold sash, and skirt made from layers of gray, pink and red tulle.
A costume from George Balanchine’s 1951 ballet La Valse, designed by Karinska. The skirt is made from layers of gray, pink and red tulle. Courtesy The Museum at FIT.

By the 1960s the tutu had gotten even shorter, reflecting the changes in both technique and choreography and showing off the dancers’ limbs and athletic movements in a new way.

A white, headless mannaquin displays a short, pink tutu with filmy white chiffon sleeves and silver embellishments along the neckline, bodice and skirt.
Margot Fonteyn’s costume from The Sleeping Beauty (circa 1960s), originally designed by Oliver Messel in 1946. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Courtesy Museum at FIT.
Two ballerinas in green Romantic tutus flak another ballerina in a white powder-puff tutu, all standing in B+ with one arm raised. On the ground, another ballerina in a very small, jeweled red tutu sits with her legs extended out to the left.
Violette Verdy, Patricia McBride, Suzanne Farrell and Mimi Paul in George Balanchine’s Jewels for New York City Ballet, 1967. The costumes, by Karinska, show three very different styles of tutus. Courtesy NYPL.
In this photo shot from offstage right, a ballerina in an orange-tone tutu and feather plume headpiece does a piqué arabesque on her right leg and looks out towards the audience, smiling.
National Ballet of Canada first soloist Tanya Howard in The Sleeping Beauty. The original tutus, designed by Nicholas Georgiadis and created in 1972, are still being worn today. Karolina Kuras, Courtesy NBoC.
In this black-and-white photo, a man in jeans, white blouse and a suede vest speaks with six ballerinas onstage. The women, who wear light-colored tutus with very high plates, stand casually and hold their hands on their hips.
Arthur Mitchell onstage with Sharon Birthwright, Karen Brown, Stephanie Dabney, Linda Swayze, Corrine King and Melanie Person in a 1980 rehearsal for Paquita at Dance Theatre of Harlem. Here you can see a much shorter bodice and very high tutu plate. Marbeth, Courtesy DTH.

Playing With Shape and Style

Over the years, designers and choreographers have played with the design and shape of this iconic garment. In 1996 Stephen Galloway designed the now iconic disc-like tutus for William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. These costumes, while referencing the classical tutu, created a new, streamlined silhouette.

Two ballerinas, one in front of the other, piqué arabesque croisé on their right leg with their left arm raised high and their right arm out to the stand. They dance on a darkened stage and wear lime green disc-shaped tutus.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Leta Biasucci and former soloist Margaret Mullin in William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.

Earlier this year, The Dutch National Ballet responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by making a social-distancing tutu. This astonishing costume is three meters in diameter and made of denim.

The tutu remains the ballerina’s most iconic tool and costume. While physically distancing, it also connects the dancers of today to ballet’s rich history—interconnected with fashion, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the ballerina.

Tutu Facts and Figures. An image of six ballerinas from the National Ballet of Canada’s production f The Sleeping Beauty, wearing tutus. Tutus are often made to be worn for 20 to 30 years. However, they are costly to make. As costume designer Holly Hynes explains, “An elaborate tutu can cost $10,000, and not every company can afford a tutu ballet.” An average classical tutu today has between 10 and 13 graduated layers of gathered net, with a metal hoop inserted into the middle layer. These layers are tacked together in a particular way to allow the tutu to be both stable and to move with the dancer. Around 25 meters (that’s 82 feet!) of net are used. Accompanying an image of a tutu being pinned together, there is text which says: This “plate” is then attached to the basque and panelled bodice. It can take up to 120 hours to make a highly decorated tutu. Photos by Karolina Kuras/Courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada; Catarina Garcia/Getty Images; Victoria Schwawrzi/Courtest of The National Ballet of Canada.
Photos (from top) by Karolina Kuras/Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada; Catarina Garcia/Getty Images; (2) Victoria Schwarzi/Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.