Critics’ Picks

View of “Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse,” 2020.

View of “Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse,” 2020.

New York

“Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse”

The Museum at FIT
Seventh Avenue at 27th Street
February 11–April 18, 2020

Even for the balletomaniacs among us, the material history of the art form—one caught up in interpretation, rigor, tradition, and, most of all, practice—can be hard to grasp, hidden as it is in theater archives and the closets of prima ballerinas past. Curator Patricia Mears’s exhibition here dusts off bejeweled costumes, pointe shoes, and modest rehearsal ensembles from the twentieth century, placing them in conversation with contemporaneous couture and prêt-à-porter by masters such as Yves Saint Laurent, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Christian Dior. The drool-worthy garments, organized into groups such as “Ballet Colors” and “The Neo-Romantic Revival,” effortlessly communicate Mears’s primary thesis: Modern designers often looked to these performers for sartorial inspiration. More fascinating, however, are her efforts to ground the idealized concept of the ballerina in the lives and wardrobes of the actual women who performed these roles. 

Ballet can require self-effacement: One is not oneself, but rather Odile or Aurora; individual dancers disappear into the identically dressed, collectively pliéing corps de ballet. With its inclusion of couture pieces worn by and/or photographs of notable practitioners such as Margot Fonteyn, Anna Pavlova, Maria Tallchief, and Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Virginia Johnson, “Ballerina” deftly links the archetypal to the idiosyncratic. A pair of hand-knit stockings and a stacked, striped cotton tutu with serious 1990s Isaac Mizrahi–style energy, both from the 1940s (before the mass-market production of class and rehearsal wear, when dancers had to provide their own garb), confound with their beauty and intimacy. The costumes, which range from the heavily feathered and spangled “Dying Swan” raiment, circa 1920, worn by Pavlova to the famously minimal leotards of George Balanchine’s modernist Agon (1957), vibrate with the spirit of those who once wore them. For obsessives and amateurs alike, “Ballerina” offers an unparalleled communion with these women and the fantastic designs their agility and grace inspired.