The kings and queens of couture – and their most dazzling dance creations

From Chanel’s Riviera bathers to Alexander McQueen’s cross-dressing spywear, we explore the spellbinding results when giants of fashion cross into dance

Alexander McQueen always resisted the idea of working for dance. Even when invitations came from the Paris Opera Ballet, the fashion designer worried about being reduced to the status of “costume department”. But in 2009, he broke his rule – for Eonnagata, a poetic piece of dance theatre about the Chevalier d’Éon, a notorious 18th-century cross-dressing French spy. “This male-female character was so up my strasse,” McQueen told me.

As well as the “dark psychosis” of the work’s subject, McQueen was also lured by the opportunity to dress Sylvie Guillem, the most physically extraordinary dancer of her generation. Guillem recalled how McQueen, suddenly deciding a costume looked too bland during a fitting session, cut another one “right in front of our eyes. It took about three minutes. It was so fast – and so completely right.”

McQueen’s designs were as ravishing as they were transgressive: a fantastical fusion of military uniform, kabuki and crinolines that gave Russell Maliphant, dancing the role of the spy, a touch of female padding around the hips and Guillem “a little bit of something between the legs”. McQueen had conjured a visual world for Eonnagata that allowed its story to morph elegantly between gender, time and place.

Clockwise from top left: Eonnagata, Carbon Life, Michael Clark’s dance troupe in 1985, Gareth Pugh’s presentation at Made Fashion week in 2015.
Clockwise from top left: Eonnagata, Carbon Life, Michael Clark’s dance troupe in 1985, Gareth Pugh’s presentation at Made Fashion week in 2015. Composite: Getty/Tristram Kenton/Rex

Eonnagata’s success reflects what designer Gareth Pugh has called “a natural synergy between dance and fashion” stemming from “their shared element of fantasy and suspension of disbelief”. Both effect a magical heightening of the everyday. Just as dancing bodies spin metaphor and meaning out of human locomotion, so couture can beautifully reinvent the logic of a dress or a shirt. And when the two worlds successfully mesh – in the punk platform shoes and buttock-exposing tights BodyMap created for Michael Clark, or in the gorgeously colour-coded minimalism of Dries Van Noten’s designs for Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker – it can be impossible to separate the costumes from the choreography.

British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has long embraced this cross-pollination, collaborating with such designers as Narciso Rodriguez – whose detailed take on traditional dancewear, featuring shell pink tights and beautifully stitched leotards, lit up Wheeldon’s Fools Paradise. For the choreographer’s new work, to be staged at the Royal Opera House and set to music by Leonard Bernstein, he has chosen to collaborate with Erdem Moralioglu, the designer best known for his experimental textiles (in one show, he used embroidered plastic). “Erdem plays with very theatrical influences in his clothes,” says Wheeldon. “He uses big prints and intricate embroidery. These work really well with Bernstein’s music. I’m using three short scores, which range from the very pure to the very theatrical. This will give Erdem three opportunities to say something different with the clothing.”

For Moralioglu, participating in another artist’s project has been a revelation. “When I’m working on my collections, I’m on my own. But here, it is fascinating to be inspired by his vision, his movement and Bernstein’s music.” Moralioglu has rooted his designs in the 1950s but emphasises that the ballet won’t simply be a period piece: “Christopher and I are undoing the 50s to look at what lies beneath. We’re unpicking ideas about the dressed and the undressed, the finished and the imperfect.” Though the costumes will include some retro garments, these will be deconstructed to expose the dancers’ underwear – and the “purity of their skin”.

Christian Lacroix dressing English National Ballet School students.
Christian Lacroix dressing English National Ballet School students. Photograph: Barham/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

Dance is a peculiarly porous art form: its costumes have always reflected trends in the outside world. “As soon as someone sews a seam in a dance garment,” says theatre designer and former dancer Jean-Marc Puissant, “whether it’s an 18th-century blouse or a 1980s Lycra leotard, you are, at a basic level, talking about fashion.”

The drifting white tulle dresses worn by ballerinas in the 1830s and 40s are an early example of fashion’s impact on dance. The design was a reflection of that era’s obsession with supernatural heroines, its Romantic yearning for the ethereal and sublime. In practical terms, this garment had been made possible by changes precipitated by the French revolution, when the opulent attire of the ancien régime was superseded by a vogue for light, loose-fitting frocks. As liberating as these politically correct garments had been for ordinary women, they had a revolutionary impact on dancers, who were able to jump, bend and lift their legs with a dramatically enlarged range of motion.

A similarly striking moment occurred in the 1920s, when flappers and their androgynous silhouettes opened the way for sporty, body-hugging garments, exemplified by the leotard. This was a fantastically cheap and practical form of costume, but its uncluttered design also had a tangible effect on the art form, helping to drive it away from the decorative story ballets of the 19th century towards a more abstract, modernist aesthetic.

Le Train Bleu, with costumes by Coco Chanel.
Le Train Bleu, with costumes by Coco Chanel. Photograph: Sasha/Getty Images

Fashion has not only influenced the language of dance, but also its economics. During the early 20th century – as ballet migrated away from court- and state-funded theatres, and the fledgling art of modern dance appeared on stage – companies had to invent new marketing strategies. Fashion, meanwhile, was developing into a global, branded industry. It was during this period that the most box office-savvy dance companies grasped the selling power of style.

Sergei Diaghilev, entrepreneurial arts genius and director of the Ballets Russes, hired Coco Chanel to create the costumes for his satirical lifestyle ballet, Le Train Bleu. This 1924 work was set on the French Riviera and, because Chanel had practically created the vogue for suntans and beachwear, she was the ideal choice of designer. Yet if Chanel proved a magnet for the sophisticated, moneyed audience on whom Diaghilev depended, the collaboration was no less useful to the designer herself. At this stage, Chanel was still perceived as a tradeswoman, excluded from the privileged gratin of Parisian society. By associating with Diaghilev and his elite circle of painters and princesses she was able to inch herself closer to social acceptance.

After Chanel, many designers opted to bask in the glow of a high-profile dance collaboration. The American couturier Roy Halston Frowick, known as Halston, profited greatly from his association with modern dance legend Martha Graham, although purists objected to the excess of gold lamé; while Christian Lacroix has forged a second career adapting his intensely decorative designs for such prestigious companies as Paris Opera Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. In 2015, Prada collaborated with dancers from Tanztheater Wuppertal on a haunting series of duets for an online video project. Other designers have simply rifled through dance to find imagery for their own collect-ions: Paul Poiret borrowed from the brilliant exoticism of Diaghilev’s early work, while Christian Dior’s 1950 1950 Cygne Noir gown channelled the roman-tic mystique of Swan Lake.

Tanztheater Wuppertal dancers perform in Prada

Moralioglu is convinced that collaborating on the Bernstein ballet with Wheeldon has freed him to create “a whole new body of work”. The Belgian designer Dries Van Noten highlights a similar sense of freedom when discussing his own dance projects, especially the costumes he created for Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s 2001 masterpiece Rain.

These were much less overtly theatrical than Moralioglu’s: a series of camisoles, trousers and shirts that fulfilled De Keersmaeker’s request for garments “credible and rooted in the ordinary”. But Van Noten’s creations were far from pedestrian, not only coloured in an exquisite palette of pinks, crimsons and silvery greys but cut so they floated, shimmied and draped around the dancers’ bodies in a choreography of their own. “When one designs prêt-à-porter collections,” he says, “one can feel deprived of witnessing how garments are worn in the real world.”

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rain, with clothing by Dries Van Noten.
Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rain, with clothing by Dries Van Noten. Photograph: Anne Van Aerschot

Designing for De Keersmaeker gave Van Noten a much more “direct and visceral relationship with the body in motion”. That relationship has persisted, notably in the sensuous, form-revealing menswear collection of 2015 that he describes as an homage to the “feline, confident athleticism and virility of the male classical dancer”.

Working with dance, however, can bring constraints. Costumes have to function within strict parameters: their colours and fabric have to look good under powerful stage lighting; their details need to be legible, even from the back of the stalls; and above all they need to give wearers unimpeded motion. Moralioglu was surprised to discover how much this last requirement involved: “I had to think about skirts moving in a certain way, about armholes being large enough, about the waistline of a dress allowing the men to partner the women safely.”Sometimes choreographers break those rules, as in the deliberately unflattering “fat suits” that Maguy Marin used for her sardonic work Groosland. Such cases are more routine in contemporary dance, where choreographers play with a wide and sometimes transgressive variety of body languages. They are far less common in classical ballet, which, as Puissant points out, has evolved “from a very clear perspective of the Apollonian ideal, from specific ideas about the proportions of the body and how we want to see it”.

Having been a dancer, Puissant knows how precisely costumes need to be cut to flatter that classical ideal. Yet even in ballet there are no hard and fast rules. When Wayne McGregor invited Gareth Pugh to collaborate on his 2012 ballet Carbon Life, he asked the designer to think in terms of Oskar Schlemmer, the Bauhaus artist-turned-choreographer whose encased his dancers in cumbersome geometric costumes, which reduced them to “mechanistic figurines”. Although McGregor was not about to sacrifice the mercurial dazzle of his own choreography, Pugh recalls he nevertheless wanted costumes “that weren’t conventionally dancer-friendly. He wanted something to react against in his choreography, a kind of barrier to navigate.”

Pugh’s own fashion aesthetic has a Schlemmer-like quality in its playful distortions of proportion and silhouette. The designs he created for McGregor worked a similarly transformative effect. Created out of a stiffened carbon-black fabric, they featured rigid tubular bodices, towering pointed hats and a kind of booted male pointe shoe that extended the line of the leg as if it were a dagger.

The Royal Ballet insisted the shoes be rigorously tested to ensure the safety of its dancers, but Pugh was happy to accommodate these concerns. Like Moralioglu, he relished everything this novel creative process threw at him, including McGregor’s unnervingly generous openness. “Wayne didn’t give me a brief. He let me respond to his ideas in my own way. And the work kept changing – it felt like hurtling along a motorway at over 100mph. It was incredibly challenging and incredibly freeing.”

Mechanistic figurines … Oskar Schlemmer’s designs for Ballet Triadique from 1926.
Mechanistic figurines … Oskar Schlemmer’s designs for Triadisches Ballett from 1926. Photograph: Apic/Getty Images

When a dialogue feels so charged, its effects can continue long after the final curtain. “Designers are very hungry,” says Moralioglu. “We crave stimulus, and a collaboration can’t help but shape everything we do afterwards.” For Pugh, the consequences were career-defining: working with McGregor gave him a liberating respite from the hectic, commercialised pace of fashion. “As a designer, you’re always second-guessing yourself,” he says. “You’re always under pressure to do something new. Carbon Life gave me the space to think about what I was already doing. It gave me the confidence to go into that more deeply.”

The ballet also inspired him to bring a more dancerly element to his fashion shows. Opting to use film rather than a live catwalk, Pugh has now begun to mix dancers – choreographed by McGregor – in among his models. “My end goal has always been designing clothes to be seen in movement. A conventional catwalk show is too much like a tennis match – just going back and forth. But with dancers, you can be working with these incredible machines, with such an incredible range of movement. With dance, you can make fashion so much more of a performance.”

Christopher Wheeldon’s new work is at the Royal Opera House, London, 15 March-9 April. Box office: 020-7304 4000.


Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

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