19th Century, 20th Century

A Time-Travelling Ballerina

When I was a child I was given Tom Tierney’s ‘Ballet Stars of the Romantic Era‘ paper doll book.  Though I enjoyed the occasional girls ballet book, I wasn’t ballet obsessed.  This was mostly because ballet was simply such an abstract concept for me – in Hawaii little girls learn hula, not ballet.  I read about ballet, but the scenes they were described were as remote and exotic as Heidi’s Alps.

Although I couldn’t grasp the idea of a modern person being a ballerina, I loved the paper dolls.    The beautiful costumes (of course) and the stories of the ballerina’s lives (affairs with mad kings and all) appealed to me.

Marie Taglioni as Flora in Didelot's Zephire et Flore. London, 1831, Lithograph by Chalon and Lane.  Victoria and Albert Museum, Sergeyev Collection

Marie Taglioni as Flora in Didelot’s Zephire et Flore. London, 1831, Lithograph by Chalon and Lane. Victoria and Albert Museum, Sergeyev Collection

Later on, when I finally saw  ballets at the San Francisco Ballet and the Royal New Zealand Ballet, I was hugely disappointed by the costumes.  They were beautiful and striking, but in my mind I’d always imagined the soft, floating swish of romantic-era skirts of silk tulle.  The stiff nylon platters of the modern ballerina just didn’t live up to my expectations.  If I was going to design a ballet outfit, it would look like something Taglioni, Grisi, or Essler would wear.

Carlotta Grisi in the tite role of Adam's Giselle, Paris, 1841, lithograph by an unknown artist

Carlotta Grisi in the tite role of Adam’s Giselle, Paris, 1841, lithograph by an unknown artist

Somewhere in a scrapbook I have a picture of Selma Blair in  the dress she wore to the 2003 Met Costume Gala.  She said of the dress something to the effect that she never got to be a ballerina as a little girl, so the dress was her ballerina moment.

For some reason that quote has always stuck with me (although I’d forgotten all the details of the dress except that it was vaguely ballerina-y), and I’ve thought, ‘yes, every girl should have a ballerina moment’.

The closest I’ve ever come to a ballerina moment was the outfit I wore to the Fairies & Dinosaurs party, but it wasn’t quite the vision I had.

This year I’m becoming aware, as the wrinkles don’t quite go away and I get too many grey hairs to honestly claim that they are all sports, that  my time to have a ballerina moment is going to run out.  I should do it now!

This year I have the perfect excuse – the Windy Lindy ball theme is ‘Enchantment Under the Sea’ (a la Back to the Future), and a Romantic era ballet costume is close enough to a ’50s prom  dress, right?

I also have the perfect fabric: 5 yards of vintage silk organza in pink with three-dimensional organza ribbon roses that my Grandmother brought back from a trip to Japan in the late ’50s.

A romantic-era ballerina meets 1950s dress thedreamstress.com

The clock is definitely ticking on me in that much pink organza too!

So, inspiration for a romantic-era ballerina, meeting 1950s full-skirted romanticism:

Marie Taglioni dancing the title role in La Sylphide, 1832

Marie Taglioni dancing the title role in La Sylphide, 1832

I love the simple fitted bodices, pointed waists, and the soft, swooshing fullness of the skirts.

Lucile Grahn, Carlotta Grisi, and Fanny Cerrito surround Marie Taglioni in Jules Perrot's Pas de Quatre, Lithograph by T. H. Maguire from a drawing by A. E. Chalon, London, 1845

Lucile Grahn, Carlotta Grisi, and Fanny Cerrito surround Marie Taglioni in Jules Perrot’s Pas de Quatre, Lithograph by T. H. Maguire from a drawing by A. E. Chalon, London, 1845

I went looking for 50’s dress with the same elements, and assembled a pinterest inspiration board.

Then I went browsing in my pattern stash, and unearthed my Grandmother’s copy of Butterick 6485 from the early 1950s.

It’s got a fitted bodice, pointed waist, a full circle skirt with gathers (circles for that extra swish, and to maximise my fabric) and is perfect!

Butterick for a ballerina dress thedreamstress.com

When I opened it up, I discovered that my Grandmother had definitely made it, and even created two new pieces to add a peplum.

For a moment I was back with her, mixing and matching pattern pieces and drafting  new ones to create the ideal gown.

As I looked at the longer view, and the peplum pieces, I suddenly realised that not only did I know what her gown would have looked like, I own it!

This is me, aged 20, in one of the three items  of my grandmother’s finished sewing that I own:

My grandmother's altered version of Butterick 6485 thedreamstress.com

It’s the pattern, with some alterations!

Oh, happiness!

And, as further proof that the dress was meant to be, my toile fit perfectly straight off the pattern!  (or, at least it does with the correct bra under it).

Butterick 6485 for a ballerina dress thedreamstress.com

Now, to be brave and cut into that organza…

A romantic-era ballerina meets 1950s dress thedreamstress.com


  1. Lynne says

    The time is now! You are so right. The pink is lovely, but there will soon be a gap in your pink-wearing years. I am slowing creeping into another pink phase – the old lady in pink look, but it really needs white hair.

    Your gorgeous ballerina moment is upon you!

  2. Elise says

    nytimes.comnytimes.comHow lovely–so so lovely.

    And OMG, I love ballet clothes! I love the see-through sweaters, the low-back of leotards, and ballet-dresses worn outside. Remember Carrie in the 2004 Sex and the City finale?

    And oh wow–I read everything I could read about Valentino’s designs for the Met Ballet, even this article which shows that a clothing designer doesn’t really understand ballet:

    Clothing is incredible, because it’s not only a visual expression of the wearer, it’s community art. And when you are already using your body to tell a story, like a dancer does, the clothes are even more important.

  3. Deanna says

    Ooh, this will be so pretty! I can’t wait to see a full expanse of the organza with roses.

  4. I’m with you on the dissapointment over costumes! I always wanted the long, classical tutu’s, not the flat, disc like ones. One reason Giselle is my favourite ballet.

    It will be a beautiful dress, looking forward to seeing it! But oh, to the nerves one must steady before cutting into that fabric…

  5. Oh! Now this is my cup of tea. Vintage organza! Ballerinas! 50’s patterns! The toille is actually gourgeous, even without organza or tulle. But I would also breathe a bit before cutting that fabric…

  6. Laura says

    Bah to time running out for your ballet moment! Anna Pavlova was dancing right until she died at 50! Tutus for everyone!

  7. Miss Sis says

    In my twenty (!) years of dancing ballet, I only *once* wore an actual tutu, and once wore a practice skirt for a show in which I was one of the Ugly Sisters.

    Just goes to show you, eh? I always liked the long old fashioned ones far better. Like lovely Degas dancers. The piece we danced where all the other girls to to wear them I was the ‘teacher’ and wore a long sleeved black leotard and a black skirt!

  8. That pink organza is breathtaking. I can’t wait to see what you do with it.

  9. That’s a lovely story about your pattern and your grandmother. And how interesting it still fits just as is 🙂

    I adore romantic ballet tutus, but my most favourite tutu was a simple white empire-line affair that Juliet wore in an Australia Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet over 20 yrs ago. Still remember it vividly, and plan to make one one day.

    The silk is just beautiful, but I could see why you need some courage to cut into it. Good luck 🙂

  10. Go for it. I can’t think of anything more appropriate to make with that pink organza, and the pattern is great too. Do you know what your grandmother made it for originally? It looks like a special event dress.

  11. What a great project! And such a lovely coincidence that you can use a pattern from your grandmother and already own her version.
    And I can definitely understand your longing for a ballerina-moment, I had similar feelings when I made the 19oos ballerina-outfit for the art-challenge this year.
    I am curious to see the finished dress!

  12. Holly says

    I have to put in my two cents: I disagree with Lynne. I am not middle-aged (only 30) but I think women (and men!) should be allowed to wear pink at whatever time of life they want to wear it at!

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