Power of Image
Costumes are not limited to the ballet. They bring to life all manner of characters in musicals, plays, movies, television shows, reality shows, and even portraits and images.
What makes ballet different however is the lack of songs and words and how, without those direct expression of characterisation, clothing and image becomes the main focus in portraying and creating different personas and characters.
Think back to your favourite movie or musical. No matter how modern or old fashioned the storyline is, and no matter how many variations exist of the same story, the chances are that you recognise your favourite characters based on the costumes they wear. The same is true of ballet, only those garments and outfits bear even more importance as they form the entire basis of the character.
The costumes in a ballet let the audience know who they are watching, what they are watching, and what relation each danger has to the others on stage. From the swans in Swan Lake, all in white, to the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker with the fairy in her spotlight tutu, these famous dances use expressive and clear costuming to tell us who the focal character is and what their role is.
And that’s not all.
Costumes within a ballet performance are also important for separating the good from the evil, with dark colours used to portray villains and evil characters while white is often used as a symbol of exquisite goodness. Accessories also play a role in dictating the status of different characters, with villains often seen wearing masks while the heroine or focal good character will wear a crown, exquisite jewels, or flowers in her hair to portray her innocence. Add this to the use of different lighting and staging to create varying backdrops and environments, and the way that the ballet uses visualisation and image as a means of telling the story becomes far-reaching and intricately thought out.
Some examples of the best ballet costumes
The following examples explore how ballet costumes and outfits are directly linked to characterisation.
Black Swan in Swan Lake
This dress is, as the character title suggests, black and laced with feathers. With the role often played by the same dancer as that who plays the white swan, it is important for her two personality sides to be portrayed in the most obvious way – in this case, through colour.
Cinderella from the 1972 production
When ballets are performed, the costume designer will often create their own variation of the standard costume – sometimes to fit with the time period of the story, and other times to simply trial new ways of expressing different societal statuses and characteristics. In Cinderella, the main character is innocent and good, but she is also romantic. The 1972 production dressed Cinderella in a tight-fitting bodice with floral crowns and feathers to tap into the Romanticism era, while using a white material to express her good nature.
Romeo and Juliet from the 2014 alternative modern performance
Our last example is a move away from traditional ballet tutu’s, with the costume designer of a modern interpretation dressing the two central character in neutral and very minimalistic costumes – a step away from the traditional dress which suited the story’s era. The intention here was to put more focus on the movement rather than the costume and proves how costume is important but is just one element of the overarching design of a single production.
We’d love to hear from you – can you think of any instances where characterisation has been uniquely dictated by the costumes you see rather than the words you hear?