In this instalment of ‘body in motion’, we look at the close relationship between our chosen designers and dance. All our designers had at some point tipped their toes in the world of dance, either through finding inspiration in dancers, dressing them or actively collaborating with companies to produce costumes for performances. It is indeed interesting, if not revealing, that the more we think about the concepts of body/movement/performance, the more intertwined our designers and their creations become with the idea of a body in motion.
Vionnet and Isadora Duncan
Early in her career, when still designing for Jacques Doucet, Vionnet was greatly inspired by modern dancer Isadora Duncan. Both women shared a fascination for Classical arts and the Antiquity, making frequent pilgrimages to the Louvre (Vionnet) and British Museum (Duncan) to study Greek vases and bas-reliefs.
Duncan would translate these classical references into her performances, combining free and natural movements with un-structured costumes, reminiscent of Greek tunics. She striped her body from anything that might constrain her movements, including corsets and even shoes.
This relaxed aesthetic was not entirely new in fashion – both Paul Poiret and Fortuny were also ditching the corsets from their designs. But Vionnet took it a step further and in her first collection at Doucet in 1907, her models walked bare-feet.
Charles James and Tilly LoschDancer, choreographer, actress, artist and all-round beauty Tilly Losch was also a Charles James client. Austrian-born, Tilly started her career as a classical ballet dancer with the Vienna Opera, before branching out in the world of modern dance. She worked with prominent choreographers, including Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Heinrich Kroeller, Leonide Massine and Anthony Tudor, and choreographed many of her performances.
As a true creative force, Tilly found other successful outlets to express her creativity. She acted in plays and Hollywood films in the 1930s and 1940s and later in life became a painter.
Balenciaga and Flamenco
Balenciaga found endless inspiration from his Spanish heritage. Velázquez and Goya, bullfighting, the Catholic tradition, regional dress – all were one way or another incorporated into his designs. Also flamenco dance, with its dramatic tiers of ruffles and embellished tailored jackets, served as a frequent source of inspiration to the couturier.
‘Dance was also very much a part of the Spanish identity. In the 1920s a movement of Spanish cultural figures and intellectuals had embraced the inherent poignancy of flamenco dance, which, with its plaintive musical accompaniment and songs, was a symbol of the enduring persecution of, and discrimination against, the Gypsies.’ (Bowles, 2011: 16)
Halston and Martha Graham
‘Halston’s affiliation as costume designer of the Martha Graham Dance Company was truly a labor of love. There was a bond between the two artists that went well beyond their love of the arts, more along the lines of a mother-son relationship. They both shared an appetite and curiosity for life, and as a dancer, Graham revered the body and its coverings as much as Halston. Their fifteen-year collaboration began with costumes but concluded with Halston becoming the financial saviour of the Graham dance troupe.’ (Gross & Rottman, 1999: 210)
Halston understood the drape of fabric and the body’s movement beneath it; he understood elegance. (Martha Graham in ibid: 210)
Comme des Garçons and Merci Cunningham
In 1997, choreographer Merce Cunningham invited Rei Kawakubo to create the costumes, set and lighting for Scenario. Collaborations were an important aspect of Cunnington’s work, and Kawakubo was a natural choice for him. His choreographies explored the juxtaposition and unnatural movement of body parts, and were sometimes described as ‘deformed’.
That same year Kawakubo presented her ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’ spring/summer collection for Comme des Garçons, in which padded shapes protruded from the body.
For Scenario, Cunningham and Kawakubo worked independently from one another, and the choreography and costumes only came together in the performance. The idea was to force the dancers to react to the costumes by adapting their movements, and leaving the final result to ‘chance.’
Golbin, P. (ed.) (2009) Madeleine Vionnet. New York: Rizzoli.
Bowles, H. (2011) Balenciaga and Spain. New York: Skirt Rizzoli Publications.
Frowick, L. (2) Halston: Inventing American fashion. New York: Rizzoli.
Gross, E. & Rottman, F. (1999) Halston: An American original. New York: HarperCollins World.
PS: after writing this post, I realised that all our designers were associated with dancers/dance styles that sit outside the conventional or conservative. Even flamenco, which could be seen as a traditional form of dance, focuses on a strong and expressive female dancer. It seems an obvious remark, but it nevertheless positions our designers and consequently their works within a specific creative category, not just in terms of fashion but in a greater artistic context.