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Ballet Lessons Newcastle A Quick History of the Tutu Blog Image

One of the most iconic elements of the ballet dancer’s ensemble is the tutu. This distinctive ballet costume paired with ballet shoes is one of the things that come to mind for many when they think about ballet.

But where did it come from and how did it come to be the standard for ballet dancers to wear?

The Premiere of the Tutu

The first time a tutu was seen was back in the early 1830s in Paris. Marie Taglioni was playing the lead part in La Sylphide, where she is a beautiful forest spirit that draws a mortal man away from his wedding day.

But the most interesting part of the performance was her skirt!  Grazing her ankles, designed to float around her and show off the amazing pointe work in the performance, it was a bit of a shock to the Parisian audience.  It was also the first time that two icons of ballet dance - the tutu and the pointe shoe - were seen on the stage.

The Tutu Gains its Name

However, it wasn’t for another five decades that this new style of ballet skirt received the name that we all know today.  By then, the hemlines on the skirts had gone upwards from the ankle and the layers of tulle underskirts had increased to keep everything modest. 

There’s no clear record of who first used the term or where it came from.  Some people believe it is a slang term relating to the areas of the body that the skirt covers.  But others believe the name derives from those layers of tulle that become a core part of the design.

The Shorter Tutu

By the 1880s, the shorter classic style of the tutu was popular and was seen in all of the big performances such as Swan Lake and the Nutcracker.  The aim was to show off the complicated legwork that the dancers learned and allow them to move easily across the stage.

Tutus were soon worn for many different characters on the stage from princesses to fairies and from events such as weddings or grand balls.  The tutu would be 12-18 inches in length, supported by a hoop that allows it to move out horizontally from the hips.  There would be 12 or more layers or very stiff tulle sewn into the skirt.  The Paris standard was 13 layers.

Today we see the powderpuff style of the tutu with 8-10 layers while there are larger styles that are more of a bell shape and form a silhouette somewhere between the classical look and the romantic tutu style.

Benefits of Wearing a Tutu

While the tutu may have changed over time, the care and respect that dancers have for it and the part it plays in their performance hasn’t.  Caring for a tutu is an important part of the dancer’s role and they are often either hung upside down or stacked on the floor to stop gravity from making them droop!

While wardrobe malfunctions with a tutu are also still part of a dancer’s life, the benefits of these specialist outfits always outweigh the potential issues that can come up while wearing one.