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History of Ballet

From Behind the Mask
by Adrian Clarke, L.O.C.A.D. – Library of Costume and Design

Masks have been there from the beginning with Ballet, giving us such spectacular displays as the masquerade ball scene from, “Cinderella”. The use of masks evokes the notion of intrigue and mystery for it enabled ‘Romeo’ to meet his ‘Juliet’, the famed star crossed lovers to meet at that fated masked ball. They also help in the portrayal of transformation like for ‘Bottoms’ in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when he was turned into a donkey

The use of masks isn’t particularly unique to Ballet or to Western European Theatre for that matter. Masks are used in a myriad of ways in many cultural traditions around the world. What is unique with Ballet, is how masks were first used as an obligation and from which, what would emerge.

The obligation of wearing masks in the early ballets was inherited directly from the ‘Commedia dell’Arte’ at the French Court. However, even for the Commedia it was essentially an extension from a peculiar notion of ‘Egalitarianism’ that developed during the European Renaissance. It was believed through Anonymity one could experience freedom from the pressures of society’s expectations. This is pertinent as many of these ballets were performed by royalty, nobility and commoners alike. Together, they created dance spectacles rich in symbolism relevant to the culture of the day. From behind the mask, the many actors and dancers were afforded a freedom to assume any character from any class in society or a personification of a deity without any fear of consequence or reprimand.

To understand the reason behind the use of masks in these ballets is like to understand the layers of an onion. It was complex and subtle but in saying that, their purpose was essentially twofold. The first was as for the Commedia, they helped to give an idea of the character’s role. These are purported to have developed from the masks of the obscure ancient Roman ‘Atellan Farce’, a form of comic theatre that began around the third century before Christ. The masks of the Commedia developed over the generations of actors with them grew certain traditions that held steadfast. All the characters had their own recognisable masks and costumes, stock gestures and stage business which could be relied upon to guarantee to create a laugh and put the audience in tune for the entertainment to follow. Thus, in the course of time these were crystallised in each mask an entire code or vocabulary of repertory phrases that were appropriate for the role which could be memorised and made to fill in the blanks when the actor’s wit fails. It was primarily the male characters that wore the masks, each representing an aspect of Italian life as well as the political and economic landscape of the European Renaissance. Such roles required actors to make a serious study of their parts, and take pride in their achievements. They were willing to accept the discipline which all professional Arts demands. These comedians changed forever the standards of acting with the most gifted of them making the role completely their own.

For the early Ballets such as “The Queen’s Comic Dance” their designs would take on a similar semblance as those used in the Commedia, however, drawing upon more potent symbolism taken directly from the Classical Mythology of the ancient Romans and Greeks. They were further endowed with pertinent political, religious and social references to give them a more contemporary relevance for the intended audiences namely the ruling classes of France. After all Catherine de Médicis had Ballet created to be a propaganda machine.

The second, however, was from a far more abstract notion as embraced from the ancient Venetian Republic. It came from a peculiar custom concerning public festivities like the famed ‘Carnevale Maschere’ (Masked Carnival) of Venice. The Republic of Venice would have it that all participants at such public events were expected to wear masks. It was reasoned just by wearing masks, the barriers of class distinction that otherwise prevailed were suspended. This notion for the Venetians was not a new one or any way unusual as masks were an important element of the social and political landscape of their most serene republic since ancient times. The male members of the Patricians, the Venetian ruling class, were the only ones who had the right to participate in any election to any political office when made vacant. The electoral process was always by a secret ballot which was always conducted anonymously behind white masks called ‘Bautas’ and under black cloaks. Furthermore, it was by the then Venetian law that no retribution could be exacted against anyone who wore a mask. This was a useful point of law for the actors of the Commedia when they drew the ire of the authorities in Venice.

Masks were also useful for these actors elsewhere in Italy and abroad as they could never be recognised when they had to lose themselves in the crowds when the humour of their satire was to prove too cutting for the authorities to appreciate with soldiers sent to crash the performance. During such occasions it paid not to stand out. The again the spectacle of the lively cat and mouse between the actors and soldiers was often much to the delight and enjoyment of the crowds. This is perhaps what the young Catherine de Médicis also enjoyed watching from the balcony or window all those years before?

At the French Court, this customary practice of the mask was readily extrapolated into Ballet. For Catherine and other members of the Royal Family, it helped with the perplexing problem of how to mitigate the issues of social convention arising from the strict protocols regarding rank and file. The conundrum was as many professional performers were from the lower classes that had been afforded patronage from wealthy benefactors. This mingling of the classes was achieved with the aid of the mask which enabled any dancer who could have been an offspring of a cheese-maker to dance alongside the King and Queen of France. When otherwise it would unlikely such an individual by polite means would have been able to be seen inside the palace gates let alone the great halls. Did this, however, gave rise to the dangerous idea of Human Equality in the face of Absolute Monarchy? One can only speculate.

Furthermore, during the mid-16th Century, the idea of public anonymity would carry over into the many ‘Masques’ (masked balls) which were often open to those who were able to afford to attend which did include many ballets performed as part of these public events. This idea of egalitarianism would also manifest in ways that were often rich fodder for the wagging tongues of gossip mongers with the idea of ‘Dangeous Liaisons’ fomenting behind the fluttering of fans and the swish of a cape.

The many masks for the early ballets would evolve from the masks of the Carnevale imported from Venice and other Italian cities. For the Carnevale there were essentially a handful of designs that developed during the 17th and 18th Centuries. All of which have become very much associated with the famed festival. Each design is known by its own name and comes with rules of its use that has become entrenched in tradition. Each design would arise from particular episodes in history, from the Venetian political landscape, or new social trends that would embody the collective memory associated with such events. Some masks were engendered and class oriented in its use like as for the ‘Bauta’, which over time would later become worn by both genders and by those who were more of the upper middle classes. The ‘Bauta’, is a white mask that covers most of the face with it only allowing the chin to be free of any restriction, thus the wearer was able to speak. By then the custom was it to be worn with a short hooded black cape and tricorn hat as pictured, fig. 02.

Others that would develop, include the ‘Moretta’ (Dark Lady) or ‘La Servetta Muta’ (The Mute Female Servant) which is a simple round black mask that barely covers the face of the wearer which was obviously a woman. It appears that it developed from the ‘Visard’ mask that was used by travelling ladies to help protect their skin from sunburn. In Venice, these were associated with a particular class of noblewomen. It would eventually lose favour with it nowadays appearing mainly as a novelty rather than a traditional design. This is due to the awkward manner of its use. It is held in place by a mouth bit, which explains why it has no mouth opening.

The ‘Medico della Peste’ (Plague Doctor), with its long beak protruding developed as a result of the ‘Black Plague’, thus emulating the protective masks as worn by the doctors treating the many victims. Despite its ominous appearance, the Commedia and revellers of Carnevale were able to find some sense of humorous irony in the midst of tragedy arising from one of the darkest episodes of European history.

The ‘Volto’, a full-faced mask encompassing the chin, the cheeks and forehead comes complete with eye holes. It is the most popular of the masks across the spectrum of Venetian society, it is also known as the “Citizen Mask”. The design is of a simple, somewhat stoic expression complete with nose and closed lips. By tradition, it is a plain alabaster white mask which has earned it the name of ‘Larva’, Latin for ‘Ghost’. Worn with a black tricorn and a full length cape covering the whole body of the wearer, thus whoever was to greet the wearer would basically see a white face appearing before them as if without a body in the dim light of twilight. Such similarly costumed figures appear in Cranko’s ballet, “The Taming of the Shrew” as lantern bearers. Nowadays, the ‘Volto’ mask is often colourful with two or three colours on one mask embellished gold detailing of florid motifs complete with beads, and crystals sometimes topped with a splay of feathers, flowers or fabric to be complemented by an equally elaborate costume of rich and lavish design.

There are other mask styles, with most of which have been borrowed directly from the ‘Commedia’. The two main variations of these are known as ‘Pante’ as from the character ‘Pantalone’, one who wears pants, and ‘Zanni’ both furnished with their own version of a long beak nose.

All of these masks would appear in ballets at one time or another along with those specially created for these ballets. Today, the idea of wearing masks is so alien and for some designs they appear downright scary. This however is irrelevant to us as for those in the 17th and 18th Centuries they were imbued with elements of social and political potency.

The original masks of the Commedia and Carnevale were made from various materials. Wood with cypress being the most favoured, copper or brass, and liken to those of Greek and Roman antiquity. Later, porcelain, and even glass were used which the Venetians been long since famous for the production of. Even papier-mâché was used in order to keep with increasing demands for masks. However, most convenient for Ballet, leather had become the most preferred used material in the production of masks. These started originally as simple, natural leather or plain all black or white designs. Over time the masks would become entrenched in their respective traditions with those for the Commedia with its stock characters, then those for Carnevale would acquire more decorative embellishments thus becoming the familiar elaborate creations that it is known for often complete with gold gilt detailing. Regardless of this diversion between the two, Ballet was to draw from the two traditions well into the 20th Century.

During the height of the popularity of Carnevale, mask makers were to enjoy the respect born out of public reverence that would have them enjoy a special legal status within Venetian society. With this they established a guild that issued strict rules in regards to the manufacture of masks and for those apprenticed to the craft. They would become regarded as ‘Artisans’ as opposed to ‘Tradesmen’ thus rising to a level of respect and celebrity that was originally once reserved for famed artists of the stage, literature and painting. With to the steady flow of exchange in artists between Italy and France, many of these artisans would make their way to the French Court where many of their masks would find their way into Ballet.

What is interesting, during the late 17th Century in France with the rise of the ‘Comédie-Française’, a new mask design of a simple black half- face mask would come to the fore and is very much used in many ballets today. It is what is called a “Soubrette”, meaning “Coy” in French, or “Pierette” as it was worn by the named female character being one of the French personifications of ‘Columbina’, which by the way is the other name for the mask. This style of mask was particularly made famous by the French actress of the Comédie, Mademoiselle Clarion. Its origin is debated with many assert that it is Italian, when many say it is French due to its association with that of Clarion, when others assert it is purely a 19th Century creation born out of the popular theatre of the pantomimes and harlequinades. The third assertion does fall flat as there are several lithographs and paintings from the late 17th and 18th Centuries depicting female actors of the Commedia and Comédie-Française along with those of revellers at Carnevale wearing such masks. This confusion can be forgiven as by the 19th Century it was worn by both men and women alike in the popular stage shows of the Music Halls. It is also a recognisable feature of the costumes worn by the ‘Harlequin’ and ‘Columbine’ dolls from “The Nutcracker”. Nowadays, this style is made from a myriad of textiles including rubber. Sometimes there is a subtle distinction between the intended genders by the eye holes being more rounded for the female version. It can be plain in black or trimmed in gold or silver or completely gilded embellished with beads, crystals and sequins often topped with feathers of various types. Either it is secured to the face by ties or a strap or is held as fastened to a short stick to be used as a handle by the wearer.

Most importantly the masks for Ballet came with a gift, one of the ‘Language of Gestures’ that we know today as ‘Mime’. It is one of the most unique gifts that the Commedia gave not only to Ballet but to Theatre as a whole. From the established custom of wearing masks, Mime has prevailed upon Ballet since following that famed night with the performance of the “Queen’s Comic Dance” in 1581. With each new era adding a new nuance to the language, the vocabulary would develop and evolve over the generations of dancers.

Initially it was used within the Commedia as an extension, a visual flourish to help reinforce what was being said by the comic actors. Slowly, over time, the gestures were refined as such that their meaning was clear in the action and thus required little or no added verbal explanation. With the early ballets, this did prove useful with it only helped along with use of poetic prose and the ambience of music, thus allowed those performing to focus on the technique of dance and mime without the added burden of trying to be heard over the music.

Many gestures would develop in a variety ways with some to become associated with a particular form of theatre or social forum. The latter is particularly the case with some of those incorporated into Ballet during the late 17th and 18th Centuries, were taken directly from the not-so-secret romantic ‘Language of the Fan’. This codified practice involving the fan was used by young ladies to communicate with their suitors when under the watchful guard of their chaperones. With theatre forever serving as the mirror of contemporary society would emulate this on stage.

Mime continued to flourish in ballets long after when the custom of the mask was finally abandoned by the bastion of Ballet, the Paris Opéra in the 1780s. This was precipitated by Auguste Vestris, who of a famed dancing family, was asked to perform when his father, Gaetano, had become too ill to dance. Auguste agreed only on the proviso that he did so without wearing the obligatory mask so it would be known to the audience that it he who was dancing instead of his famous father. The administrators desperate for the production to be performed agreed and Ballet was changed forever.

By the Romantic era of the 19th Century the majority of the vocabulary contained within had become set in tradition and was only re-interpreted for the new audiences of the day. The early 19th Century was the height of its use and was seen as an essential part of Ballet’s drama; an integral part of any theme or story being played out on the stage with the added ambience of the music to help heighten the experience.

The ballet “Giselle’” (1841) is one particular production that has mime as an integral part of its storytelling, particularly in the first act. The gestures are instrumental to its choreography, that to omit them is to render the poetic qualities of the production impotent. These include those used in the famous prelude to the pas de deux when the young lovers, prince incognito, Albrecht and Giselle, mimic the action of plucking the petals off a daisy. A traditional game of ‘Loves Me, Loves Me Not’ that young lovers are known to play to be followed with Albrecht raising his hand above his head with two index fingers together upright in order to declare an oath of love. Then there’s the gentle rolling of the hands by Giselle as they are raised above her head, to open into a port de bras as to mean, “Let’s Dance”; Berthe, Giselle’s mother, crossing her arms at the wrists inferring impending doom; Hilarion with his hands over his heart expressing his love for Giselle; then there’s Bathilde, Albrecht’s fiancée, pointing to her wedding finger as to signify her betrothal to Albrecht to be later echoed in gesture by him in confirmation thus exposing his betrayal of Giselle which ultimately resulted in the suicide of Giselle. There are myriads of other more subtle gestures in “Giselle” that no wonder it is often referred to as a ‘Ballet-Mime’

Unfortunately, this practice would lapse during the 20th Century with it only used when some of the great classics were performed and even then, many versions had them simply omitted. In recent times there have been something of a revival in the use of mime, but on the whole most choreographers tend to regard mime as an obsolete practice that long since passed into history. Therefore, it is only in the great classics of the Romantic era like “Giselle” and “La Sylphide” do these elegant gestures continue to be seen. It is through their practice, we are reminded of the connection and debt that Ballet has to the Commedia.

This article incorporates text derived or information sourced from the following:                       “Encyclopaedia Britannica”

“Commedia Dell’Arte: A Handbook for Troupes”, John Rudin, Olly Crick
ISBN: 0415204089, Taylor & Francis Ltd., Routledge, 2001

“The History of Harlequin”, Cyril W. Beaumont, 1926
ISBN: 1906830681, The Noverre Press, 2014

“Mime, Music and Drama on the Eighteenth-Century Stage”, ‘The Ballet d’Action’, Edward Nye
ISBN: 978-1-107-00549-5, Cambridge University Press, 2011 

“Parisian Music-Hall Ballet, 1871-1913”, Sarah Gutsche-Miller
ISBN: 978-1-58046-442-0, University of Rochester, 2015

“The Magic of Dance”, Margot Fonteyn
ISBN: 0-563-17645-8, BBC, 1980.

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice, Italy

Uffizi Gallery Museum, Florence, Italy


Fig. 01
– Laura Hidalgo as ‘Titania’ and Rian Thompson as ‘Bottoms’ in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Queensland Ballet. Photography: David Kelly
Fig. 02
– “Nobili in Maschera” (Nobles in Mask) Lithograph of water colour by Giovanni Grevembroch, c. late 18th Century.
Fig. 03
– Detail of a painting, “La Moretta” by Felice Boscaratti, c. late 18th Century.
Fig. 04
– Stock image of a contemporary ‘Volto’ mask.
Fig. 05
– Detail of painting, “Carnival in Venice” by Felice Boscaratti, c. late 18th Century.
Fig. 06
– Illustration of mime action for ‘Let’s Dance’.

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Positioned by Fashion
by Adrian Clarke, L.O.C.A.D. – Library of Costume and Design

Imagine if fashion determined a whole new dance style? Well, this is how Ballet began and how the many of the basic steps performed as part of everyday class by dancers were born. Not purely from the pursuit of physical or artistic expression but also from the practical necessity of moving elegantly and practically. From wearing those marvellous creations of Court Dress was born Ballet’s love of the turnout.

From the various ‘Court Dances’ of the latter half of the 15th Century came the earliest vocabulary of steps. These ‘steps’ in turn would form the building blocks for future more elaborate court dances and court ballets with the vocabulary continued to be expanded upon. Meanwhile at the heart, was the symbiotic relationship between Dress and Dance only to become further intertwined as time progressed. Sometimes as such it was unclear which was the greater in the influence.

The grand balls at the Italian and French Courts were particularly rich fertile grounds for the ‘Art of Dance’. This was expedited by how the court dances not only increased in variety, but also in the complexities of how they were to be performed. So ‘Dancing’ became no easy ‘Accomplishment’ for any enthusiastic courtier. This would have courtiers with the means to employ ‘Dance Tutors’ for themselves, and their children, ensuring that they were kept up to date with the latest dances and techniques.
Fig. 01

“Cassone Adimari” by Scheggia (Splinter) c. 1450

We get an idea of this from the few tutors who would attempt to document the ‘Art of Dance’. One of the earliest of these would be by an Italian dance master by the name of Domenico da Piacenza (Dominic from Piacenza). Dated circa 1455, it is surmised he wrote his eloquently written “De arte saltandi et choreas ducendi” (On the Art of Dancing and Choreography) at the height of his career as dance master at one of the Courts of the ruling d’Este family in Ferrara. Within this manual of 21 chapters, he summarised in exacting detail various court dances with many of them of his own choreographic composition accompanied by his own music supported with a list of twelve basic steps complete with definition and description of technique. It also included such aspects about timing and “contra tempo”.

One of Domenico’s noted pupils, Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro (William Hebrew from Pesaro; the term ‘Hebrew’ is in reference to his Jewish heritage) also wrote a manual on the subject matter. His intricately illustrated “De pratica seu arte tripudii vulgare opusculum” (On the practice or the art of dancing) was an undertaking that took the diligent pupil thirty years to complete with its publication in 1463. He presented it to Galeazzo Maria Sforza who would later become the Duke of Milan in 1466. Sometime after this, Guglielmo would become a Christian and his godparents would be none other than their graces, Duke and Duchess of Milan themselves. He would then go on to write another treatise under his Christian name of Giovanni Ambrosio. In all his writings he would write in reverential regard of his teacher and dance master, Domenico da Piacenza, often describing himself as a humble imitator.

The other noted pupil of Domenico was Antonio Cornazano, a humanist and poet. He was the author of a fourth important treatise, “Libro sull’arte della danzare” (Book on the Art of Dancing) included 11 dances by Domenico da Piacenza and three tenor melodies for the ‘Bassa Danza’. It was presented as a gift to the daughter of the Duke of Milan, Ippolita Maria Sforza, upon her marriage to Alfonso, the Duke of Calabria in 1465, who later would become King Alfonso II of Naples.

The interesting thing about these named books is their titles. The first two are in Latin. Remember that in Latin there are specific terms for various forms of Dance. Domenico use of the verb is from ‘Saltare’ which is a secular notion of dance but it is still referred in conjunction with the idea of it as an ‘Art’. Guglielmo, however, uses the Latin verb, ‘Tripudiare’ which is a notion of a religious rite but this is compromised by the added use of ‘Vulgare’, obvious meaning ‘vulgar’ as if it was a profane act as oppose to a spiritual one. Was he inferring that there was something ‘devilish’ in dance? Yet in the book, he writes of dance and his dance master with reverence and due respect of the ‘Art’. However, the third named book by Cornazano is in the Italian of the day. He writes of the art in a more matter of fact manner making it readily accessible to the reader in the common language of his native Italy using the Italian verb, ‘Danzare’. What makes this the more intriguing; none of them uses the verb ‘Ballere’ which both terms of ‘Ball’ and ‘Ballet’ are derived. Clearly for these masters, dancing was strictly in the realm of the ‘Art of the Social Graces’ not a theatrical one. The notion of Dance as a performance art would develop sometime later, and particularly in the city of Milan due to the patronage of the ruling family, the Sforzas.

In spite of the slight differing takes on Dance, these particularly mentioned dance books would serve as models for all future ‘dance manuals’. Many of these would vary according to where they were developed in the description of technique and use of terms. Although with the exchange of ideas and techniques among the travelling dance masters from various European Courts would further the cause in such writings. They recognised the need for Dance to be documented and understood as an intellectual pursuit as well as physical one. Therefore slowly over time, an eventual common form of ‘Dance Technique’ would develop thus enabling an even more rapid dissemination of Dance as an ‘Art’ throughout Italy and Western Europe. The popularity of such manuals be it on the subject of dancing or a myriad other subjects such as art, music, philosophy would come to form the basis in the education of the elite during much of the Renaissance era. However in regards to Dance, a universal documented form of technique complete with a specified notation wasn’t realised until the late 17th Century in spite of earlier attempts.

Many of these manuals would describe Dance as an experience of noble pursuit and viewed as integral to the nature of a greater whole personified in the ‘Civilise Being’ along with the trappings of elegant attire. Some would even devote some text describing how best to be dressed for the experience and how dress must enhance the posture and carriage of the body. The illustrations in these manuals helped further the idea of how one must appear similar to how many modern day lifestyle magazines do today.

Fig. 02

Retable of St. John the BaptistWith all this, clearly gives evidence that ‘Court Dress’ had great impetus into the technique required for the practice of ‘Court Dance’. This perhaps is worth to reiterate the description of the basic execution of the ‘Tendu’. As previously explained, it was a movement developed particularly for ladies at court with their long skirts and later the hooped ‘Spanish’ farthingales, as pictured. What seemed to be a simple action of stepping forward was sometimes wrought with a degree of danger in tripping on the skirt’s hem or the bottom most hoop of the farthingale. The idea behind the ‘tendu’ was to lift the hem or hoop clear of the foot just by maintaining continued contact with the floor by sliding the foot forward, extending the leg with it finally only touching the floor with its toes when the foot was pointed. By doing so this ensured the lady of an elegant means of stepping forward without the embarrassment of falling flat on one’s face in the presence of her most Royal Host and other courtiers.

As the century wore on entering the 16th Century, the demand of technique would only intensify in order to accommodate new fashion trends. Furthermore, the new dance spectacles of the ‘Balletti’ were beginning to be seen at many European courts adding further demands in tecnique.

This brings us now to another particular Italian dance master, Cesare Negri, for some unknown reason was called “The Trombone”, who would later come to prominence. Born in Milan, 1536, there are several documented accounts of his exploits as he was well travelled and appeared at the many grand courts of Europe. As a Milanese, he clearly embraced the various established performance traditions of Milan, especially that of the ‘Spectaculi’. How could he not for Milan was very much at the forefront in such pursuits of the Arts, particularly that of Dance.

Negri’s reputation would increase as did his status in becoming something of a celebrity by way of a famed dancing virtuoso and choreographer within the exclusive world of courtiers. Furthermore, wherever, he was very demanding of whoever he taught regardless of their status. This was often to their ire but they endured his ego for he was the ‘Maestro’. This had to do with his very exacting views of how each step was to be performed complete in the manner of carriage and dress. This included how the feet were positioned and ‘turned out’ liken to modern day techniques. He had them performing almost to the same level we expect of professional dancers mastering ten different kinds of pirouettes. This perhaps explains the reason behind his nickname along with his reputation for name dropping, meaning, “Blowing One’s Horn”.

The reason behind for bringing attention to the exploits of Negri and his contemporaries is due to their efforts in raising the status of Dance as a profession as well as an art. Through them, Dance became more than a series of elegant poses and steps up and down the grand halls. It now had names of dances that gave clear references to specific complex choreographies. The development of a vocabulary of terms that would became a whole new language of Dance.

Fig. 03
Negri had very strong opinions in regards to the qualities of dance and was not afraid to express them. This was of course included all aspects of how one was dressed for the practise. This perhaps can help explain his obsession with the turn out. Its use complimented the aesthetic of the human form even though it was not natural to it. By turning out the leg from the hip enabled the muscular line of the male legs to be better appreciated which most body builders today well understand. Furthermore, this also helps make one appreciate the vanity behind the use of tights as 16th and 17th Males were obsessed with the size of their calves. This would only help drive the creation of poses that best achieve this display of ‘Maleness’.

Negri is attributed with the earliest attempt in the establishment of the positions of the feet. There appear to have been five positions but some of his contemporaries would subtract or add to these. For example, what we know as 3rd and 5th positions would be taught by some as the one and the same. The amount of ‘crossover’ was at the discretion of the dancer and more the crossover was a measure of the dancer’s ability. Others would rearrange and create new positions, combining parallel and perpendicular positions increasing the number of positions to seven or eight. The debate surrounding what were the positions of the feet would continue for some time.

Regardless, thanks to the likes of Cesare Negri, Fabritio Caroso and Pompeo Diobono the basic notion of dance as a profession has been achieved though be it by the gracious consent of their masters. All of these Italian dance masters found their way to the French Court and brought with them the already established Milanese tradition of court entertainment. Following in their footsteps was none other Baltazarini de Belgioioso with a group of violinists invited by the French Marshal in 1555. Belgioioso, a competent dancer as well as a violinist, would gain favour from Catherine de Médicis and would remain at the French Court. Beaujoyeulx, as he later became known in France, would absorb the Milanese tradition with the theories espoused by the Académie de Musique et Poésie (Academy of Music and Poetry) established in 1570 by permission of King Charles IX with encouraged support from Catherine, the Dowager Queen. These theories aimed to combine music, verse and dance as part of a greater artistic expression, including aspects of social manners and etiquette. This was essential in regards what to come a few years later from Beaujoyeulx with his greatest singular achievement in the first true ballet, “Le Balet Comique de la Royne” (The Queen’s Comic Dance) in 1581. All this was made possible with elements in Court Dance, performance skills from the Commedia dell’Arte and the steady flow of new techniques from Italy.

The first attempt of clarification of these along with other aspects was a book written as a historical retrospective on Dance by a French priest, Thoinot Arbeau, called, “Orchésographie” in 1588 but published in the following year. The book was written as liken to a script, a conversation between an aging Dance Master and a student. It outline detailed principles that would form the basis of the five fundamental positions of the feet for Dance and ultimately for Classical Ballet.

Negri would also go on to write a dance book himself in 1602 called “Le Gratie d’Amore” (The Graces of Love) and would be reprinted in 1604. The term ‘Graces’, is to infer a connection to the three deities from Classical Greek mythology. There were many sculptures and paintings depicting the ‘Graces’ with one of the most famous being in the painting, “Primavera” (Spring) by Sandro Boticelli in c. 1482, as pictured. Each represented a quality that was attributed to any human pursuit, particularly to that of music and dance. They were mostly known as Aglaia (Splendour), Euphrosyne (Joy) and Thalia (Gaiety or Festivity). This was a clear reference to the notion of how Dance was espoused as a means of artistic expression and a total experience for mind, body and soul. So following this train of thought, one could have the title translated as “For the Love of the Graces”.

The point is that it was from the formality of Negri’s technique and his contemporaries would have dance through their efforts come with a degree of expectations and a level of commitment that evoked a sense of vocation, a profession; a shift in attitudes. For the likes of Arbeau, Beauchamp, Feuillet, Rameau could not have developed their enduring influential works if wasn’t for Negri. Furthermore, nor Beaujoyeulx could have created the ‘First Ballet’. Negri was instrumental.

How is all this relevant to Ballet? Answer is everything and nothing. The paradox lies with an inevitable shift, well more of a redefinition of Dance at the French Court by way of establishment of differing levels in its pursuit. This did have a lot to do with how it was performed, by whom, and the nature of its performance, predominantly either as ‘Court Dance’ or ‘Court Entertainment’. This did come as a breath of fresh air for the professional dancers. Finally they would begin to have an input into how they were dressed. This was a direct result of the rise of Ballet as a performance art thanks to Catherine de Médicis and later to the future Bourbon Kings of France. However, ‘Court Dress’ wasn’t going to let go of its grip on Dance that readily, well not yet.

‘Court Dance’, however, continued to be compelled to accommodate the new fashion trends. These by the late 1500s would include the high necked collars called, “Ruffs” with their ever expanding circumference accompanied by billowing sleeves. Men wore “Trunk Hosen”, balloon like shorts. There was the new ‘French or Cartwheel Farthingale’ with its expanded dimension liken to a wagon wheel laid horizontal around the ladies’ waist. These fashion elements would render placing of the arms at the sides impossible. So it was required to arrange their arms in a variety of elegant positions. This resulted in one of the most lasting traditions of Ballet technique. It is what is known as the ‘Carriage or Breathing of the Arms’, or in ballet terms, “Port de Bras”.

It is pertinent to draw attention to the rigid fit of ‘Court Dress’ for both Lords and Ladies alike. It limited movement of the arms and the manner how the torso was held. The corset now had the ladies particularly in rigid poise. For the gentlemen wore a rigidly padded ‘Doublets’ often with a small pronounce belly like protrusion called a “peascod”. It too had the lords always appearing in an upright stance. The relaxed curvature of the torso was not to be tolerated. The chest or bossom was to protrude overtly with shoulders back as if a peacock. This manner of carriage was well demonstrated in the court dance of the ‘Pavane’. This slow formal dance was specifically created for this purpose as inferred by the meaning behind the word was this named bird of paradise. Danced to a timely measure, they ‘strutted’ their stuff with all the elegant arrogance and conceit one could muster. The ‘Pavane’ is a perfect example of this marriage between Dance and Dress. It was all about the precision of execution in technique, presentation in dress complete with an air of perceived nobility that was deemed necessary in the achievement of an ‘Accomplished Civilise Being’.

Following 1581, you would be forgiven to think with Ballet acquiring its status as a performance art that ‘Dance’ and ‘Dress’ would go their separate ways. Well sorry to disappoint, it didn’t happen. At the French Court, Ballet would continue to be performed by members of the Royal Family, the Nobility alongside professional artists. Therefore, it was still bound by the conventions surrounding the French Court and when at Court you were expected to follow them. In fact, the convention of Court Dress would remain as a dominant influence well into the 18th Century. This imposed bond to ‘Dress’ can be understood by how artists employed at Court were listed as part of the ‘Écurie’, which literally means ‘Stable’. This does make one view the ‘Pas de Cheval’ (Horse Step) in a new light.

Costume wise, what happened was intriguing. A particular type of costume was developed and it was specifically created for Ballet but it was only worn by male dancers. It appeared at the turn of the 17th Century and would develop and become very much entrenched as part of Ballet over the course of the next 150 years. This is what would become known as the ‘Tonnelet’, a name that takes delight in its epicurial connection to fine dining at lavish banquets where ballets were regular performed as part of Court Entertainment. Its story is another one and best to save for a future edition.

As the 17th Century progressed, gowns would be made in lighter fabrics such as the new silks imported from India and other parts of the Orient. The ruffs were to disappear in favour of wider necklines and flatter collar styles with sleeves to lose their size, often more fitting or falling into folds and small puffs. More importantly, the familiar Farthingales would also lose favour giving way to layered petticoats. This new style however did cause a new set of challenges for the ladies. As there was no hoops holding the skirts away from the legs this did have swathes of fabric falling into the legs when moving. This would make walking difficult, let alone dancing. Despite various techniques employed by dressmakers in the construction of the skirts and petticoats which did help, but the problem persisted. This did have many ladies resort to the unflattering practice of the ‘petti kick’ to ensure that they wouldn’t be tripped over by their petticoats. What made this situation worst was that many would have their gowns furnished with a train as it was the rising vogue. With more length in the skirt at the back did bring more added concerns for the wearer. Now with the new livelier dances combined with the new vogue it was evident new dance techniques and dress codes were needed.

Although the practice of the technique of keeping continued contact with the floor known as “à terre” was well established by the 17th Century. This was also true in the use of the turn out as well, be it not at the degree of today. What would transpire though from the known practises would only further be expanded into an evolving vocabulary of movements for Dance and Ballet.

For example, the ‘petti kick’ would become the ‘glissé’ meaning ‘to slip or slide’, this was in reference to have the foot slip or slide out from under the hems of the petticoats.

Then there was the ‘turn out’ which was essentially developed to help pander to the male ego, would help in the development of a more elegant technique for ladies as well. When walking in the more natural parallel manner it was discovered how the legs would quickly be enveloped in the volume of fabric in the layers of petticoats. This was even more noticeable when one would try and lift a leg. What would develop is a stylised walk that many dancers perform today now known as “la promenade” as to infer an elegant walk, originally it was “la marche du cygne” (the swan walk). The purpose of the swan walk was two-fold, to clear the way and a means of stepping forward or sideways. In a way it was a reinvention of the ‘tendu’. This was achieved by maintaining a turn out from the hip, raise one foot by bending the leg until the sole of the foot is parallel to the supporting leg at the ankle with foot pointed and the toe of the shoe touching the floor. By doing this help to lift the weight of the layers away from the pointed foot. While maintaining contact with the floor or just off with the leg still turned out unfold the leg in the desired direction with the foot pointed; then step by placing the foot down bringing the heel forward ensuring the continued turn out of the leg when transferring the centre of weight from the supporting leg; when have completed the step, have the other leg brought in ready in the same position of bended knee and raised heel at ankle ready for the next step. Male courtiers would later adopt this technique following the introduction of the long jackets of the late 17th Century.

Another was the awkward swish that helped clear the falling layers around the ankles became the ‘ronde de jambe’ (rounding of the leg) ensuring clearance for an elegant means of stepping in the desired direction.

Then there was the ‘En Cloche’ (Bell like) move. As per most Medieval and Renaissance court dances, the body was expected to be always kept upright. However, many of the new dances required legs to be lifted often to the shocking height of a 45 degree angle. This was difficult due to the rigidity of court dress particularly for ladies with their corsets and the layers of petticoats under their skirts. However by a gentle tilt of the body in the opposite direction to the raised leg, this was achievable.

It was about this time the earliest examples of a ‘Ball Gown’ were to appear as a result of these new dances needing to be accommodated. For noblewomen this would have ‘Court Dress’ evolve into three distinct gowns, Robe de Cour (Court Dress) for the daily appearances at Court; Robe de Bal (Ball Gown) specifically for purpose of dancing at a Ball at Court; Robe d’État (State Dress) for ceremonial occasions at Court such as the presentation of the Monarch after Coronation or the start of the season at the French Court.

Fig. 05
These distinctions were inevitable as the idea of performing a court dance in a gown furnished with a train did proved difficult for most. In saying that, there were occasions that it was expected to do just that thus giving rise to the term of ‘arrondir’ which means ‘the rounding of’, the term is still in use in Ballet today, but more to do with the arms. The use of ‘arrondir’ in this case is specific to the ‘Promenade’, a particular Court Dance was only performed for very grand ceremonial occasions; an already some centuries old tradition of the French Court by the 17th Century.

In essence, it was a ritualistic choreographed procession, an ostentatious display of aristocratic splendour commonly known as the ‘Pageant of the Peers or Nobles’. Young noble ladies presented at Court for the first time also performed in a promenade usually at the start of the season. Over the course of the latter half of the 17th Century, these ‘Promenades’ would only become grander and the trains longer.

To be successful in execution of the ‘arrondir’ in this sense was to be sure that the train was trailing behind at all times, particularly when it was required to return to where one has come from as simply stepping backwards clearly wasn’t an option. When performing the ‘Promenade’ positioning was everything, namely always forward of the train. The notion of ‘rounding’ was as if in a circle, with her escort had to be sure he was always on the inside of his companion. So if turning left, he was to be at her left and vice versa if turning right. Otherwise, he would be forever getting in the way. The ‘arrondir’ is similar to the equestrian practice of ‘Longeing’ or ‘Lungeing’ where a horse is asked to perform going round in circles at the end of a long line, responding to commands from a handler on the ground at the circle’s centre holding the other end of the line. So in this context the lady is the horse and is guided by the hand of her escort always going around him in a forward motion. If a lady was to turn on her own, she must do so in a circular motion with the end of the train at the centre of the circle ensuring that she would not be entangled. This technique was also used when wearing long capes as it was the case in many early ballets along with the countless processions and carousels. Furthermore, most ballets today tend to have the male dancers on inside of their female counterparts when performing in circular formations, an evident influence from the ‘arrondir’.

In 1654, when a young man of the age 15 years was crowned as King Louis XIV, little did the French courtiers know what was installed for them. As a political ploy, he would commission new court dances to be choreographed. Not just for his coronation but regularly, often to the distress of his courtiers who were expected to keep up with the latest dance moves. This would also create a new aesthetic in the performance and presentation of dance culminating in what would become known as the “Noble Danse” (Noble Dance). This was a creation born from Louis’ developing vision for France and the manner of his Court. Following the death of his First Consul, Cardinal Mazarin, now 22, Louis would exercise his divine right as the absolute authority and have the French Court totally restructured ensuring that he was at its centre. He had the Court re-dressed in a new fashion reflecting its new found modernity. In the same year, he established the Académie Royale de Danse (Royal Academy of Dance). He loved dancing himself. Under Louis, all that had preceded him combined with the new dances he had created, Dance would reach a pinnacle never before seen and not since replicated.

This new aesthetic was reflective of a developing artistic expression arising predominantly within the visual arts and architecture. Louis would grow with this artistic movement nurturing it to full flowering beauty. This was of course the ‘Baroque’ era. The time of Louis’ reign (1643 – crowned 1654 – 1715) would serve as the period of transition from the remnants of Renaissance ‘Mannerism’ to the Baroque ‘Flourishes’ but it was also one of a stark contrast between his political will and his intellectual and artistic pursuits. Regardless of this paradox, the Baroque style was important to French Ballet in ways that will need to be explained another day. However, this was also important to the ‘Noble Danse’, particularly musically. The complexities of the new dances correlate directly with the new musical style of this era which for music began as early as the 1580s. Because of this, Louis would seek means to have this formalised and made clear for his own sake as well as for all within the French Court. This would help explain why Louis would establish the Académie Royale de Danse for this very purpose with the hope of furthering the cause for creating a clear definitive approach in dance according to his vision of the art.

Fig. 06
Sometime not long after this, Louis would appoint Pierre Beauchamp to create a system of teaching and cataloguing of the various court dances, particularly those of the new ‘Noble Danse’. The idea was to ensure that it was Louis’ vision for dance was to spread and serve as the basis of dance instruction within and out of the French Court. Starting with the myriad of steps known to exist at the time and all previous documentation, Beauchamp achieved this by stripping back the layers of tradition that had evolved over the near two centuries. He identified them in accordance to their perceived origins and technique, sometimes according to their engendered use.
After he compiled all he could, he would then develop a new form of notation to document all these steps giving them their own specific symbolic reference liken to the notes of a music manuscript. Beauchamp’s notation created a new means of dissemination in a new language of French Dance. However it was never published, it was only ever used by his pupils within the confines of the Royal Academy of Dance and later at the Académie Royale de Musique (Royal Academy of Music), otherwise known as the Paris Opéra.

It would be one of his pupils, Raoul Feuillet, who would author of one of the earliest publication of dance notation based on the Beauchamp system. Not only did it spread within France but beyond its borders across Europe like wild fire. By default, this would usurpe Italy’s influence and put France at the centre of European dance culture with Louis XIV at the very heart of it.

Fig. 07

The Five Positions of the Feet by Rameau

The influence of these books would continue for many decades following with their various translations. The Beauchamp-Feuillet system would be reviewed by Pierre Rameau in 1725. This publication most dance history buffs are familiar with. All this was made possible by what Beauchamp produced and it was imperative to the foundation of Ballet as we know it today. At its core, what we know as the ‘Five Positions of the Feet’. The manner of their placement clearly demonstrates the influence of dress had across the generations of those artists, courtiers and dance masters before him who danced in the great halls of the French Court.

So when practising, look into the mirror and just try to imagine what it was like way back when in the hope giving greater inspiration and motivation behind those beautiful tendus and port de bras.

This article incorporates text derived or information sourced from the following:          “Encyclopaedia Britannica”

“Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani”

“Fifteenth-Century Dance and Music” Volume One: Treatises and Music, A. William Smith
 ISBN: 0945193254, Pendragon Press, 1995

“The Dancing Master”, Pierre Rameau
Translation: Cyril W. Beaumont, 1931
ISBN: 1852730927, Dance Books Ltd., 2003

“DE PRATICA SEU ARTE TRIPUDII: On the Practice or Art of Dancing”, Guglielmo Ebreo
Edited/ Translation: Barbara Sparti, Michael Sullivan (Translation)
ISBN: 0198165749, Clarendon Press, 1995  

“The Violin and Viola: History, Structure, Techniques”, Sheila M. Nelson
ISBN: 0486428532, Dover Publications, 2003

“International Encyclopedia of Dance”, Selma Jeanne Cohen and Dance Perspectives Foundation
DOI: 10.1093/acref/9780195173697.001.0001, Oxford University Press, Online Pub. 2005

“Le Gratie d’Amore 1602 by Cesare Negri: Translation and Commentary”
Translation: Gustavia Yvonne Kendall, PhD Thesis, 2 volumes, Stanford University, 1985 

“Dance, Spectacle, and the Body Politick: 1250-1750”, edited: Jennifer Nevile
ISBN: 978-0-253-21985-5, Indiana University Press, 2008  

 “The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet”, Horst Koegler
 ISBN: 0193113309, Oxford University Press; 2nd Edition, 14 October, 1982.

“The Magic of Dance”, Margot Fonteyn
ISBN: 0-563-17645-8, BBC, 1980.

National Library of Australia, Canberra

Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Library of Congress, Washington D.C., United States


Fig. 01
– “Cassone Adimari”, by Scheggia (Splinter), Galleria dell'Accademia, Firenze, Italy.
Fig. 02
– Detail from the painting, “Retable of St. John the Baptist” by.Pedro García de Benabarre c.1480. Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain.
Fig. 03
– Portrait plate of Cesare Negri from, “Le Gratie d’Amore” by Cesare Negri, reprint 1604.
Fig. 04
– Detail from the painting, “Primavera” (Spring) by Sandro Boticelli, c. 1482. The Ufizzi Gallery Museum, Florence, Italy.
Fig. 05
– Lithograph of French Baroque Court Ladies by Henrick Keller. Frankfurt, Germany. 1889.
Fig. 06
– Detail from a Plate, “The Art of Dancing Explained”, by Kellom Tomlinson, London, England, 1735.
Fig. 07
– Plates of the Five Positions of the Feet from “Le Maître à Danser” by Pierre Rameau, 1725

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Ballet and the Renaissance Man
by Adrian Clarke, L.O.C.A.D. – Library of Costume and Design

Let us embark on a journey through the history of Ballet but not how it was danced but how it was dressed. Why? It is important to understand that Ballet has evolved in symbiosis with its costumes over the course of the past five centuries. The impact of ‘Costume’ on ‘Dance’ and vice versa has been both intriguing and beguiling. From it came a combination of the many aspects including social convention, practicality and the prevailing aesthetics of the day. Ballet would evolve and continues to do so in a way rendering it unique among the performance arts.

In order to begin this journey, one must first understand the culture of the day all those centuries ago in Europe at the time of its birth. As already explained previously, Ballet was born from two worlds. It is the world of the Royals and nobles that is the focus of this article. It was in the opulent surroundings within the Grand Palaces the very notion of Ballet would be realised. Ballet would come to embody the very idea of a ‘Cultured, Civilise Noble Being’. This was an ideal developing out from the new social awakening of the ‘Renaissance Era’ that would envelope Western Europe for two centuries. During this ‘Flowering of Learning’ was revived the many ancient Greek and Roman teachings regarding ‘Humanity and Civilisation’. This would give rise to the notion what we know as the ‘Renaissance Man’.

During the Renaissance there was emphasis on the idea of knowledge, refinement and presence. This would have those of the ruling classes endeavour to demonstrate their physical and intellectual prowess across a wide spectrum of pursuits. This was in order to achieve that enviable title of being called, “Accomplished”. Leonardo da Vinci would later be hailed as a ‘Renaissance Man’ as he demonstrated proficient talents and knowledge in Philosophy, Science, Painting, Astronomy, Engineering, Architecture and Human Anatomy. It is obvious with such a diverse list of interests many of the nobility would hesitate even attempting. Therefore, it was for most courtiers to be considered ‘Accomplished’ the list of requirements was less demanding. Therefore, the general standard was to demonstrate the intellect and the ability to engage in conversation of noted worth. This would include topics such as poetry and philosophy.

There was the added advantage of being able to speak Latin or Ancient Greek as these were regarded as the languages of the ‘Enlightened’ with most books and writings published in Latin.

This emanated from how the Catholic Church once was the single greatest patron of ‘Learning’ with it establishing many universities across Europe. So the eventual use of Latin as a sort of international language of learning was inevitable as Latin was also the language of the Church.

As if to vaguely quote the character ‘Caroline Bingley’ from Jane Austen’s, “Pride and Prejudice”, “No one can be really esteemed ‘Accomplished’ who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. One must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, One must possess a certain something in the air and manner of walking, the tone of one’s voice, one’s address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.” Even though this was expressed by Miss Bingley in context of a woman in the Regency period of the early 19th Century; this notion was very applicable to both sexes and certainly to the ‘Renaissance Man’ of the 16th Century. After all, the idea of an accomplished person as espoused by Miss Bingley was first from him.

One may ask what about the ‘Renaissance Woman’? Well, one must bear in mind 16th Century society was still very much patriarchal with men at the centre of all political and social concerns. It was true women were expected to be able to perform the same social graces, but only to the point as a complement of her so called superior male counterpart. If a woman demonstrated too much intellect, it was surmised she would make a poor obedient wife. Elements of this can be appreciated in Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew”, a play about the antics of a scheming hopeful husband out to woo and tame a spirited lady. So it was viewed the woman best kept to contend with safe pursuits such as poetry, music and dancing, leaving the more meaningful pursuits to her lord and master.

This attitude was further exemplified in the early ballets as the focus was on the men as heroic figures. Women were presented in many of these ballets primarily as ‘living props’. Like the magic acts of old when the beautiful lady assistant stood to one side striking elegant poses. Her sinewy arms outstretched drawing attention to the centre where the male magician was performing all the feats of wonder and amazement looking on as if saying, “Oh! He is wonderful, is he not?”

Well? How times have changed …

In regards to achieving one’s manly carriage during the 16th Century, it was generally through the demonstration of one’s physical skills. This would have many pursue fencing and dressage, a refined form of horse riding. Mostly though would indulge in the practice of the ‘Court Dance’.

Meanwhile, not only was one expected to be proficient complete with an air of elegant and felicitous demeanour, but also must appear ‘Fashionably Attired’ in the execution. Therefore, one must present oneself in a befitting style of dress during any of the acceptable intellectual and physical pursuits.

Fig. 01
2Detail-from-the-painting,-'The-Ambassadors'-by-Hans-Holbein-the-Younger,-c.-1553.-National-Gallery,-London,-EnglandAs a result, this would have many such ‘Renaissance Men’ commission portraits of themselves with symbolic depictions of their ‘accomplishments’. These portraits always presented them fashionably attired while in an elegant, relaxed stance demonstrating their ease among the trappings of noble pursuits. Other portraits would have them simply poised in a demeanour of self-assuredness as if ready to engage in conversation or in a state of wonder, pondering upon the meaning of life to be seen holding a feather quill, a book or human skull or even with all three! Is anyone up for “Hamlet”?

This is when clothing, or costuming for that matter, is a perfect example of a tangible manifestation of such abstract notions. As always ‘Need is the Mother of Invention’ and all clothing is born from all sorts of needs. These ranging from the basic like protection from the elements to more abstract notions of cultural and religious identity. For example, when it is cold the norm is to wear a woollen jacket or knitted jumper. Or how do we know an officer of the law? It is from the uniform worn and from which we identify with it a notion of service, protection and safety. So with afore mentioned ideals attributed to an ‘Accomplished Courtier’ they would also come to be endowed in the various costuming traditions that would later be extrapolated into Ballet but Why?

This perhaps can be best understood by taking a step back. First, we need to understand the meaning behind the term of “Ballet” itself. It is an intriguing one as it is a singular term used to describe a collection of dances bound together by a theme or drama. The way this notion developed during the 16th Century, would culminate at the height of the ‘Renaissance’ era.

The word is a derivative from the Latin verb, ‘Ballere’ or the Romana Lingua (common Latin tongue) ‘Ballare’, either way both have the meaning of ‘to dance’. This was in the sense as the most formal and refined notion of the pursuit. So to translate the Latin verb, ‘Ballere’, effectively, into English is best described as ‘to dance formally’.

This formal notion of dance is in context as liken to a debutante from the late ‘Victorian Era’ dancing at her ‘Coming Out’ ball. The ball served as the climax for her countless hours of training and practice in demonstrating all the refinement and skill to dance the waltz. This was no ordinary waltz though, for she would be in a fashionable ball gown complete with a train, long gloves, and a coiffure bedecked with ostrich plumes.

This idea of social refinement in dance stems from the ancient Romans who had very clear concepts in regards to dance – Stately affairs “Ballere”, Religious worship in the form of ritual dance “Tripudiare” and Social pursuits as just for the sake of pleasure, “Saltare”. (Yes the word, ‘Salsa’ comes from this). This thinking would translate into Byzantine and Medieval times with the pursuit of dancing in all its forms under the careful watch of religious censor as exacted by the Church. The notion of “Ballere” would be further expanded upon entering the Renaissance era as ‘Dance’ would come to be viewed as the first refinement of any ‘Polished and Civilise Society’. This notion about the virtues of ‘Dance’ with other social graces would continue well into the 20th Century.

This pursuit of refinement would have the Italians give us the “Ballo”, a term also derived from the Latin verb ‘Ballere’. It was towards the close of the 15th Century at a time when the Church was to relax its attitude towards ‘Secular or Theatrical Entertainment’. This grand courtly pursuit of various dances as executed by courtiers complimented the new rising notion of the ‘Renaissance Man’ with its grandeur and exacting formality. The ‘Ballo’ was quickly adopted by the many courts in Western Europe with the word extrapolated into the relative languages such as “Le Bal” in French, “El Baile” in Spanish and “Ball” in English. Over the course of the late 15th and 16th Centuries, these would develop into spectacular, lavish events often lasting for several hours well into the morning of the next day. As these became more common among the European courts, Balls would serve as fertile ground for those wanting to further their skills in the ‘Art of Dance’. Those with the means employed ‘Dance Tutors’ for themselves, and their children, ensuring their ‘Civilise Status’ at Court. Many of these tutors would attempt to commit these dance lessons and the ‘Art of Dance’ to print. The advantage of this saw an eventual common form of ‘Dance Technique’ developed. However, a universal form wasn’t realised until the late 17th Century.

The technique required for ‘Court Dance’ was greatly influenced by the very nature of ‘Court Dress’. This is best understood by the basic execution of the ‘Tendu’. It was a movement developed for ladies in particular, with their long skirts and hooped farthingales. This was because the action of stepping forward was sometimes wrought with a degree of danger in tripping on the skirt’s hem or the bottom most hoop of the farthingale. It was realised just by maintaining continued contact with the floor, sliding the foot forward, extending the leg with it finally only touching the floor with its toes when the foot was pointed. By doing so lifted the hem or hoop clear of the foot. This ensured the Courtier of an elegant means of stepping forward without the embarrassment of falling flat on one’s face in the presence of their most Royal Host. For such an incident would guarantee her exile from Court and was unable to return unless forgiven by means of a Royal pardon.

Detail-from-the-painting,-'Ball-at-the-Court-of-King-Henri-III-of-France'-or-'Ball-of-the-Duke-of-Alencon'-by-Unknown-Artist,-French-School,-late-16th-Century.-Private-Collection‘Court Dance’ continued to be influenced by dress simply because it had to accommodate the new fashion trends of the day. These would include the high necked collars called, “Ruffs” with their ever expanding circumference and the billowing sleeves. The hooped ’Farthingale’ would acquire a new expanded dimension that would render placing of arms at the sides impossible for the wearer. So it was required of the ladies to arrange their arms in a variety of elegant positions. This resulted in one of the most lasting traditions of Ballet technique. It is what is known as the ‘Carriage or Breathing of the Arms’, or in ballet terms, “Port de Bras”. It is pertinent to draw attention to the rigid fit of ‘Court Dress’. Due to as such, the raising of the arms was greatly limited. This was often not much higher than shoulder height with further height only achieved by the raising of the lower arms in a right angle bend at the elbows. This was often accompanied by a flourish of the hands from the wrist. This is often called the “Royal Wave”.

Meanwhile, there was another spectacular form of ‘Court Entertainment’ coming to the fore. Again it was from the Italian peninsula. It was given either the term of, “Balletti” in Italian or “Balleria” from the Latin. Depending when one was born, one can see from memory of basic high school Italian and Latin these terms were coined in the plural form and not the singular. Perhaps it is poignant to point out that the word, “Opera”, is also the Latin plural for “Opus” (Work). The plural use comes from the notion that an ‘Opera’ cannot be an opera if there is only one song to perform, and as for any opera, it must have a series of songs to carry a theme or drama. This was the same for ‘Balletti’, a collective of dance scenes performed as part of a ‘Spectaculi’ (Spectacles).

Note also how ‘High Art’ had its connection to the ‘Enlightened’ by way in the use of Latin terms – ‘Opera’, ‘Balleria’ and ‘Spectaculi’. As these pursuits were once considered ‘Indulgent’ and ‘Profane’. This use of Latin perhaps was also to pacify the Church by keeping with the language of the Sacraments; the earliest connection of Ballet with the notion of the ‘Divine’ which in the centuries to come would become its obsession.

The city of Milan in Italy would particularly become famous for ‘Spectaculi’ due to the patronage of the Arts by Ludovico Sforza, Regent of the Duchy of Milan. One the most famous of these was part of the celebratory events for the marriage of his nephew, Gian Galleazzo Sforza, the Duke of Milan to Isabella of Aragon in 1489. The nature of these spectacles is best liken them to an elaborately staged dinner Cabaret show, perhaps like those seen on the Gold Coast, Queensland near Warner Brothers Studios.

The master responsible for Court Entertainment, Bergonzio di Botta would co-ordinate this spectacle combining his culinary and choreographic talents. This was a dinner event that lasted for several hours with music, poetic prose and contained dance sequences woven through the course of the occasion. For each section called “Entratas” (Entrées), was precipitated by an announcement of the itinerary. Liken how we carefully choose wine to complement each meal; the theme of each section was made to compliment the menu set. It was recorded as a dance scene representing the famous Greek myth, “Jason and the Argonauts” preceded the next course of roasted gilded lamb in the guise of the ‘Golden Fleece’ and presented to the appreciative wedding guests to be carved and distributed for them to partake. It would be for a long time that these early Ballets were to be associated with banquets. Suppose the Viennese weren’t wrong in saying, “Wine, Song and Dance” and the Italians did it for nearly 300 years.

The thing is Ballet hadn’t yet really begun to be a stand-alone form of theatre. Furthermore, in order to refer to a single dance routine was usually by the term of “Danza” or “Ballare”. Furthermore the ‘Balletti’ assumed the diminutive of ‘Ballo’, thus its connection to the formal function of a ‘Ball’ or banquet by way as part of grand court entertainment. However, all this said, does not fully explain the notion of Ballet as we understand it today. We now must turn our attention to the French Court.
Fig. 03
2'The-Wedding-of-Catherine-de-Medici-with-the-Duke-of-Orleans'-by-Francesca-Bianchi-Buonavita,-c.-1533.-The-Ufizzi-Gallery-Museum,-Florence,-Italy In 1547, Caterina de Medici of Florence became the ‘Queen of France’. She had married the Duke of Orléans by proxy in 1533 at the tender age of 13, who now became the unexpected King Henri II.
The circumstances surrounding her ascension to the French throne have always been a contentious one due to the manner of death of the Dauphin, King Francis, the elder brother of Henri. However, for the sake of Ballet it was important that Caterina had. Without her it may have been a very different story for Ballet. Perhaps it may not have happened at all, well, definitely not how we would know it today.

With her ascension to the French throne the young Caterina was to become known as “La Royne Épouse de la France, Catherine de Médicis”. But this inferred she was from the Medicis in Florence as oppose a Medici herself. This was evident of the French fervent suspicion of the Florentines.

It was in honour of the occasion with her arrival in Paris, many things Italian were brought to the French Court. The many items imported from Florence and other parts of Italy included gelati, new perfumes, various citrus fruits, and most importantly, the ‘Commedia dell’Arte’, the other parent of Ballet.

Without going into too much detail about the influence of the ‘Commedia’ at the French Court, only to say it was profound and formative to Ballet. Its introduction to the French Court, the ‘Commedia’ was to enjoy immediate success. It was a form of theatre never before seen in France, well definitely not in any French palace. The clever wit and lively action did prove most pleasing for the French Nobles with their appreciation of satire and the odd pun. This would see the actors and courtiers engage in the practice of rhetoric and repartee. However, it was particularly the graceful movements and stylised gestures that captured the French imagination and from then on it was to set out to acquire its ‘Frenchness’. It would undergo various evolutionary changes, acquiring many local idiosyncrasies in order to adapt to the tastes of the new French audiences. It was in the duration of its metamorphosis, elements of the ‘Commedia’ would be integrated with that of the ‘Balletti’ at the French Court. It was from this marriage of the two theatres did a new notion of a ‘French Ballet’ would come to the fore.

The first documented indication in this shift began to appear at the French Court during the 1560s. This was clearly due to the influence of Catherine de Médicis, now the Dowager Queen and was no longer burden with the affairs of state and was able to seek pleasures in the patronage of the Arts and Sciences. With her involvement saw further development of Ballet as was witnessed in “Le Paradis d’ Amour”, a spectacle devised for her daughter’s wedding, Marguerite de Valois to Henri de Bourbon, King of Navarre in 1572. Catherine would continue to further develop the fledgling dance art into what would be a “Les Ballets du Cour” (Court Ballet), in another spectacle, “Les Ballets des Polonais” (The Polish Dances). This was to honour the Polish Ambassadors visiting Paris upon the ascension of Catherine’s youngest son, Henri de France, Duc d’Anjou to the throne of Poland in 1573.

Even though supposedly away from the spotlight, Catherine continued to wield her influence through her sons, the Kings of France. In this she felt compelled as France was in the grips of religious turmoil with the continuous violent clashes between the Catholics and Huguenots, French Protestants. When as Queen, Catherine demonstrated religious tolerance and sought diplomatic solutions to the developing strife. Often criticised, her efforts were in the face of continued pressure from Phillip II, King of Spain, and the Holy See in Rome to expel or execute the ‘Protestant Heretics’. However, in spite of her efforts the violence continued bringing France many times to near all out ‘Civil War’ and the ‘Religion Wars’ would plague the Valois Dynasty to the very last.

It was in Ballet that Catherine saw potential in achieving a hope in creating common ground between the protagonists. She would take the once ‘Spectaculi’ from being an ostentatious display of wealth and power turning it into a ‘Propaganda’ machine. Catherine would have it endowed with rich symbolic references with very clear messages of unmistakable political and social relevance. A last ditch attempt to finally bring about spiritual harmony in France and finally proving her worth as a ‘Stateswoman’. This would be attempted through the grand spectacle of what is regarded as the ‘First True Ballet’ and it was ~

“Le Balet Comique de la Royne”
(Le Ballet Comique de la Reine – Modern French; The Queen’s Comic Dance – English)

It was presented as a ‘Court Ballet’ performed before the Dowager Queen, Catherine on the Sunday of 15th October in 1581 in either the Louvre’s Great Hall or in the ‘Salle de Bourbon’ of the Petit Palais. The ballet lasted from ten o’clock at night to three o’clock in the morning of the next day. Upon suggestion from Catherine, it was commissioned by Queen Louise as part of a series of lavish and extraordinary events held to celebrate the marriage of the queen’s sister, Marguerite de Vaudémont de Lorraine to the King’s favourite and closest confidante, Anne de Batarnay, Duc de Joyeuse.

Balthazar Beaujoyeulx’s plans for the production were composed of three parts all linked together by a narrative in poetic prose. The theme of the ballet was inspired by the enchantress, ‘Circe’, from Homer’s “Odyssey” and this is where one can see Catherine’s influence. Circe was a symbol of civil war, and the choosing of the subject was quite evident of Catherine’s intent of using the celebrations surrounding the marriage as a diplomatic ploy for peace. Many of the invited guests were the religious protagonists and it was hoped by Catherine that they would identify with the characters and moral messages supplanted in the spectacle. In the final scene of the ballet, restoration of peace was depicted thus clearly it represented the Crown’s and Catherine’s hopes for peace in France.

Within the ‘Comic Dance’ was contained the three main elements required for any ballet – Drama, Music and Dance. The fact the ballet had a clear singular storyline set it apart from all previous ballets. Its status as the ‘First’ hasn’t been exaggerated when all is considered, particularly in terms of how we have come to understand the theatre art today. The clear consistency of storyline reinforced by the rich symbolism exacted in the especially designed décor and costumes by Jacques Patin. By the ambiance enhanced by the music of Lambert de Beaulieu and Jacques Salmon complemented by the stirring poetic prose written by Nicolas Filleul de La Chesnaye. All this further supported by King Henri III and Queen Louise performance in the ballet. Louise was accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting and court dancers arriving on a fountain chariot designed by Patin that was three tiers high dressed as ‘Naiads’. Catherine now has transformed a mere dance entertainment into ‘Artistic Expression’, an ‘Art’ worthy of noble praise and royal patronage.

The royal involvement of Henri and Louise would also set a custom for most future ballets. It continued up to the turn of the 18th Century with future members of the French Royal family and Court performing alongside commissioned dancers, actors and musicians. This did not incur any derision or ire, but instead was seen as a pinnacle of achievement. To be allowed to perform in a Court Ballet was a sign of accomplishment in the virtue and skill in the ‘Art of Dance’. This is where the connection between ‘Ballet’ and the ‘Renaissance Man’ is most evident even though it took the most educated and powerful woman of the day, Catherine de Médicis, to make it happen.

It can now be understood from this ‘Court Ballet’ came the familiar notion that would define the term of “Balet” or now “Ballet” for all time. Even though written as a diminutive of “Le Bal”, it was given a clear singular vernacular to imply a clear notion of a ‘Performance Art’. Following this shift in the meaning of the term the Italian word, “Balletto”, was paraphrased as taking a lead from the French Court. As if imported from Italy in a raw state, in France it was refined and polished and given back. In time they would not only give the world a new word for dance but a new theatre art in Dance. From the moment the first Ballet was performed, the French assumed ownership of the new theatre art by defining it.

It was a definitive moment in the history of Ballet.

This article incorporates text derived or information sourced from the following:          “Encyclopaedia Britannica”

“Pride and Prejudice”, Chapter 8, Jane Austen
ISBN: 1847493696, Alma Books Ltd., 2014.

 “The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet”, Horst Koegler
 ISBN: 0193113309, Oxford University Press; 2nd Edition, 14 October, 1982.

“Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet”, Robert Gresvovic
ISBN: 0-879103256, Hal Leonard Corporation, 1998.

“Five Centuries of Ballet Design”, Cyril W. Beaumont
The Studio, London, England, 1st Edition, c. 1938-9

“The Magic of Dance”, Margot Fonteyn
ISBN: 0-563-17645-8, BBC, 1980.
“Dance as a Theatre Art: Source Readings in Dance History from 1581 to the Present”
Selma Jeanne Cohen, Kathy Matheson
ISBN: 0-87127-173-7, Princeton Book Company, 2nd Edition, 1st December, 1992.

Fig. 01
– Detail from the painting, “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1553. National Gallery, London, England.
Fig. 02
– Detail from the painting, “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1553. National Gallery, London, England.
Fig. 03
– “The Wedding of Catherine de Medici with the Duke of Orleans” by Francesca Bianchi Buonavita, c. 1533. The Ufizzi Gallery Museum, Florence, Italy.

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Tights Connection to the Beginning of Ballet:
by Adrian Clarke, L.O.C.A.D. – Library of Costume and Design

It might be a while before the budding ballet star in your life will make that all important decision about which pair of tights to wear for that upcoming all important performance or exam. Which should you choose, Capezio, Bloch, PW Dance & Sportswear or Energetiks? Well you might muse over the interesting fact that tights are our tangible connection to Ballet’s origin. They are the oldest item of clothing with the longest tradition in use. They have evolved in accordance to needs benefitting from the latest advances in technology and production methods.

As the ‘Medieval’ era drew to its close a new one was coming to the fore. This was to begin in the great cities of Northern Italy, and Florence, in particular, is looked upon as the birthplace of what was to become known as the ‘Renaissance’. In fact, Italy was to be ahead of its other European contemporaries by a century. The Italian Renaissance was from 1300 to 1700 when the Western European Renaissance was to be 1400 to 1700.

The French term, ‘Renaissance’ is derived from the Latin word, ‘Renarto’ meaning ‘Rebirth’. This was in reference to the apparent restructuring of thinking surrounding social and cultural norms. It manifested in the way of the then European society beginning to turn to the ‘Sciences’ and shedding the yoke of superstition as exacted by the Roman Catholic Church which ironically was the biggest patron of both science and the arts. Furthermore, it saw the ‘Arts’ become more secular in its approach and content. No longer were the ‘Arts’ preoccupied with the eternal struggle of the immortal soul, instead it began to deal with a variety of subject matters such as ‘Classic Mythology’ of the ancient Romans and Greeks along with the rise of ‘Portraiture’ when before it was considered to be ‘idolatrous’ for such images. It was even to go far as to depict more ‘Real’ issues concerning with everyday life, both urban and rustic.

This ‘Rebirth’ of the collective social conscience was to fuel a resurgence of public theatrics both in the courts of many grand palaces as well as in the market places and town squares. This impacted on the performing arts – music, dance, literature and drama in all their forms. For the story of Ballet, this new ‘Artistic Awakening’ was particularly important.

Today, tights are worn by both genders in Ballet, but several centuries ago they were worn exclusively by men of all ranks, from peasants to Royals, since the ‘Dark Ages’. Originally called “Hosen” or “Stocks” (English); “Chausses” or “Chausson” (French), were made close fitting as possible for very practical reasons such as when riding on horseback. They were made from wool, cotton, linen and silk, or a combination with linen/cotton mix the most common. It is important to point out that tights were mostly cut from woven fabrics, sometimes on the bias. There was even a particular polished cotton fabric called ‘Lisle’ woven in Ireland that was in regular use for stocks. They were often particoloured with each leg in a different colour or multicoloured. These colours would be arranged in a variety of ways – patterns, vertical stripes, horizontal bands or a combination of all. Design was only limited by the hosier’s skill or the wearer’s purse string.

The hand-knitted chausses were only worn by those who could afford them. These were knitted in wool and cotton, with the smooth tightly twisted ‘Lisle’ cotton yarn favoured as an affordable option to silk. The ‘Chausson de Soyeux” (Silk Stocks), were highly prized as knitted by the most skilled artisans, often multi-coloured, patterned or with motifs of intricate design called, “Quirks”.

Fig. 01
Sermon_and_Deeds_of_the_Antichrist_(Detail)_1499_1502.adjThis distinction in the two modes of stocks seem best describe the differing characteristics of the two worlds that would influence Ballet at its inception. One of these worlds the opulent surrounds of ‘Court Entertainment’ and its many spectacles. All dressed in rich silk brocades with gold or silver thread embroideries worn over the finest silk hosiery one could afford. This was contrasted by the other being of the sombre and harsh realities experienced in cityscapes of the streets, taverns and town squares. This was the familiar world of the ‘Commedia dell’Arte’, a street theatre inhabited by the many travelling troupes of troubadours, actors and performers that had to live by the grace of their wit. Dressed in whatever they could beg, steal or permanently borrow. Their stocks were often pieced together from what fabric remnant they could acquire, rendering them colourful like the one pictured, fig. 01, and instantly recognisable to audiences. One parent was born of nobles and Royals when the other parent was born from vagabonds and rogues. The latter however, would rise to a position of professional respectability, one of vocation of the ‘Actor’. Both were important to Ballet, as the ‘Court Dance’ would give us the ‘Steps’, and the ‘Commedia’ would give the earliest traditions concerning ‘Gestures’ and ‘Costumes’.

The traditions of costume design for the various characters of the ‘Commedia’, in conjunction with the convention of ‘Court Dress’, would form the basis of costumes for ‘Ballet’ and later, ‘La Comédie Française’ as they evolved within the French Royal Court of the late 16th and 17th Centuries respectively. The ‘Commedia’ was to give early Ballet three costuming traditions that were to last for over two centuries – ‘Character Dress’, ‘Masks’ and ‘En Travesti’ (cross dressing).

Fortunately for early Ballet, contrary to popular belief, stocks with a crotch included were the norm at the turn of the 16th Century. However, in saying that, there was a shift in how these were worn and constructed over the course of the 1500s. These changes came with various new terms of reference to accommodate the new variations. During the 1300s and 1400s, Hosen, the plural form, or Stocks basically were anything that covered the legs, but not always including the feet. They were made as a pair of leggings held in place by a belt like chaps, or were made as a singular garment with a crotch and a centre front opening that was covered with a cod piece or small fall front flap. The latter would eventually become the norm as already stated.

By the mid-1500s, hosen would undergo changes rather quickly and dramatically. For starters they would become two separate garments. Then they would be adjusted in accordance to lengths. The upper crotch part of the hosen became the ‘Trunk Hosen’, later to become ‘Breeches’, when the now leggings became ‘Stockis’ or ‘Stockings’. Note how the two words came to mean two very different garments. However, it didn’t stop there. ‘Stockings’ were knitted either with a crotch or as leggings to mid-thigh secured by garters to be worn under or over a trunk-hose. ‘Netherstocks’, a pair of leggings also knitted came a little above the knee and also held in place by garters, often worn under or over ‘Cannions’, tubular thigh-hugging extensions from a trunk-hose. ‘Stocks’ or ‘Base Stocks’, again knitted were worn like long socks to the knees held in place with garters or ‘flashes’. These were usually worn with a pant-like garment commonly called, “Slops”. Bear in mind, the term ‘Stockings’ was a generic term as well referring to any knitted leggings. Furthermore, there was added confusion with the knitted stockings with a crotch also called ‘Trunks’ or ‘Trunk Stockings’.

Women would also begin to wear stockings in the latter half of the 16th Century but never to cover their legs completely or with a crotch when dressed for Court. For with a crotch, one, it would infer the lady was ‘cross-dressing’, and two, it had to do with the practicality of going to the little ladies’ room. For any lady, encumbered by wearing layers of petticoats over a hooped ‘Farthingale’ would have had a difficult time in removing a crotch stocking.

The last quarter of the 16th Century saw Ballet began to develop momentum as a performance art of Royal Court Entertainment. This was exemplified by what is regarded as the first ballet, ‘Le Balet Comique de la Royne’ (The Queen’s Comique Dance) in 1581. The performance included the Queen Louise of France with her ladies-in-waiting to help celebrate a Royal Wedding at the French Court. The advantage of such a courtly pursuit for the dancers was that they were provided with the very best what money could buy, silk stockings. The dancers wore stockings of all variations and in accordance with the convention of Court Dress. Royal Court Convention would continue to impact on Ballet well into the 18th Century.

The availability of stockings would be further helped following the invention of the ‘Stocking Frame Knitting Machine’ in 1589. It was devised by an English clergyman, William Lee of Calverton near the city of Nottingham. Its use was to eventually become known as “Framework Knitting” and would be for centuries with the principle of its operation remaining in use today. This was also the earliest beginnings in the mechanisation of the textiles trade some two centuries before the start of the ‘Industrial Revolution’ in the late 18th Century.

Lee gave a demonstration in the operation of the device to Queen Elizabeth, in the hope to be granted a patent. The Queen refused, however, for fearing the impact it would have on the established hand knitting industry. A concern already expressed to her by several Hosiers’ Guilds as Lee’s Invention became public knowledge. It also didn’t help that the machine produced an unimpressive loose, coarse knitted fabric that was made into a pair of seamed stockings. The original frame had only 8 needles to the inch, so Lee would later improve the mechanism by installing 20 needles to the inch. By 1598, Lee’s new improved machine could knit stockings of fine quality in silk and cotton, as well as wool, but was once again refused a patent by Elizabeth, and later King James I & VI.

Lee still determined, entered into a partnership agreement with George Brooks on 6 June, 1600, but this failed to come to fruition as the unfortunate Brooks was arrested on a charge of treason and later executed. Eventually, Lee moved to France with his brother, James, accompanied by nine workers and frames. There he found better support from the French King, Henri IV, who granted him a patent. Lee began stocking manufacture in Rouen, France, and prospered as such would enter a contract with Pierre de Caux about 1609-10 to provide knitting machines for the manufacture of silk and woollen stockings with the condition he had the continued support from the Crown. The agreement would collapse due to the King’s assassination in 1610 that would later trigger another Catholic insurgence as King Henri was a Protestant Huguenot even though was baptised a Catholic. With this abrupt change in the political climate following the king’s death and despite him moving to Paris to seek favour from the Queen Regent, Marie de Médicis, the mother of the future King Louis XIII, his claims of a ‘Crown’s Warrant’ were ignored and would later die in 1614. After Lee’s death, his brother, James, with most of the workers returned to England and disposed of most of the frames in London before moving to Thoroton near Nottingham.

The commercial failure of Lee’s design seemed destined with the demise of the framework knitting machine, but John Ashton, one of Lee’s apprentices, continued to work on the machine and made a number of improvements, importantly by adding the mechanism known as a “Divider”. This led to the establishment of two knitting centres in London and in Nottingham, thus giving rise to a viable industry in the mechanised production of stockings in England, and subsequently for Europe. This would soon place the newly formed United Kingdom of England, Ireland and Scotland at an unprecedented lucrative position of manufacturing dominance over France, which originally had such a stranglehold for so long in terms of the textile manufacturing industries. This lost opportunity simply added to the list of other political and economic blunders made by the Queen Regent who was eventually deposed seven years later by her own son, the King. The Royal Treasury wasn’t happy with losing revenue; evidently there was a lot of money in stockings.

With all that historical background, the point is that mechanised production of hosiery had arrived. The machine knitted stockings would become known as “Jersey Stockings” or “Trunk Jerseys” or “Maillots Anglaises” in French. The terms of Jersey and Maillot (pron. My-yo), referred to the type of knit used in the manufacture. These were to grace the legs of dancers of the now Grand Court Ballets of King Louis XIII. In fact, King Louis himself would perform in some of these ballets, so the King himself would have worn a pair or two of English Silk Jerseys.

By this time, these were already worn by both genders and fortunately at that as the nature in costuming of these early ballets. For the ladies, these were sometimes not leaving much to the imagination. ‘Maillots’ (Trunks/Tights) were invariably to be made with a crotch incorporated would become the standard for Ballet. However, the focus of these ballets was on the men not the women. This focus would be later ensured by the all-male casts with women’s participation only by permission or royal request. This had to do with the inferred immorality of women performing on stage. This was also combined with the belief that the fairer sex lacked the physical prowess to perform in such athletic pursuits like the Ballet. Yet would like to see how the male courtiers of the day perform the same feats wearing the obligatory excessive layers of women’s court dress? Regardless, the new stockings complimented this focus perfectly as the vogue for young men was the figure hugging hosiery to help show-off their natural muscularity advertising their athleticism, be it true or false. Men would have a fascination for well-developed calf muscles, fuelled by an established custom of wearing “False Calves” underneath one’s stockings by those lacking size. This would be the case for the next century and some.

It is important to point out over the course of the 17th and 18th Centuries further distinction between hosiery and tights was to develop. Now with women wearing hosiery, each mode of construction was slowly to be engendered with greater variations. ‘Bonneterie’ (Hosiery) or ‘Bas de Soie’ (Silk Stockings) usually made as liken to socks, were also made in three lengths: to the knee, just above the knee or mid-thigh all held in place with garters. Their feminine distinction would be by the quality and delicacy of design.

1794 Vigano as TerpsichoreThe last decade of the 18th Century, 1790s, did see maillots take on the semblance how tights are used today. This was reflective of the new aesthetic in the Arts. The pursuit of the Classical Ideals from Antiquity of the Greeks and Romans would manifest in the desire for cleaner natural line of the legs. It was also when one of the first indications of ‘nude’ hosiery as worn by Maria Vigano. She was to dance with her brother, Salvatore, and shock audiences in Paris with a ‘Classical Greek’ inspired costume of a softly draped tunic of sheer white muslin falling over her body and legs that were only covered by hosiery of a flesh pink colour insinuating an eroticism of near nakedness. This was met with controversy, speculation and adoration. However, the new conservatism of the early 19th Century soon had dancers of the Ballet once more respectably dressed.

Fashion-wise, hosiery for men would eventually be phased out for everyday wear by the end of the first decade of the 19th Century only to be used for formal evening attire and ceremonial occasions. By the 1820s, long ‘Stovepipe’ pants were the norm for men and worn for all occasions other than by livery servants of palatial homes and for the coronations both in England and France.
Fig. 03
dancer_adjusting_her_tights-largeHosiery was now strictly in the domain of the feminine gender outside the spectrum of Ballet and Theatre. Also the English term Tights began to be used as a distinction from hosiery. By this time, both male and female dancers were expected to wear special shorts over tights to help diffuse any inferred eroticism. This was a century old custom already observed by female dancers of the Opéra. This inference wasn’t helped either by the re-occurring vogue of ‘Nude Pink’ as started by the ‘Viganos’ in the 1790s. At times, the Paris Opéra would ban the use of pink tights due to these same social concerns. This was futile, as towards the end the 19th Century ‘Ballet Pink’ tights were the norm. Tights would develop over the remainder of the 19th Century entering the 20th with little change.

Little before the First World War about 1911-12, new fibres that were often marketed as ‘Artificial Silk’, began being used for a variety of textiles. These were ‘Acetate’ and ‘Rayon’. ‘Rayon’ was started being used for hosiery and tights making these cheaper than those of silk. Despite being more affordable and the clever marketing, Ballet was to abandon wearing these as were prone to ‘sagging’, creating unflattering folds over the legs, behind the knees and around the ankles. It just wasn’t a good look.

The next advancement wasn’t to occur until 1935 with the development of ‘Polymer 6.6’ by the E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, commonly referred to as “DuPont”. It was introduced to the public via the World Fair of 1939 in New York as ‘Nylon’ for the manufacture of hosiery under the slogan of “As Strong as Steel, as Fine as Spider’s Web!” Their release into the market was met with such popular success, it was recorded up to 4 million pairs were purchased in one day. Furthermore, the development of the new fibre, ‘Nylon’, would later have a far greater impact on ballet costume design and manufacture in the years to come. This, however, is a different story to that of tights.

The name was coined using the letters from the initials, ‘NY & L’ for New York and London, followed by a suffix of ‘- on’ as from other fibres like ‘rayon’ and ‘cotton’. The reason behind the reference to the two cities is unclear. It is generally accepted it was due to where the two teams of chemists involved in the research and ultimately to ‘Nylon’s’ development were based; with the climax of the years of research occurring at the DuPont Headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware. The other reason was tied into the planned intention of its release into the market, first in New York to be followed by London.
Unfortunately, London never got the chance and this introduction by DuPont was to be short lived due to the outbreak of the Second World War. As a result, all production of ‘Nylon’ was to be diverted to the manufacture of various supplies, mainly for the U.S. Military and Allies. ‘Nylon’ proved versatile as a fibre, it was used for vehicle tyres, ropes, wet weather garments and parachutes in order to name a few. When the war ended nylon tights and hosiery returned, however, in spite of being finely knitted, these had little ‘give’ in them thus were made in a range of half sizes to help accommodate the varying leg shapes and lengths.
In 1959, DuPont would come to the rescue again with another development, giving us the familiar stretchy tights we know today. This was of course ‘Lycra’ and revolutionising tights, making them exacting in the fit with a minimum of fuss ever since. With these Lycra tights would have the French replace the term, ‘Maillot’ with ‘Collant’ which inferred the notion of them clinging to the legs when worn. This is with the added expectation for ‘Tights’ to be made with a ‘denier’ greater than 40, when ‘Hosiery’ is less.

‘Denier’ is a unit of measure used to assess the linear mass density in filament fibres. It is defined by the weight in grams per 9,000 metres. By custom, it is based on the natural standard defined as a single strand of silk is one denier. That silk strand is 9,000 metres which equals the weight of one gram. Silk is a natural monofilament fibre and when unravelled from its source, a cocoon, it is a singular continuous strand with a beginning and end. The use of measuring with the denier unit it is usually applied to knitted textiles such as tights and hosiery, but is also applied to nets and tulles or any ‘silk like’ textiles.

There is a notion about tights that must be dispelled even though it can be forgiven. This is how some regard tights as underwear. This stems from how women’s hosiery in fashion is sold as lingerie with bras and underwear. Ballet tights, however, are not lingerie, but leg covering as how they were originally worn and should never be regarded as ‘Underwear’.

So there you have it, hopefully you now have decided on what tights to purchase for your protégé be it in cotton or nylon Lycra. Hope this has proven to be an enlightening read in regard to the story of tights. Something every female dancer now takes for granted as a necessary item of clothing once began as an exclusive item for men! Who knew…?

This article incorporates text derived or information sourced from the following:                  “Encyclopaedia Britannica”

“Four Centuries of Machine Knitting: Commemorating William Lee's Invention of the Stocking Frame in 1589” (Knitting International, Leicester 1989), J.T. Millington & Stanley Chapman (eds).

 “William Lee and the Invention of the Knitting Frame”, Negley Harte

"Lee, William (LY579W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database, University of Cambridge

 "William Lee inventor of the framework knitting machine",
Archived from the original on May 17, 2011

“Patterns of Fashion: the cut and construction of clothes for men and women 1560-1620”, Janet Arnold
ISBN: 0-333-38284-6, macmillan, 1985.

“The Magic of Dance”, Margot Fonteyn
ISBN: 0 563 17645 8, BBC, 1980.

“Ballet Designs and Illustrations”, Brian Reade
© Crown Copyright, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1967

“A History of Women’s Underwear”, Cécil Saint-Laurent
ISBN: 981 204 610 0, Times Edition, reprinted 1995

“The Lure of Pefection: Fashion and Ballet, 1780 – 1830”
Judith Chazin-Bennabaum, Routledge, 2004
ISBN 10: 0415970385 ISBN 13: 9780415970389

“Textiles for Modern Living”, Gohl & Vilensky
ISBN: 0 582 68831 0, 3rd Ed., Longman Cheshire, 1983

Publication by DuPont (Context, vol. 7, no. 2, 1978)

Fig. 01
– Detail from the fresco, “The Sermon and the Deeds of the Antichrist” by Luca Signorelli, 1499 -1502. Chapel of San Brizio, Piazza del Duomo, Orvieto, Italy.
Fig. 02
– "Maria Medina Vigano as Terpsichore", Illustration by Josef Dorffmeister, Engraving by Carl Hermann Pfeiffer, 1794. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library, Digital Collections.
Fig. 03
– “Dancer Adjusting Her Tights” aka “First Pair of Tights” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1890. Private Collection.

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