The relationship between dance and dance costumes is complex and does not simply reflect dance practice in a specific period, but also social behavior and cultural values. Dance costumes can be divided into the following categories: historical, folk or traditional, ballroom, modern, and musical dance costumes. Influence has spread from fashion to dance and back again.
Historical Dance Costumes
From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, festivities at European courts required highly elaborate dance costumes. The style of court dance costumes tended to be similar to everyday dress of the period, incorporating, for example, laced corsets, puffed and slashed sleeves, farthingales with skirts and applied decoration. In the early twenty-first century, the reproduction of historical dance costumes was evident in the activities of historical dance organizations, such as the Institute for Historical Dance Practice (IHDP) in Ghent, Belgium.
Bavarian folk dance costume
From the fifteenth century onward, folk dance developed steadily in Europe. The field of European folk-dance costumes is very complex, as each of the country’s regions has its own dances, dress, and customs. Eastern European folk dances, such as czardas, mazurkas, and polkas, soon spread to England and France. Folk-dance costumes reflected the East European look in the use of bright colors on dark backgrounds. Costumes were often highly decorated with beads, metal, and silk threads. The basic women’s dress was a short, light-colored chemise and a petticoat, over which several layers of fabric were worn. A draped headdress indicated the marital status of the wearer (fancy headgear indicated that the girl was unmarried). European folk dance formed the basis for square-dance activities. European settlers who came to America introduced this special type of country dance and its costume first in New England, but before long, square dance started to spread across the country. Evening dress was the standard dance costume for dancers: ankle-length hooped skirts for the women and formal jackets for men. During the following two centuries, the cultural mix of European settlers in America has led to a variety of national folk-dance costumes. Farmer and cowboy dance wear were mainly based on components of everyday clothing: shirts, cotton trousers, and cowboy boots for men, and ankle-long cotton gingham dresses for women. The minuet, polka, waltz, and quadrille via France and England brought more elaborated dance costumes to America: tailored long-sleeve shirts and trousers in a Western-cut style for male dancers and full floral-embroidered skirts and blouses for females. Accessories such as Western belts, string ties, or silk kerchiefs completed the square-dance outfit.
In the late 1990s, high-end designers such as Dolce & Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli, and Miu Miu had created an “urban cowboy look” with Western-inspired dress embellished with floral patterns on such articles of clothing as tuxedo shirts and jeans, as well as traditional pointedtoe cowboy boots.
In the early 2000s, amateur and professional female square dancers often wear double-swirl skirts with alternating ruffles in the fabric and wide white lace. The lace is used on bodice and sleeves, and an appliqué and bow are sewn on the fitted midriff. Male square dancers wear cowboy-style shirts with scarf tied around the collar, high-pocket jeans, and sometimes a cowboy hat. Pants cuffs are usually worn inside the cowboy boots. The United Square Dancers of America (USDA) booklet, Square Dance Attire, is probably the best resource for the history of square-dance costumes.
Oriental, or belly, dance originates from snakelike movements provided by the sisters of a woman giving birth as they tried to inspire her to deliver the baby. In 1893, belly dance was brought from the Arabic world to the United States on the occasion of the Chicago World’s Fair. Exotic-colored fabrics embroidered with semiprecious stones, paillettes, and beads are characteristic of the style. Semi-transparent tops with fringes reveal the stomach and navel while brassieres and wraparound skirts swing rhythmically to the beat of Middle Eastern music. Coin belts and hip scarves are an essential part of the belly-dance outfit. Sometimes belly dancers cover their face with a veil, especially when the dance is performed by a male dancer (cross-dressing). Alternatively, shoulder-to-floor-length beaded and sequinned tunics over harem pantaloons are worn. Historically, evidence points to the crucial influence of Islamic Orientalism in European fashion during the twentieth century, starting with the French designer Paul Poiret’s use of the tunic shape and updating old-fashioned styles with exotic harem pants and veils wrapped around the body in the 1920s. In the 1990s, the prêt-à-porter and haute couture collections of Western European and American designers, such as Miguel Adrover, Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, and Rifat Ozbek, have been influenced by Oriental belly-dance costumes. Nancy Lindis farne-Tapper’s
Languages of Dress in the Middle East is a detailed source about Middle Eastern dress in both the ancient and the modern world.
From the early nineteenth century, ballroom dances were taken up by a broad public, and special evening dresses were designed to fit these occasions. The waltz, fox-trot, polka, mazurka, and Viennese waltz required an elegant style. By the twentieth century, dance costumes for the tango, swing and Latin, Charleston, rumba, bolero, chacha, mambo, and samba were more erotic.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Isadora Duncan’s natural movements on stage characterized a new era for dance. Duncan’s modern dance style has been influenced by Greek art, folk dances, social dances, and athleticism. Free-flowing costumes and loose hair permitted a great freedom of dance movement. After World War I, modern-dance groups emerged with predominantly female dancers. During the following decades, avant-garde choreographers, such as George Balanchine and Martha Graham, and later Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, and Pina Bausch, reformed and liberalized traditional dance and its costumes. Moving away from traditional ballet techniques, modern dance gave rise to a new era of costuming. Dance costumes and makeup took on a unisex look as choreographers felt it less relevant to differentiate female and male dancers. Theater designers experimented with seminude costumes: transparent T-shirts and short black trunks for men and simple bodices and plain tights for women were the standard dance costumes.
In 1934, neoclassical dance choreographer George Balanchine was the first to dress ballet dancers in rehearsal practice clothes for public performances. The use of non-colors characterized Balanchine’s costumes, which were almost always black and white. His sense for minimalism on the stage developed through the revealing of nudity.
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