Tutu: A layered skirt that is worn in a classical ballet performance.
The word “tutu”
The word “tutu” is believed to derive from the French “cucu”. This is a childish expression that is used as an informal alternative for “cul”, which translates as “bottom”. Legend has it that the term “tutu” became associated with skirts worn onstage because eighteenth-century audience members who sat in the cheapest seats of a theatre – positioned just below the stage – had a view that meant they could see straight up the ladies’ costumes.
Whether this account of history is true or not, the link between the skirt and the dancer’s derriere makes sense because the flimsy material and unforgiving cut of a tutu barely covers a ballerina’s bottom.
Evolution of the tutu
The ballet tutu emerged in the 1830s as a calf-length, bell-shaped skirt that was attached to a tight bodice. Inspired by the long, wide skirts that were in fashion at the time, the lightweight design was made of three to five layers of white tulle. It was credited to French artist and designer Eugène Lami.
This tutu is known as the Romantic tutu because it was first worn by Marie Taglioni – a celebrated Italian ballerina of the Romantic era. She debuted the garment when she danced in the premiere of her father Filippo’s ballet, La Sylphide (1832). The delicately sheer skirt revealed her footwork en pointe, providing a freedom of movement befitting the ethereal character she was portraying.
The tutu swiftly became the standard costume choice for spirit roles. The beautiful winged Sylph in La Sylphide. The vengeful sisterhood of Wilis in Giselle (1841). The moonlit female ensemble in Les Sylphides (1909). They all seemed to float or fly as they drifted across the stage in flowing Romantic tutus and pointe shoes.
From the late nineteenth century onwards, the skirt gradually became shorter until it looked like the Classical tutu that everyone is familiar with today. Designed for maximum ease of movement, the short Classical tutu sticks straight out horizontally, away from the wearer’s body. It reveals the whole leg line and creates the signature silhouette of a classical ballerina.
Why did hemlines get shorter?
The Classical tutu evolved as dazzling Italian ballerinas, such as Virginia Zucci, took centre stage in the 1880s. Ballet technique was rapidly advancing and audiences wanted to see every detail of the new feats that dancers were executing, so it made sense for hemlines to become shorter.
Still slightly bell-shaped, this shorter style was cut to reach the knee and had up to sixteen layers of tulle that extended outwards from a dancer’s hips.
Shorter tutus were established as the norm by the time classical masterpieces such as The Sleeping Beauty (1890) and Swan Lake (1895) premiered. These works demanded increasing virtuosity from the female dancers, allowing them to demonstrate exciting turns and intricate footwork. Shorter tutus essentially highlighted the brilliance of the ballerina!
Hemlines crept higher as time went on, which meant different interpretations of the Classical tutu developed. Consequently, there are several versions of the modern Classical tutu today – the Bell, the Pancake, the Platter and the Powder Puff.
The Bell tutu is the knee-length style seen in the famous ballet paintings by Edgar Degas. The layers of netting, which are short and stiff, are loosely tacked and fall into a bell shape.
The Emeralds in George Balanchine’s Jewels (1967) wear this style.
The Pancake tutu is, as the name suggests, a very flat tutu. The wide skirt is supported by a wire hoop and extra stitching in the form of hand tacking to keep the layers, which extend straight outwards from the hips, flat and stiff.
The Platter tutu is very like the Pancake. It is similarly flat and hooped, with few ruffles and a stiff quality. However, instead of sitting at the hips, it sits at the waist.
The Powder Puff tutu features very short ruffles of tulle, which are very loosely tacked to give a softer, fuller appearance. No hoops are used and there are fewer layers of tulle netting than seen on the other Classical styles (just six or seven layers rather than nine to twelve layers).
This softer alternative to the traditional stiff tutu was created in 1950 by Barbara Karinska, New York City Ballet’s influential costume designer, when she re-costumed George Balanchine’s Symphony in C (1947).
There may be many styles to choose from, but a performance tutu is always made up of three parts: the skirt, the basque and the bodice.
- The skirt, which is fashioned from many layers of tulle, determines the shape and defines the style.
- The basque is the piece that sits from the waist to high on the hip. It is basically the pair of knickers, or panties, onto which the skirt is mounted.
- The bodice, which is sewn into the basque, is made of panels that are stitched together in order to fit the dancer’s upper body like a glove.
A rehearsal/practice tutu has no bodice – it is just the skirt stitched onto the basque.
Wearing a tutu is a privilege
Essentially, the tutu’s role is to frame the ballerina’s movements.
A ballerina is completely exposed when wearing a Classical tutu. Her leg line is on constant display and there is no way to hide poor technique. Consequently, although wearing a tutu is an honour that must be earned, dancing in one tends to encourage a ballerina to place an even stronger focus on her alignment, posture, turnout and technique.
From twirling toddlers to dedicated dancers mastering their craft, the tutu matters in the world of ballet. In fact, wearing a tutu really does seem to make a dancer look, feel and dance like a ballerina!
This resource is intended as a helpful guide.
It was compiled using the following sources:
Craine, Debra and Judith Mackrell (2010) The Oxford Dictionary Of Dance, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Homans, Jennifer (2010) Apollo’s Angels: A History Of Ballet. London: Granta Books.
Looseleaf, Victoria (2007) ‘The Story Of The Tutu‘, Dance Magazine, 81(10), p. 52. Available at: https://www.dancemagazine.com/the-story-of-the-tutu/ (Accessed: 5 January 2023).
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.