A tutu should be the physical embodiment of visual splendor for the audience and provide delight and elation for the dancer. A tutu should capture the essence of the ballet and enhance and reflect the beauty of the dancer. Costuming for the ballet is an endeavor which stretches far beyond the creation of a tutu. The definition of a tutu is broad, though it is generally applied narrowly.

The powder puff tutu with bright pink toe shoes are little girl’s dreams and to reach the point in ballet when you put on your first toe shoes represents a true milestone for any dancer.

Edgar Degas

The modern concept of a tutu is the Balanchine/Karinska “powder puff” tutu as you can see from the Degas painting on the left. Degas was an avid painter of ballet in Paris in the late 19th century. Ballet originated as entertainment for the working class by the working class.

Balanchine is considered to be the father of American Ballet and as surely as he deserves that title a woman known simply as “Karinska” deserves the title of mother of ballet costuming.

Before the Balanchine/Karinska tutu the most common tutus were longer or romantic tutus or for a shorter tutu the pancake tutu was popular, although difficult to partner with its hoop and difficult to control for the dancer.

Boing! The pancake tutu with its wire kept reverberating long after the dance was through dancing!

The modern tutu and the pancake tutu which made with buckram to keep it flat and rigid — are traced to Karinska and her work with Balanchine.

Varia Karinska

Varia Karinska was born in Russia in 1886 in the Ukraine to a successful textile merchant. Russian embroidery was an art form filled with detailed shades and colors of varying texture of stitches — some tiny and fine and others broad and rough. This was Karinska’s artistic medium as a child.

She studied law at the University of Kharkof and married the Attorney General and Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeals of the District of Petrograd, (St. Petersburg).

After the Bolsheviks seized power Nicholas Karinsky escaped to New York, leaving his family behind and saving himself. Karinska and her daughter escaped to the Crimea before relocating in Moscow.

Ultimately, she made her way to Moscow where, in order to support herself she embroidered pillows, napkins, bags, table cloths, and ran an embroidery school. She used painted fabrics and appliqués of silk chiffon in her work; she achieved some notariety as an artist in this medium. Her business grew to include embroidery lessons and ultimately expanded to include a hat and dress shop with occasional antiques.

The new government suggested that Karinska become the Commissar of Museums. With the government’s permission Karinska traveled to Germany — ostensibly to educate herself for this new post, however, it was not her intent to return to Russia.

She took her jewels, her fourteen year old daughter, Irene Francois, and her orphaned nephew, fifteen year old Lawrence Vlady, and left not for Germany but for Brussels where her father lived. Karinska then left for Paris. Here she found work using her skills of sewing and embroidery. Danilova is picture in an early Karinska tutu.

Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo Changes Karinska’s Life

A newly formed ballet company, the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo requested she make ballet costumes for their first ballet, Cotillon. The sets and costumes were by Christian Berard and the choreography was by a fellow Russian, George Balanchine.

Berard, who was an artist, set designer and photographer, would provide a general sketch, an idea, but it would be Karinska who expounded upon the concept, modified it, chose the fabric, quality and quantity, and decided how the concept would be implemented. She was their interpreter.

Karinska, Balanchine, and Berard would study the dancer and collaborate on the concept, however, it would be left to Karinska alone to reduce the image, the concept, their agreed vision to reality.

Karinska became in Paris, the premiere interpreter of the costume for the ballet.

Christian-Berard berard

Christian Berard Art Deco artist in Paris prepared covers for Vogue often and had a driving design influence in fashion.

Costumes by Karinska – Toni Bentley

Since Balanchine choreographed for Harriet Hoctor it can be presumed that he had first seen this type tutu in the 1930’s. Though it was the American Ballet and Karinska which made this the standard for all ballerinas and the tutu to which little ballerinas everywhere aspire.

Karinska was known as the premiere costume designer in this country. Her husband abandoned her in Russia where he was a man of great importance during the revolution and turmoil that followed. Eventually, he immigrated to the United States. The young woman who made her way with her only skill, the embroidery of the Russian noble woman, became well known is this country and much revered while her husband ended his days driving a taxi on the streets of New York City. Sadly, however, it is said she was in love with Balanchine who never returned her love with love, only with admiration. It’s a story — I do not know whether it is true.

See: New York Ballet Costume Shop website.

Karinska in Business

In 1932 Karinska opened her shop in Paris.

Karinska costumed Balanchine’s six ballets in Paris before he left for New York.



To the left are dances from the Ballet Russes in a 1935 Karinska tutu. Danilova is pictured to the right of the two dancers.

In 1936 Karinsak left her Paris shop to her daughter Irene while she went to London to costume for the Ballet Russes seasons at Covent Garden. There she opened another dress shop.

In New York Balanchine opened the School of American Ballet with Lincoln Kirstein and began the American Ballet Company, though it soon closed. In 1940 Karinska briefly opened a couturier shop in New York on 56th Street and lived above the shop.


Balanchine Examining Karinska’s Work The First Powder Puff Tutu Gypsy Rose Lee

Gypsy Rose Lee believed Kararinska understood the impact of her performance and enhanced her ability to deliver her unique style of burlesque to the audience. She then created the costumes for Rodeo on the cheap using cretonne as an exposed fabric. Something not previously done. She had also been the first to use horsehair as an exposed and finished fabric. The theater community understood that Karinska would charge them inflated prices so she could design for Balanchine on the cheap.

I once heard a man tell of hearing Gypsy Rose Lee addressing his men’s luncheon club. He said she arrived in a beautiful black wool dress. It was cut very simply. She wore a pair of black leather gloves that were mid-length with black pearl buttons. As she spoke she would from time to time unbutton one of the buttons on her gloves. He swore every man in the room watched nothing but those buttons.

The Birth of the Balachine/Karinska Powder Puff Tutu

Shortening the skirt made the tutu layers self supporting and allowed the dancer’s legs to be fully visible. This is why a hoop is not typically needed in the true Powderpuff Tutu.
The Balanchine/Karinska tutu had six or seven layers of gathered net, each layer a half inch longer than the preceding layer. They were short and the alignment was fluid and inexact. The layers were tacked together to allow the fluffy, loose, ephemeral look to float over the dancer’s legs and descend from below the dancer’s waist. This is the tutu that little girls dream of, that inspires them to dance. This tutu, more than any other, has come to symbolize our notion of ballet. It has become ballet’s icon.
It was this union of Balanchine and Karinska that made a standard of ballet, a new look in 1950, a classic now, known as the Balanchine – Karinska – tutu. Because of its similarity to a powder puff it was called the powder puff tutu.

The Symphony in C tutu prototype debuted upon the stage worn by forty dancers. Balanchine said, “I attribute to her fifty percent of the success of my ballets to those that she has dressed.”
The seventy-five Balanchine ballets Karinska dressed have been her most notable accomplishment. She was an established implementer of costumes and designer of costumes before she came to the American Ballet.

The First Chiffon Dance Dress was made for for Allegero Brillante made by Karinska for Balanchine

Fouree Fantasque Karinska and Balanchine

At the age of sixty-three in 1949 Balanchine asked Karinska to design costumes for Fouree Fantasque. In was in 1956 in Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante, that Karinska created another ballet standard that dancers today simply take for granted: the knee length chiffon ballet dress.

The pancake tutu with the wire hoop had a life of its own. Balanchine wanted a tutu that followed the dancer’s moves and did not detract the eye to the tutu from the dancer and reverberate after the dancer’s movements. The construction of the powder puff tutu with its loosely tacked layers which supported one another and was not supported by the wire, eliminated the need for the wire. Karinska demonstrated that she understood she knew how to make a tutu … and in more than one way!

I have been contacted regarding Karinska’s husband from Russia and his post-revolutionary life in New York. The suggestion has been made that the interpretation given is not a fair one. I have offered an entire webpage for his descendants to post their version of the Karinska life and will get it posted as soon as it is received. I will post their images and their story as they relate it. 3/15/06. I continue to await their forwarding of the information.

Coco Channel and the Ballet Russes

In addition to fashion, Chanel was a popular figure in the Paris literary and artistic worlds. She designed costumes for the Ballets Russes and for Jean Cocteau’s play Orphée, and counted Cocteau and artist Pablo Picasso among her friends. For a time, Chanel had a relationship with composer Igor Stravinsky.

In 1925, Chanel established her placed in fashion forever introducing the Chanel suit we all know with the with collarless jacket and well-fitted skirt. Her designs were revolutionary for the time—borrowing elements of men’s wear and emphasizing comfort over the constraints of then-popular fashions. She helped women say good-bye to the days of corsets and other confining garments.

Another 1920s revolutionary design was Chanel’s little black dress. She took a color once associated with mourning and showed just how chic it could be for evening wear. In the 1920s Chanel met the wealthy duke of Westminster aboard his yacht around 1923, and the two started a decades-long relationship. In response to his marriage proposal, she reportedly said “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster—but there is only one Chanel!”

Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, The Firebird, premiered June 25, 1910, on the stage of The Paris Grand Opera, earning the Russian composer worldwide fame to be followed by the Rite of Spring. Stravinsky and Chanel both died in 1971. Subsequently, Karl Lagerfeld, as the head of Chanel tried his hand at tutu design for Swan Lake. Link here.

Stravinsky and Diaghilev of the Ballet Russes in 1921

The Original Firebird Costuming by Leon Bakst in 1910

Powder Puff Tutu before Karinska

Harriet Hoctor was a burlesque and vaudeville dancer of the 1920’s and 1930’s. She participated in a ballet dance form known as “toe tapping.” Toe shoes were fitted with steel toes and shanks. She performed on Broadway, at the Hippodrome in London and in film. She would amaze audiences with a backbend while doing bourees en pointe. She zipped through pique turns at fantastic speed. The first powder puff tutu was actually worn by Hariett Hoctor in the Ziegfield Follies. Harriet had always known how to make a tutu but it was this new, short, puffy, sexy design that was so unique and set her apart.

Tutu for Your Family’s Heirloom

It is the powder puff tutu more than any other symbol of ballet that little girls cherish. Mothers often begin attaching net to elastic for these little ones when they are first beginning to walk. There are children born who simply demand to dance and must have these tutus and as they grow their desire and need for tutus grow.

Making a tutu is not an impossible task and purchasing a tutu can at times be cost prohibitive, particularly for junior high girl who will outgrow them within the year. College students studying dance are often on a limited budget. Anyone can make a tutu. Although they look daunting and mysterious they are really made by the simplest of techniques. There is no question that their beauty is beyond compare and that is the reason they have come to symbolize ballet.

But there is much more to the tutu than meets the eye. The exterior ephemeral, delicate beauty should be supported by an interior that supports the dancer and the exterior while it absorbs the perspiration that is the inevitable result of the strenuous on stage performance. The aesthetic beauty of a tutu must be supported by construction which allows “give” in its application so that the dancer can move. A tutu is an enhancement to a dance and should never be a restriction.

Importance of Detail

When building a tutu it is easy to think the audience will never see the detail, and that is true the detail itself may not been seen but it is the cumulation of exquisite detail that the audience senses. Detail is essential, not just for the audience but for the dancer. Building a tutu is an act mostly of love. No one could afford to pay you for the time required to build an exquisite tutu.

Every dressmaker detail added such as cording studded with tiny seed pearls where the frills first meet the basque add an elegance that perhaps only those on the first few rows may see, but the sense of detail will carry to the last row and equally as important it was carry itself to the dancer. A tutu crafted with love for your favorite dancer is a gift not everyone can give nor everyone receive. It is special and it is an heirloom. If it is well made it should last for a hundred years and continue to be usable and wearable.

Karinska was noted for her details.

Overall Construction of a Tutu

This section assumes the goal is to construct a professional tutu. If you want an easy tutu look to Halloween Tutu.

A professional tutu can be achieved on the first attempt. However, some may prefer to use inexpensive fabrics for a trial run if they are unsure of their sewing skills. Others may be making a costume for a child with an eye toward constructing a professional tutu later.

Sewing is like cooking, there are very few mistakes which cannot be undone. However, there are some essentials in sewing. A seamstress’ tools are as important as any craftsman’s tools.

The use of less expensive fabrics will not reduce the time and effort involved in the construction of a tutu.

The embellishment of the finished product is unquantifiable in terms of time and effort. However, the finished embellished tutu is never directly related to the quantity of time input. Some finished tutus can be elegant and simple and some can be overdone and garish. Good taste and appropriateness for the dancer and the ballet govern all embellishment decisions. You can learn everything you will ever need to know about style and taste from Karinska!

Images from Karinska Display

Link here to NYC Ballet Gallery: http://www.nycballet.com/researchers/archive/bedecked.html








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