This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
Jessa CrispinBack to OpinionJessa Crispin

How ballet changed the world

“The night in May, 1909, when Diaghilev, the impresario, brought his troupe of musicians, dancers, designers, and choreographers to Paris and opened in a theater was the turning point for all the arts. Those brilliant colors and bold rhythms put an end to the paleness and primness of the early part of the century. Nothing has ever been the same since.”

That is Diana Vreeland, fashion designer and style icon, describing the way Ballets Russes took Paris by storm in the early years of the 20th century. When Sergei Diaghilev, a penniless Russian aristocrat, realized he would never be a great artist himself, he decided to become a patron, a collaborator, a catalyst. And through his passion and hard work, he attracted talent like Coco Chanel, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Leon Bakst, Vaslav Nijinsky, to name just a few. Together they created ballets and operas that changed every facet of the art world, from music and dance to fashion and design.

In “Ballets Russes Style: Diaghilev’s Dancers and Paris Fashion,” Mary E. Davis tells the story of a world-changing collective, and how we are all still living under their influence. I conducted an interview with Davis over e-mail about her new book, and the collective power of one man’s vision.

With the Ballets Russes exhibition at the V&A in London, a new biography of Diaghilev and art scholars like John E. Bowlt writing about Bakst’s place in Russian art history, it seems like the Ballets Russes is having something of a resurgence. What drew you personally to begin researching and writing about this era?

As a girl, I studied both ballet and piano, and when it came to music I was especially drawn to the work of French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925). When I eventually settled on a topic for my Ph.D. dissertation (in musicology), I decided to explore one of Satie’s most elegant and unconventional works — the album “Sports et divertissements,” which matches short pieces for piano with luxurious color illustrations created by one of the top French fashion illustrators of the day, Charles Martin. In doing the research for this project, I was surprised to discover that Satie had deep ties to the world of haute couture; these relationships resonated in his musical aesthetic and informed his offbeat compositional style, and they made him an appealing prospect for Diaghilev, who — especially during World War I — was interested in involving cutting-edge French composers with his troupe. Satie’s score for the ballet “Parade,” commissioned by Diaghilev in 1917, involved him not only with the high-style world of the Ballets Russes, but also with three of the great artists of the day: Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Léonide Massine. Once I began to study this ballet – the centerpiece of which is a ragtime dance for a “Little American Girl” modeled on silent screen star Mary Pickford, but which also features some of Picasso’s most avant-garde stage costumes – I was hooked on the challenge of trying to understand how music, fashion and art coalesced to define (or at least help define) a new modernist aesthetic.

While the Ballets Russes worked with artists like Coco Chanel and Pablo Picasso, one of the most influential designers, for both costume and sets, was Leon Bakst. He was feted during his time but has become somewhat forgotten. Can you talk a little bit about the influence his stunning costume work and art had on the fashion world and his role in the ballet company?

Bakst is a fascinating character. Although his primary role within the Ballets Russes was the creation of costumes, he was also well known in the first decades of the 20th century as a visual artist and fashion designer. These three lines of work were related and mutually reinforcing. Perhaps not surprisingly, Bakst’s costumes, designed for and seen first on the ballet stage, became the subjects of his paintings and drawings, and were featured in the deluxe color plates he produced to accompany articles or reviews about the Ballets Russes that appeared in high-end, high-style publications such as La Gazette du Bon Ton. Less conventional was his crossover from costume to couture, made in 1912 with the assistance of leading fashion designer Jeanne Paquin. Bakst provided the concepts and Paquin’s atelier realized the vision, creating “street dresses” inspired by his Ballets Russes productions, from orientalizing fantasies à la “Schéhérazade” to the antiquity evoked by works such as “L’Après-midi d’un faune.” The fashion world took note: shortly after the collection was introduced, Vogue magazine ran an article heralding “The Bakst-Paquin Combination,” noting that Bakst’s foray into designing dresses for “les élégantes of the 20th century” was “inevitable” given his “wonderful eye for color and line and his sense of picturesqueness.” In keeping with his artistic stance, Bakst gave the ensembles evocative names, such as “Isis,” “Psyche” and “Philomèle,” thus creating further resonance with Diaghilev’s ballets and their subjects.

Select an image to enlarge.

Georges Lepage 'Serais-je en avance? Manteau de Théâtre de Paul Poiret,' Gazette du Bon Ton, December 1912. Artist's Rights Society (ARS) New York / ADAGP Paris, Photo © 2010 Merrill David

Marie Koustnetzoff in 'La Légende de Joseph,' Comoedia illustré, 20 May 1914

Georges Lepape, 'Les Choses de Paul Poiret vue par Georges Lepape,' 1911. Artist's Rights Society (ARS) New York / ADAGP Paris, © 2010

Dancers in 'Daphnis et Chloé,' Comoedia illustré, 1 June 1912

What was the importance of the role of fashion in modernism? It’s often overlooked or dismissed, yet the haute couture world was very tied into the visual arts, dance, etc. And also, what makes you write about this topic, both in this book and in your (very interesting, I have to say) “Classic Chic”?

In the largest sense, fashion is both a fundamental expression of modernism and a force that plays on modernism. I would argue that this has been true since the moment either concept took shape: when the notion of “fashion” as a field distinct from “dress” evolved sometime in the 15th century, its defining and central paradox was that clothing (and all that attends it to create “fashion”) somehow had to both evoke the current moment while remaining premised on an imperative of constant change. With the emergence of haute couture in the mid-19th century, this tension intensified, in part because the new breed of clothing designers – who now styled themselves “couturiers” – likened their work to that of painters, musicians and even literary figures, thus elevating fashion to the rank of art. Charles-Frederick Worth, whose heyday was the latter part of the 19th century, was the first to take this tack, and he set a powerful model for the for the artist/couturiers who followed, including Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel. These two, in turn, built on Worth’s foundation by actually involving themselves as artists in a variety of endeavors: Poiret created stage costumes and décors for a number of theatrical productions, while Chanel created costumes for Jean Cocteau’s production of “Antigone” and for the ballet “Le Train Bleu,” premiered by Diaghilev’s troupe in 1924.

Poiret and Chanel held sway in fashion just as the aesthetic now conventionally recognized as “modernism” was emerging; there can be no doubt that their work both reflected and informed this new set of ideals and approaches. In Poiret’s case, this was evident not only in his clothing designs, which were in sync with the modernist trend toward abstraction thanks to their straighter silhouettes and vividly colored fabric, but also in the other arms of his fashion enterprise, which included perfume production and interior design. Likewise, the streamlined simplicity of Chanel’s clothing aligned with modernist impulses, right down to her development of the Little Black Dress — a garment so abstract that one iteration of it could barely be distinguished from another. These are just a two oversimplified examples; the story of fashion’s relation to modernism is incredibly complex and expansive, and beyond abstraction there are many binding ties, such as the mix of high and low culture, and an openness to radical new approaches.

Finally, I write about this topic because I find it ceaselessly fascinating and still relevant. A trip to fashion week, a flip through Vogue or the Financial Times, a visit to a museum — or especially to its shop — will make that clear!