The Intersection of Fashion and Dance: From Ballet to Hip-Hop to Contemporary

Dance and fashion have always been intertwined. From performing in specific costumes to the unique style of dressing dancers bring to the stage, the interplay between fashion and dance is endlessly fascinating. Throughout history, choreographers, dancers, costume designers, and fashion designers have all used their art forms to capture the changing movements of popular culture, having left no era untouched. From classic ballet to hip-hop and beyond, here is a look at the powerful interplay between fashion and dance from the past to the present.

Ballet and European Court Fashions

The first instance of fashion and dance melding together can be traced back to the late 16th century, when European courts began to promote social dances like the pavane and the galiard. As these dances were performed in public, more elaborate costumes were designed to showcase the wealth, social status, and prestige of those wearing them. Later, the codified technique of the French ballet was met with a similarly corseted form of dress, often called the grace and line style. Tight and constricting, the lush fabrics and intricate detail of these garments emulated and highlighted the complex technique of the dancers as they glided through each movement.

The Influence of Queen Victoria

As Queen Victoria ascended to the throne of England in the mid-19th century, the clean lines and minimalism of the popular aesthetics of the moment began to change. Although the lavishness of ballroom gowns and fancy dress still remained, the dramatic and sumptuous fabrics, and encrustation of jewels seen during the reign of the previous monarchs slowly began to dissipate in favor of a more refined but still ornate look. Lighter fabrics, a profusion of white, and a combination of fabrics and textures like feather, tulle, and lace were seen both in dance performance and in court fashions.

The Ballets Russes and Artistic Liberty

The beginning of the 20th century brought a massive shift in fashion and dance. As the Ballets Russes traveled and performed throughout Europe, they not only sparked a great interest in the Arts, but their extravagant costumes drew influence from sources diverse as Russian orthodox clothing, indigenous patterns, and the Art Nouveau movement. This integration of cultural influences, pairing the theatricality of costume design with the daring technical experiments of the choreography, gave birth to what was now called Modern Dance.

Jacques Doucet, Coco Chanel, and Ballets Suedois

The Roaring Twenties brought with it a sense of freedom and liberty to both fashion and dance. Parisian couturier Jacques Doucet created “Cubist-Ballet” costumes for the Ballets Suedois, a dance troupe begun by the well-known Swedish dancer and choreographer, Jean Börlin.

The arrival of Coco Chanel in the 1920s is another brilliant example of fashion and dance intertwining. With her focus on liberation from corsets and a flowing, minimalistic silhouette, Chanel drew inspiration from her own love of modern dance, pairing simple shapes with intricate embellishments and detailed fabrics. With Chanel at the helm of fashion and Börlin in the world of modern dance, the 1920s were an explosive era of inspiration and reinvention.

The Swing Era

The Swing Era of the 1930s and ’40s saw a combination of the conventions of earlier eras, while creating its own unique look. With swing music in full swing (pun intended), both fashion and dance were creating a sense of glamour and sophistication with formal evening gowns and tail suits. With the introduction of Big Band music, dancers also developed and perfected solo jazz techniques such as the jitterbug and the lindy hop, with art deco design and a mix of fabrics and colors evoking the style and glamour of the decade.

The Rock and Roll Generation

The 1950s brought a new wave of energy to both fashion and dance with the new sounds of rock and roll music. Fashion saw tight-fitting trousers, bright colors and patterns, and denim for young, urban influencers and dancers alike. The growing culture of exhibitionism in America saw a surge in the popularity of partnered dance styles such as the jive, cha-cha, and the twist—all of which were seen with even more eclectic fashion as the 1960s came along.

Contemporary Mashups and Innovations

Fast forward to modern day, and the combination of dance and fashion is ever-evolving. An intersection of classic and modern elements, from subtle allusions from the past to disruptive and innovative combinations of colors and cuts, the possibilities of what fashion and dance can create together are endless. Contextualizing the importance and message of popular culture and representing a range of lifestyles have become essential elements of performances embraced readily by cutting-edge fashion trends.

Famous contemporary dancers like the late Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, and Justin Timberlake have all pushed the boundaries of form and function both on stage and in fashion. As the world of hip-hop saw the rapid emergence of subcultures, street fashion and style, dancers found new ways to explore the possibilities of dance: breakdance, poppin’, locking, and waacking, just to name a few.

The Move Towards Gender Neutral and Sustainable Fashion

In more recent years, the state of fashion and dance has focused on breaking down the traditional gender stereotypes imposed on both forms. Contemporary designers and dancers alike have innovated and championed for gender fluidity and inclusivity in fashion and in performance, creating a greater sense of diversity in both art forms. With the increased presence of sustainable fashion within the industry, thanks to the integration of recycled and upcycled pieces within designer collections, and the use of eco-friendly fabrics for dance costumes, many are looking at the intersection of fashion and dance to help move the needle towards a more sustainable future.

From its earliest incarnations as a way to showcase the wealth and social status of those at court to its current incarnations as a form of cultural expression, the intersection of fashion and dance remains an enduring source of inspiration and innovation. As societal attitudes and technologies change, the forms and styles of both will continue to evolve, inspiring everything from new fabrics to groundbreaking moves on the dancefloor. In the end, there’s no doubt that the relationship between the two art forms will continue to shape and influence the way we dress and dance, now and in the decades to come.