An Ongoing Romance: Ballets Russes and Fashion

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The relationship between art and society has always existed as a symbiosis, where ideas go back-and-forth, are reconsidered, reimagined, and then left for interpretation. One of my favorite dialogues between society and art happens to be between Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and exoticism in fashion. In particular, I would like to highlight the jaw-droppingly gorgeous costume illustrations of Leon Bakst.

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To begin, Serge Diaghilev was a Russian impresario and businessman. When he created his Parisian dance troupe, Ballets Russes, in 1909, he aroused the otherwise sleepy world of ballet– a world that relied on classic costume and unwaveringly traditional choreography. He brought with him a current of new. Into the world of Ballets Russes, he threw pinches of abstract, cubist, and surreal art, and spiced it all with generous doses of “Orientalism.” He called upon his drool-worthy roster of artist friends (from Picasso to Igor Stravinsky) to help him construct his fantasy of bright colors, geometrics, rich textures, and exotic influences.

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Cat. No. 126 / File Name: 3413-183.jpg Sonia Delaunay Costume for title role from Cleopatra, 1918 silk, sequins, mirror and beads, wool yarn, metallic thread braid, lamé center back length: 45 1/8 in. (114.62 cm) headdress: 22.69 × 14.63 × 12.63 cm (8 15/16 × 5 3/4 × 5 in.) Overall mannequin footprint: 67 x 36 x 20 inches. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Costume Council Fund © Pracusa 2012003 Digital Image © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA. Licensed by Art Resource, NY

Most instrumental to the creation of Diaghilev’s sumptuous illusion, Ballets Russes, were the costume designs of Leon Bakst. Bakst’s artistic inventions went on to inspire then-contemporary designers– most notably Paul Poiret. Later, He inspired Yves Saint Laurent to create one of his most celebrated haute couture collections: the 1976 “Belle Russe” collection. Even a century later, Bakst’s beautiful designs and the impact of Ballets Russes can be detected in high fashion, from Galliano to Alexander McQueen. The romance between haute couture and Ballets Russes continues!


Yves Saint Laurent “Belle Russe”


Bakst costume (left), Poiret (right)




By cliocult

If you're reading this, you're probably semi-curious about history, culture and fashion, and wondering who the heck has been writing these wonderful pieces about yester-year and sartorial subject matter! ;) Well, I have a BA in Social History, through Empire State College, and an MA in Costume History, through NYU Steinhardt. My love of fashion and textile history dovetails neatly somewhere in between the region of my over-stuffed walk-in closet (where my cherished vintage wardrobe lives), and my role as a fashion researcher and curatorial assistant intern. Basically, I wear the history that I so adore on my back!

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