I recently posted a short piece on The Weaver Dance Company website about the skirt lengths of female professional dancers. Here, I would like to look more closely at this topic which has concerned me for as many years as I have practised baroque dance.
The story still told regularly in popular histories of dancing is that Marie-Anne de Camargo, the great French ballerina of the mid-18th century, was the first to shorten her skirts in order to show off her brilliant footwork. The famous portrait of her by Nicolas Lancret, painted in 1730, supports this idea by showing her with a mid-calf length skirt.
Yet, in her entry for Mlle Camargo within the International Encyclopedia of Dance, Régine Astier (a specialist in the period) says bluntly that ‘there is no evidence to support the legend’.
What do we know about skirt lengths among ballerinas in ballet’s early years?
If we look back to the late 17th century, we find that female characters danced by male courtiers did wear shorter skirts than their female counterparts. These two designs come from the 1654 French court ballet Les Noces de Pélée et de Thétis. On the left is a Dame de la cour de Pélée performed by a male dancer and on the right the muse Erato performed by a female dancer.
We also find indications that female professional dancers showed more of their legs than was possible in an elaborate floor-length gown. Marquise-Thérèse de Gorla, known as Mlle Du Parc, was a member of Molière’s troupe and a dancer as well as an actress. She attracted attention when she performed ‘certain remarkable cabrioles – for one could see her legs and part of her thighs through the slit in her skirt’. There are several references to female professional dancers of this period performing jumps and cabrioles. Was Mlle Du Parc’s costume something like this design for a Divinité marine from the 1665 Ballet de la Naissance de Vénus?
The long underskirt seems to be a lightweight material, which would be less inhibiting than the heavily decorated skirts so often seen in late 17th-century designs.
Towards the end of the 17th century, there are depictions of women holding up their skirts to dance. While this would seem to confirm the floor-length skirt it also suggests that women commanded a dance technique for which the feet needed to be unimpeded and visible. This costume for a Nayade comes from the ballet Le Triomphe de l’Amour of 1681 – according to Jérôme de la Gorce in Berain, Dessinateur du Roi Soleil it may well be for the professional production staged a few months after the ballet was given at court.
The following illustration, linked to Campra’s 1699 opéra-ballet Le Carnaval de Venise, also shows a female professional dancer in a lightweight skirt.
This late 17th-century engraved portrait of Mlle Desmatins ‘dansant à l’opéra’ is notable for its knee-length skirt – In The Pre-Romantic Ballet, Marian Hannah Winter suggests that she may have been dancing en travesti.
Her costume seems to belong to same period as the familiar depiction of Marie-Thérèse de Subligny in an elaborate, and seemingly unyielding, gown.
Mlle Subligny is one of the earliest ballerinas for whom we have surviving dances. The solo Passacaille d’Armide, created for her by Guillaume-Louis Pecour and danced when she visited London in the winter of 1701-02, has an elaborately ornamented vocabulary with many small jumps, beats and turns. As I have said elsewhere, why create such virtuosic choreography if none of the steps can be seen (assuming that the ballerina could indeed perform them in such a dress)?
I believe that this image of Terpsichore from the end of the 17th century gives us a much better idea of the costumes that Mlle Subligny and other ballerinas would actually have worn.
Once we reach the 18th century and the London stage there is further evidence for shorter skirts, although this comes from much the same period as Lancret’s portrait of La Camargo. The portrait of Hester Santlow as Harlequine, in a floor-length costume, is well known. However, in a little-known (and not very good) copy she is known to have owned herself, she has a skirt which is noticeably shorter.
The dates of these Harlequine portraits are not entirely certain, but both are likely to have been painted by the early 1720s.
One of Mrs Santlow’s dancing roles was Diana in ‘The Masque of the Deities’ which concluded the smash-hit pantomime Harlequin Doctor Faustus, given at Drury Lane in 1723. There is no image of her as Diana, but the description of the character in a scenario of the pantomime published at the time may well reflect what she wore.
‘She is pictur’d of a middle Stature, her Hair loose, a Bow in her Hand, and a Quiver of Arrows hanging at her Shoulders; a Deer-Skin fasten’d to her Breast, a Gown of Purple, tuck’d up to her Knees with Jewels; her Legs adorn’d with Buskins up to the Calf, her Dress, tho’ careless, handsome; her Behaviour free and easy, tho’ modest and decent.’
Like Mlle Subligny, Mrs Santlow’s surviving dances reveal a virtuoso technique with a vocabulary that is full of small jumps, beats and turns – impossible to see, or execute, in a heavy floor-length dress.
Marcellus Laroon’s charming depiction of a couple dancing, apparently on a stage, shows the girl in a soft mid-calf length skirt.
It may date to the 1720s.
Better known is the 1731 satirical print showing Mrs Laguerre and Francis Nivelon dancing in the Lincoln’s Inn Fields pantomime Perseus and Andromeda. It was given an equally satirical review in the Grub-Street Journal for 25 February 1731. The writer pays some attention to Mrs Laguerre’s skirts, complaining that ‘the woman’s petticoats, in that ever memorable dance, which should have been at least some inches above the knee, are here no higher than the calf of the leg’.
What should we make of the way in which Mrs Laguerre’s skirts are tucked up at the front? Further research and analysis are needed but, taken together with Mrs Santlow’s depiction as Harlequine and description as Diana, it further suggests that female professional dancers in London were routinely wearing skirts as short as or even shorter than Mlle Camargo’s by at least the 1720s.
I haven’t ventured into the topic of female fashions in the years around 1700, which would also shed light on costume for stage dancing, but it begins to seem that Lancret’s painting of La Camargo records a well-established convention for the length of a ballerina’s skirt rather than a revolution in costuming.