Dance Costume

Medieval dance costume
Medieval dance costume

The relationship between dance and dance costumes is complex and does not simply reflect dance practice in a specific period, but also social behavior and cultural values. Dance costumes can be divided into the following categories: historical, folk or traditional, ballroom, modern, and musical dance costumes. Influence has spread from fashion to dance and back again.

Historical Dance Costumes

From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, festivities at European courts required highly elaborate dance costumes. The style of court dance costumes tended to be similar to everyday dress of the period, incorporating, for example, laced corsets, puffed and slashed sleeves, farthingales with skirts and applied decoration. In the early twenty-first century, the reproduction of historical dance costumes was evident in the activities of historical dance organizations, such as the Institute for Historical Dance Practice (IHDP) in Ghent, Belgium.

Folk-Dance Costumes

Bavarian folk dance costume
Bavarian folk dance costume

From the fifteenth century onward, folk dance developed steadily in Europe. The field of European folk-dance costumes is very complex, as each of the country's regions has its own dances, dress, and customs. Eastern European folk dances, such as czardas, mazurkas, and polkas, soon spread to England and France. Folk-dance costumes reflected the East European look in the use of bright colors on dark backgrounds. Costumes were often highly decorated with beads, metal, and silk threads. The basic women's dress was a short, light-colored chemise and a petticoat, over which several layers of fabric were worn. A draped headdress indicated the marital status of the wearer (fancy headgear indicated that the girl was unmarried). European folk dance formed the basis for square-dance activities. European settlers who came to America introduced this special type of country dance and its costume first in New England, but before long, square dance started to spread across the country. Evening dress was the standard outfit for dancers: ankle-length hooped skirts for the women and formal jackets for men. During the following two centuries, the cultural mix of European settlers in America has led to a variety of national folk-dance costumes. Farmer and cowboy dance wear were mainly based on components of everyday clothing: shirts, cotton trousers, and cowboy boots for men, and ankle-long cotton gingham dresses for women. The minuet, polka, waltz, and quadrille via France and England brought more elaborated dance costumes to America: tailored long-sleeve shirts and trousers in a Western-cut style for male dancers and full floral-embroidered skirts and blouses for females. Accessories such as Western belts, string ties, or silk kerchiefs completed the square-dance outfit.

In the late 1990s, high-end designers such as Dolce & Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli, and Miu Miu had created an "urban cowboy look" with Western-inspired dress embellished with floral patterns on such articles of clothing as tuxedo shirts and jeans, as well as traditional pointedtoe cowboy boots.

In the early 2000s, amateur and professional female square dancers often wear double-swirl skirts with alternating ruffles in the fabric and wide white lace. The lace is used on bodice and sleeves, and an appliqué and bow are sewn on the fitted midriff. Male square dancers wear cowboy-style shirts with scarf tied around the collar, high-pocket jeans, and sometimes a cowboy hat. Pants cuffs are usually worn inside the cowboy boots. The United Square Dancers of America (USDA) booklet, Square Dance Attire, is probably the best resource for the history of square-dance costumes.

Belly-Dance Costumes

Belly Dancers
Belly Dancers

Oriental, or belly, dance originates from snakelike movements provided by the sisters of a woman giving birth as they tried to inspire her to deliver the baby. In 1893, belly dance was brought from the Arabic world to the United States on the occasion of the Chicago World's Fair. Exotic-colored fabrics embroidered with semiprecious stones, paillettes, and beads are characteristic of the style. Semitransparent tops with fringes reveal the stomach and navel while brassieres and wraparound skirts swing rhythmically to the beat of Middle Eastern music. Coin belts and hip scarves are an essential part of the belly-dance outfit. Sometimes belly dancers cover their face with a veil, especially when the dance is performed by a male dancer (cross-dressing). Alternatively, shoulder-to-floor-length beaded and sequinned tunics over harem pantaloons are worn. Historically, evidence points to the crucial influence of Islamic Orientalism in European fashion during the twentieth century, starting with the French designer Paul Poiret's use of the tunic shape and updating old-fashioned styles with exotic harem pants and veils wrapped around the body in the 1920s. In the 1990s, the prêt-à-porter and haute couture collections of Western European and American designers, such as Miguel Adrover, Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, and Rifat Ozbek, have been influenced by Oriental belly-dance costumes. Nancy Lindis farne-Tapper's

Languages of Dress in the Middle East is a detailed source about Middle Eastern dress in both the ancient and the modern world.

Ballroom-Dance Costumes

Ballroom Dancers
Ballroom Dancers

From the early nineteenth century, ballroom dances were taken up by a broad public, and special evening dresses were designed to fit these occasions. The waltz, fox-trot, polka, mazurka, and Viennese waltz required an elegant style. By the twentieth century, dance costumes for the tango, swing and Latin, Charleston, rumba, bolero, chacha, mambo, and samba were more erotic.

Modern-Dance Costumes

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Isadora Duncan's natural movements on stage characterized a new era for dance. Duncan's modern dance style has been influenced by Greek art, folk dances, social dances, and athleticism. Free-flowing costumes and loose hair permitted a great freedom of dance movement. After World War I, modern-dance groups emerged with predominantly female dancers. During the following decades, avant-garde choreographers, such as George Balanchine and Martha Graham, and later Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, and Pina Bausch, reformed and liberalized traditional dance and its costumes. Moving away from traditional ballet techniques, modern dance gave rise to a new era of costuming. Costumes and makeup took on a unisex look as choreographers felt it less relevant to differentiate female and male dancers. Theater designers experimented with seminude costumes: transparent T-shirts and short black trunks for men and simple bodices and plain tights for women were the standard outfits.

In 1934, neoclassical dance choreographer George Balanchine was the first to dress ballet dancers in rehearsal practice clothes for public performances. The use of noncolors characterized Balanchine's costumes, which were almost always black and white. His sense for minimalism on the stage developed through the revealing of nudity.

Professional and Amateur Ballroom Dress

Tango Dancers
Tango Dancers

Tango Dress:

Usually one piece with a tight-fitting top and a swinging bottom slit high to reveal the leg. Stretch materials are used to guarantee a tight silhouette. The dance dress is often highly decorated with rhinestones, beadings, glitter and paillettes.

Swing and Latin Dress:

Very similar to tango dresses, but the much shorter hem-line makes the dress more sexual and can reveal the complete leg. Animal prints such as tiger or leopard intensify the wild connotation of these dresses.

Waltz and Fox-Trot Dress:

Elegant one-piece dress often made in expensive lightweight silks or satins. A wide-swinging, ankle-length style intensifies the soft movements of these dances.

Charleston Dress:

The necessary freedom of movement was guaranteed by knee-length shirt-dresses embroidered with glass beads and paillettes. The lightweight dress and long fringes made it swing rhythmically according to the movements of the dance, which was part of the lifestyle of the Roaring Twenties and became the most popular American dance in Germany and Europe; thanks in great part to Josephine Baker, who gave performances in 1927 with her Charleston Jazz Band in Berlin.

Polka and Mazurka Dress:

Folkloric traditional dress with colorful print design and usually a peasant blouse and a wraparound skirt embellished with opulent frills and garlands. During the 1970s, peasant blouses became very fashionable in everyday clothing, and high-end designers such as Emilio Pucci designed ethnic-style garments with embroideries and frills. Floral peasant blouses with soft ruffled hems had a revival in the late 1990s when designer brands such as Yves Saint Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino, and Christian Dior created a folkloric fashion theme.

Rumba and Samba Dress:

With contrasting ruffles on the skirt and sleeves, this dress is often designed in a Caribbean style with bright colors.

Cha-Cha Dress:

A two-piece dress with a tight-fitting top and a wide offthe-shoulder neckline, while the skirt is full and flounced at the bottom. Rhinestones are usually attached to the fabric to give a glamorous effect.

Martha Graham was one of the first to promote dance without pointe shoes on stage. In Diversion of Angels (1948), she dressed female dancers in draperies, and men were almost naked. Isamu Noguchi-inspired special crowns and hat pins by Graham became particularly famous as part of the modern-dance costume. Newly in vented cuts made skirts and dance dress appear like trousers, permitting a great freedom of movement. At the beginning, Graham's dances were performed on a bare stage, which underlined the minimalism she demonstrated in the costumes. Later on, she also replaced the traditional ballet tunics of male dancers and the folk dress and tutus of female dancers with straight, often dark and long shirts or rehearsal leotards. Awarded the Medal of Freedom in October 1976, Martha Graham was the first dancer to receive that distinction.

In the 1950s, costumes of Balanchine-and Graham-oriented contemporary dance choreographers, such as Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, tended to continue an emphasis on the seminude style, though prints on leotards personalized the individual contemporary dance style and its costumes. In 1958, the artist Robert Rauschen-berg created shiny silky tights speckled with rainbow dots for Cunningham's Summerspace. The designs of choreographer and costume designer Alwin Nikolais influenced the contemporary stage with performances such as Noumenon Mobilus (1953) and Imago (1963).

Musical-Dance Costumes

Evidence of musical theatres date to the eighteenth century when two forms of this song-and-dance performance emerged in Britain, France, and Germany: ballad operas, such as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), and later on comic operas, such as Michael Balfe's The Bohemian Girl (1843). At this time, many plays had short runs, and stage costumes were often based on everyday-dress design. In the late 1880s, comic operas conquered Broadway in New York, and plays, including Robin Hood, were designed for popular audiences. From the 1880s until the 1920s, the musical-comedy genre in London emerged, and designers such as Lady Duff-Gordon, known as Lucile, elaborated fashionable costumes for singers and dancers. In the early 1920s, tap-dance techniques were popularized and specially designed tap-dance shoes were available on the open market.

Men in Tights: The Male Dancer

In Russia, male dancers are highly regarded, and usually classical ballet training is the basis for a career in dance. Though a growing interest in dance exists among boys in other countries, many are too shy to take dance lessons and be obliged to wear tights, commonly considered a female article of clothing. Therefore, certain dance schools allow young male students to practice in T-shirts and short pants. Under the practice clothes, dancers usually wear suspensories, designed to isolate and support the testicles. Alternatively, a dance belt, specialized underwear, can be worn under tights. In both cases, the pouch in front is triangular, tight, and nearly flat to give support and form during dance moves. The subject of masculinity in dance has received popular treatment in such movies as The Children of Theatre Street (1977) and Billy Elliot (2000). Ramsay Burt's book The Male Dancerexplores the subject of masculinity in dance in greater depth.

Tap-Dance Shoes: Famous Sounds

The origins of tap dance, a style of American theatrical dance with percussive footwork, lie in slave dances in the southern states that incorporated African movement and rhythm into European jigs and reels in the early nineteenth century. Tap dance was adopted in theaters from 1840, and clogging in leather-soled shoes became more and more popular. At the fin-desiècle, turn of the century, two different styles of tap-dance shoes had been established: stiff wooden-sole shoes, also called buck-and-wing, made popular by the duo Jimmy Doyle and Harland Dixon, and soft leather-sole shoes popularized by George Primrose. In the 1920s, metal plates (taps) had been attached to leather-sole shoes, which made a loud sharp sound on the floor. In the 1940s and 1950s, dancers such as Fred Astaire, Paul Draper, and Gene Kelly popularized tap shoes to a wider audience through the medium of Hollywood films.

In the fifties, musicals such as My Fair Lady (1956) surprised the audiences with numerous costume changes. Costume designer Cecil Beaton had created costumes enhancing the transformation of Eliza, the main character, from a common flower vendor into a society lady. In 1975, Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line opened on Broadway, and aerobic and dance outfits became popular on stage and in everyday life. Bright neon shades in pink, green, and yellow dominated the range of colors. Dance tights, leggings, headbands, and wristlets spread from stage to fashion and vice versa. In 1988, the musical Fame, inspired by the movie and TV series, opened in London and reflected the fashion of the eighties, showing leotards and shorts. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, A. R. Rahman's Bollywood musical Bombay Dreams (2002) opened in London, and its Indian costumes demonstrated the ethnic influence on stage design.

See also Dance and Fashion; Ballet Costume; Music and Fashion; Theatrical Costume.


Balasescu, Alexandre. "Tehran Chic: Islamic Head Scarves, Fashion Designers and New Geographies of Modernity." Fashion Theory 7 (2003): 1.

Buonaventura, Wendy, and Ibrahim Farrah. Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World. Northampton, Mass.: Interlink Publishing Group, 1994.

Burt, Ramsay. The Male Dancer: Bodies, Spectacle, Sexualities. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Carter, Alexandra. The Routledge Dance Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

Dodd, Craig. The Performing World of the Dancer. London: Breslich & Foss, 1981.

Lindisfarne-Tapper, Nancy, and Bruce Ingham. Languages of Dress in the Middle East. Surrey: Curzon, 1997.

Strong, Roy, Richard Buckle, and Ivor Guest. Designing for the Dancer. London: Elron Press Ltd., 1981.

Internet Resources

Education Committee of the United Square Dancers of America, Inc. USDA Booklet B-018. USDA Publications, 1997. Available from .

Institute for Historical Dance Practise (IHDP) 2004. Available from .

Dance Costume