The Life of a Tutu

Travis Magee

If tutus could talk, they'd tell some pretty amazing stories. According to Jason Hadley, New York City Ballet's costume shop manager, tutus often “live" for several decades, lending their transformative powers to multiple generations of ballerinas. Sometimes that history can even act as a good luck charm. What young dancer wouldn't want to perform in a tutu once worn by Suzanne Farrell?

DS went inside the NYCB costume shop to get a detailed look at an especially spectacular tutu: Odette's costume from George Balanchine's one-act Swan Lake. This particular tutu was “born" in 1986, the year designer Alain Vaes reimagined the production's sets and costumes. Since then, it's been worn by three remarkable ballerinas: Darci Kistler, Monique Meunier and Wendy Whelan.


“The first time I danced Odette, it was at the School of American Ballet Workshop Performance, so I didn't have a tutu of my own. I wore one of the company's corps de ballet swan costumes. It was very simple, and it didn't have any real feathers. This tutu was my first real Swan Queen costume, and one of my favorite tutus of all time. I loved the little jewels and the low cut in the front—and, of course, the feathers. When I put it on, I instantly felt like a bird." —Darci Kistler

Like any 28-year-old piece of clothing, the tutu looks a little shabby these days. (Odette does a lot of intense dancing, after all.) But every tiny tear tells a story. And that special tutu-y magic? It's more powerful than ever.

“Wearing other dancers' tutus was so special. The first time I danced Dewdrop in The Nutcracker, George Balanchine put me in a costume worn previously by ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq, which had an extra-short skirt to show off your legs. That was a huge compliment!" —Darci Kistler

Photo by Travis Magee

Tutu Care

New York City Ballet's tutus don't survive into their 20s and 30s without a lot of help. After each performance, says NYCB costume shop manager Jason Hadley, every tutu is inspected for rips and stains, which are addressed immediately. It's difficult to wash a whole tutu, but the wardrobe department has special potions that can get makeup and sweat out of even the most delicate silk fabrics.

Many tutus constructed more recently also have “pit pads" in the armpit areas, to help prevent sweat from seeping to the outside of the costume; the pads are changed out

and washed between each performance, too. Then, at the end of the season, every tutu is sent to a special dry cleaner for a more thorough cleaning.

Storage poses another interesting challenge. Some tutus are hung upside-down, to help preserve their shape. Newer tutus, though, are often stored in specialized containers. In 2012, for example, NYCB created 36 Swarovski-crystal–encrusted tutus for its production of Symphony in C. “They live in customized crates, where they lie flat on individual shelves," Hadley says. “That keeps them nice and perky." Some tutus are stored in the basement of the company's home, Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater. But costumes for bigger productions—like A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Sleeping Beauty—are kept in NYCB's warehouse in New Jersey.

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