Magic, mystery and ethereal beauty are all characteristics reflecting the concerns of the Romantic Ballet period (roughly 1832-1850). Themes in these ballets were preoccupied with the raging internal conflicts of anxiety and desires, humankind and nature, and the links between society and the supernatural, with stories of spiritual creatures like sylphs and the Wilis, the souls of virgin young women who died before marriage, betrayed by their lovers.
Ballet blanc, which means the “white ballet,” appeared for the first time in 19th century Romantic ballet. Representing the spiritual realm, in the second acts of La Sylphide (1832), Giselle (1841), and Swan Lake (1877), ballerinas performed in white tutus, portraying lovelorn beauties seeking unattainable love that blooms beyond the grave. The tradition of the ballet blanc was a radical departure from the national dances of the era, the latter of which were “viewed as interchangeable divertissements,” says historian Lynn Garafola.
Ballerinas portraying sylphs and other ethereal creatures wore an emblematic costume: long, filmy, cloudlike, virginal white tulle ballet dresses, or tutus, with several underskirts, introduced beneath their tailored bodice. In the supernatural realm of the Wilis, the tutus arguably make an essential contribution to this unearthly atmosphere. Their whiteness recalls the reflection of the light of the moon. This “look,” replicated by the entire ensemble, was subsequently immortalized in many lithographs of the era.
Writer Robert Grescovic notes that ballet costuming “got inalterably changed with the advent of the ‘sylphide’ dress of Marie Taglioni.” The ballerina, who took audiences by storm in the ballet La Sylphide, choreographed by her father Filippo Taglinoni, was known for shortening her skirts, with her hemline falling between the knee and the ankle. The tutu’s diaphanous quality gave the dancer’s movements a light, ethereal and floating quality, making it look like Taglioni flew in the performance, and prominently showing off her excellent pointe work and seemingly effortless technique.