As someone who spent 10 of my formative years studying ballet, I have no choice but to pay attention when the worlds of fashion and ballet intersect, which happens quite often. But as aesthetically pleasing as the ballet’s pink satin, sheer tights, delicate skirts, girly ties, quirky leg warmers, and voluminous tulle are, these crossovers don’t always spark in me the joy they seem to bring in others .
When a preview of Sandy Liang’s first shoe — a designer I’ve always been a fan of and whose NYFW show I loved attending — hit my inbox, I immediately felt this air of jaded dislike, even though she’s a Mary Jane punch line objectively delightful item that fits perfectly with the brand’s range of serotonin-boosting merchandise. But where was my serotonin? Two colleagues who are also former ballerinas shared that they felt similarly.
While I still love and respect ballet as an art form, my relationship with it is complicated, my memories of that time ranging from pure joy to severe physical and emotional pain. If I can cite a moment when the struggle of ballet began to outweigh the fun for me (and probably many former dancers) it was around the age of 12 or 13 when we were allowed to leave en tip. (Before that, the bones in the feet are not fully developed and pointework is more likely to cause permanent damage.) It’s an exciting time – I still remember the thrill of my first pointe fitting – that’s also shrouded in pain and confusion.
For one, it often coincides with the onset of puberty, which can very suddenly bring one’s body out of range of what has long been ideal in the world of ballet, which has its own challenges. In my case, it also didn’t take long for me to learn that I had (and still have) extra bones in my ankles that made it almost impossible for me to walk on tiptoe – a deeply unnatural position for any foot. (Had I decided to do ballet professionally, I would have had to have them surgically removed; luckily I didn’t.) And then there were the lost toenails, the plantar fasciitis, the blood…
That’s all to say that ballet, like many sports, is really, really hard, in ways that people who haven’t done it at a certain level can’t know (although movies like Center Stage ‘ and ‘Black Swan’ actually were). Indeed, the mark of a great ballet dancer is the ability to make everything look easy. Ballet also has a troubled reputation for exclusivity, its doors opening more readily to those with money, privilege, white skin, and a very specific body type, no wonder fashion people love it.
Fashion has always been inspired by ballet: in the 2000s, John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier created iconic gowns in homage to Edgar Degas; the New York City Ballet brings its choreographers together with notable designers for annual costume collaborations; and ballet has apparently always been a popular subject for fashion editorials, campaigns and videos. Ballet has been popping up in fashion quite a bit lately, from Rodarte’s celebrity-filled fall 2022 campaign and Miu Miu’s satin ballet flats dominating fashion week street style, to Liang’s latest collection and Simone Rocha’s ballet slippers and tulle skirts Just in London sent down the catwalk. Not to mention the rise of the “balletcore” aesthetic via TikTok.
Cuteness aside, actual dancers often have issues with the way they are portrayed in these instances — especially when a model with little or no dance experience is instructed to pose as a ballerina. The most famous example is Kendall Jenner, who did this with disastrously poor technique for Fashion España in 2016, which drew the ire of many dancers, including Abbey Lee Miller of Dance Moms and dance spirit Magazine.
“Fashion Spain I just posted a video with Kendall Jenner — and it’s very, very facepalm-ish,” the magazine wrote in a blog post at the time. “Why? Because they decided to dress Jenner in tutus and leg warmers and let her “do ballet” even though she clearly has no ballet training… the video is apparently some kind of little girl fantasy about ballerina flats. what ok But in our eyes, the whole thing reads quite disrespectful to the artists who devote their lives to this demanding craft.”
Over the years videos of Free People, vanity fair (c/o Petra Collins) and love drew similar criticism from the dance community. To the general public, I’m not sure if this criticism comes across as elitist or condescending or silly, but I understand it. As a ballet student, you’re drummed into perfect technique so intensely and so repeatedly that when you see Kendall Jenner do … whatever she’s doing in this video, your brain winces in horror — even if it’s been a decade since your last ballet class.
All in all, it’s quite refreshing to realize that it takes a designer some time to develop an understanding of the world of ballet before turning it into a salable product.
Whatever traumatic wall went up for me in response to Sandy Liang’s shoe press release began to fall when I saw her post this on Instagram. Instead of fear, it triggered nostalgia. As a young ballet student, I wrote letters to my favorite company members (ie, professional ballerinas) begging for an autographed pair of their used pointe shoes. In hindsight it’s pretty gross, but every time I got them back it was like Christmas morning. (I kept them all in a big basket in my bedroom and, no, it didn’t smell good.)
Backstage after her Spring 2023 runway show during New York Fashion Week — which featured a slew of ballet references alongside the Mary Jane Pointes — Liang explained how she tried to take her time, despite coming to ballet as a beginner to do things right.
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“I’ve always found ballet dancers so beautiful. My parents never sent me to ballet, even though I asked them to, but I remember getting a pair of pink satin slippers from Macy’s and pretending those were my ballet slippers,” she said. “I was obsessed pointe shoes because as a kid I couldn’t understand how they got on tiptoe and I drew them all the time.”
A few years ago, Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at American Ballet Theater (who posts almost as much casual outfit on Instagram as she dances), approached Liang about inviting her to one of her shows; Afterwards, Boylston gave her the autographed pair of pointe shoes pictured above.
“So I thought, wait, what if we did a Mary Jane with a real lace, with the structure, and it really looks like it.” She let me touch the pair she wore, and luckily, Liang’s Version softer and more comfortable than a true pointe shoe, but otherwise built very similarly.
Ultimately, finding the right shoe was a challenging two-year process, for which Liang actually sent the manufacturers a real pointe shoe for reference. “I really wanted them to do it right and make it beautiful,” she said. “I worked with two factories before finally deciding on this one and I was just so new to the game. I didn’t have a shoe specialist to help me from the start. But I’m really happy with how it turned out.”
That’s how it is for a lot of people, it seems. Within days of launch, the $495 Mary Jane Pointes sold out in all sizes and colors. A rep for the brand confirmed that they will be restocking them in two to three months and that there will be a pre-order “in the coming weeks.” Also, the brand’s future footwear launches are likely to see the lace shape in new silhouettes.
“For me, they are like an eternal shoe,” Liang said. “I feel like I’ll always be on top, and I just want to own that and express it in different ways.” In other words, ballet isn’t just a trend for Liang, however trendy it might be right now.
“I feel like ballet is just one of those things that will always be beautiful and timeless, and I’d rather respect it as a beautiful thing,” she said. “It can be trendy and current or whatever, but for me it will never lose its luster.”
But how does an actual professional ballet dancer feel about the moment ballet is back in fashion?
“I feel like so many fashion designers and pop culture ambassadors, they love ballet as a concept, but they don’t actually buy a ballet ticket. And I feel like Sandy actually made the time to come to shows and get to learn about my art form,” Boylston shared backstage after Liang’s show.
“What annoys me more than anything is when brands hire non-dancers to ‘do ballet’ and there are so many incredible dancers out there. So I would just say do your research, hire real ballet dancers.”
As with all cases of appropriation, cultural or otherwise, the question arises as to whether money from goods sold will flow back to the referenced community. The acquisition of ballet aesthetics is, of course, hardly comparable with the acquisition of the culture of, for example, a historically oppressed people. However, like most performing arts, dance companies are not exactly thriving in the wake of COVID-19. The New York City Ballet’s annual Fall Fashion Gala, slated for September 28, will be an upcoming opportunity to give back to fashion. In addition, Boylston has a message:
“I love that people are inspired by ballet and I think there’s almost a mystique to it, but I would just encourage people if they’re interested in anything to just buy a ticket. Go to the show.”
Homepage photo: Imaxtree
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