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Veiled Virgin by Giovani Strazza

The Costume

In her autobiography 'Dancing on My Grave', Gelsey Kirkland writes about her costume for Act Two of Giselle provided by American Ballet Theatre:

'I would not be caught dead in the starched rag provided by ABT [American Ballet Theatre]'.

Gelsey Kirkland, Dancing on My Grave, pg155

She had just seen Italian ballerina Carla Fracci's costume:

'Her costume was nothing less than a mirror of the heroine's soul. the material flowed with the same line and quality of movement with which Carla had endowed the character. The hem was frayed, radiating beyond her body like a soft flame.'

Gelsey Kirkland, Dancing on My Grave, pg155

When Fracci refused to say where the fabric for her costume came from, Kirkland snuck into her dressing room and cut a fragment of the material to take to her own costume maker.

An iconic silhouette

The distinctive bell-shaped silhouette of the Romantic tutu is iconic. Made of layers of muslin or tarlatan, the movement of the gauzy fabric formed part of creating the impression of a new kind of supernatural being on stage. The tutu was long and the weight of the fabric in layers added movement to a ballerina rising onto pointes or jumping, helping to create an illusion of floating or flying.

Sylphide Marie Taglioni 1832 2
Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide


Michelle Potter in this essay writes about the significance of muslin in the development of costume design for ballet. With La Sylphide costume for ballet moved away from the Greek style shifts of the late 1800s. The Romantic ballerina was both ethereal and sexy, as desirable as she was unattainable and in Giselle and La Sylphide she was wearing a costume made of a transparent fabric that covered her body while also suggesting what was underneath.

A dress possessed

Kirkland's writing about the costume as itself having a direct connection to Giselle's soul, as well being as an extension of Fracci's embodiment of the role, resonates with stories about clothes that take over the wearer both psychological and physically. This is taken to an extreme in Peter Strickland's horror comedy 'In Fabric' (2019) where the seductive motion of a dress made of a similarly gauzy fabric belies its demonic character.

The Greek-style costumes of the 1800s reflected the fashion of the time which often employed a technique called 'wet drapery'.
This 'wet drapery' effect is often a feature of Hellenic statues such as this dancing Maenad and a later movement in sculpture exemplified in the extraordinary marble sculpture in our card image by Giovanni Strazza who sculpted The Veiled Virgin in 1850. Wet drapery as a technique recurs through fashion: the Empress Josephine Bonaparte used to wet the hems of her dress, John Galliano's 2020 collection for Maison Margiela features wet drapery and spectral garments.

John Galliano for Maison Margiela

Wedding veils and burial shrouds

In Act Two the Wilis have an important addition to their costume: wedding veils which also double as burial shrouds. The lifting of a veil in a marriage ceremony has a history going back to Ancient Greece, it can signify the bride's virginity. The Weddingland site advises brides to consider the complexity of the gesture.

In some productions the Willis' veils fly off propelled by a supernatural force just before they dance. This movement happens in reverse in the recent 'flying veil' trend at Chinese weddings.

IMG 3765
Laila Diallo in rehearsal by Seke Chimuntengwende

1 Arabesques en scène (2014-08-24) Giselle: Pas des premiéres Willis (Acte 11) 2 Kirkland, G. with Lawrence, G. (1986) Dancing On My Grave 3 Most Famous Videos (2015-12-07) Best Wedding Entrance /Flying Wedding Veil of Bride 4 Engelhardt, Molly (2009) Dancing Out of Line: Ballrooms, Ballet and Mobility in Victorian Fiction 5 Kendal,S. (2017) Lifting the Veil:The History Behind One of Our Oldest Wedding Traditions 7 BBC Music (2019-11-21) FKA Twigs - Cellophane (Later...With Jools Holland) 8 Macaulay, Alastair (2012-07-22) Pina Bausch's 'Orpheus and Eurydice' From Paris Opera Ballet 9 Curzon (2019-05-29) In Fabric 10 Potter, Michelle (2005 - 12) Soft, gauzy, ballet dresses

Card image: Veiled Virgin by Giovani Strazza | Shhewitt / CC BY-SA (