In Olivia Rodrigo’s “Brutal” video, which debuted in the summer of 2021, Gen Z’s preferred ingenue attempts to dance ballet in pointe shoes, only to snap her ankles and collapse on the ground. A depressed ballerina, Rodrigo crawls around the studio floor in black fishnet tights, unable to match the sameness of the dancers circling her like vultures. Tears fall down her cheeks as she contorts her face into a grimace, while fair-skinned ballerinas in pink tights carry on in their relevés, unbothered. “Who am I if not exploited?” she wonders.
Whether an intentional trendsetter or somewhat of a clairvoyant, Rodrigo’s gothic failure of a ballet performance seemed to awaken a recurring pop culture fanaticism for the ballerina as a beautiful, tortured little thing. A video of Natalie Portman’s Black Swan character having a disturbing mental breakdown onstage during a psychosexual performance of Swan Lake racked up over one million views on TikTok, and fashion has followed suit with the reintroduction of the balletcore trend: clothing items like ballet flats, wrap skirts, wrap sweaters, leg warmers, and leotards. The influence of classic ballet garb can be seen in Rodarte’s 2022 runway collection, in Miu Miu’s ad campaigns, and throughout Euphoria on Sydney Sweeney, who regularly sports a wrap top or two—a ballet style popularized by Diane von Furstenberg.
Suzanne Jolie, one of the creators behind the viral Instagram account @ModelsDoingBallet that advocates for the hiring of dancers instead of models, says that Portman’s Oscar-winning performance—namely, her six-month “transformation” into a professional ballerina—and the internet’s enduring fascination with her portrayal of a pained princess is more of a story of erasure and exploitation than it is a triumph of acting. Portman never publicly credited her dance double, American Ballet Theater dancer Sarah Lane, who claims she, not Portman, was responsible for nearly all of the intricate sequences on pointe. “She was silenced,” Jolie remembers. 2022’s balletcore resurgence hides other ugly and inconvenient truths.
Amidst well-meaning but incomplete TikToks of the history of balletcore, and elegant photo shoots featuring celebrities and fashion models in pointe shoes, the ballet aesthetic revival tells only the palatable parts of the story. Conveniently, it leaves out the systemic sexual assault, grooming, and harassment allegations that have cropped up across the ballet world over the past several years, and ignores ballet’s institutional inability to reckon with its self-perpetuated racism and fat-phobia. While Rodrigo’s “Brutal” video at least questions the dangers of the ballet ideal, journalist and author of Turning Pointe Chloe Angyal notes that the same cannot be said of 2022’s untimely pas de deux with balletcore.
“It’s sort of like an uncritical, unquestioning lifting of the visuals, iconography, and the imagery of ballet. I doubt very much that any of these designers gave any thought to the multiple controversies that have been roiling ballet in the last couple of years,” Angyal told Jezebel in an interview earlier this month. “Because ballet is a sort of shorthand for refined upper-class, effortless, athletic femininity, it’s not surprising to me that brands want to tap into that, grabbing the convenient and appealing parts of ballet and ignoring all the rest of it.”
As high-end fashion brands continue to co-opt ballet garb without taking a moment to dig into the art form’s past or ever-shifting present, they fan the flames of dancers’ fight for labor rights, power, and a voice in an industry that demands silence and subservience of its most talented artists.
Now synonymous with ballet fashion, the signature tulle gowns that comprise the DNA of modern brands like Rodarte and Simone Rocha first popped up in the 1800s. “Gauzy skirts” or tutus were the artistic evolutions of actual fashion at the time, according to the book and accompanying FIT Museum exhibition, Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse, curated by Patricia Mears. In a narrated video chronicling the exhibit, Mears explains that it wasn’t until 1909 and the rise of Russian supernova Anna Pavlova that “balletomania” took over the west. In the 1930s, Mears says, the corseted tutu would go on to inspire “the most important couturiers” of the century like Coco Chanel. By 1948, ballerinas regularly starred in movies like The Red Shoes and were featured in magazines like Life as Americans clamored to get their hands on their own piece of the glamour and cream-colored beauty that ballet culture offered.
Despite ballerinas’ quick ascent to cultural royalty, Angyal points to the oppressive gatekeeping and lack of bodily agency that’s baked deeply into the art form—which demands mentioning when talking about the history of ballet fashion, no matter how ugly. Those dynamics are precisely what French impressionist artist Edgar Degas aimed to capture when he famously painted dark figures peering over the corps de ballet. “What a lot of people don’t realize when they’re looking at those Degas paintings is that all those women were impoverished. Some of them were able to create some semblance of economic stability for themselves by becoming mistresses to wealthy subscribers of the ballet, but most of them did not,” Angyal says. “Those images were understood as paintings of exhausted, hardworking, lower-class women.”
Mears says that the 1970s would go on to mark a colossal shift in ballet’s cultural cachet, as major dance-wear companies like Danskin Inc. began to offer Americans leotards and tights marketed specifically to those who weren’t frequenting the ballet barre. At long last, everyone could partake in the United States’ fascination with petite, graceful womanhood. Fast-forward to the millennium, and brands from Free People to early aughts American Apparel released ready-to-wear ballet collections en masse, including the trend of the ballet flat. “Ballet body” fitness programs and barre-inspired workouts like Pure Barre took centerstage, and it was within this moment, says ballet dancer and self-proclaimed “mom of ballet TikTok” Minnie Lane, that the aesthetics of ballet were suddenly copy-and-pasted on capitalist-spawned products without thought.
“Women face the same standards that ballet dancers do everyday. But now they’re being commodified into this tiny little trend that uses the public’s nostalgia for ballet as a Trojan horse for fat-phobia and misogyny,” Lane told Jezebel in a phone interview. “Balletcore has taken the worst aspects of ballet culture and applied it to all women, and I really doubt, other than a few New York City Ballet or ABT ad campaigns, that ballet as a field is going to benefit at all.”
Today’s particular resurgence, Lane notes, seems to be in complete denial of the actual realities of the field and comes at a fraught time in the industry, as it holds up a cracked mirror to itself. A lawsuit filed by former ballet students at the end of last year alleged that faculty at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts sexually abused and harassed minors over the course of two decades. A second lawsuit claimed dance teacher Taylor Button and his wife Dusty Button, who was employed by the Boston Ballet, had groomed young dancers and pressured them to have sex both with Taylor alone and the couple together. The Boston Ballet quickly fired Button, but did not disclose that Button had been complicit in the abuse. The New York City Ballet still houses remnants of the influences of Peter Martins, their former choreographer who retired in 2018 amidst allegations of abuse and sexual harassment. Meanwhile, ballet has done little to lift the wings of Black dancers: Misty Copeland only became the first Black principal dancer with ABT in 2015, but has said in recent years that ballet remains “extremely behind” in terms of racial justice.
“We also need to notice what else we’re being sold when brands borrow from ballet. Ballet is diversifying, but it’s still an extremely white art form, and in many ways it’s synonymous with white hyper-femininity,” Angyal says. “And when fashion borrows from ballet, it’s often borrowing that aspirational whiteness, too.”
Angyal adds it’s likely that high fashion loves to lean on balletic influences partially because ballet, long associated with the elite, is expensive and financially exclusive. “It’s exclusive when you think about not only who is taking ballet, but also who is consuming ballet. Ballet tickets are not cheap, and when you think about who’s going to the ballet, you’re thinking about an older, wealthier, and urban audience.”
To dancers’ great surprise and gratitude, however, ballet is changing rapidly. The young people within its grips, Lane notes, care deeply about making ballet a more just and equitable workplace. They aren’t so willing to blindly accept tradition handed down to them as “just the way things are.” Yet the dancers in the trenches of such an arduous field often have little overlap with the consumers or occasional dancers that brands like Free People or Alo Yoga are targeting.
Rather than tossing retired Riverdale stars and members of the Kardashian-Jenner brood in pointe shoes, Jolie and her business partner Katie Malia hope that fashion stops fetishizing ballet dancers and acknowledges that ballet is a grueling sport that requires decades of perfecting technique. The duo emphasizes that pointe shoes must be earned, not randomly awarded to pretty women who fit the bill. Malia believes that the only way forward is in giving ballet artists and dancers more commercial opportunities: picking the strong athlete over the waif-y, untrained model.
“Dancers often don’t feel that they have a voice. The beauty of dance is, of course, that it’s physical communication,” Malia says. “But when you really look at what dance is, we don’t know how to train our actual physical voices to speak up. And when you take the power away continuously from the dancer, that pattern of exploitation continues.”
All of the women Jezebel spoke to understand why fashion brands might take cues from ballet and don’t necessarily blame them for it: Ballet is beautiful. The act of balancing on the tip of a toe while presenting one’s upper body in elegant, swan-like motion seems as though it should be physically impossible. Yet, ballet dancers execute every single day with a smile, a chin tilted to the back row of the theater, lights shining in their faces, and a heavy bodice laced with gems and Swarovski crystals weighing them to the ground. And still, they always float.
Balletcore, of course, can be done well. The women behind @ModelsDoingBallet point to Michael Kors, who recently partnered with the dean of the dance school at Juilliard and her daughter to model products. They also give their approval to Under Armour, which has worked seamlessly with Copeland over the years. Lane even sees balletcore’s potential to open the ballet aesthetic to different genders and body types, following some of the pioneering nonbinary and trans femme ballet dancers who are now dancing on pointe on stages across the country.
For the Alexandra’s and the Rosie’s and the Gina’s and the Sage’s—all of the young people that ballet chewed up, spit out, and left to lick their wounds—my only wish is that the reality of ballet might one day be as innocent and beautiful as today’s fashion designers seem to think it is.