Everything You Need to Know About Ballerina’s Tutu

These days, even people who have never seen a ballet performance are familiar with the tutu, the distinct skirt that ballerinas don before taking the stage. However, very few people know where this skirt came from or how it got its name.

If you’ve always been curious, keep reading. This guide explains everything you need to know.

What Is a Tutu?

A tutu is a type of skirt that has been worn by ballerinas for nearly 200 years. The first tutu was seen on stage in 1832 in Paris, during the premiere of La Sylphide. Marie Taglioni, who played the Sylph — a forest spirit and the ballet’s title role — wore a long, flowing skirt made of gauzy material. It floated ethereally as she danced and was considered a perfect fit for the mystical performance.

Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide
Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide, wearing a romantic tutu

How Are Tutus Made?

Originally, most tutus were made from gauzy tulle fabric. The tutus of today are made of stiff, nylon netting that projects outward from the hips and sits parallel — or nearly parallel — to the floor.

The layers are connected with intricate hand stitching and are supported by a quarter-inch wire. The skirt is then attached to a basque, which connects the skirt and bodice of a ballerina’s outfit.

Semi-stretch (powernet) 9-10 layer classical tutu

How Did the Tutu Get Its Name?

Although tutus first took the stage in the 1830s, it wasn’t until nearly 50 years later that it became known as such. However, it’s unclear exactly who first came up with the name “tutu.”

One theory suggests that the name is derived from French slang words — both “cucul,” which is babytalk for “bottom,” and “cul,” which is a vulgar word used to describe the genitals. Those who subscribe to this theory think it comes from the fact that audience members on the theater’s ground floor could look up and see underneath the dancers’ skirts.

Another less salacious theory is that the name simply comes from the word “tulle,” which is the material from which most tutus are made.

Tutu Trends Throughout History

An article published by Pointe magazine notes that tutu styles were strongly influenced by the fashions of the time, as well as Industrial Revolution advancements that impacted clothing manufacturing.

19th-Century Tutus

Tutus have gone through many evolutions since the first one worn by Marie Taglioni was seen onstage. Today, this type of tutu is known as the “Romantic” tutu — largely because it was worn during the Romantic period.

Anna Pavlova as Giselle
Anna Pavlova in Giselle, wearing a romantic tutu

By the end of the 19th century, the length of the average tutu shortened quite a bit. It hit just above the knee and showed off more of the dancers’ legs. This, in turn, allowed the dancers to show off the improvements they’d made in their technique and the complicated moves they were executing. These tutus are known as “Classical” tutus.

20th-Century Tutus

During the 1930s and 1940s, tutus became even shorter. Now known as “Mid-Century” tutus, they also featured a fitted bodice and a metal hoop that helped the tutu maintain its shape.

In the late 1940s, George Balanchine, one of the world’s most influential ballet choreographers, started requesting even shorter tutus that would not inhibit dancers’ movements.

In response to Balanchine’s request, Barbara Karinska, a costume maker and designer, designed the “Powder Puff” tutu. It was short, light, and smaller than any other tutu and did not have any kind of hoop beneath it.

ballet costume by Barbara Karinska
New York City Ballet – Costume by Barbara Karinska for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (New York), 1968, Photograph by Martha Swope, The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Modern-Day Tutus

Tutus continued to get shorter as styles changed and ballet dancers’ technique improved.

By the time the 1960s rolled around, tutus became shorter than ever and reflected changes in technique and choreography. With their new, shorter lengths, they were better able to show off dancers’ athletic movements and graceful figures.

Today, short tutus are largely the norm. Modern costume designers have also had fun playing with different types of fabric and tutus shapes over the years.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Dutch National Ballet even created a “social-distancing tutu,” which was 3 meters in diameter and made of denim.

A Precious Garment

In 2022, it’s much easier to make a tutu than it was back in the 19th century. However, these garments are just as precious and highly prized now as they were then.

A tutu for a professional ballet production can easily cost thousands of dollars, and ballerinas are expected to go above and beyond to preserve them.

An article published in Everyday Ballet notes that ballerinas are not allowed to wear jewelry, watches, or any other accessories that may cause the material of the tutu to rip or snag. They are also forbidden from eating while in their costumes.

In some professional ballet companies, dancers are fined if they rest their hands on their tutus! This is the case because oil and dirt from the hands can cause the tutu to get dirty faster — and these delicate garments are not easy to clean.

To prevent tutus from getting dirty or drooping before the show ends, they are stored upside down or stacked. This helps them maintain their shape and stay in good condition for the duration of the performance.