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COSTUMES BY KARINSKA

When George Balanchine was asked by the Ford Foundation in 1963 what was the thing he most needed for his work he answered with one word: "Karinska!" It was the supreme compliment of one artist to another. At the time Madame Barbara Karinska was seventy-seven years old, and her subsequent fourteen-year exclusive association with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet marked her final glorious ascent in that mysterious land where ballet costumes are made. It is a place where she ruled without peer with, as she said of herself with characteristic grandeur, “the courage of a man and the heart of a woman.”

The “Karinska” label in the waistband of a costume (tutus have no necks) is, quite simply, to a dancer the indication, like “Cartier,” like “Teuscher,” like “Rolls Royce,” of the best. “To the New York City Ballet I gave my heart,” said Karinska while Balanchine said of her, “I attribute to her fifty percent of the success of my ballets that she has dressed.” In the course of their long collaboration Karinska clothed over seventy-five of them. While Balanchine was giving American dance its own line, its own svelte elegance, its own unique kind of glamour, its own classical tradition, Karinska was alongside him smoothing that line, enhancing that elegance, coloring that glamour and framing that tradition with silk and satin imported from France.

Karinska’s association with Balanchine was her longest and most deeply satisfying, but he was by no means the only dance choreographer whose visions she dressed. In a career spanning forty-five years she costumed ballets of Marius Petipa, Michel Fokine, Léonide Massine, Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, Bronislava Nijinska, Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins as well as Balanchine, often working simultaneously for rival companies with equal devotion. She rendered three-dimensional, functional and portable the imaginings of such artists as Christian Bérard, André Derain, Pavel Tchelitchew, Salvador Dali, Isamu Noguchi, Balthus and Marc Chagall. Karinska’s ageless hands can be seen, like those of a benign Madame LaFarge, weaving a delicate but indestructible thread that connects and clothes ballet in our century.


Toni Bentley, Author of THE SURRENDER

“Star and Garter” reintroduced burlesque to Broadway in 1942 and featured “tall dames and low comedy” in a production carefully designed to avoid the censorship of Mayor LaGuardia’s watchdogs. Mounted at the prestigious Music Box Theatre, it starred the brilliant comedian Bobby Clark, Carrie Finnell, who could whirl her huge breasts in opposite directions to the delight of all, and Gypsy Rose Lee, all surrounded by lavish sets and costumes. Kermit Love describes the show as “One of the most sumptuously understated things I’d ever seen and I thought, ‘Boy, if this is burlesque I’ll spend the rest of my life here.’” He was not alone in this opinion and the show sold out for almost two years.

Sharaff and Karinska devised some memorable and very innovative costumes: one for Georgia Sothern had to be in multiple parts that would fly away into the wings at perfectly timed moments in the choreography. As for Gypsy Rose Lee:

She shed several crisply starched petticoats and finally stood in a small G-string made of flowers crocheted in wool of pastel colors, with an extra flower on the tip of each breast . . . She had invented a trick of pasting the crocheted flowers on her nipples in such a way that the tightly woven stem of each flower untwirled at a light tap of a finger. This gave a fillip to her curtain call and of course the audience applauded wildly.

The stripper adored Karinska and felt that she understood her body, her style and her attitude. She was not the first or last female performer to feel confident of Karinska’s ability to enhance her looks; and Gypsy’s extreme lack of clothing somehow underscored the crucial importance of every stitch.


Toni Bentley, Author of THE SURRENDER


The dancer was never merely a mannequin for Karinska’s virtuosic display, but remained, as for Balanchine, the point of the whole endeavor. The two Russian artists simply presented her, aided her, and elaborated her own look and way of moving. This celebration of female form reached a new peak in 1950 when Karinska recostumed Balanchine’s “Symphony in C.” Here, in the forty identical white tutus, the so-called “Balanchine/Karinska tutu,” the “powder puff tutu,” was born and forever changed the way a ballet dancer could look. . . .

This tutu had no hoop, only six or seven layers of gathered net, rather than the twelve or more used for the hoop tutu. The layers, each a half inch longer than the previous one, were short, never precisely aligned but tacked together loosely giving the skirt an unprecedented softness and fullness. The skirt fell in a natural, slightly downward slope over the hips to the tops of the thighs. But the skirt was only the most obvious of the changes and details that Karinska instituted. It was in her innovations with the bodice that Karinska really revolutionized the tutu.

Made before the panties or skirt are attached, the bodice is the foundation of the costume. Karinska’s experiments with the cut, shape, seaming and decoration of the bodice had begun in 1932, when she made her first one. Using anywhere from six to fifteen panels of fabric, Karinska was a pioneer in the practice of cutting on the bias (the diagonal of the fabric as opposed to straight up and down or across) for a highly fitted garment. Cutting on the bias was a much admired innovation in the Paris couture world of the 1930s - Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet used the technique - where Karinska no doubt came across the idea. But the beauty of the bias cut were usually found in loose fitting garments, where the diagonal created its own kind of shape and sexy cling. Karinska made a tremendous innovation in using the bias cut for a tightly fitted bodice, where the give and take of the cut could be used to accommodate the aerobic requirements of a dancer’s - or opera singer’s - rib cage. “No one else knew how to do a bodice like that or even knew why you should do a bodice like that,” says Patricia Zipprodt the Broadway and ballet designer. “Most of them were so clumsy, straight up and down bodices with seams, seams, seams, but never any alteration in the fabric, until Karinska. Her costumes were danceable things, singable things.”

Toni Bentley in the New York Times Book Review

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