The Bakst Influence: When Couture Met Ballet

One hundred years before the fashion world was buzzing over Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s tutus for Black Swan, the fashion elite of Paris were doing the same over Léon Bakst’s costumes for the Ballet Russes. The company founded by Sergei Diaghilev opened in Paris in 1909, and until his death on this day in 1924, Bakst would prove to be the company’s most unforgettable costume designer. The influence of his brightly colored, graphic-print costumes on contemporary fashion would outshine even those created by Pablo Picasso and Coco Chanel, both of whom dabbled in costume design, and are still apparent in the styles of 2011.

Bakst truly caught the spirit of what Parisian women wanted to wear during the company’s second season. “…The bright, flowing silks from Schéhérazade, a kind of Arabian Nights fantasy, created something of a style revolution in Paris when it was first performed,” writes Kate Salter on Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes,” the exhibition currently on display at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

French couturier Paul Poiret was the first fashion designer to adapt Bakst’s stage style into high style. Shortly after the premier of Schéhérazade, Poiret created a day-to-evening collection of harem trousers and turbans in bold, splashy silks and velvets. Parisians couldn’t get enough of the racy, costumey styles. More shocking than the desire for harem trousers—these were for ladies, mind you—was the heightened demand for rubies, emeralds, jade and corals over more traditional diamonds. In the companion book for Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909–1929 (V&A Museum, 2010), historian Stephen Calloway explains that the impact of the ballet’s costumes reached as far as the market for fine jewelry, as Parisians acquired a new taste for these vibrantly hued gems.

That Bakst’s use of vivid colors and heavy adornment so seamlessly made its way into the wardrobes of the fashion elitists ruling Paris is all the more surprising given his humble roots in provincial Russia. The man born Lev Samvilovich Rosenberg in the small town of Grodno in 1866 steadily climbed his way into the upper echelon of the artistic world, eventually becoming one of Europe’s arbiters of taste in all things related to the arts, theater and design. V&A Museum curator Jane Pritchard says that during his own time, Bakst was “lionized for the vigor and gusto of his exotic costumes and sets.”

But it isn’t just early 20th century designers who find inspiration in the Ballet Russe. Canadian Erdem Moralioglu, who is known for his theatrical appliqué and use of intense color, speculates that the surreal, vivid qualities of Bakst’s designs make them a continuing presence in contemporary fashion. “I think it’s the exoticism and escapism of Bakst’s work that is so inspiring and what makes it quite timeless,” the fashion designer told Salter. In 1976, Yves Saint Laurent famously drew from the Ballet Russe for his legendary Russian collection, and John Galliano and Alice Temperly, to name just two others, have  followed suit in recent years.

And lest you question the “timeless” quality of Bakst’s designs, you need look no further than Karl Lagerfeld’s 2011 pre-fall collection for Chanel. The collection’s emphasis on heavily gilded and embellished clothing looks straight out of the sketchbooks of Bakst. Even before the clothes were on sale, Chanel’s president Bruno Pavlovsky touted the collection’s potential, boasting that it taps into a woman’s desire to be bedecked in jewels and ornately embroidered clothing. A century after the debut of the Ballets Russes, Bakst’s take on glamour and decadence are still influencing the way we dress. —Katrina Ernst

Credits: Top: Leon Bakst, Scheherazade, La Sultane Bleue, 1910. Middle: Russian influence seen in YSL Russian collection, 1976, Chanel pre-fall collection, 2008 and John Galliano fall 2009 RTW collection (entire collage pulled from FashionSnoops.) Bottom: More Bakst influence: Chanel pre-fall 2011 collection, Paul Poiret with model in 1912 and a program from the Ballets Russes.

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Just around the corner in every woman's mind is a lovely dress, a wonderful suit or entire costume which will make an enchanting new creature of her.

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