FASHION ARCHIVE: A Brief History of Ballet Shoes

Ballet is thought of as one of the highest forms of dance, often because of its association with the court and the royal theater. But apart from the graceful moves, the perfectly outstretched arms and the high jumps, there are the costumes. We all know them: the tight corset, a fluffy tutu and most importantly – the shoes. The ballet slipper is so iconic that people often think of it as the universal symbol of dance, but the famous shoe didn’t always look like what we know it to be today. So let’s see what were some of the iconic shoe looks through history.

                   The Tabi shoe

This shoe might not be familiar to people outside of the dance world, but if you recognize it, you know the story it carries: the iconic split that separates the big toe from the rest is not a look we’re accustomed to, but one that certainly has a place in the dancers’ hearts. It was originally made to be comfortable and give the illusion of bare feet – something that modern dance shoes often strive to do. They are a simple satin shoe with a unique shape, and while the style originated in Japan, the slipper was made popular by the Belgian designer Martin Margiela.

Bjork shoes
Björk in Maison Martin Margiela Tabi Boots, photographed by Glen Luchford, 1995

                    Heeled slipper

When ballet was first invented, the shoes looked nothing like today. They were a simple, and very delicate shoe with a small heel. They weren’t made for jumps or spins, and they resembled mostly what we know today as jazz shoes. About five centuries ago in Italy, ballet looked very different, and that is clearly reflected in the style of these shoes. The costumes were also longer and often completely covered their feet, so the shoes themselves weren’t as important as they are now.

                    The modern design

Not even the famous ballet shoes we know today were made like this from the get-go. At first, they were simply a satin shoe that followed the shape of the foot, and was made to be comfortable and give an elegant line, but not much structural support. As most dedicated dancers know, the modern slipper was made after the dancers realized they wouldn’t have to waste energy on keeping themselves tall if they had support under their toes, along with other modifications. There are so many great slippers, like these amazing ballet shoes from Sydney, which keep your feet dry and stable for maximum comfort. These modifications allow dancers to channel their energy into bigger moves and leaps, leading to the ballet we know today.

                    The rocking horse

Not only have ballet slippers themselves changed over time, but they have also inspired designers to take the concept of a ballet shoe and make it into wearable footwear. The perfect example of this kind of statement piece is the rocking horse shoe, that features a thick block platform with a slanted front (like a rocking horse), and tied up with a satin ribbon like a classic ballerina slipper. The style was first introduced in the ‘80s, but designers have been making interpretations of the shoe ever since, with varying degrees of success.

kate moss lindbergh bazaar
Kate Moss and Patricia Hartmann shot by Peter Lindbergh for Harper’s Bazaar, January 1993

If you are a dancer, or someone who is interested in the art, it is important to know about where the tools for the art come from, and the evolution behind it, if we want to make the best of them. Even today, designers are taking the ballet slipper as inspiration for their designs, and dancers around the globe are meticulously customizing their shoes to make sure they fit them perfectly. But while we are looking back on the past, it is even more interesting to look towards the future: what will the next big trend or revelation be? What will ballet slippers look like in a century or two? With contemporary ballet pushing the boundaries of dance, will we see a completely new style of shoes come into the spotlight and overtake the throne as the symbol of dance? We won’t know until it happens, so we better keep our eyes on the stage!

Georgia Selih

Georgia Selih is fashion consultant, journalist and author By nature an artist, by profession a journalist. Irreparable print lover who is enjoying this hot digital affair.

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