Sunday, 28 April 2013

Ballets Russes Costumes at the Camberwell Archive

This week I went to have a look at some original Ballets Russes costumes at the Camberwell College of Art. The Camberwell Archive there has almost fifty pieces of Ballets Russes costume, including jewellery, fabrics and garments, dating from around 1920.

Firstly, a beautiful cotton waistcoat with hook and eye at the back, and a tie at the front, decorated with metallic thread, which I found was used a lot in these costumes, probably to create an embellishment that would shimmer and appear very luxurious under stage lighting.

This cape is made of a fabric woven from a metallic thread, which due to its stiff nature keeps a crinkled texture. The edges are embellished with plastic shell-like beads, that are used not only to add decoration, but also to give weight to the otherwise light-weight garment.

This costume is made up of a doublet and hose - a typical Medieval outfit. It is thought to be for the Prince from Aurora's Wedding. The doublet features a crescent moon/fishscale pattern printed in a shiny silver paint. I especially like the fabrics used to create this costume. The slashed sleeves (which were a sign of wealth in the medieval times, as it showed that the wearer could afford a lot of fabric) are made with a beautiful dark blue velvet, framed with a light gold trim. The doublet fastens at the back with hooks and eyes, and has poppers at the cuffs. The doublet and hose join to each other with buttons at the waistband.
There were quite a few collars in the collection, which were most probably used for the 'corps de ballet' as there were multiples of most pieces. This one in particular is decorated, again, with metallic thread on a beautiful rusty orange. It is hand sewn.
Similarly, this chest piece uses metallic thread to created an embossed outline of a shimmery gold printed design. The circular piece at the top goes round the neck, and the lower strip joins around the chest - and just shows how incredibly small the dancers were!
These panels of intricately embroidered fabric were originally made as cuffs, but have since been cut out. They would probably have been part of an 18th century-style coat, and worn turned up.

This costume piece is a cape, consisting of a stiff headpiece decorated with silver thread and metal pieces, and a long colourful fabric panel.
The collection also contains several pieces of fabric - these could either be costumes half-made and abandoned, or back drops from the lavish sets created by the Ballets Russes company. This piece is made up of several pieces of silk, hand painted with dots, and sewn together with shiny gold thread. It is semi-circular in shape, and is very worn. Despite its fragile condition, the colours have held very well, and are still as bold and as beautiful as ever. It is very difficult to tell what this piece was originally - perhaps a full circle? A shawl? Part of the set decoration?

Lastly, this is a hat, decorated with sequins and green painted dots. It is rectangular in shape, and is lined with a gathered fabric to help it fit the wearer better. The sequins are extremely fragile and come of easily. The stains on the lining show it was worn a lot. Also on the lining are two stamps, identifying the piece as owned by the Ballets Russes. Many of the costumes also have names written on the reverse of them, which has helped to identify them as from a particular production or year.
Associating pieces of costume with specific productions has been difficult, as very little of the dances were photographed in detail. Robert Bell writes, in the book 'Ballet Russes: The Art of Costume' that "costumes remains the only tangible part of productions and performances, given before the advent of film recordings". It is incredible that these costumes have survived, in such good condition considering their age, and the sense of mystery that surrounds them is both frustrating and enticing. This collection at the Camberwell Archive is relatively undocumented, and it is unknown which production each piece is from, although information about the items is growing. I recommend a visit to anyone interested in the Ballets Russes, or is looking to do some hands-on research. The collection is meant as an educational resource, so visitors and researchers are very welcomed.
For more information go to the Camberwell website. Camberwell College of Art is in South London, and is part of the University of the Arts, London.

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