Say the word “ballerina” and most people will picture her in a tutu. Tutus have long been the most revered form of ballet costume; their angelic frothiness adds at magic quality to the look of a ballerina. When she wears one, she looks like a sugary confection that belongs on the grandest of cakes. While many are familiar with the word “tutu”, most have no idea why is a tutu called a tutu, or anything about its history.
It is said that the first tutu was worn in Paris, by Marie Taglioni, during her 1832 performance of La Sylphide. Taglioni’s tutu was short enough to reveal her infamous footwork. This time period was known as the Romantic period in ballet costume history, and this tutu was called the Romantic tutu. This long, floating, ethereal style is made with 3-5 layers of tulle.
Over time, the tutu grew shorter and shorter in length to reveal more of the intricate footwork that dancers performed. Over the next fifty years, the hemline crept higher and higher up the leg, until it looked more like today’s bell tutu, a softer, longer style first worn by the Italian ballerina Virginia Zucci in the 1880s. This first Classical tutu style ended just above the ballerina’s knees. Later, the tutu shrank even further to become the Classical tutu, or Pancake tutu, the final product of the tutu evolution. This type of tutu has a stiff skirt that juts out horizontally from the hips, with hooping (encased petticoat wire tacked within its layers) to help it retain its shape and stiffness.
George Balanchine developed one final category of tutu styles, known as the powderpuff tutu. It is similar to the Classic tutu, but does not have hooping, and contains fewer layers of tulle, making it softer and more flowing than the traditional Pancake tutu.
The name, however, came from the ballet viewers in the “cheap seats”. As previously discussed, the length of the tutu was dictated by the ballet patrons, who wished to see the spectacular feats that the dancers were performing. Long ago, the people in the audience who bought cheaper tickets sat in the lower part of the theater, and often had a peek under ballerinas’ skirts…at their bottoms! Of course this caused quite a bit of talk…baby talk, that is. The French baby talk word for this part of the anatomy is “cucu”, which eventually became “tutu”.
Obviously, the name stuck. However, it is a bit amusing to consider origin of the name of one of the most revered costumes of one of the most revered forms of dance. Tutus are and ever shall be tutus; lovely to look at and fun to talk about.