Dance and Fashion

tango clothing
Dressed to Tango

The roots of the relationship between Western dance and fashion lay in the Renaissance period, where social dancing reflected the values of society. Dance as a channel of communication was as important as having the appropriate costume for socializing. After the French Revolution in 1789, professional ballet dancers left the Court spectacles in favor of the stage. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the European ball culture emerged as a social activity and had an enormous impact on fashion and vice versa.

The Waltz Century

The nineteenth century was dedicated to the waltz, which had developed as a bourgeois activity in Europe and America. In May I Have the Pleasure?, Belinda Quirey argues that in the wake of political, romantic, and industrial revolutions, the waltz was a completely new dance form that perfectly suited the new conditions of modern life-socially, psychologically, and materially. These nineteenth-century developments in dance were reflected in elaborate dance costumes for lower-and middle-class women, although upper-class ballroom-dance dresses were distinctively splendorous for women. The danse à deux activity reinforced the pleasure of watching other people: how they harmonized and what they wore. Ballroom fashion was therefore an enormously important component of acceptance by polite society.

Tango Craze

Modern ballroom dancing began just before World War I, when dance halls flourished in Europe. The Hammer-smith Palais de Danse in London was among the first popular dance halls that provided an up-to-date program for modern ballroom dancing. Although the polka and the quadrille still remained very popular dance forms before the outbreak of World War I, the tango craze started and the fox-trot also became very fashionable. The origins of the tango lie in turn-of-the century Argentina and emerged among European and African immigrants. Since earlier dances did not have the close body contact of the tango, this new dance was considered very risqué at the time. With its sensual rhythm and intense body contact, the tango had a distinctly sexual connotation. In fact, the tango was at first deemed so illicit that it was thought suitable only for prostitutes and their pimps. However, when the tango was legitimized and came to Europe, it was soon taken up by Parisian high society, and ballroom fashion had to be adapted to this new "sexual" dance form. Dance costumes were designed to be more tight-fitting and embellished with shiny paillettes and stones. Soon the tango dress style spread from cabarets and theaters to evening fashion. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the cinema industry has picked up the tango fashion in scenes of cult films such as Moulin Rouge.

Josephine Baker: A Black Pearl

In her 1920s' performances in "barely there" dresses, Josephine Baker shocked Parisian society with her display of naked skin. In the following decade, she became famous not only for her style of performing but also for her stage costumes: her elaborate headdresses and banana costume received standing ovations at the Folies Bergère. Although her look was considered vulgar, her dresses served as a source of inspiration for fashion in the 1920s and 1930s. Josephine Baker gave shape to a new culture, which liberalized fashion and dance to a new era of evening dresses.

Hollywood Screen Dancing

In the late 1920s, screen dancing became popular, and Hollywood style spread from the screen to day and evening fashion. The lightweight Charleston dress, with its long fringes, became part of the Roaring Twenties lifestyle. Anne Massey describes in Hollywood Beyond the Screen that the films Our Dancing Daughters in 1928, and Our Modern Maidens in 1929, represent the debut of the art deco style reflected in architecture and fashion. In the 1930s, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the source of inspiration for fashion-oriented cineastes in movies such as Top Hat (1935), and Swing Time (1936). The Hollywood culture and its concept of glamour advanced the Americanization of dance culture, which in turn influenced the fashion scene. During the harrowing Great Depression, dance marathons, with their emphasis on nonstop endurance for the entertainment of the masses, became popular in social dance clubs. Fashion companies advertised at these events to promote club fashion.

Lindy Hop: Swinging Parties

In 1926, the Lindy hop craze started at the Savoy ballroom in Harlem, New York. In the early 1930s, high society was interested in seeing Lindy hop performers entertain at parties. The resulting swing-dance fashion became popular: cotton blouses with fitted waists and puffed sleeves combined with an A-line skirt-sometimes with detachable suspenders to give maximum hold-for female Lindy hoppers, and high-waisted pants with matching fitted vests for their male counterparts. The Savoy style spread quickly over to Europe, and the Lindy hop and its fashions were adopted by the London and Parisian elites.

Etiquette Hints for the Ballroom: Dressed to Impress

Hillgrove's Complete Practical Guide to the Art of Dancing (1863) offers a vivid description of the importance of dress in the European ball culture:

"Ladies should remember that men look to the effect of dress in setting off the figure and countenance of a lady, rather than to its cost. Few men form estimates of the value of ladies' dress. This is subject for female criticism. Beauty of person and elegance of manners in woman will always command more admiration from the other sex than costliness of clothing. "

In another chapter, Hillgrove recommends that on entering a ballroom, all thought of self should be dismissed: "The pretty ambition of endeavoring to create a sensation by either dress, loud talking, or unusual behavior, is to be condemned." Not only the dress was important; society ladies had to take care of a fashionable hairstyle as well. In 1860, Florence Hartley recommends in The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness that "one has to be very careful, when dressing for a ball, that the hair is firmly fastened, and the coiffure properly adjusted. Nothing is more annoying that to have the hair loosen or the headdress fall off in a crowded ballroom." Accessories played a key role in fashionable dressing for social ballroom events. Henry P. Willis advises in Etiquette, and the Usages of Society (1860) that "ladies should draw on their gloves (white or yellow) in the dressing room, and they should not have them off for one moment in the dancing rooms. However, at supper the gloves can be taken off, because "nothing is more preposterous than to eat in gloves."

Broadway Dreams

In the 1940s, the evolution of dance on film had a crucial influence on the whole world of dance. The predominantly working-class audience was getting real Hollywood value for little money in the cinemas of the 1940s. Those who could afford musical theaters enjoyed the pleasure of live performances on Broadway. With the advent of television in the 1950s and movie theater attendance drastically down, financially strapped Hollywood studios turned to film adaptations of successful Broadway shows, as this was a more economical option than developing original screenplays. Film makeup and clothes of Broadway shows had a strong influence on everyday fashion. Department stores such as Bullocks in Los Angeles became the place where both Los Angeles inhabitants and foreign visitors bought their musical dance-inspired wardrobe. Later on, such Broadway shows as West Side Story (1957), a modern-day retelling of Romeo & Juliet, had a lasting influence on the American teenager, who copied the Broadway look.

From Rock and Roll to Saturday Night Fever

In the 1950s, the postwar generation brought a new form of dance into the nightclubs. Rock and roll-derived from African American rhythm and blues-and stars such as Elvis Presley and Bill Haley immortalized the image of the rebellious teenager and also influenced fashion and hairstyles well into the 1960s. Social dance moved away from couple dancing, and new freedom was expressed in checked shirts and tight-fitting denim jeans for young men, while teenage girls wore petticoats and backcombed their hair. By the end of the 1960s, a particular dance form no longer existed, and young people moved their bodies to the music in whatever way they wanted. The disco scene emerged and exerted a crucial influence on the fashion world. DJs combined records, encouraging dancers to stay on the floor for a long period. Fashion designers took advantage of the en vogue disco style and immortalized dance film stars such as John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (1977). His white disco suit in the movie acquired iconic status, establishing disco as part of mainstream culture until the 1980s, when the public had lost its interest in it, and punk and new wave style challenged its dominance.

Street Style: Hip-Hop, Break-Dancing and Techno

In the early 1980s, hip-hop culture gained a mass appeal when black and Hispanic DJs evolved the use of back-beats in New York City and Los Angeles clubs. Break dancing and hip-hip were very athletic styles, often mimicking robotic movements, and therefore required a more casual clothing style. Sport brands such as Adidas, Nike, and Puma flourished among street-style dancers. During the following decade, the house music style developed from hip-hip and brought alive a new generation of club culture, and club fashion became less casual. In the late 1980s, the rave scene emerged. Rave represented more than a dance party; it illustrated a physical and mental state, unifying the club dancers. Melissa Harrison's High Society: The Real Voices of Club Culture offers a detailed description of the rave phenomena. Rave accessories such as glow-in-the dark-jewelery and clothing with utility bags became very important.

As Seen on Screen: Music Video Style

In the mid-1980s, music stars such as Michael Jackson and Madonna based their performances on dance, and revolutionized the power of music videos. In concept, music videos were based on song, choreography, special effects, and fashion, which was widely copied among club-goers. With the emergence of boy bands, girl bands, and teenage music groups at the beginning of the 1990s and their promotion through videos, a new generation was influenced by the music stars. Mainstream fashion was strongly influenced by performers such as Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, Take That, Britney Spears, and Justin Timberlake, who pioneered and set up fashion trends, such as tank tops, low-cut jeans, very conspicuous and ostentatious gold jewelry for both male and female teenagers, and "visible" underwear for girls. At the start of the twenty-first century, music performers created a mixture between club style and contemporary dance while using the medium of fashion to create a celebrity style, which became an essential part of the music and dance industry.

See also Dance Costume; Film and Fashion; Music and Fashion; Theatrical Costume.


Dodd, Craig. The Performing World of the Dancer. London: Breslich & Foss, 1981.

Driver, Ian. A Century of Dance: A Hundred Years of Musical Movement, from Waltz to Hip Hop. London: Hamlyn Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., 2000.

Jonas, Gerald. Dancing-The Power of Dance Around the World. BBC Books: London, 1992.

Harrison, Melissa. High Society: The Real Voices of Club Culture. London: Judy Piatkus Ltd., 1998.

Hartley, Florence. The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness. Boston: 1860.

Hillgrove, Thomas. A Complete Practical Guide to the Art of Dancing. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1863.

Massey, Anne. Hollywood beyond the Screen: Design and Material Culture. London and New York: Berg Publisher, 2001.

Silvester, Victor. Modern Ballroom Dancing. London: Stanley Paul & Co. Ltd., 1993.

Quirey, Belina. May I Have the Pleasure?: The Story of Popular Dancing. British Broadcasting Corporation: London, 1976.

Willis, Henry P. Etiquette, and the Usages of Society. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1860.

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