NYC Dance Project brings couture clothing to life

Ellen Millard

27 January 2020

A new book by Rizzoli explores why dance and fashion make for the perfect pas de deux

“No one can move or bring to life to an item of clothing quite like a dancer"

27 January 2020 | Ellen Millard

When Coco Chanel was tasked with creating costumes for the progressive travelling dance group the Ballets Russes in 1924, she made a crucial error in her design. Selecting knitted bathing suits from her spring collection, the designer favoured form over function. Beautiful though the suits were, they were entirely impractical; when the male dancers held their female companions, the silky fabric would slip through their fingers, and they risked dropping them mid-step.

It wasn’t an easy partnership, but Chanel’s collaboration with Ballets Russes at the very least began a new era for costume design – one that incorporated high fashion into the discipline of dance, steered by skilled costume departments that had a better grasp, as it were, of the considerations of choreography.

On modern stages, courtiers continue to have influence. At the New York City Ballet’s annual Fall Fashion Gala, young choreographers and fashion designers work together to create exciting new productions, in a scheme that has seen the likes of Valentino, Virgil Abloh and Gareth Pugh participate. Similarly, Erdem created 21 ethereal costumes for a Royal Opera House production in 2018, while the Royal Ballet has worked with designers Jasper Conran and Gareth Pugh, and Sadler’s Wells enlisted the expertise of Alexander McQueen in 2009, Hussein Chalayan in 2015 and Dries Van Noten in 2017.

“No one can move or bring to life to an item of clothing quite like a dancer,” says photographer Deborah Ory. “Once you put the clothing on a professional dancer, it takes on a new life, adds expression, feeling and shape. Fashion naturally becomes intertwined with dance.”

Together with her husband Ken Browar, Ory has produced a collection of photographs capturing some of the world’s leading dancers in clothing by the most celebrated couturiers, both past and present. Published in a new book, The Style of Movement: Fashion & Dance, the project aimed to capture the relationship between the two disciplines, dressing the likes of American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland, New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck and Mariinsky Ballet principal Xander Parish in costumes by Valentino, Versace and Dior.

“Dancers have unique ways of movement,” Ory says, “and it’s a movement that allows the clothing to take on a life of its own and become another element in the photograph. The clothing is like a partner for the dancer, allowing for unique and interesting shapes to be created, while also adding emphasis to the emotion and mood of the image.”

In preparation for the shoot, the couple spent hours watching runway shows and picking the pieces they dreamed of using, before approaching fashion houses to ask for permission. Some were archive designs, borrowed from museums and sourced by vintage experts, while others were leant from the designers themselves.

“I was drawn to designers who have been inspired by dance,” Ory explains. “Issey Miyake, Valentino, Dior and Iris Van Herpen were some of the first designers I gravitated towards. We were looking for pieces that would not look like fashion from a particular time period, but rather were classic. And, of course, it was important to find pieces that moved well with the dancers.”

In the case of Valentino, the designer personally picked out two vintage pieces for Tiler Peck to wear – one of which appears on the cover of the book. “I have always designed thinking about the movement of the woman wearing the dress – where she would wear it, how she would move in it and what it means to her,” the designer writes in the book’s foreword. “A dress should never be designed just to be viewed from just one angle; movement must be considered in an entire 360-degree point of view. Wearing clothing is about expressing emotion – just the way dance is.”

The Style of Movement: Fashion & Dance by Ken Browar and Deborah Ory, approx. £77,