Imagine the buzz in revolutionary Paris, when famed dancer Marie Taglioni wore the newly-invented tutu as she performed her ballet La Sylphide (1832). With a bell-shaped skirt ending at the lower leg, Taglioni’s tutu lifted the curtain on the dancer’s era-defining en-pointe footwork.
Tutus caught on. Over the decades, new forms were created to fit different tastes and artistic visions. Building from Taglioni’s ‘romantic tutu’, the shorter, straighter ‘classical tutu’ lent ease and grace to dancers’ movements, while showcasing their skill and poise. Decoration of bodices became more intricate – a bedazzlement of spangles, sequins and metallic stitching, twinkling by gaslight.
By the mid-1900s the tutu had been developed into a variety of forms, including the short-skirted type which many of us envisage merely at the mention of ‘ballet’.
Perfection beyond measure
As the maker behind Luv Tutus & Costumes, Desiree has dressed a dazzling array of dancers, including Principal Dancer, Anna Rose O’Sullivan; a dancer featured in a Paris Hilton video on YouTube; and Desiree’s own daughter, whose need for a well-fitting tutu sparked Desiree’s career. In every case, the tutu-making process starts and ends with perfect fit.
“First we have a consultation, and then I will adjust a standard pattern to match the dancer’s measurements,” Desiree explains.
“If we’re doing a traditional, structured tutu, they have to come to me a few times for fittings. The first one is called a toile fitting. I make a draft pattern in a calico, and that is put on the dancer, so I can then make further tweaks.”
For Desiree, the standard measures of tailoring and dressmaking fall short of providing the required exactness of fit.
“Even if two dancers have the exact same measurements, the contours of their bodies may be in different places. Some may have a wider back, or a smaller ribcage – so I have to work from the initial drafted pattern onto their body with the toile fitting,” she says.
Forming the fantasy
Desiree wants her tutus to tell a story through colour and texture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her skirts.
“For me, the underside of the tutu as a dancer turns away from an audience should be just as nice to look at as the actual bodice,” she says.
“I normally have quite a few different shades of net in stock, and shade cards that I can play around with. I go through a spectrum of colours, and I mix-and-match to see which ones work together.
“If the bottoms are, say, a light pink, then I’ll shade in pinks, peaches, gold, a flicker of silver, and then together you’ll get the final look. It gives interest and a really nice texture.”
The bodices of Desiree’s tutus are highly functional, with a durable, moisture-wicking, 100% cotton lining. They’re also no less beautiful than the skirts, thanks to Desiree’s hand-stitched decoration.
“Usually I’ll mix together more than one shade of a colour – such as silver, which has many shades – in the stitching, to give a bit of depth,” says Desiree.
Next, Desiree artfully trims out the decorations.
“If I were using a large piece of lace, say, that has appliques or details on it, I will break that up into much smaller pieces, and I’ll use those pieces to form the shape or pattern that I want on the bodice, before hand-stitching them into place,” she says.
Tools of the trade
Much like a dancer, the tutu can embody elegance, beauty, structure and strength. This rare set of traits is reflected in the tools on Desiree’s worktable.
“I work from home – so my dining room is now my sewing studio,” says Desiree.
“My Ernest Wright Dressmaker Shears are the best of the best that I’ve used. They go through fabric like cutting through butter with something hot.
“I also use pins, needles, and bolt cutters to cut through the metal hoop that goes into the skirts and the spiral boning that goes in the body. Sometimes I need pliers and a hammer too, for chunkier seams.”
The birth of beauty
For Desiree, the maker behind Luv Tutus & Costumes, tutu-making is its own dance of colour, structure, form and decoration. Her ballet of consultations, fittings, crafting, checks and sit-ins ends only when the dancer takes the stage.
“I don’t think there’s any feeling like seeing your tutus in performance,” says Desiree.
“It’s almost like giving birth, really. Once you’ve done all the hard work and seen it on-stage, you just feel really proud.
“The dancer breathes life into the tutu. When I’m working in the studio, it’s inanimate, but once it’s on-stage it literally comes to life.”
The UK’s community of tutu-makers is small and close, but supportive. If you’re serious about getting into tutu-making, Desiree recommends taking lessons with Tutus That Dance, or watching Travis Halsey’s instructional videos on YouTube.
To see more of Desiree’s work, follow @luvtutucostumes on Instagram.