On Pointe: How Fashion Turned to Ballet to Get Political

Ballet has always inspired fashion, and vice versa. Both disciplines are grounded in beauty, creativity and tradition. Now, this relationship is evolving and fashion brands are using ballet and choreography to deliver a political message.

Denim brand Diesel’s SS17 ad campaign is a true zeitgeist. The short film, directed by the iconic David LaChapelle, tackles some of the biggest trending issues of the moment – from the not-so-subtle reference to President Trump’s proposed wall, to gay marriage and fight for equality (note the inflatable rainbow tank), to racism and escaping areas of conflict. It’s a tenacious and irreverent film. It’s also an example of fashion’s current obsession with ballet, using the dance form as a tool for political engagement.

The campaign stars Ukrainian dancer Sergei Polunin, the tattooed former principal dancer of the Royal Ballet. He jettes and pirouettes and sissonnes throughout the film, wearing his Diesel jeans and boots. Through his dance and the way he moves his body, we are able to understand his sadness, frustration, euphoria and ecstasy. This isn’t the first time Polunin has worked with LaChapelle, either. In 2015, the pair collaborated on a music video for Hozier’s hit Take Me to Church, which has since been watched more than 18 million times on YouTube. The song uses a religious metaphor for love, and the original video showed the love story of two gay men and was heralded as a call for gay rights.

At New York Fashion Week at the start of the year, super brand Opening Ceremony collaborated with choreographer Justin Peck for a second time to show The Times are Racing. 20 dancers from New York City Ballet took to the stage in tees and vests adorned with slogans such as ‘Defy’, ‘Fight’ and ‘Protest’. Again, as with the Diesel campaign, a fashion brand turned to ballet to deliver a political message.

At Paris Fashion Week this month, H&M Studio unveiled its SS17 collection which was inspired by the “love, grace, strength and passion of ballet”. For the first time, the brand featured menswear alongside its womenswear, both of which were utilitarian and androgynous. While not a politically motivated move, the collection shows a growing awareness of blurred gender binaries, both socially and in fashion.

Conversely, British tailoring brand Joshua Kane debuted a women’s collection beside his menswear in February, and did so with a ballet spectacle at London’s Palladium theatre. Teaming up with the Central School of Ballet, dancers performed a pas-de-deux while dressed in Kane’s latest sartorial offering. Again, as the body politic and notions of gender are pushed and meshed, a fashion brand has turned to ballet to convey its message.

Of course, fashion’s ballet affair is no new thing. Whether it’s Coco Chanel dressing the Ballet Russes, Yves Saint Laurent’s 1976 The Rite of Spring-inspired collection (Rick Owens was also inspired by the same performance for his SS15 menswear collection), or even just the humble ballet flat as a footwear staple, fashion and ballet are intertwined. But now, more than ever, this dynamic relationship is politically charged and viscerally emotive. Both en pointe and to the point, fashion’s ballet obsession is as beautiful as it is powerful and challenging.

Follow Darcy Rive on Twitter @DarcyRive

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