The evolution of ballet costume has changed the history of fashion and some of the world’s greatest designers have shaped that legacy. To celebrate their 50th birthday, The Australian Ballet have come together with NGV to stage a new exhibition that showcases dance costumes dating from 1988 to the present day. We spoke to Roger Leong, NGV fashion and textiles curator, about the stories behind some of the creations.

Ballet & Fashion explores a broad spectrum of dance and reveals costume’s ability to expand the parameters of design and fashion. From the boundary-pushing lumps and bumps of Rei Kawakubo’s costumes for Merce Cunningham Dance Company to the surrealist concoctions served up by Viktor & Rolf for Nederland Dans Theater, the exhibition reveals the way dance communicates with other art forms and its ability to tap into the zeitgeist in often unpredictable ways.

“The nexus between dance and fashion covers such broad territory and we wanted to encompass fashion designers working on the cutting edge, so we extended ourselves to contemporary dance companies,” says Roger Leong, who co-curated the exhibition with Yvonne Gates, director of special projects at The Australian Ballet.

Viktor & Rolf’s costumes for 2 Lips and Dancers and Space – a cabaret-style performance created by American Theatre visionary Robert Wilson for Nederland Dans Theater – reveals dance at its most enigmatic and concept-driven.

There are references to “The Wizard of Oz, Medusa, courtly dance traditions and the film Cabaret”, explains Leong of the production’s diverse reference points. A crinoline veil with frilled silk and lace lights up like a Christmas tree; beside it a black satin jumpsuit is armoured with strategically placed crowns and a gold dunce’s cap, which forms a conical codpiece.

Classical ballet comes to the party in many guises, including a lavish romantic dress created by Valentino for Vienna State Opera Ballet – a froth of rose-coloured tulle and silk georgette ruffles.

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Akira Isogawa’s delicate brocade, silk tulle and organza costumes for The Australian Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet also feature. “Akira is a designer who relishes in delicate detail and layering of subtle textures,” says Leong, pointing to the finely embroidered metallic spangles of the ethereal Juliet costume, which is accentuated by a silver lizard-skin corsage on one shoulder.

The earliest pieces in the exhibition are Christian Lacroix’s fashion fantasies for American Ballet Theatre’s 1988 production of Leonide Massine’s Gaite Parisienne. The ballet is set in a Parisian Cafe and the Moulin Rouge, providing the perfect backdrop for Lacroix’s theatrical fashion desires.

“In 1988 Christian Lacroix was hitting the fashion headlines,” says Leong, as we consider a dress that combines a cartoonish Minnie Mouse appeal with the shimmying gaudiness of a French Can-Can dancer. “His exuberant, colourful interpretations of contemporary couture were influencing and wowing everyone. Lacroix at that time was leading fashion into new territory and we’ve got him here at one of his great peaks.”

These couture-quality costumes were made by Barbara Matera, one of New York’s top theatre costumiers and seeing them in an exhibition allows one to appreciate details that would go unnoticed by an audience member in a darkened theatre.

Other costumes in the exhibition deconstruct conventional ballet costume principles and have a very strong fashion feel. Case-in-point is Vanessa Leyonhjelm’s costumes from Stanton Welch’s Divergence for The Australian Ballet, which Leong describes as one of the most groundbreaking dance productions anywhere in the world.

“The costumes were innovative because the whole point of the production was to create something that references classical ballet but isn’t quite, which is actually quite modern. So you have his fabulous tutu which is as stiff in form and shape as any traditional tutu but is not structured in the traditional way.”

This “standout tutu”, Leong explains, was fashioned from air-conditioning filter mesh, lending it the requisite stiffness and its sculptural quality. The brassiere is hand-moulded out of thermoplastic and vacuum formed using industrial materials and techniques. The result is an infinitely fashionable form that both subverts and channels the classic tutu shape. “It creates a classical shape but is something that is revolutionary,” Leong says.

Like all the pieces in this exhibition, it’s a visually compelling design whose dynamism and meticulous attention to detail elevates dance costume to the realm of haute couture.

Ballet & Fashion runs until the May 19, 2013 at NGV.

*The exhibition is sponsored by Vogue Australia.