Trending and Toxic: The Dark Side of Balletcore

By Eleanor Antoniou 

The hyperfeminine balletcore aesthetic has plié-d its way firmly into 2022’s most popular styles, despite the rapid evolutions of today’s microtrend cycles. Soft, silky fabrics; pinks, nudes and pastel colours; wrap tops, floaty skirts and cosy knits can be seen across Instagram, TikTok and Pinterest at the moment.  On Pinterest alone, searches for ‘balletcore’ have leapt up by 1566%.  Ballet’s influence on the fashion world, however, is nothing new.  The two have been intertwined for decades, highlighted by Chanel’s 1930’s tulle skirts, Vogue’s ode to the ballet flat on its May 1949 cover and Diana Vreeland’s hopes to introduce the leotard to young women, described as ‘The Leotard Idea’ in Harper’s Bazaar in 1943.  

Today ballet’s influence is championed by it girls such as Lily Rose Depp and Elle Fanning, as well as by Olivia Rodrigo, who dressed as a ballerina in the opening of her Brutal music video.  Miu Miu’s ballet flats have also gone viral after featuring in the brand’s Autumn/Winter 22 runway show.  Other high fashion designers are also taking inspiration from the dramatic performance costumes that are traditional to ballet on stage.  Simone Rocha’s AW22 show softly communicated the Irish fairytale Children of Lir, the original inspiration for the Swan Lake ballet, through fashion, modelling feminine and floaty gauze fabrics, swan motifs, sparkling jewels and crystal accessories.  

Whilst these elite, ultra-glamorous designs and costumes are a key part of the inspiration behind balletcore, the fashion trend equally takes its cue from the casual rehearsal attire worn by ballet dancers behind the scenes.  Leg warmers, Uggs, bodysuits and cardigans are featured more often than tutus and tiaras in balletcore posts.  The trend encompasses a casual elegance; a comfortable, serene and cosy look, but one which still suggests poise and perfection.  It transforms the laidback joggers and sweatshirts of lockdown into a hyperfeminine, delicate form of athleisure.  During the pandemic, comfortable clothing and cosy loungewear became our daily uniforms, and now as we return to our old lives, balletcore provides a bridge between dressing up and dressing down.  By following a balletcore aesthetic, we can look glamorous and embrace a hyperfeminine style, yet still prioritise comfort in our clothing choices.  Balletcore shows us how to dress up, without ever risking being overdressed.  Comfort becomes something elevated, theatrical and perfectly pretty.  

In a way, the balletcore aesthetic seems to be an evolution and remodelling of the ‘that girl’ trend which took over our social media feeds during lockdown.  Through their fashion choices, balletcore girls imply that they have the discipline required of a ballerina: organised schedules, daily routines and aspirations to work towards, just like That Girl, all whilst looking beautiful and unattainably ideal. The ‘that girl’ trend promotes an unrealistic expectation of femininity by asking women to constantly have their lives together at the same time as curating an ever-perfect aesthetic both in their own appearances and in the Instagrammability of their surroundings (think daily walks in an omnipresent sunshine, glowing green matchas, plants that never wilt and picture-perfect smoothie bowls).  In the same way, the balletcore aesthetic comes with underlying expectations of femininity that can become unhealthy if not treated with caution.  

Jennifer M. Miskec comments on the oppressive notions of idealised femininity that are associated with ballet, writing that ‘ballet is the perfect space for ideal femininity: thin bodies, frilly skirts, speechlessness; graceful movements making it all look easy while hiding the pain, physical anguish for beauty.’  Those who are discovering the trend today from social media are looking at an aesthetic taken out of its context.  Whilst there is no problem with appreciating the beauty of ballet, whether this be the stage costumes or the pretty pink rehearsal wear, adopting ballet styles and pretending at the ballerina lifestyle can feel diminishing of the intense, physical and mental work that ballet dancers go through, work which can be both damaging and painful.  

In particular, ballet has become associated with the glorification of thinness, with many dancers receiving body comments and developing eating disorders.  In 1926, prima ballerina, Alexandra Danilova, took so many diet pills that she passed out, and today, eating disorders are ten times more common in ballet dancers than in non-ballet dancers.  Balletcore romanticises and ignores these negative aspects of the industry: the women shown in balletcore images are overwhelmingly skinny, promoting the unhealthy feminine ideal that Miskec expressed concerns over.  

Balletcore also romanticises and aestheticises the dark side of ballet’s history which is rooted in racism and sexism.  Ballet was historically male dominated and only came to be equated with femininity in the 19th century, as female dancers began to be sexualised and dancing evolved into something that was perceived negatively by toxic notions of masculinity, leading to a drop in the number of male ballet dancers.  

In the Paris Opera House during the 19th century, female ballerinas were vulnerable to exploitation from male patrons, who paid to enter the foyer de la danse.  These men are depicted in Degas’ famous paintings of the Opera House: amid the dancers, dark figures stand out, dressed in blacks that contrast with the bright white of the ballerinas’ tutus.  The ballet company itself encouraged the young dancers to please their patrons, and prostitution became a stereotype for ballerinas at the time.  Many of these women were impoverished and vulnerable: they could not say no to the patrons, who were free to sexualise and exploit the dancers and had influence over which women were hired or not.  Although ballet has moved forward since this time, there remains an imbalance in modern statistics too: in 2018, 72% of ballet dancers were female but 72% of artistic directors were men.  

This is not to say that young women should be blamed for romanticising the ballet aesthetic today: so many of us attended ballet classes in our girlhoods; we grew up reading books like Angelina Ballerina and Ballet Shoes, and watching the Barbie ballet films including Barbie in the Nutcracker and Barbie of Swan Lake.  Perhaps this is part of the reason why balletcore has gained so much traction this year, as this generation of girls have grown up and are looking back with longing and nostalgia at their younger years.    However, the romanticisation of girlhood is also a trend of patriarchal culture, which demands that women remain looking like girls: forever young, soft, skinny, and sexualised, and it is this aspect of balletcore which creates the unhealthy ideal.  

Furthermore, people of colour have long been excluded from ballet.  Brown pointe shoes did not exist for 200 years after pink ones did and Black ballerinas have had to resort to dedicating hours of their time dyeing their shoes themselves until only recently, using spray paints or bottles of foundation, which quickly ran out and needed replacing.  Scrolling through the balletcore images on Pinterest today proliferates this racist history, as the majority of the photos depict white ballerinas.  

It feels as if whiteness and thinness are just as much accessories of the balletcore fashion trend as silky pink hair ribbons or pearl jewellery.  This negative idea that balletcore can only be for the perfect it girls only serves to uphold the negative aspects of ballet’s history.  We need to be cautious about the unhealthier elements encoded within balletcore, yet this doesn’t mean that the trend should be scrapped entirely.  After all, there is nothing wrong with dressing in a way that is associated with femininity, pink and softness.  Balletcore can exist as something which celebrates femininity, delicacy and the beauty of ballet, as long as those who follow the trend are aware of its context, and allow it to be something that everyone can take part in.  Balletcore should not be something just for skinny, white women, nor should it be permitted to progress to an oppressing and harmful ideal of femininity.  We must let the balletcore fashion trend step out from the shadows of racism, sexism and toxic ideals and allow it to enter the spotlight as something diverse and undamaging. 

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