Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  August 25, 2015

Costume History: A look at the Ballets Russes through one costume

This oddly made yellow velvet costume, now housed at the Museum of London, is one of the many costumes that are all that survive from one of the most opulent and ill-fated ballet productions ever to be performed in London. Recently I completed some research for the Museum of London into this ballet and discovered the background to this peculiar costume.

In 1921 Serge Diaghilev, impresario of the legendary Ballets Russes, staged a reconstruction of the Imperial Theatre’s The Sleeping Beauty. Inspired by the success of the long-running musical Chu Chin Chow, Diaghilev hoped that The Sleeping Princess, as he renamed it, would run forever. It was a hugely ambitious project. Diaghilev secured the Alhambra Theatre, London and the financial backing of Sir Oswald Stoll to the tune of over £20,000.

Leon Bakst, whose exotic designs had influenced the fashion world of Paris, was commissioned to design the costumes and sets. In just over three months, a staggering six changes of complex set and nearly 300 individual costumes were made. No expense was spared with even the costumes for minor roles being exquisitely crafted. The costumes were made between workshops in Paris and London with many constructed by Bakst’s preferred costume maker, Mme Muelle in Paris.

The majority of the costumes are beautifully made, but as time began to run out less experienced costume makers were commissioned. This yellow velvet costume was designed by Bakst for the character of The Countess from Scene III of The Sleeping Princess. The Countess was the lead female character in the first half of the Vision, Scene III.  Despite being for a principal character this costume is very badly made, which is the reason I love it. The costume was worn by principal dancer Lubov Tchernicheva.

The Countess costume is thought to be made by Grace Lovat Fraser (nee Crawford) in London. Fraser was a singer, actress, costume designer, translator of plays, author and friend of the Ballets Russes. Fraser was approached just three weeks prior to the opening of The Sleeping Princess, to make a number of costumes. On meeting with Bakst, she was told to interpret, not copy, the designs and that the patterns must be embroidered or appliquéd, not printed or stencilled. The costume is very badly made showing the inexperience of Lovat Fraser and her team. The embroidering is clumsy and the nap of the velvet runs the wrong way up one sleeve. The tricorne was made by Mlle. Blanche, 108 Uxbridge Rd. West Ealing.

The Sleeping Princess opened on the 2nd of November, 1921. A full-length ballet was a new experience for London audiences, and initially was a great success. The production needed to run for six months in order to break even. After the New Year, sales began to drop and on the 4th of February, 1922, after 105 consecutive performances, The Sleeping Princess closed. Despite the work’s perceived failure, it remains one of the longest-running ballets ever performed on the West End.

Stoll seized the sets and costumes in lieu of the outstanding debt, and the company was given a month’s leave.  The costumes were stored under the stage of the Coliseum. Diaghilev was eventually able to settle the debt and buy back the costumes in the mid-1920s, but he had moved on artistically and only some costumes from Scene V were used again. The majority of the surviving costumes were sold in a renowned auction at Sotheby’s, London, in 1968, and the remainder in 1973. They are now housed in collections all over the world and provide a fantastic insight into how costumes were made and how this legendary company actually looked.  Collections include: The V&A, The Museum of London and the National Gallery of Australia.

Caroline Hamilton, Costume Society Ambassador 2015

  • Mounting The Countess Costume at the Museum of London.
  • The Countess, embroidery detail.
  • Tchernicheva as The Countess, 1921.
  • The costume shown in the 1968 auction catalogue worn by a student of the Royal Ballet.