Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  September 21, 2015

Hidden Treasure

Last February I was approached by designer Richard Hudson to research the Ballets Russes production of The Sleeping Princess from 1921. American Ballet Theatre led by Alexei Ratmansky were, at the time, planning to create a new production of The Sleeping Beauty with the production design based on Diaghilev’s opulent production. My job was to trace what the original costumes, set and props looked like which started me on an exciting treasure hunt. The ballet with designs echoing Leon Bakst’s original concept had its New York premiere last month.

After Diaghilev’s production closed in 1922, the opulent six changes of complex set and nearly 300 individual costumes were seized by Sir Oswald Stoll (owner of the London theatre) in lieu of the outstanding debt. Diaghilev was eventually able to settle the debt and buy back the costumes in 1926, but they were never used again (with the exception of those from the last scene). The majority of the surviving costumes were sold through a series of auctions at Sotheby’s, London, in 1968, and the remainder in 1973. The costumes were sold quickly and their provenance was not researched fully. This has meant that although many costumes survive from this ballet (over 150 at the time of sale) we still know relatively little about how the production looked. It was my job to try and fit the pieces of the jigsaw back together!

The most interesting aspect was trying to match the extant costume, design and character descriptions together. Many designs survive but they have often been recoloured and/or renamed adding yet another layer to the mystery. The surviving costumes I found were the best place to start as these had definitely appeared in the production.

I was lucky enough to be able to visit a number of collections to study these amazing costumes in person. A ballet costume can tell you a lot more then how a particular character looked: they can show you how the ballet was cast, built and run. It was wonderful to be able to examine and handle these pieces – feeling the quality and weight (in some cases I am surprised they could move at all!) Some costumes still showed traces of makeup and were inscribed with the names of various dancers who wore them. I was amazed at the detail of these costumes – including meticulous applique, embroidery and tailoring. The costume that really stood out for me was for the role of one of the Three Ministers in Scene 1. A relatively minor role this costume is full of intricate detail including purple and orange facings and exquisite gold embroidery. Although as noted in my last blog post not all the costumes for this ballet were made with such detail and care.

These unique and opulent costumes are now housed in collections all over the world, including The V&A, National Gallery of Australia, Dans Museet Stockholm, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and Wadsworth Atheneum.

Caroline Hamilton, Costume Society Ambassador 2015

  • A beautifully hand painted Mazurka costume hangs in the store of the Museum of London.
  • A detailed photograph of the heavy duty hooks on the Mazurka costume. Museum of London
  • The fabulous bright facings on the coat for the Minister of State. Museum of London.
  • The Queen’s elaborate costume from Scene V emerges from a sea of tissue paper. V&A
  • Detailed applique and hand painting on the costume for the Herald. V&A