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Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse

Dame Margot Fonteyn

18 May 2020

101 years ago, on 18 May 1919, Margaret ‘Peggy’ Evelyn Hookham was born in Reigate in Surrey. ‘Little Miss Hookham’, as a newspaper columnist in the 1940s later described her, went on to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Royal Ballet, and arguably the greatest British ballerina of her era.

Margot Fonteyn as Cinderella, 1957

Fonteyn was known for her superb line, excellent technique, superlative acting skills, and for her grace, passion and discipline. Sir Anthony Dowell, artistic director or the Royal Ballet at the time of Fonteyn’s death in 1991, wrote in her obituary: “She was always the complete professional… But she also behaved beautifully on the other side of the footlights…It was always a faultless performance, on and off stage”.

Robert Helpmann and Margot Fonteyn, Facade. National Library of Australia

Throughout her forty-year dancing career Dame Margot ‘costumed’ her off-stage appearances through carefully-judged wardrobe choices, favouring the world’s greatest fashion designers, including Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. “Margot loved clothes and fashion”, noted her American friend, and fellow ballerina, Joy Williams Brown recently.

In the 1960s Dame Margot gifted a number of her evening dresses and daywear ensembles by Dior and Saint Laurent to Doris Langley Moore, for the Museum of Costume, Bath, which was founded by Mrs Langley Moore and Bath City Council in the Assembly Rooms, Bath in 1963. These treasured couture classics are now part of the collection at the Fashion Museum Bath.

Black wool suit, 'Daisy', worn by Margot Fonteyn, Christian Dior, New Look, 1947. Photograph by William Palmer.

Cream wool jersey dress, 'Mondrian', worn by Margot Fonteyn, Yves Saint Laurent, 1965. Photograph by William Palmer.

Blue sequined tulle evening dress, 'Debussy', worn by Margot Fonteyn, Christian Dior, 1950. Photograph by William Palmer.

Recently, the Fashion Museum lent a number of pieces from Margot Fonteyn’s couture wardrobe to the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, for the exhibition Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse. The exhibition opened in February 2020 and examined the profound influence that ballet costume had on the fashion world from the 1930s to the 1970s.

© 2020 The Museum at FIT

On 6 March 2020, just before the Ballerina exhibition closed due to COVID-19 restrictions in New York, the Museum at FIT presented the Annual Academic Symposium, which focused on the exhibition. Thanks to our friends at the Museum at FIT we are now able to share the talks at that Symposium. International dance historians and writers, including Lynn Garafola, Theresa Ruth Howard, Laura Jacobs, Joel Lobenthal, Caitlyn Lehmann, Jane Pritchard, and Russ Tallchief, as well as exhibition curator Patricia Mears, spoke on a variety of topics, from the impact that celebrated dancer Marie Taglioni had on fashion in the mid-19th century to the Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet www.MoBBallet.org. research project. Fashion Museum Manager Rosemary Harden was also invited to the Symposium, to talk about Margot Fonteyn’s couture wardrobe. Today, on the anniversary of Dame Margot Fonteyn’s birth, we are pleased to share that presentation with you.

Our grateful thanks to our friends in New York; and to Dame Margot Fonteyn for so generously donating her treasured ‘off-stage’ wardrobe for posterity to the Fashion Museum Bath.   

A book Ballerina. Fashion’s Modern Muse edited by Patricia Mears, published by Vendome 2019 www.vendomepress.com accompanies the exhibition.