Barbara Karinska: Costume Couturier

The costumes created by Barbara Karinska (1886–1983) go hand in hand with the history of 20th-century ballet. Starting with her work for the Ballets Russes companies, through her longtime affiliation with George Balanchine and New York City Ballet, Karinska was the authority on outfitting dancers.

Born Varvara Andryevna Zmoudsky on October 3, 1886, in the city of Kharkov, Ukraine, Karinska was the eldest of 10 children. Her father was a successful textile merchant, while her mother stayed home to care for the family. They led a life of upper-class privilege, with European governesses, elegant dinners and instruction in the art of embroidery, a skill that would become vitally important to Karinska’s future.

In her teens, Karinska studied law at the University of Kharkov and volunteered at a local women’s prison. At age 20, she married Alexander Moïssenko, a newspaper editor with whom she had one daughter, Irene. When her husband died of typhus after only four years of marriage, Karinska took over his position at the newspaper—an unheard of move for a woman at the time.

But as the political situation leading to the Russian Revolution began to heat up, she closed the newspaper and moved to Moscow. There, she set up a shop selling embroidery and linens, and married her second husband, Nicholas Karinsky, a government official in St. Petersburg. This marriage also ended prematurely—as the Bolsheviks took power, her husband fled the country, leaving Karinska and her daughter behind. (Karinsky actually drove a taxi in New York City for 20 years until his death, but his wife did not know, thinking him dead years earlier.)

Karinska got her chance to escape a few years later. After running a variety of shops for several years, she was offered a government post as the Commissar of Museums. She requested that she be sent to Germany to educate herself more for the position, but instead fled to Brussels with an orphaned nephew and her daughter, in whose clothing Karinska stitched the remaining family jewels.

She soon moved to Paris, where she struggled to make a living by crocheting shawls and flowers, and making traditional Russian headdresses. Slowly, she began to receive costuming commissions from cabarets and operettas. Her most important commission came in 1931 from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, for Balanchine’s ballet Cotillon.

In 1939, she set sail for the United States, escaping Europe before the onslaught of World War II. Once settled, her first commission was for a serpent for the New York World’s Fair. The serpent was so long that it required two taxis—Karinska held the head in one, and her assistants brought the tail in the other, as the two cars drove side by side to the exhibition hall. She continued to create costumes for the Ballets Russes companies and added the burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee to her roster.

A few years later, in 1942, Karinska created the costumes for Agnes de Mille’s ballet Rodeo. In what would become her modus operandi, her seamstresses carried the still unfinished pieces in a fleet of taxis, arriving at the theater moments before the curtain rose. Dancers were sewn into their costumes in the theatre’s wings. Of this anxiety-producing process, de Mille remarked, “Why does anyone hire her a second time? Simply, she is without a peer in her field.”

Karinska drew the notice of Hollywood in the 1940s, and was hired to work on many films, creating costumes for such actors as Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Judy Garland and Ginger Rogers. For the 1948 film Joan of Arc, Karinska won an Academy Award for Costume Design, but left movie costuming behind soon afterward, turning her attention back to New York—to opera, theater and ballet, with the occasional commission from Ice Capades or Ice Follies.

Of all the companies and productions that Karinska costumed, it was Balanchine and his NYCB to which she said she “gave her heart.” In fact, de Mille once declared that she and others always suspected that Karinska charged them exorbitant fees so that she could hold costs down for Balanchine.

In 1949, Balanchine asked Karinska to design the costumes for Bourrée Fantasque. Up until this time, her ballet costumes had been made from other people’s designs, but designing and constructing gave Karinska a wealth of freedom to create signature costumes for such Balanchine ballets as Symphony in C (which premiered in 1947, but was re-costumed by Karinska in 1950) and The Nutcracker (1954).

Her stunning and technically inventive creations allowed dancers to move easily and even inspired movement. Ballet bodices of the time were normally modeled on a corset and often restricted mobility, but Karinska cut the side panels on the bias (the diagonal), which created an elasticity that allowed room for the rib cage to expand and the dancer to breathe more freely. She added small touches that only a dancer would see, such as a rose on the underskirt, as well as elaborate details on the visible elements, all of which made dancers feel special. As current NYCB principal Sterling Hyltin once said of wearing Karinska’s Dewdrop costume, “You just feel beautiful.”

Another one of Karinska’s innovations was the so-called “powder-puff” tutu. Instead of using wire in the skirts to hold a classical tutu straight out at a 90-degree angle, she used layer upon layer of tulle to create the same effect, but with a softer quality. This eliminated situations in which two tutus would flip straight up because they were too close together.

The designer was also known for her choice of unusual color palettes and was very astute about the effects of stage lights. Instead of using one color of tulle in the layers of a costume, she used several colors to create depth and fullness. She preferred natural fibers to synthetics and employed sumptuous details, drawing on her years of fine embroidery work for glorious results. The New York Times critic John Martin described her costumes as “visual music,” underscoring the integral nature of her designs to the ballets for which they were created, and the way they enhanced and intensified the overall effect of the productions.

She received the Capezio Dance Award in 1962, with the commendation that “‘Costumes by Karinska’ has long since become a promise of complete visual beauty for the spectator and complete delight for the dancer, be it Prima Ballerina, Premier Danseur or as a member of the Corps de Ballet.”

In 1963, the Ford Foundation gave NYCB a multimillion-dollar grant, and with a portion of it Balanchine was able to ask Karinska, at the age of 77, to create costumes exclusively for NYCB in the company’s own costume shop. She designed the intricately detailed costumes for Jewels (1967) and Vienna Waltzes (1977), and executed the designs for many other ballets.

Shortly before the première of Vienna Waltzes, Karinska suffered a massive stroke. For the next six years, she clung to life, but without ever regaining speech or memory. On October 18, 1983, she passed away.

Karinska’s lasting influence on the world of costuming is immense. It is no coincidence that many ballet masterpieces of the 20th century have costumes designed or executed by her. Not only are her designs stunningly beautiful, but they were made with an astute understanding of what is required of dancers. Her creations live on as the ballets she costumed continue to be performed by NYCB and other companies around the world. DT

Elizabeth McPherson is an assistant professor in dance education at Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ.

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