Easy as 5,6,7,8: Ballet Appropriation

Dancers would consider themselves to be a subculture in society that contain further subgroups within its broad category such as hip hoppers, jazz dancers, tappers, and the well-known ballerinas. Although unnoticed, ballerinas have a particular style of dress that they have worn for many, many years, which distinguishes them from other types of dancers. This look includes the bun hairstyle, tights, leotards, legwarmers, and pointe shoes.

Natalie Portman wearing typical ballerina clothes in “Black Swan”


Nowadays, this subcultural fashion has been commodified and made trendy. Part of this is due to the fact that dancing and dancers have been more recognized with movies, television shows, and documentaries highlighting their unique lifestyles and unintentionally, showing their fashion sense. Examples include Center Stage, Black Swan, Dance Moms, So You Think You Can Dance, and First Position, which all educate ballet culture to the public while inadvertently making ballet something for the masses to consume. Meaning is lost during mass production to fit mainstream culture. Rather than being fashions representing ballet culture, fashions become popular with many unaware of their original origins and inspirations. Unfortunately, clothing can have its meaning altered simply due to the context in that “some combination of clothes or a certain style emphasis ‘means’ will vary tremendously depending upon the identity of the wearer, the occasion, the place, the company, and even something as vague… as the wearer’s and the viewers’ moods” (Davis 151). Once a style has been manufactured, it no longer belongs to a certain group of people; it belongs to the public to share and consume. 

Sock Bun Hairstyle

The sock bun hairstyle is certainly a take on ballerinas and has been quite popular lately with celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Lauren Conrad, and Christina Milian sporting the look. Fashion is known for its “rapid and continual changing of styles” as “fashion, in a sense is change” (Wilson 3). This updo has certainly been re-appropriated from ballerinas and is the new ‘it’ hairstyle that anyone can learn how to do. It is interesting how the industry forces society to transform to become somewhat unnatural. Fashion is a cultural phenomenon that is in constant modification due to capitalism. Dr. Marwick discussed this idea of the “democratization of fashion” where anyone has the ability to critique fashion due to the ease of technology and posting images online (Marwick). Someone can see a celeb wearing this sock bun hairstyle and then post a DIY blog page, re-appropriating the look once again. These sites try to be anti-mainstream, but the most successful ones ironically adhere to exactly what the masses want, therefore producing fast fashion for those without cultural capital to have the ability to be fashionable.

American Apparel Tights

Tights are another ballerina clothing item that has been appropriated into mainstream fashions. Men originally wore tights many years ago when riding horseback to protect their groins and then, tights became the staple item for male and female dancers; nowadays mainly women wear tights for stylish purposes. Ballerinas are known for wearing light pink tights in practices and performances. Today, tights are made and produced by an array of companies and come in a variety of colors, patterns, and styles. This shows how “clothing styles can elicit such different responses from different social groups” (Davis 152). Through commodification, one would not know that tights were not originally meant for females to wear in a multitude of ways; meaning is completely lost through mass production. Many subcultures have taken tights and appropriated them to fit their style. Goth subculture is an example of this because members of this group purposefully rip their tights to portray a certain look.

American Apparel Ad

Tights along with leotards and legwarmers have been mass-produced and manufactured for the public to consume easily and to have quick access to fashion. American Apparel has become well known for selling these tights, leotards, legwarmers, along with other goods. This US company has re-appropriated ballerina style through raunchy advertisements and the selling of the same item in a plethora of colors and patterns. This relates to when Urban Outfitters was sent “a cease and desist order that forced [them] to rename its products” by Navajo Nation for it’s ‘Navajo’ line (Hix 1). Sadly, “the world of fashion has also come to understand that selling products is heightened by the exploitation of Otherness” (hooks 371). In regards to Urban Outfitters, ‘Otherness’ is referencing ethnicity, but to me, it seems like it can also be applicable to whatever is the unfamiliar. And dance is a subculture that is unfamiliar to the general public. American Apparel is taken advantage of this notion and commodifies ballet clothing for commercial purposes. By marketing tights, leotards, and legwarmers as the hip item, of course consumers will purchase in order to be stylish.

Still shot from Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” music video

Leotards have also been made popular due to Beyonce’s 2009 hit, “Single Ladies.” In the music video, the pop star is wearing a one-sleeved black leotard with two back-up dancers who are wearing sleeveless leotards. This video became an Internet sensation and went viral rather quickly. Beyonce chose this outfit for the video to make a statement and to stand out from what others in her industry were doing, but do to her audacity, others copied. It is funny how “fashion expresses and at the same time emphasizes the tendency towards equalization and individualization, and the desire for imitation and conspicuousness” (Simmel 550).  Beyonce’s leotard in “Single Ladies” was re-appropriated to the public as something that is fashionable and can be worn outside of dancing.

Screenshot of Steve Madden’s webpage

Legwarmers have been re-appropriated from their practical use of keeping one’s legs warm to becoming a fashionable trend. Ballerinas wear legwarmers when doing barre work to keep their calves warm. It is now in style to wear one’s socks over your pants so that they can be seen above the top of a boot. To an extent, the practical use is still there, but the focus is now placed on having trendy sock wear. Some shoe companies sell boots with fabric on the top rim of the boot to make this trend even easier to access for its customers. Another shoe that has been appropriated from ballerina style are espadrilles. This fun summer shoe is quite similar to ballerinas’ infamous pointe shoes with a piece of fabric wrapped around the ankle. Ballerinas who are advanced enough to wear pointe shoes are applauded for the beauty on dancing on one’s toes. Espadrilles try to emulate this beauty and height through the wedged heel and the similar ribbon design around the ankle. Mass production has made it possible for “the use of fashion as a means of self-enhancement and self-expression for the majority” and is “successful in helping individuals express and define their individuality” (Wilson 12). Industrialization has appropriated styles in order to gain a profit, but this is at the cost of subcultural fashions.

Alexa Chung wearing espadrilles

Through appropriation and mass production, authenticity is lost as fashion becomes accessible to all, since anyone has the ability to be in the know simply through the ease of consumption practices.  Ballet has “a set of ready-made choices, objectively instituted possibles, traditions, rules, values, equipment, symbols, which receive their social significance from the system their constitute from,” but when distributed lose the connotation originally attached (Bourdieu 209). Although appropriation tends to be seen as a negative, it is interesting how an item can be commodified to a point that there is not necessarily a distinction between the new item and where it was appropriated. This is due to the fact that “consumption is… a stage in a process of communication, that is, an act of deciphering [and] decoding,” which can vary depending on who is consuming (Bourdieu 2). Recently, dancing has become more integrated into conventional media and slowly, the public is becoming more aware of ballet and dance subculture. Despite this, the appropriation of ballet and other subcultures will continue because that is the way the fashion industry works—borrowing from other styles to create something new to make profit.   


Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984. Print.

Davis, Fred. “Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” Fashion Theory: A Reader. Ed. Malcolm Barnard. New York: Routledge, 2007. 148-57. Print.

Hix, Lisa. “Why the ‘Native’ Fashion Trend Is Pissing Off Real Native Americans.” Collectors Weekly. Market Street Media LLC, 1 Dec. 2011. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.

Hooks, Bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Black Looks: Race and Representaion. Boston: South End, 1992. 21-39. Print.

Marwick, Alice, Ph.D. “Silver Linings?: Pinterest, Fashion Blogs, & Conspicuous Consumption Online.” Fashion and Power. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, New York. 21 Feb. 2013. Lecture.

Simmel, Georg. “Fashion.” American Journal of Sociology 62.6 (1957): 541-58. JSTOR. Web. 7 Feb. 2013.

Wilson, Elizabeth. “Introduction.” Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. New

Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2003. 1-15. Print.


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