Fashion History Lesson: The Subversive Power of Tulle

Fashion History Lesson: The Subversive Power of Tulle

A look from Giambattista Valli's Fall 2018 couture collection. Photo: Imaxtree

Welcome to Fashion History Lesson, in which we dive deep into the origin and evolution of the fashion industry's most influential and omnipresent businesses, icons, trends and more.

Few things embody Western culture's idealized view of femininity more than a frothy tulle skirt. Often associated with bridal wear and ballerina costumes, the ethereal and transparent qualities of this lightweight, fine netting have come to serve as a symbol of the contradictions associated with womanhood: delicate yet strong, pure but sexy.

The romanticized fabric has become a catwalk staple in recent seasons, showing up on the Spring 2018 runways of Saint Laurent, Moschino, Alexander McQueen, Oscar de la Renta, Simone Rocha, Preen, and Delpozo, just to name a few. And with the couture shows in full swing in Paris this week, it's especially prevalent now. (Of course, that's not even counting the mountains of tulle shown almost every season by Molly Goddard and Giambattista Valli, who could probably keep the tulle industry in business all on their own.) The popularity of tulle clothing could be fashion's cyclical reaction to the longstanding market dominance of athletic wear, but is it a coincidence that one of the most traditionally feminine fabrics seems to be making a resurgence in the wake of the #metoo movement?

Dancers during the filming of 'Gold Diggers of 1933'. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images


Historians believe that, at first, tulle was painstakingly woven by hand using methods similar to lace production starting around the 1700s. Modern-day tulle (also known as bobbinet) was first produced after a complex weaving machine that could efficiently produce the fabric was patented in 1809. [1] After that, tulle became integral to high-end wedding gowns, evening dresses and lingerie. Once a prohibitively expensive and luxurious textile made of silk, tulle eventually became readily available to the masses thanks to the introduction of cheaper synthetic fibers such as nylon, rayon and polyester.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, tulle gained in popularity for a number of reasons. It became one of the most common materials used for evening gowns, especially after mid-century influencer Grace Kelly wore a voluminous tulle skirt in the 1954 film "Rear Window." The lightness of the fabric could be layered to create massively wide skirts that concealed a woman's legs while accentuating her waist and bust.

[Left]: "After the Reception" by Douglas Volk, 1887. Photo: Wikimedia Commons; [Middle]: German fashion show, 1954. Photo: Wikimedia Commons; [Right]: Schiaparelli wedding dress featured in Ladies' Home Journal, 1948. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Tulle was also used to convey modesty when veiled over hats or a bride's head, as it often still is today. According to bridal historian Susan Waggoner, the tradition of wearing a bridal veil dates back to Ancient times when brides were wrapped to represent the delivery of a "modest and untouched maiden." It was also used as a way to conceal a woman's face during arranged marriages so that the groom wouldn't see his bride until it was, well, too late to run. [4] Of course, we like to imagine that tulle veils hold much more romantic meanings in contemporary marriages, but it's important to recognize that the popularity of tulle in today's fashion represents a woman's ability to choose what to conceal and what to reveal.

Related ArticlesMake Way for Punky Tutus This SpringThe 11 Best Wedding Looks for Spring 2019Fashion History Lesson: The Boozy Evolution of the Cocktail Dress

[Left]: Marie Taglioni in “La Sylphide”, 1832. Photo: Wikimedia Commons; [Middle]: Mlle. Adeline Genée, 1911. Photo: Wikimedia Commons; [Right]: Wilfride Piollet in Swan Lake, 1977. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


The ubiquitous tutu look is said to have been first introduced in 1832 by the Swedish-Italian dancer Marie Taglioni for her leading role in the ballet "La Sylphide." The bell-shaped skirt that she wore would inspire costume designers to layer more and more tulle to heighten the gravity-defying effect of the tutu, which also became much shorter to show off a dancer's fancy footwork. However, while the plain white tutu supposedly served to represent the purity and virtue of female dancers, it's no secret that male spectators were pleased by the increased exposure of the dancers' legs. [2]

Despite its allure, the beauty of a tulle tutu came at a tragic price for many dancers. In the 1800s, indoor lighting only came from candles and the newly honed power of gaslights; as you can imagine, that created a dangerous scenario for all wearers of voluminous tulle skirts. Ballerinas were particularly susceptible since theirs were typically bouncing around flickering stage lights, and numerous dancers fell victim to flames throughout the 1800s. [1]

From music boxes to Christmas decor, young girls are exposed to ballerina imagery throughout the earliest parts of their life. The bell- or disc-shaped tulle tutu becomes a symbol representing beauty and grace, providing an ideal for which to strive when they grow older. As dance scholars have noted, the romanticized vision of a tutu-clad ballerina remains a universal sign of perfected femininity: "couth and graceful, yet disciplined and regulated." [3]


These cultural connotations have made tulle ripe for use as a subversive tool to make comments on gender roles or to celebrate female strength through the use of juxtapositions. While the tutu has historically symbolized discipline, purity and beauty (for the sake of the male gaze), wearing a tutu-esque skirt alongside, say, combat boots and fishnet tights subverts the garment’s original connotation and makes a statement against the values it traditionally represented. Some theorists have also noted that embracing the tutu look serves as a way for a woman to communicate her power and individuality without sacrificing her desire to embrace her "girlish femininity," an ephemeral quality that women are told to give up in order to become respectable wives and mothers. [2]

Numerous fashion designers have questioned the binary aspects of Western fashion through the use of tulle, just as Yohji Yamamoto did with his red bustle that was immortalized by Nick Knight in 1986. Almost two decades later, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons raised eyebrows with her so-called "Biker + Ballerina" collection for Spring 2005. This iconic collection juxtaposed the masculine qualities of boxy leather jackets against frilly pink tutus to possibly comment on the "resources a modern woman needs—speed, toughness, and rigorous self-discipline," as Vogue's Sarah Mower wrote in her review of the collection. The ingenious designers behind Viktor & Rolf also made a statement using tulle for their Spring 2010 Ready-to-Wear collection, which is best remembered for its over-the-top tulle gowns that were distorted to look like holey chunks of swiss cheese. "With the credit crunch and everybody cutting back, we decided to cut tulle ball gowns," the designers told the press.

But fashion designers aren't the only ones who have made statements using tulle. No one could forget Madonna's "Like a Virgin" bridal look that mixed a barely-there tulle skirt with elements of lingerie. Tulle has also been a favorite material for hyper-feminized drag queen costumes, using the fabric to emphasize gender tropes and poke fun at the traditional idea of an effeminate woman. Whether worn by a male or female, the sight of a tulle skirt outside of the realms of traditional attire can make a statement that one doesn't conform to the norms of society. This is rather remarkable when you think about it: how many other garments have the power to make such a statement with so little context?

[Left]: Ballerina Alicia Markova as Giselle, 1947. Photo: Baron/Getty Images; [Right]: Look from the Spring/Summer 2017 womenswear collection by Christian Dior, shown on September 30, 2016 in Paris.. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images 


The fashion industry has been appropriating elements of the ballet uniform long before Carrie Bradshaw strolled down the streets of New York in her iconic tutu-and-tank look for the "Sex and the City" intro. Lately, designers have been especially keen to use tulle in more irreverent ways — infusing ballet-inspired looks with sportswear qualities and menswear sensibilities. Even Giambattista Valli interrupted his usual parade of ultra-feminine evening gowns to show light tulle layers styled over tailored pants and paired with blazers as part of the brand's 2015 couture collection.

And then there was Maria Grazia Chiuri's debut show as the creative director of Christian Dior — the first-ever female one, at that — in September 2016, which brought tulle to the fore of a new wave of feminist power dressing. Understanding the power of streetwear to appeal to millennials, Grazia Chiuri combined luxurious tulle skirts with the comforts of sportswear, including those now-ubiquitous t-shirts reading "Dio(r)evolution" and "We Should All Be Feminists". The tulle skirts were nothing new for the designer, who made them part of her signature in her previous role at Valentino, but the decision to include them in this show was a testament to the power of this fabric to make a statement. 

Tom Salama and Ran Danker at the 1st Cannes International Series Festival on April 10, 2018 in Cannes, France. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

As traditional gender codes continue to become less rigid in the fashion world (and hopefully throughout the rest of the world), tulle has found its way into menswear, too — although not very often. The iconoclastic Belgian designer Walter Van Beirendonck incorporated tulle into his Spring 2015 menswear collection as an "impulse to change the basic construction of menswear," draping long tulle panels that resembled bridal veils over tailored menswear jackets. More recently, the menswear division of the House of Dior was taken over by Kim Jones, who debuted his first collection for the brand in June. Instead of adhering to the luxury streetwear styles that he's known for, Jones opted to go all-out with romantic fantasy, infusing many traditional techniques from women's couture into fresh takes on modern menswear. "Gender doesn't matter anymore — it's 2018," Jones told the press. A transparent white organza and tulle shirt, hand-embroidered with delicate feathers in the style of a couture bridal veil, is just one of the ways that the designer backed up his statement.

There are many reasons to appreciate tulle, aside from it providing a welcome, fantastical antidote to the athleisure and streetwear looks that we've seen so much of lately. Once a strictly feminine fabric reserved for brides, ballerinas and wealthy couture customers, the democratization of tulle has helped to spread the message that popular fashion and gender roles are no longer strict codes that must be followed by all. In its modern incarnations, tulle is free to be worn without having to convey passivity; still, there's nothing wrong hopping around in a frilly skirt like a ballerina if it makes you happy. In today's world, we could all probably use a little more joy in our wardrobes; whether or not it includes a feminist statement is up to the wearer.

[1]: David, Alison Matthews. “Blazing Ballet Girls and Flannelette Shrouds: Fabric, Fire, and Fear in the Long Nineteenth Century,” Textile 14, no. 2 (2016): 244-267.

[2]: Monden, Masafumi. “Layers of the Ethereal: A Cultural Investigation of Beauty, Girlhood, and Ballet in Japanese Shōjo Manga,” Fashion Theory 18, no. 3 (2014): 251-295.

[3]: Peers, J. “Ballet and Girl Culture.” In Girl Culture: An Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2008: 73-84.

[4]: Waggoner, Susan. I do! I do!: The Origins of 100 Classic Wedding Traditions. New York: Rizzoli, 2002. 

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