Theatrical productions were a popular form of entertainment in the early 20th century, with lavish sets, elaborate costumes and big budgets to spend on popular stars. The most famous production names from this era were the Folies Bergere, the Ziegfeld Follies and the Ballets Russes.
You may well recognise this painting on the left – I certainly do as I studied it closely in my Art History at A Level – it dates from 1882 and is titled A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Édouard Manet. I always though the poor barmaid looked like she was patiently listening to some predictable chat-up line from the mustachioed gent stood before her!
First opening in 1869, the Folies Bergère is a Parisian cabaret music hall, which was initially built and used as an opera house. The facade was re-designed in 1926 by the artist Maurice Pico in the popular Art Deco style, and it is still in business to this day.
Here’s another iconic image for you, the singer and dancer Josephine Baker in her infamous banana costume. This outfit, which was basically a string of bejewelled artificial bananas worn around the waist, with little else, was made for the 1926 revue La Folie du Jour. As you can imagine, the shows were not for the prudish, featuring elaborate costumes and erotic dancing, with the female performers in revealing outfits, often practically naked.
The Ziegfeld Follies was founded in New York in 1907 by Florenz Ziegfeld and his wife Anna Held, taking their inspiration from the Folies Bergère.
Their Broadway theatrical revues, which ran until 1931, featured many top entertainers from Josephine Baker and Louise Brooks to Bob Hope, alongside the Ziegfeld Girls, a chorus line of beautiful young women who sang and danced in elaborate costumes, some designed by Erte.
The Charleston, an energetic dance with side kicks and exaggerated play with the knees and probably the most widely known dance from the 1920’s, was created for the Ziegfeld Follies show ‘Running Wild’ in 1923.
Despite it’s name, the Ballets Russes never actually performed in Russia, preferring instead to base themselves in Paris and tour around Europe and North and South America.
Formed in 1909 by Sergei Diaghilev it brought together young and innovative composers, artists, designers, choreographers and performers, injecting new life into ballet and bringing many new visual artists to the public’s attention.
Diaghilev commissioned all new works from composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy, he turned to artists such as Vasily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse for the set design, and the bold and exotic costumes were by designers such as fellow Russian Léon Bakst and Coco Chanel.
Costume Design by Giorgio de Chirico, The Ball (1929). [Credit: Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, The National Gallery of Art]
The Ballets Russes productions were so groundbreaking they are still referenced today, in fashion as well as theatre and ballet.
You can get the look today with trompe-l’œil dresses, black and white harlequin or pierrot costumes, sequin and bejewelled showgirl outfits with feather headdresses to match, or go DIY and channel Josephine Baker with a string of faux fruit covering up your modesty!