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Liberating the Natural Movement: Dress Reform and Historical References in the Self-Expression of Isadora Duncan

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By laying the foundation for a new dance that would release the inner spiritual impulse through unrestricted movement, Isadora Duncan sought to return to the understanding of the body as a medium for harmonious expression of natural rhythms. Such kinetic celebrations of female vitality required the adoption of garments that challenged the dominant conventions of women's dress and represented a route to alternative practices that encouraged physical and personal freedom. This study builds a comprehensive view of Duncan's progressive identity by considering the ways in which the dancer aligned herself with late-nineteenth-century dress reform movements and adopted references from classical antiquity in order to develop a distinctive style within the context of both everyday sartorial presentation and performative culture.
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Liberating the Natural Movement:
Dress Reform and Historical References
in the Self-Expression of Isadora Duncan
Alicia Mihalic
Abstract
By laying the foundation for a new dance that would release the inner spiritual
impulse through unrestricted movement, Isadora Duncan sought to return to the
understanding of the body as a medium for harmonious expression of natural
rhythms. Such kinetic celebrations of female vitality required the adoption of
garments that challenged the dominant conventions of women’s dress and
represented a route to alternative practices that encouraged physical and personal
freedom. This study builds a comprehensive view of Duncan’s progressive identity
by considering the ways in which the dancer aligned herself with late-nineteenth-
century dress reform movements and adopted references from classical antiquity in
order to develop a distinctive style within the context of both everyday sartorial
presentation and performative culture.
In one of her earliest essays The Dance of the Future published in 1903,
1
Isadora Duncan (1877-
1927) addressed her approach to dance as a complex artistic and social practice. For Duncan,
the new dance, which was to be understood as an eternal form of expression with the ability to
bridge the past and the future, found its origins in harmonious rhythms of nature. Both
inanimate motions of the wind and waves and animate gestures of humans and animals
unfolded, according to Duncan, from natural rhythmic exchanges and encompassed as such an
inherent aesthetic value. The primary function of the dance was to establish a unity of the soul
and the body by celebrating movements developed in proportion to the individual human form.
2
The concept of unrestricted corporeal gestures, which as the dancer later explained originated
from the solar plexus, was placed in stark opposition to the codified techniques of classical
ballet. Although there is plenty of evidence that Duncan herself had taken ballet lessons both
as a child and later as a young woman,
3
she repeatedly criticized not only the artificiality of the
traditional ballet system and its disassociation with the laws of nature, but sought a way to
express her views regarding the distorting effects imposed by the ballet costume on the human,
in particular female figure.
1
Isadora Duncan's essay The Dance of the Future was first presented as a lecture given at the Berlin Press Club in
1903.
2
Isadora Duncan, The Art of the Dance, Theater Arts, New York, United States, 1928, p. 54.
3
Ann Daly, Done into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, United
States, 2002, p. 68.
Duncan’s writings provided a theoretical framework for a new concept of art dance developed
at the end of the nineteenth century. Concerned with the unhealthiness and rigid formalism of
classical ballet, Isadora Duncan articulated a radical approach to dance and its social
implications related to the perception of womanhood. By envisioning the dancer as a medium
with the potential to convey ideas of social progress, Duncan evolved her persona, as observed
by dance critic Deborah Jowitt, into an emblem of freedom and sought to achieve liberation by
rejecting the prevailing notions of dance together with the nineteenth-century perceptions
regarding the way in which women were expected to lead their lives and construct their sartorial
appearances.
4
Her ideas about the unrestricted body and reliance on free-form choreography
were accompanied by a distinctive use of simplified, loose garments made of light-weight and
easily drapable textiles (Figure 1). At a time when women’s fashions were governed by strict
rules of etiquette and marked by multiple layers of clothing and various silhouette shaping
garments, Duncan’s preferences for transparent, free-flowing tunics based on models adopted
from the classical antiquity significantly challenged her path to public acceptance, while
allowing her to play a major role in the development of the modern dance and its elevation to a
legitimate form of art.
Figure 1:
Isadora Duncan in Munich, Germany, Atelier Elvira, 1904,
Jerome Robbins Dance Division, © The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts,
New York, United States, b12134458.
In her transgression of performative boundaries, Duncan aligned herself with other anti-
formalist dancers of the day such as Loïe Fuller (1862-1928) who increased the visibility of
4
Deborah Jowitt, "Images of Isadora: The Search for Motion", Dance Research Journal, Volume 17, Issue 2,
Autumn 1985, p. 21.
women in the public sphere and represented a prototype of the new, independent woman of the
twentieth century. Fuller believed in the transformative potential of dance which was to be
achieved through an inventive fusion of light and floating drapery and preceded Duncan in the
abandonment of the corset.
5
Growing up in California during the 1880s and 1890s (Figure 2),
Duncan might have been exposed to concerns regarding the restrictiveness and unhealthiness
of female attire expressed by promoters of health and dress reform movements that emerged in
the latter half of the nineteenth century. Both medical and aesthetic arguments questioning the
dominant attitudes towards the body and practices of conventional fashions that disabled
movement and limited work and sport activities were supported by various organizations and
individuals on both sides of the Atlantic. In order to address the issues of health and beauty in
clothing, many intellectuals and artists, including physicians, educators, feminists, actors,
dancers and opera singers, attempted to find means to improve the constraining features of
mainstream fashions and encourage the acceptance of a healthy body in its natural form. While
some limited their suggestions for sartorial improvement solely to the abandonment of tight and
heavy undergarments in order to maintain the fashionable appeal of contemporary styles, others
encouraged the adoption of new forms of dress that would significantly challenge the rigid
standards of nineteenth-century fashion culture.
6
Figure 2:
Isadora Duncan at Age 12 in Fresno, California, at the Time When She Was Touring Various
Californian Towns with Her Siblings, Photographer Unknown, 1889,
5
Helen Thomas, Dance, Modernity and Culture: Explorations in the Sociology of Dance, Routledge, London,
England, 1995, pp. 56-61.
6
Patricia A. Cunningham, Reforming Women's Fashion, 1850-1920: Politics, Health and Art, The Kent State
University Press, Kent, United States, 2003, p. 5.
Jerome Robbins Dance Division, © The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts,
New York, United States, b14790262.
In the light of rational and hygienic practices, American reformers saw the healthy female body
as the one that incarnated "the true principles of physiology and art"
7
and placed a significant
value on the notion of "physical culture" which had the ability to accentuate ideas related to the
body’s expressive and social implications. The increasing popularity of theories formulated by
the French music and drama educator François Delsarte (1811-1871) established an interest in
the relationship between bodily motions and spiritual functions. Initially envisioned as a system
that assigned corresponding meanings to vocal and dramatic gestures, Delsarte’s theoretical
principles of motion were based on training methods that were to serve professional orators and
actors and encourage the development of their own movement vocabularies.
8
Known as
Aesthetic or Harmonic Gymnastics, American Delsartism was quickly adopted by many upper-
and middle-class women interested in the improvement of health and enhancement of personal
freedom. Further elaborated and popularized by Genevieve Stebbins (1857-1914), the
technique developed into an expressive exercise programme that made a substantive
contribution to the emerging field of the alternative dance art.
9
In addition to limited training in classical ballet and knowledge of social dances acquired from
her sister Elizabeth (1871-1948), Duncan’s theory of dance is considered to have been
influenced by Delsartean principles of the body
10
and, in particular, his elaboration of the
importance of succession and fluidity of movement. Echoing the thoughts of American
reformers who considered physical exercise of the highest importance for the achievement of a
naturally beautiful body and called attention to the classical antiquity in order to eschew the
harmful effects of tight-lacing, Duncan addressed similar issues of dress reform by establishing
a correlation between her understanding of the ideal movement and images of sartorial
constraint. In her 1905 essay The Dancer and Nature she noted:
First draw me the form of a woman as it is in Nature. And now draw me the form
of a woman in a modern corset and the satin slippers used by our modern dancers.
Now do you not see that the movement that would conform to one figure would be
perfectly impossible for the other? To the first all the rhythmic movements that run
through Nature would be possible. They would find this form their natural medium
for movement. To the second figure this movements would be impossible on
account of the rhythm being broken, and stopped at the extremities.
11
7
Elizabeth Kendall, Where She Danced: The Birth of American Art-Dance, University of California Press,
Berkeley and Los Angeles, United States, 1979, p. 23.
8
Nancy Lee Chalfa Ruyter, "The Delsarte Heritage", Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance
Research, Volume 14, Number 1, Summer 1996, pp. 62-64.
9
Ibid., p. 70.
10
Dorée Duncan, Carol Pratl, and Cynthia Splatt, Life into Art: Isadora Duncan and Her World, W. W. Norton,
New York, United States, 1993, p. 29.
11
Isadora Duncan, The Art of the Dance, p. 70.
Having considered "the ideal beauty of the human form and the ideal beauty of movement"
12
to have been lost for centuries, Duncan linked her beliefs regarding the liberation of the body
from restrictions imposed by late-nineteenth-century culture to Hellenic concepts and found the
basis for her understanding of undulating movement within the eternal aesthetics of classical
Greek art. Like Genevieve Stebbins, whose popular teaching methodology of artistic statue-
posings and interpretations of historical and international dances (including ancient Greek
dance) might have made an important impact on the dancer in the early 1890s, Isadora Duncan
believed that the art of ancient Greece expressed the highest standards of universal qualities of
beauty and nature and modelled her movements in accordance to Greek imagery.
13
Duncan’s
interest in the study of ancient Greek art deepened after she left for Europe in 1899 and devoted
herself to the perfection of a dancing vocabulary reliant on references adopted from classical
sources. Her brother Raymond Duncan (1874-1966), an eclectic artist, philosopher, craftsman
and textile designer
14
who was later known for his strong advocacy of the healthfulness of
Greek dress,
15
demonstrated a similar interest in the art of ancient Greece and together they
visited numerous European museums focusing on the study of vase paintings, statuary and bas-
reliefs. Raymond drew sketches, while Isadora attempted to identify and evoke the harmony
and rhythm of movement that accompanied the depicted notions of the body and subsequently
translate Hellenic discourses into her own theory of modern dance.
Similar to figures observed from Greek art, Duncan adopted a physical appearance that
accompanied her movement vocabulary and became an important component of her sartorial
expression. In her autobiography My Life (1927), Duncan often indicated her preferences for
"little white Greek tunics" which she mentioned wearing as early as 1895 during her attempts
to make her first professional appearances in Chicago.
16
She soon moved to New York to join
the commercial theatrical company of Augustin Daly (1838-1899) and in 1898 started creating
her first solo programmes to compositions of Ethelbert Nevin (1862-1901). At the time of these
early performances, Duncan’s construction of the body continued to follow certain conventional
codes related to dancing attire, encompassing as such ballet slippers and pink coloured tights.
This can be noticed on a series of cabinet cards captured by the renowned theatrical
photographer Jacob Schloss (1856-1938) in 1898 in which the young dancer appears dressed in
a garment made from her mother’s lace curtains (Figure 3).
12
Ibid., p. 90.
13
Ruyter, op cit., pp. 69-72.; Daly, op cit., p. 125.
14
Alexandra Palmer, "'At once Classical and Modern': Raymond Duncan dress and textiles in the Ontario
Museum", in Charlotte Nicklas and Annebella Pollen (eds), Dress History: New Directions in Theory and Practice,
Bloomsbury Academic, London, England, 2016, p. 129.
15
Harold Koda, Goddess: The Classical Mode, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States, 2003,
p. 48.
16
See Isadora Duncan, My Life, Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York, United States, 2013, p. 17.
Figure 3:
Isadora Duncan in New York, United States in Various Poses, Dressed in Her Mother's Lace
Curtains, Jacob Schloss, 1899,
Jerome Robbins Dance Division, © The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts,
New York, United States, b12144860.
Even though her costumes of the late 1890s were already characterized as filmy and draping,
Duncan’s radical strategies of dress continued to develop along with her radical approach to
dance. Flowing draperies and bare feet celebrated and revealed the dancer’s body as she left the
United States for Europe in 1899 and explored mythological images represented in literary
works, painting and music during her debut appearances at London’s New Gallery. Duncan
named these short dances the Dance Idylls programme as part of which she performed a recital
based on Botticelli’s Primavera and enacted several figures represented in the painting as a
realisation of "soft and marvellous" movements that emanated from the scene and indicated a
message of love, spring and procreation of life.
17
Her costume was clearly inspired by the
depiction of the spring goddess Flora and can be seen in photographs captured by her brother
Raymond (Figure 4). The dancer is shown in a long, draped dress made of several layers of
light gauze fabric with floral ornaments, her head and upper body wreathed in strings of rose
blossoms. Her frolicsome and graceful movements translated the gestures of Venus and the
whole performance represented, according to the local press, a scene that "might have happened
in ancient Greece."
18
17
Isadora Duncan, My Life, p. 94.
18
Irma Duncan, Isadora Duncan: Pioneer in the Art of Dance, The New York Public Library, New York, United
States, 1959, p. 3.
Figure 4:
Isadora Duncan's Costume for Primavera, Raymond Duncan, 1900, Jerome Robbins Dance
Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, New York, United States,
in © Ann Daly, Done into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America, Wesleyan University Press,
Middletown, United States, 2002.
Duncan’s early interest in the arts and the "simplicity of the dress" was linked to her upbringing
in San Francisco
19
where reproductions of great masterpieces appeared as a cultural signifier of
artistic sensibility.
20
Although American dress reformers of the 1880s and 1890s indicated a
growing interest in the achievement of natural beauty through artistic forms of sartorial
expression and often suggested the classical ideal as the most relevant standard for female
beauty,
21
Duncan engaged in a more immediate contact with Aestheticism by joining the
progressive cultural elite of London and finding support for her art among its prominent
members. Encouraged by her enthusiasm for social reform, Duncan was further introduced to
the art of Pre-Raphaelite painters through her friendship with Charles Hallé (1846-1914), the
founder of the New Gallery and one of the first directors of the Grosvenor Gallery, a central
place for social display of Aesthetic dress. Worn by artists, writers, patrons and female members
of artistic audiences involved in the activities of The Aesthetic movement, Aesthetic dress
appeared as a socially motivated practice and supported similar issues of health, morality and
beauty represented by other dress reform movements.
19
Isadora Duncan, The Art of the Dance, p. 128.
20
Daly, op cit., p. 92.
21
Cunningham, op cit., pp. 136-140.
With origins dating to the art and culture of Pre-Raphaelite artists and the sartorial expression
of female members of the extended Pre-Raphaelite circle,
22
these clothing practices embodied
historical allusions to classical and medieval models and, as pointed out by Kimberly Wahl,
acted as a performative aspect of Aestheticism.
23
Aesthetic dress enabled the formation of
artistic individual and group identities and was further disseminated by the Liberty Company
24
whose designs played a significant role in the construction of Duncan’s appearance in a variety
of contexts. Softly draped textiles, items of dresses based on historical styles that appealed to
artistically inclined women and romantic outfits inspired by pastoral countryside illustrations
of Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), whose characters’ late-eighteenth-century and Regency
fashions were converted by Liberty into designs for children’s clothing, can be found
mentioned in Duncan’s descriptions of dress practices in which she referred to fabrics employed
for her dancing costume as well as to clothing and headwear worn as her everyday wardrobe at
the beginning of the twentieth century (Figure 5).
25
Figure 5:
22
Stella Mary Newton, Health, Art and Reason: Dress Reformers of the 19th Century, John Murray, London,
England, 1974, pp. 27-35.
23
Kimberly Wahl, Dressed as in a Painting: Women and British Aestheticism in an Age of Reform, University of
New Hampshire Press, Durham, United States, 2013, p. 70.
24
See Alison Adburgham, Shops and Shopping 1800-1914: Where, and in What Manner the Well-dressed
Englishwoman Bought her Clothes, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London, England, 1967, pp. 173-183.
25
In her autobiography, Duncan recalls buying "a few yards of veiling at Liberty's" for her first performance in
London organised by Mrs. X where she danced in sandals and bare feet. Furthermore, references to styles of the
late 1790s and early 1800s that were marked by white high-waisted muslin dresses can be found in Duncan’s
description of the attire she described as follows: "I was dressed in a white muslin Kate Greenaway dress, a blue
sash under the arms, a big straw hat on my head, and my hair in curls on my shoulders"., Isadora Duncan, My Life,
pp. 40-43.
Isadora Duncan, Photographer Unknown, 1905,
Jerome Robbins Dance Division, © The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts,
New York, United States, b12134463.
Since Duncan approached the dance as "the foundation of a complete conception of life",
26
she
articulated her ideas about the liberated body though unconventional clothing practices,
frequently discarding sartorial norms and opting to wear her "little white Greek tunic", bare feet
and sandals for public occasions other than her own performances. As previously mentioned,
Loïe Fuller rejected the corset before Duncan, but was nevertheless equally astonished by the
flimsy attire in which the dancer appeared both on and off the stage. Impressed by her skills,
Fuller attempted to help Duncan gain more attention in Europe. In her memoirs, she described
the garments worn by Duncan during their visit to the wife of the English ambassador in Vienna
in 1902 with the following words:
On this day I came near going in alone and leaving my dancer [Duncan] in the
carriage because of her personal appearance. She wore an Empire robe, grey, with
a long train and a man’s hat, a soft felt hat with a flying veil. Thus gowned she
appeared to so little advantage that I rather expected a rebuff.
27
By advocating comfort and mobility in clothing, Duncan disassociated herself from the rigid
principles of mainstream fashions and presented an idiosyncratic mode of dress through which
she asserted her notions of universality and timelessness of the natural human body. In addition
to physical restrictiveness, the dancer frequently confronted the fashion system with its
susceptibility towards perpetual innovation. She believed that fashion’s forward-looking and
ephemeral character was unable to affect the ideal beauty of women to which she referred as
eternal and unresponsive to changes imposed by fashion. Duncan explained these thoughts in
her essay Movement is Life in 1909:
The beauty of the human form is not chance. One cannot change it by dress. The
Chinese women deformed their feet with tiny shoes; women of the time of Louis
XIV deformed their bodies with corsets; but the ideal of the human body must
forever remain the same. The Venus of Milo ands on her pedestal in the Louvre for
an ideal; women pass before her, hurt and deformed by the dress of ridiculous
fashions; she remains forever the same, for she is beauty, life, truth.
28
Preferences for Grecian bodies led Duncan towards the adoption of everyday neo-classical dress
forms to which she referred as "Directoire". Using the term as early as 1902 during the family’s
first visit to Greece, Duncan described the contrast between this type of clothing and
"fashionable" dress styles worn by her sister-in-law. By portraying contemporary fashions as
26
Isadora Duncan, The Art of the Dance, p. 101.
27
Loïe Fuller, Fifteen Years of a Dancer's Life, with Some Account of Her Distinguished Friends, Herbert Jenkins,
London, England, 1913, p. 224.
28
Isadora Duncan, The Art of the Dance, p. 79.
"degenerate", she discussed her decision to abandon her own clothing in favour of an even more
profound return to ideal Hellenic originals (Figure 6), such as "tunics, and chlamys and
peplum".
29
Figure 6:
Isadora Duncan in a Museum in Athens, Greece, Raymond Duncan, 1903,
in © Dorée Duncan, Carol Pratl, and Cynthia Splatt, Life into Art: Isadora Duncan and Her
World, W. W. Norton, New York, United States, 1993.
Although her approach to dance was often referred to as Greek, Duncan did not strive to
reconstruct Greek dances and clearly described her relationship to the discourses of ancient
Greece solely as inspirational, highlighting that the references adopted from classical art
enabled her to interpret universal and natural gestures.
30
On a similar note, Duncan’s temporal
turns towards ancient dress forms represented only an approximation of the Hellenic originals,
namely costumes she could have perceived through her study of classical artworks (Figure 7).
Having in mind that historical revivals, as argued by art historian Deborah Cherry, could be
characterized by a variety of meanings, possibilities and strategies and therefore expressed
through a return of a style or through the re-appearance of a particular form or even survival of
an object,
31
Duncan’s version of ancient Greek dress encapsulated a modern interpretation that
translated her beliefs regarding the importance of physical freedom.
29
Isadora Duncan, My Life, p. 105.
30
Isadora Duncan, The Art of the Dance, p. 103.
31
Deborah Cherry, "The Ghost Begins by Coming Back. Revenants and Returns in Maud Sulter's Photomontages",
in Ayla Lepine, Matt Loder and Rosalind McKever (eds), Revival: Memories, Identities, Utopias, The Courtauld
Institute of Art, London, England, 2015, p. 29.
Figure 7:
Isadora Duncan at the Parthenon Theatre in Athens, Greece, Raymond Duncan, 1904,
Jerome Robbins Dance Division, © The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts,
New York, United States, b14790259.
The potential of revivalism to communicate self-performance allowed Duncan to conjure her
quotations of historical styles through the use of light-weight China or Liberty silks and her
distinctive adaption of classical draping. As described by Harold Koda in his study of ancient
Greek dress and its later historical and contemporary innovations, the dancer’s interpretations
of the classical chiton comprised pieces of silk joined through knots or safety pins and fastened
by cords or elastic bands around the shoulders and waist.
32
Since the form of many Grecian
garments required a particular system of pleating,
33
the dance costumes were further enhanced
using a technique which was described by the dancer’s pupil and adoptive daughter Irma
Duncan (1897-1977) as follows:
To achieve the same pleated effect observed on Greek statuary, we started out by
sprinkling the tunics with water. Two girls then got hold of the ends, folding one
tiny pleat upon the other, and then gave the whole thing a twist, held together by a
ribbon. This had to be repeated after each performance, so the tunics would be in
proper shape for the next one. With so many tunics involved, it was a laborious and
patience-demanding process. Isadora herself taught us this trick.
34
32
Koda, op cit., p. 27.
33
François Boucher, A History of Costume in the West, Thames and Hudson, London, England, 1967, p. 27.
34
Irma Duncan, Duncan Dancer, an Autobiography, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, United States, 1966,
p. 189.
Whereas classical dress was marked by a similarity of styles worn by men and women, a
shorter version of the chiton, known as chitoniskos, appeared as an exclusive item of
men’s clothing. Female members of the Greek society wore modest floor-length gowns
and the rare chitoniskos depicted as women’s attire were most commonly associated with
the hunting goddess Artemis and mythological Amazon warriors. As can be seen on
various photographs of Isadora Duncan and her pupils, the dancer’s ideological
implications of the body were frequently accompanied by revealing interpretations of
short chitons characterized by a distinctive Empire waistline (Figure 8).
35
Figure 8:
Isadora Duncan, Arnold Genthe, 1915-1918,
Jerome Robbins Dance Division, © The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts,
New York, United States, b12156296.
In addition, departures from original Greek attire, characteristic for historical revivalism, are
noticeable in Duncan’s approach to dress as combinations of elements adopted from different
cultures. Duncan’s triumphant pose captured at the Parthenon by the pictorialist photographer
Edward Steichen (1879-1973) shows an attire comprised of both Greek and Roman elements
(Figure 9). The dancer is depicted draped in a Grecian himation, a cloak typically pinned on
one shoulder, worn over a garment with wide sleeves more closely related to Roman dress or
clothing cultures of the Near and Middle East.
36
35
Koda, op cit., p. 27.
36
Koda, op cit., 15.
Figure 9:
Isadora Duncan at the Parthenon, Athens, Greece, Edward Steichen, 1920,
Jerome Robbins Dance Division, © The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts,
New York, United States, b14757971.
Although Duncan asserted that it was necessary for her to "take off" her clothes when dancing
in order to achieve a better sense of "rhythm and freedom" of her body,
37
her costumes created
a sensation among turn-of-the-century audiences accustomed to the attire of classical ballerinas
and vaudevillian skirt dancers. During her performances as one of the three Graces in
Tannhäuser at the Bayreuth festival in the summer of 1904, Duncan’s filmy costume and bare
legs created a discussion about the morality of her revealing appearance. When requested by
her hostess Cosima Wagner to cover her body with a long white chemise, Duncan decidedly
refused and noted in her biography "I would dress and dance exactly my way, or not at all".
Moreover, she condemned the salmon-coloured tights worn by ballet dancers as "vulgar and
indecent" in comparison to the beauty and innocence of the naked human body.
38
The "naked" body, to which Duncan often referred in her writings, should, however, be
understood, as discussed by Ann Daly, in terms of a body which is not completely nude, but
one that, in the spirit of Greek statuary, has the ability to reveal its moral and noble form while
covered in modest veiling.
39
Seeing her dance as an art that symbolised the freedom of women,
she did not aim to "suggest anything vulgar". For Duncan, concealment was "vulgar", while the
37
Isadora Duncan, The Art of the Dance, p. 129.
38
Isadora Duncan, My Life, p. 136.
39
Daly, op cit., p. 31.
body itself represented a temple of art and nudeness was considered to epitomize truth and
beauty and, therefore, lacked the ability to appear as "vulgar" or "immoral". She addressed the
criticism of the public and wrote:
They say I mismanaged my garments. A mere disarrangement of a garment means
nothing. Why should I care what part of my body I reveal? Why is one part more
evil than another? Is not all body and soul an instrument through which the artist
expresses his inner message of beauty?...It has never dawned on me to swathe
myself in hampering garments or to bind my limbs and drape my throat, for am I
not striving to fuse soul and body in one unified image of beauty?
40
To her supporters, Duncan’s performative practices represented grace and nobility of the natural
whereas her approach to dance and the theory of a liberated body embraced a desire for progress
and social change. Duncan was, therefore, often perceived in America as a pioneer of the new
art and the new understanding of life that accompanied the twentieth century and its
transforming ideas of modern womanhood. Moreover, her references to ancient Greek ideals
could be recognized, as argued by Ann Daly, as a rhetorical strategy employed to elevate the
aesthetic and social value of the dance.
41
By relying on unquestioned authority of classical
antiquity, Duncan acquired cultural legitimacy for dance as a marginal late-nineteenth-century
practice and turned her progressive sartorial expression into an emblem of cultural subversion.
Having in mind that her stage costumes and daily attire represented an equally significant
challenge to the conventional female dress norms (Figure 10), Duncan’s sartorial appearance
may be examined within the dialectic between the dominant and oppositional clothing
discourses as analysed by the cultural sociologist Diana Crane. By understanding the symbolic
boundaries of clothing as a form of non-verbal resistance, Crane discussed the conservative
agenda of nineteenth-century fashion and differentiated various aspects of clothing behaviour
as either marginal or hegemonic. Since nineteenth-century clothing discourses incorporated the
behaviour of groups that perpetuated conformity with the prevailing notions of status and
gender roles as well as groups that expressed social tensions by introducing new approaches to
clothing, sartorial opposition could be administered through alternative forms of dress that
occupied a distinctive position within the public space of fashion.
42
40
Isadora Duncan, "The Freedom of Woman", in Bonnie Kime Scott (ed), Gender in Modernism: New
Geographies, Complex Intersections, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, United States, 2007, p.
750.
41
Daly, op cit., pp. 10-16.
42
Diana Crane, Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender and Identity in Clothing, The University of
Chicago Press, Chicago, United States, 2000, p. 100.
Figure 10:
Isadora Duncan in Ouchy, Switzerland, Photographer Unknown, 1916,
Jerome Robbins Dance Division, © The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts,
New York, United States, b12134506.
Emerging into previously established discourses of health and dress reform movements,
Duncan’s strategies of dress managed to carry a distinctive notion of individuality that
nevertheless bridged universal ideas of social progress and social identification with the female
collective. Her marginal position within the dress culture of the early twentieth century and her
inclusion of classical elements managed to leave considerable impression on other artists, more
specifically on Micheal Fokine (1880-1942) whose ideas initiated a transformation of the
Russian ballet. According to the memoirs of prima ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska (1872-
1971), Duncan’s first appearance in Saint Petersburg in 1905 encouraged the choreographer to
adopt her preferences for the music of Chopin and Schumann and in his aspirations to achieve
free expression of emotion, Fokine proceeded to study similar sources of ancient Greek art and
movement.
43
The later fusion of classical and oriental elements in the choreography and
costume design of the Ballets Russes created a sensation in Paris, and in 1909 the future of
Parisian fashion seemed to be attained, as Valerie Steele observed, "through visiting the long
ago and far away."
44
43
Irma Duncan, op cit., p. 70.
44
Valerie Steele, Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, Oxford University Press, New York, United States, 1988, p.
215.
Historical revival of dress forms appropriated from the classical antiquity enabled the fashion
system to recall its "passion for things Antique"
45
and develop a new taste for Directoire,
Empire and Regency periods that allowed women to abandon the S-curve corset and embrace
the raised waistline as a signature element of the neoclassical silhouette. Citations of
classicizing Directoire models were particularly promoted by the French couturier Paul Poiret
(1879-1944) whose revolutionary designs introduced in 1906 a narrow line that moved away
from the conventional traditions of dressmaking.
46
With his abandonment of the corseted figure
and introduction of relaxed clothing styles, Poiret’s radically simplified garments correlated
with Duncan’s concept of the body and in her autobiography she recalled her enthusiasm for
his creations:
And now, for the first time, I visited a fashionable dressmaker, and fell to the fatal
lure of stuffs, colours, form even hats, I, who had always worn a little white tunic,
woollen in winter, linen in summer, succumbed to the enticement of ordering
beautiful gowns, and wearing them. Only I had one excuse. The dressmaker was no
ordinary one, but a genius Paul Poiret, who could dress a woman in such a way
as also to create a work of art.
47
Poiret credited Isadora Duncan as his inspiration,
48
transformed a part of her studio with
extraordinary decorations comprising of black velvets, golden mirrors and Oriental textures and
was known to have made an elaborate embroidered dress for the dancer’s young daughter
Deirdre who referred to the garment as her "robe de fête".
49
Paul Poiret’s Empire-waisted
evening gown attributed to Duncan circa 1912 is preserved in the collection of the Museum of
the City of New York.
50
Made of yellow and ivory silk chiffon and decorated with an
intersecting meander motif across the draped bodice, the dress evokes a classical Greek style,
but rather than fully complying with historical modes of construction, represents a new
approach to modern dress that marked the couturier’s departure from the rigidity of nineteenth-
century fashions.
During the same period, references to original Greek garments and introduction of a columnar
silhouette became apparent in the work of the eclectic artist Mariano Fortuny (1871-1949)
whose experience in theatre design and painting sparked an interest in classical and regional
dress encouraging him towards research of printing and draping processes. Inspired by the
Charioteer of Delphi, Fortuny collaborated with his spouse Henriette Negrin (1877-1965), a
Parisian textile artist and clothing designer, in order to develop his own interpretation of the
ancient pleating technique and produce garments made of fine corrugated silk taffeta. The subtle
colour and loose form of the accordingly named "Delphos gown" found support among female
members of fashionable artistic circles including Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), Eleonora Duse
45
François Boucher, op cit., p. 337.
46
Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton, Poiret, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States, 2007, p.
14.
47
Isadora Duncan, My Life, p. 209-210.
48
Daly, op cit., p. 251.
49
Isadora Duncan, My Life, p. 238.
50
Koda and Bolton, op cit., p. 74.
(1858-1924) and Isadora Duncan who probably acquired her first Delphos dress in 1909 or
1910.
51
Although soft and elastic with the ability to adapt to the natural lines of the body,
Duncan never considered the design suitable for her stage performances.
52
She was, however,
often seen wearing the garment on numerous domestic and public occasions. Again, a very rare
children’s model was known to have been constructed for her little daughter Deirdre
53
and in
August 1919, Duncan’s adoptive daughters acquired the dress in different colours during their
visit to the renowned Fortuny shop in Venice (Figure 11).
Figure 11:
Lisa, Anna and Margot Duncan, adoptive daughters of Isadora Duncan, wearing Delphos
dresses by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, Albert Harlingue, circa 1920,
© Albert Harlingue/Roger-Viollet, Paris, France, HRL-512376.
Despite Duncan’s interest in creations of avant-garde designers, visual evidence supports a
continuation of her preferences for garments intrinsic to her personal style and the distinctive
use of historical references. During the years that followed the First World War, upon her return
to Europe form the United States, the dancer could still be seen in combinations of garments
resembling stylistic idioms of past clothing cultures, thus highlighting her continuous revision
of historical precedents and the marginality of her position within the emerging twentieth-
century dress practices. A series of photographs captured upon her return to her former home
51
Dorée Duncan, Carol Pratl, and Cynthia Splatt, op cit., p. 109.
52
Irma Duncan, op cit., p. 189.
53
Dorée Duncan, Carol Pratl, and Cynthia Splatt, op cit., p. 109.
in Bellevue, France, illustrate her use of more modest floor-length tunics and large rectangular
shawls draped as classical himations (Figure 12).
Figure 12:
Isadora Duncan in her Pavilion at Bellevue, Meudon, France, Photographer Unknown, 1919,
Photographies de l'Agence Meurisse, © Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Département
Estampes et Photographie, EI-13 (2608).
It could be argued, therefore, that Duncan’s neoclassicism encompassed a complex dual
temporality that could be seen as similar to the position occupied by Aesthetic dress within the
context of nineteenth-century fashion culture,
54
appearing both as a product of modernity’s
search for novelty as well as reactive anti-modernist stance. Having moved away from dominant
conventions, Duncan explored an experimental, modern style of performance and superseded
traditional concepts of femininity and the body. Her clothing appeared as a negotiation between
her vision of dance understood as an aesthetic and a socially structured programme, a
celebration of individualized natural movement accompanied by a progressive, revolutionary
break with acceptable cultural norms and constrictive attitudes to dress. At the same time, while
highlighting the importance of the body as a social entity, Duncan adopted antithetical codes
that evoked past cultural systems as ideal models with the ability to highlight timelessness of
corporeal movements and universality of accompanying forms of sartorial display. In this sense,
Duncan’s theory of modern dance and her understanding of the fashion system moved away
54
Wahl, op cit., p. XXV.
from the rapidly alienising, materialist world of the twentieth century in order to search for a
unique vision of a romantic unity of essential human experience and artistic achievement.
Bibliography
Primary Sources: Published
Duncan, Irma, Isadora Duncan: Pioneer in the Art of Dance, The New York Public Library,
New York, United States, 1959.
Duncan, Irma, Duncan Dancer, an Autobiography, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown,
United States, 1966.
Duncan, Isadora, The Art of the Dance, Theater Arts, New York, United States, 1928.
Duncan, Isadora, "The Freedom of Woman", in Bonnie Kime Scott (ed), Gender in Modernism:
New Geographies, Complex Intersections, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago,
United States, 2007, p. 750.
Duncan, Isadora, My Life, Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York, United States, 2013.
Fuller, Loïe, Fifteen Years of a Dancer's Life, with Some Account of Her Distinguished Friends,
Herbert Jenkins, London, England, 1913.
Secondary Sources: Articles
Jowitt, Deborah, "Images of Isadora: The Search for Motion", Dance Research Journal,
Volume 17, Issue 2, Autumn 1985, pp. 21-29.
Ruyter, Nancy Lee Chalfa, "The Delsarte Heritage", Dance Research: The Journal of the
Society for Dance Research, Volume 14, Number 1, Summer 1996, pp. 62-74.
Secondary Sources: Books
Adburgham, Alison, Shops and Shopping 1800-1914: Where, and in What Manner the Well-
dressed Englishwoman Bought her Clothes, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London, United
Kingdom, 1967.
Boucher, François, A History of Costume in the West, Thames and Hudson, London, England,
1967.
Cherry, Deborah, "The Ghost Begins by Coming Back. Revenants and Returns in Maud Sulter's
Photomontages", in Ayla Lepine, Matt Loder and Rosalind McKever (eds), Revival: Memories,
Identities, Utopias, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London, England, 2015, pp. 29-44.
Crane, Diana, Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender and Identity in Clothing, The
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, United States, 2000.
Cunningham, Patricia A., Reforming Women's Fashion, 1850-1920: Politics, Health and Art,
The Kent State University Press, Kent, United States, 2003.
Daly, Ann, Done into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America, Wesleyan University Press,
Middletown, United States, 2002.
Duncan, Dorée, Pratl, Carol, and Splatt, Cynthia, Life into Art: Isadora Duncan and Her World,
W. W. Norton, New York, United States, 1993.
Kendall, Elizabeth, Where She Danced: The Birth of American Art-Dance, University of
California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, United States, 1979.
Koda, Harold, Goddess: The Classical Mode, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
United States, 2003.
Koda, Harold, and Bolton, Andrew, Poiret, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
United States, 2007.
Newton, Stella Mary, Health, Art and Reason: Dress Reformers of the 19th Century, John
Murray, London, England, 1974.
Palmer, Alexandra, "'At once Classical and Modern': Raymond Duncan dress and textiles in the
Ontario Museum", in Charlotte Nicklas and Annebella Pollen (eds), Dress History: New
Directions in Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury Academic, London, England, 2016, pp. 127-
143.
Steele, Valerie, Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, Oxford University Press, New York, United
States, 1988.
Thomas, Helen, Dance, Modernity and Culture: Explorations in the Sociology of Dance,
Routledge, London, England, 1995.
Wahl, Kimberly, Dressed as in a Painting: Women and British Aestheticism in an Age of
Reform, University of New Hampshire Press, Durham, United States, 2013.
Article
Full-text available
The concept of time has been one of the important subjects of philosophy from past to present. Time is included in the experience and progresses to cultural accumulations. Philosophy of history approaches have revealed two different interpretations of history, these are; "cyclical time" and "linear time". The cyclical understanding of time, which began in Antiquity, turned into a linear understanding of time in the Middle Ages. Many philosophers have developed different perspectives on the cyclical or linear acceptance of time and it is still accepted as one of the controversial issues. The concept of time is important in the historical process of fashion, as in everything else. Many discussions about fashion, which is used as a trend that is accepted as a self-renewing changer and then obsolete, has been largely associated with the concept of "time". Even the idea of whether the works presented within the concept of fashion have a connection with art has been evaluated within the concept of time. In this study, in the historical process of fashion, the clothing features called "fashion" are analyzed in terms of cyclic time and linear time, which are accepted in Walter Benjamin's temporal experience. While evaluating the cases that repeat themselves in fashion history in terms of cyclical time, clothes that were one-time fashion and non-repeatable for linear time were included in the research. In this context, 5 designs that can be included in cyclic time definitions and 5 designs that can be included in linear time definitions are examined. As a result of the research, when it is evaluated in terms of the feature of always presenting and using the innovations that fashion offers to the society, it has been determined that it should preserve its linear feature in terms of time experience, but in line with the constraints of social tastes, habits and the limits of being different, it has been determined that the cyclical feature of time is used more. Considering the meaning of linear time, it is thought that it is inevitable that the clothes evaluated in this context can be discovered by a designer in the experience of time and interpreted in different ways, and that a "fashion" phenomenon that is considered in a linear context can be used in cyclical time.
Book
In Dressed as in a Painting, Kimberly Wahl provides a lucid exploration of the interrelations between fashion, art, and Aestheticism during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Although artistic forms of dress have been the subject of short studies before, no book has focused exclusively on Aesthetic dress and its various expressions in the visual cultures of Victorian Britain. More important, no book has attempted to investigate the gap between the material facts of artistic clothing as it was embodied on the wearer, and its presence as an idealized sartorial trope in the visual and textual print culture of the period.
Article
It has long been said that clothes make the man (or woman), but is it still true today? If so, how has the information clothes convey changed over the years? Using a wide range of historical and contemporary materials, Diana Crane demonstrates how the social significance of clothing has been transformed. Crane compares nineteenth-century societies—France and the United States—where social class was the most salient aspect of social identity signified in clothing with late twentieth-century America, where lifestyle, gender, sexual orientation, age, and ethnicity are more meaningful to individuals in constructing their wardrobes. Today, clothes worn at work signify social class, but leisure clothes convey meanings ranging from trite to political. In today's multicode societies, clothes inhibit as well as facilitate communication between highly fragmented social groups. Crane extends her comparison by showing how nineteenth-century French designers created fashions that suited lifestyles of Paris elites but that were also widely adopted outside France. By contrast, today's designers operate in a global marketplace, shaped by television, film, and popular music. No longer confined to elites, trendsetters are drawn from many social groups, and most trends have short trajectories. To assess the impact of fashion on women, Crane uses voices of college-aged and middle-aged women who took part in focus groups. These discussions yield fascinating information about women's perceptions of female identity and sexuality in the fashion industry. An absorbing work, Fashion and Its Social Agendas stands out as a critical study of gender, fashion, and consumer culture. "Why do people dress the way they do? How does clothing contribute to a person's identity as a man or woman, as a white-collar professional or blue-collar worker, as a preppie, yuppie, or nerd? How is it that dress no longer denotes social class so much as lifestyle? . . . Intelligent and informative, [this] book proposes thoughtful answers to some of these questions."-Library Journal
Goddess: The Classical Mode, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Harold Koda
Koda, Harold, Goddess: The Classical Mode, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States, 2003.
from the rapidly alienising, materialist world of the twentieth century in order to search for a unique vision of a romantic unity of essential human experience and artistic achievement
  • My See Isadora Duncan
  • Life
See Isadora Duncan, My Life, Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York, United States, 2013, p. 17. from the rapidly alienising, materialist world of the twentieth century in order to search for a unique vision of a romantic unity of essential human experience and artistic achievement. Bibliography Primary Sources: Published Duncan, Irma, Isadora Duncan: Pioneer in the Art of Dance, The New York Public Library, New York, United States, 1959.
The Art of the Dance
  • Isadora Duncan
Duncan, Isadora, The Art of the Dance, Theater Arts, New York, United States, 1928.
The Freedom of Woman
  • Isadora Duncan
Isadora Duncan, "The Freedom of Woman", in Bonnie Kime Scott (ed), Gender in Modernism: New Geographies, Complex Intersections, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, United States, 2007, p. 750.