Fashion Flashback: Barbara Karinska

Image courtesy of

As we move into Nutcracker season, Fashion Reverie looks back at costume designer Barbara Karinska, known for creating iconic stage costumes for the New York City Ballet, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s.

Born Varvara Andreevna Jmoudsky in Krakhov, Ukraine to a successful textile family, Barbara Karinska as a child was exposed to the arts and a wealth of beautiful Ukrainian embroidery; however, she opted not to follow in her father’s footsteps, studying law at the University of Kharkov. After her first husband, industrialist Alexander Moissenko died in 1909, Karinska married Nicholas Karinsky, a successful lawyer whose law practice was in Moscow, prompting Karinska and her children from her previous marriage to move to Moscow in 1916. Karinska also practiced law during this time in addition to hosting salon nights in the family’s spacious apartment after nights of theater and ballet.

Karinska’s salon became very popular and she began exhibiting her paintings of ballet scenes in a Moscow exhibit  with her painting gaining critical and financial success. After Czar Nicholas abdicated in 1917, Karinska’s husband was appointed Attorney General and Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeals of the District of St. Petersburg. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Karinska’s husband became a marked man by the Red forces, causing him to flee to Russia, eventually settling in New York City.

After her husband escaped to the US, Karinska maintained a successful embroidery school in Russia during the reign of Lenin. After Lenin’s death and the Stalinists began to come to power, Karinska escaped Russia with the family jewels hidden in her daughter’s chapeau.

Marlene Dietrich in “Kismet” and Alicia Markova in “The Nutcracker”

First settling in Paris, Karinska after exhausting the family fortune found work creating costumes for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. This is where Karinska first worked with George Balanchine. Karinska quickly became a sought-after costume designer for in Paris, collaborating with Jean Cocteau, Berard, Derain, Cassandre, Balthus, Miro, Balanchine and others.After moving to London, Karinska began a long collaborative relationship with Cecil Beaton while costuming ballet, cinema, and musical revues. She also began experimenting with new fabrics and materials never before used in theatre.

Karinska with Lincoln Kirstein image courtesy of and Gypsy Rose Lee image courtesy of Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Karinska finally settled in New York City in 1939 before World War II broke out in Europe, reconnecting with Balanchine who had founded the School of American in New York City. Karinska immediately began costuming with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Comfortably settled in New York City, Karinska established her company KARINSKA Stage and Art Inc. where Karinska created costumes for film, stage, theater, ballet, and Sonja Henie’s ice shows.Karinska along with Dorothy Jeakins won an Oscar for the 1948 “Joan of Arc” and was nominated for an Oscar for “Hans Christian Anderson.” Other Hollywood films include “The Pirate,” and “Blue Skies.”

Karinska costumes for the New York City Ballet’s courtesy of

Perhaps, Karinska was important contribution to stage costumes was her ‘powder puff’ tutu. Before Karinska, tutus traditionally looked like pie plates and in ballets that had a large female corps de ballet these pie plate tutus inhibited large-scale movement with female dancers’ tutus bobbing up and down after the dancing had stopped. Karinska came up with the shorter tutu skirt composed of six or seven layers of gathered net, each layer a half inch longer than the preceding layer. The layers were tacked together for a fluffier, looser appearance.Karinska’s ‘powder puff’ tutu was first used in Balanchine’s “Symphony in C,” and became popular in Balanchine’s 1954 “Nutcracker.” “ I attribute to [Karinska] fifty percent of the success of my ballets to those that she dressed,” explained Balanchine. The ‘powder puff’ tutu prototype is now commonly used in most ballet companies around the world.

Karinska’s costumes for George Balanchine’s “Jewels”

Karinska collaborated with Balanchine in over 75 ballets. The last ballet costumes that Karinska designed for the New York City Ballet were the costumes used in Balanchine’s 1977 “Vienna Waltzes.”Barbara Karinska died in 1983, months after Balanchine’s death. In 1999 she was posthumously inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame.

—William S. Gooch

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