The Colour Theory Of Ballet Ghosts, Swans, And Doll Variations

© Gamzatti Variation
© Gamzatti Variation Tutu by

Ballet costumes are a wonderland of textures and colours, aren’t they?

Watching a ballet, a musical, or an ice skating spectacular makes for a very special night out.  Costumes enhanced by the clever use of stage lights are pure eye candy.

Choosing the style, aesthetic and colour of theatrical garments is part tradition, part showmanship, part innovation, and a lot of artistic talent.

When you think about it, a Classical tutu maker is a tradition-keeper, a drama creator, a choreography champion, a client advocate, a music aficionado, an inventor, and a V.I.P. in the audience and backstage.

Expert costume makers work hard to master the art of designing theatrical garments within the framework of performance-based colour theory. They are saavy with three dimensional texture building and textile manipulation.

What Is Performance-Based Colour Theory ?

Performance-based colour theory is the ability to choose and coordinate shades based on a harmonious effect, a desired emotional response, or a pleasing aesthetic. It also means understanding that people have been conditioned to associate certain colours with specific traits, values, and beliefs. In ballet performances, there are many variations that contain a good versus evil element. Isn’t it interesting that a villain character rarely wears white while the good character rarely wears black?

Swans Of A Different Colour- Odette And Odile

© Black Embellished
© Springtime Dance Festival Competition Tutu Yorkshire

Let’s imagine that we are attending a performance of The Swan Lake Ballet. We have two principal characters, Odette and Odile. Odette and her entourage of swan-mates are beautiful , graceful visions in white.

However, Odile will appear on stage dressed as a darker swan . If Odile were to approach the costume department with complaints about the dark shade of her tutu, the designer would  ask for clarification of her role.

As a Swan descended from an unsavory family background, the character of Odile has to portray this difference to the audience. Few people understand the thought and pre-planning that a costume designer must do to choose “colours that speak” for the stage lighting, for the character, for the music, and for audience understanding.

Theatrical Spirits-The Giselle Ballet Example

When speaking of colours and textures, costumes for ghost and apparition roles in professional ballet stories have certain qualities. This spirit of a Seagull rising from its physical confines has wings that are draped and textured in a special way.

If those wings were made of stiff tulle, they would be reptilian and dragon-like. If they were made of chiffon, they would look flimsy and weak.  ( See what the wings were made from below )

When it comes to costume making, colour theory works hand in hand with textile knowledge. The Giselle Ballet is a good example. The story features a rich play on colours, textures, and lighting techniques for two ghostly variations; Giselle being summoned from her grave, and the variation of Myrtha.

The Spirit Of Giselle Is Brought To Life With Darkened Stage Lighting And Sheer Fabric Draping

Giselle Ballet
The Spirit Of Giselle

After dying of a broken heart, Giselle is summoned from her grave by a group of spirits called the Willis. To give Giselle an ethereal, ghostly appearance, she is covered by a veil of very sheer white fabric. Don’t you find it interesting that brides can wear a veil very similar to this? Veil wearing comes with many ancient beliefs and practices.

Myrtha is the ♛ Queen of the Willis. In the lovely video below, you will see that Myrtha removes her mysterious veil to reveal a crown of flowers. Her pale, sheer romantic tutu is almost nude in colour. She appears mysterious and see-through. Apparitions and ghosts on stage have to wear light reflecting garments for floaty aesthetics. Her delicate pointe work adds to the spirit-like movements required for the role.

Myrtha Comes Out From Under The Veil

What is it like to dance the part of a ghost? A former dancer of The Australian Ballet sums up her ghostly experience dancing the role of a Willis in this article :

Behind Ballet-Becoming A Ghost

As you can see, the blue-cast stage lighting makes a huge contribution to the overall eerie effect.

 Colour Theory Questions & Answers With Monica

  1. For a classical ballet where the dancer plays the part of a ghost or spirit have you ever made the ghost a bright color like red or purple?

  ” I would make it all white if a good ghost but grey and black if a bad ghost.”

2.  If Swan Lake Ballet were to expand its range of Swan varieties, what colours would you add?

” I would add Grey for cygnets, and white /brown when they are just growing into adults.”


3.  What shade is the least used for Classical Tutus and why?

” The shade least used for classical tutus is probably dark Brown. The colour is not related to the characters classical ballet represents – young girls, flowers, fairies etc.”

4. In The Giselle Ballet story, the Willis spirits and the ghost of Giselle wear sheer white head veils. What type of fabric is used ?

The veils would be soft bridal tulle veiling .Tulle is non fray . Georgette and chiffon have to be hemmed so we all try to use non fray if we can. ”
5. For Your Seagull Spirit Costume, What Were The Wings Constructed Of?
” The seagull wings were lightweight power net which is like stretch netting.”


 Reflective Embellishments On Pastels Create Princess-like Doll Characters

© Doll Variation variations are one of the most whimsical and enjoyable performances to watch.  If you study the colour choices that costume makers use to make a female dancer appear doll-like, the chances are good that you will see pastels. Why?

A doll represents a tender being that needs love and care. For little girls, a doll is something that needs to be nurtured in order to survive. This need for nurturing makes it vulnerable.

Soft colours represent gentleness and vulnerability to the audience. It just wouldn’t be the same if the doll character came out on stage wearing a dark red costume with black embellishments. Soft shades present themselves in a non-aggressive way.

Seeing a feminine doll-inspired Classical tutu has sent many young girls to ballet class so they can aspire to wear one too.

One of the most impressive talents of any tutu maker is the ability to make a young dancer look like the offspring of  an elegant and sophisticated family line.  It takes the restraint of a talented designer to know when a costume has reached the tasteful boundaries of couture fanciness.  One of the most beautiful examples of gilded perfection is this La Bayadere Third Shade Variation Tutu for Nikiya Act III.  Just looking at such gorgeous costume artistry makes you feel happy to be a lover of Classical ballet!

Soothing Ruffled Feathers At Swan Lake

Australian Black Swan
I need to speak with my agent about getting airbrushed, please.

Is there a chance for gray or brown swans in the world of ballet? Certainly if anyone can design a beautifully-gilded, elegant Brown or Gray Classical Swan costume, it is Monica of Costume Creations.

In order to soothe the ruffled feathers of any swans that feel left out of the production , we can be reminded that costumes simply portray a solid representation of good vs evil/ darkness vs light in the Swan Lake story. Unfortunately, that limits the types of costume shades that are chosen.

Many ballet stories have this all or nothing approach to the good versus bad element. There are few “gray areas” in the choreography. Perhaps getting those feathers airbrushed with the proper shade would give you a better chance to pass your Swan Lake audition.

There is always the chance that some ingenious choreographer will create a new ballet story where brown and gray swans are the star of the show.  By The Shores Of Cygnet Lake perhaps?




Image Credits:, Giselle Production Photos by KCBalletMedia, Kansas City Ballet Dancers Molly Wagner and Angelina Sansone. Photographer Steve Wilson. Choreography: Devon Carney after Marius Petipa, Modifications-cropped to feature,, Australian Black Swan, Public Domain Free Image@


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