The History of Ballet Flats

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Often condemned by the click-clacking, high-heeled fashion crowd for being sensible or innocuous (read: boring), the ballet flat has maintained its reputation as a timeless, polished, and quietly chic style of footwear. And, of course, a staple of every French girl’s wardrobe. Since ballet made its on-stage debut on October 15, 1581, when Le Ballet Comique de la Reine was performed for the royal court of Catherine de Medici, the dance has evoked a sense of romanticism that has evolved through to the fashionable footwear worn today. Ballet, as we know it, developed from this first iteration, becoming more fluid and elegant throughout the 17th and 18th century, with ballet shoes transforming with it. Naysayers notwithstanding, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi in embracing your inner danseur (ballet flats were, after all, inspired by the dance slippers worn by ballerinas in France in the mid-18th century) and it might have something to do with the shoe’s rich, storied past.

Believe it or not, the earliest ballet shoes were actually heeled. It wasn’t until Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo (or „La Camargo“), a popular French ballerina credited with first executing the entrechat quatre technique, sported non-heeled slippers during her performances that heels were eliminated altogether from ballet shoes. Marie Taglioni was another key figure behind the shoe’s innovation: A star of the Romantic ballet era in 1830s France, the Swedish ballerina pioneered the gravity-defying en pointe („on point“) technique, and, resultantly, the pointe shoe. Fun fact: According to Gayle Kassing’s History of Dance, a pair of Taglioni’s pointe shoes were once cooked, served with a sauce, and eaten by a group of balletomanes, or ballet enthusiasts.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova quite literally helped shape the contemporary pointe slipper by hardening the sole and giving the toe region the boxy, flat shape we see today. Pavlova also helped catapult ballet flats into the mainstream market after she purchased pairs from an Italian cobbler-turned-shoemaker—Salvatore Capezio of dancewear manufacturer Capezio—for her entire cast during a dance tour in 1910.

Nearly three decades later, American sportswear designer Claire McCardell further popularized the ballet slipper when she commissioned Capezio to design a range of flats for her 1941 collection. This provoked high-end retailers like Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus to purchase and promote the style.

Brigitte Bardot would ultimately transform the slipper into chic, present-day ubiquity. The bombshell, who was also trained as a ballet dancer, asked Rose Repetto (the woman behind the well-known French footwear brand) to design a pair of flats for her that were as flexible as ballet slippers but softer and more comfortable, and boom: the Cendrillon was born. Bardot sported the now-iconic style in her 1956 film And God Created Woman. Aside from Bardot, other famous fans of the tried-and-true style include Princess Diana, Meghan Markle, Michelle Obama, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Rita Hayworth, and Audrey Hepburn, the latter of whom sported a custom Ferragamo pair while filming Roman Holiday circa 1954.

Ballet has also served as a source of inspiration for brands like Valentino, Giambattista Valli, and most recently Christian Dior. The French luxury house’s recent Spring/Summer 2019 collection even incorporated flats reminiscent of classic ballet slippers. It’s worth noting that Dior also collaborated with the American Ballet Theater last year, which speaks to the long history of ballet companies turning to designers and artists for inspiration and vice versa. While companies like the American Ballet Theater, the New York City Ballet, and the Paris Opera Ballet have all enjoyed fashion collaborations throughout the years, from Rodarte’s graphic pieces for „Two Hearts“ at New York City Ballet in 2012 to Riccardo Tisci’s embroidered bodysuits for the 2015 production of „Boléro“ at the Opéra de Paris.

Russian art critic and ballet enthusiast Sergei Diaghilev founded his own dance company, Ballet Russes in the early 20th century, turning to designers and artists Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, and Henri Matisse for inspiration. Diaghilev recruited the best young dancers, including Pavlova, for Ballet Russes and Chanel even once said that, „Diaghilev invented Russia for foreigners.“

Off the stage, modern-day iterations of the closet staple run the gamut from a classic Chanel silhouette to a medallion-covered Tory Burch version. One brand leading the charge in the contemporary realm is Margaux, a New York-based ballet flat company founded by Alexa Buckley and Sarah Pierson. Three years ago, the duo set out to create the perfect pair of ballet flats, first designing a suede style that comes in custom and off-the-shelf sizing. The rest, as they say, is history.

„Trends come and go,“ explains Pierson, „but the flat has remained an essential wardrobe staple for women for nearly 70 years. It lends polish to any look. Ballet flats are the shoes you want to wear when you arrive, not just the shoes you wear to get where you’re going.“

Modern films such as Black Swan and Step Up have amplified collective intrigue of ballet flats—and ballet as a whole, while dancers like Misty Copeland, Gelsey Kirkland, and Sylvie Guillem have become household names. Even mega model Gigi Hadid leaned into ballet—and also took up the pastime at Carine’s behest—thanks to second issue of CR, which was dance-themed.

“The ballet flat has become the organic shoe option to combine comfort and elegance,“ Gilles Assor of Repetto tells CR. „Whether ‚full flat‘ or with a tiny bit of height, they are the perfect fashion weapon that will match with every look from street chic to formal.“

Though desire for the functional shoe will likely fluctuate as intricate heels enter the contemporary market, reliable footwear will always endure.

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