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Flights of Fancy Fashion and Function in Circus Performance

Step Right Up!

On the following pages you will find an amazing array of artifacts and information curated for your virtual perusal. Be dazzled by the soaring aerialists! Learn the legacy of the leotard! Immerse yourself in a world of fantasy and delight, where costumes come to life in video recordings of performance and the spectacle of the circus mesmerizes and shifts from function to finery, all the while casting its spell of influence on the fashion industry and popular culture. You are cordially invited to sit back, relax, and feast your eyes upon the objects and stories featured within: welcome to Flights of Fancy!

Circus Costume and its Influence on Fashion

What is a circus costume? Garbed in garments designed to draw the eye, protect the body, enable movement, and complement the circus artist’s performance through aesthetics, circus costumes combine fashion and function for spectacular performance. The sparkle of a starlet’s bodysuit, the flair of a cape, the suspense of a blindfolded tightwire walk, the gesture of the aerialist signaling the end of the trick – all of these are symbols and signals, elements that augment the physical prowess and feats of the circus performers. Thus, circus costume artfully balances the extremity of fashion and function, enabling the performer to create an otherworldly display of the body. Just as the ringmistress or ringmaster’s top hat and tails indicate their position as host, so too do each of the acts’ costumes lend clues to their impending performance. These symbols and signals, so emblematic of the idea of circus, have also long served as inspiration for the fashion industry.

Defining Context

Terms such as traditional and contemporary describe types of circus with associated aesthetic or experiential meanings and symbols, which carry different impressions that vary from person to person. There is no simple way to define what circus is or isn’t, and this is a topic of some debate within the circus community. Companies such as the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Cirque du Soleil have each their own unique approaches to circus arts with accompanying aesthetics and types of acts, steeped in rich histories and indicative of different ways that circus arts can be performed and produced. Circus classes can be found online and in local community centers, with professional training centers providing instruction for the next generation of circus artists, and independent acts perform in music festivals and nightclubs, parades and special events. Whereas the circus was once performed near-exclusively in touring shows with tents, in wagons or on trains that criss-crossed the country, it has evolved to include much more. There are many existing resources about traditional and contemporary circus and the myriad types not encompassed by these two terms, however, there is little information that explores the phenomenon of circus costume and its influence as inspiration for the fashion industry.

The items and stories identified for inclusion within this exhibition were selected from a range of sources and curated through the lenses of historic costume & fashion studies and functional apparel design. The exhibit is not an exhaustive study of circus costume, but it is inclusive and contains information covering a range of experiences related to and about circus arts. We explore symbols of circus that bridge the gap between types of productions and aesthetic styles or practices, and while there are many examples that read as traditional rather than contemporary circus, we do include discussion and examples of both. These distinctions are likely overt to members of the circus community; however, they may be less obvious to others and it is not our intent to highlight one type of practice or aesthetic as being more representative of circus than others.

The aesthetics and costumes of the circus have long influenced fashion through the use of color, embellishment, silhouette, and symbolism. There is an escapism in fantasy intrinsically linked to the circus: these fantasies come to life in the costumes worn by circus artists, and in turn the garments and accessories designed by fashion houses. By incorporating imagery from the circus into runway shows, photoshoots, and magazine editorials, the themes of circus emerge from fantasy into real life. The relationship between fashion and circus is one of ebb and flow, inspiration and aspiration.

Portrait of Charmion, Strong Lady: 1904
Image by Frederick Whitman Glasier, provided courtesy of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Archives.

Exhibit Inspiration

The inspiration for the exhibition stems from viewing the ethereal “Of Grace and Light” Fall/Winter 2020/2021 collection by Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino, where the designs were displayed on models standing on pedestals or perched atop circus apparatus such as a trapeze and aerial hoop. One of the looks in the collection shows a model gracefully standing on a static trapeze, wearing a flowing white gown with plunging neckline and high leg slit, with a train extending behind her. The aesthetics of this image - the pose on the trapeze, and the white gown with the train coupled with the texture of the accompanying white feathered Philip Treacy hat strongly evokes the 1904 portrait by Frederick Whitman Glasier of Charmion, circus strongwoman. In this image she is pictured standing in pose on a trapeze, wearing a white gown with a train coupled with a feathered hat. Although these two images were taken 116 years apart, the similarities are striking.

‘It’s funny, a bit mad, there’s a touch of danger, a bit of glamour and it is for everyone. People can imagine themselves being the performers – it’s a believable fantasy’

– Nell Gifford of Giffords Circus, The History of Circus: Its Impact on Design and Interiors. Homes and Antiques.

Organization of the Exhibition

In Flights of Fancy symbols of the circus are identified, acting as guideposts through the exhibition. Beginning with the circus tent, Setting the Stage introduces the viewer to the idea of a completely designed and portable environment where the aesthetics of the space lay the foundation for the show itself. Exploring the history of an iconic garment, Leotard’s Legacy investigates the impact of this eponymous object and its inventor, and showcases examples found in the Cornell Fashion and Textile Collection. Aerialists Aloft examines the costumes of flight, from the solo female aerialist to featured artist in a trio, to a flying trapeze troupe. Spectacular Storytelling showcases the dramatic aspect of the circus costume, from character acting to suspenseful danger, theatrical entrances to daring displays of talent. Minimalism and Movement highlights simplicity in form as complement to performance. The Ring to Runway featurettes on the bottom of each of these pages examine the ways in which the symbols of circus have influenced the world of fashion. Exoticism and Exploitation calls attention to longstanding problems of racism and cultural appropriation in the circus through an exploration of BIPOC performers and circus employees during the Gilded Age (1880s-1920s) in the US, as well as contemporary discussions about social and racial justice occurring within the circus community. We provide links to a number of important resources, including the Uncle Junior Project, founded by circus artist Veronica Blair, who is featured on the Aerialists Aloft page of this exhibition. The Uncle Junior project explores, honors, and celebrates the history of Black circus artists in the US, and includes digital exhibitions, documentaries, interviews, and more. We acknowledge the importance of these topics and call attention to the need for further study and action. The last page, Final Bows, includes our references and acknowledgements.


"You are enamored by our ability to place you in another world. Do the people of this other world wear ordinary clothes? No! We wear feathers and makeup. We wear top hats and sequins. Our talent is the center piece, but our costumes create the effect of magic.”

– Timothy Mack, ringmaster of the Imperial OPA Circus. Quoted in Slepoy (2017).

Curatorial Team

Jenny Leigh Du Puis (Fiber Science and Apparel Design PhD ‘22) is combining her extensive professional career as a circus costume designer and technician with her formal training in apparel design to explore the safety and function of attire in the extreme physical performance of circus arts for her doctoral studies. She has worked with such companies and organizations as Circus Smirkus, Circus Couture, Cirque Us, Cirque du Soleil's KÀ, and Ithaca's very own Circus Culture. As part of this dissertation research, she developed the concept for the Flights of Fancy exhibition during Dr. Denise Green’s Fall 2020 “Curating Fashion Exhibitions” course as a way to further explore circus costume and its influence on fashion, as well as to engage with artifacts from the Cornell Fashion + Textile Collection and the Circus Publicity Collection, housed in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections of the Cornell University Library. This exhibition will also be featured as part of a forthcoming showcase and programming series on circus in the Spring of 2022.

Chisato (Chi) Yamakawa (Architecture, Art, and Planning B.Arch ‘21) is pursuing a concentration in visual representation and a minor in Visual Studies alongside her architectural design studies. Her research interests include the study of aesthetics and phenomenology in architecture. She has also been a competitive figure skater for over 10 years and has been involved in the design and production of her own competition-dress designs. This study on the intersection of form and function, as evident in architecture, fashion, and performance costumes, and the analysis of visual material has inspired her interest in curatorial work.