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Aerialists Aloft

High above the center ring or soaring over the crowd, the Aerialist performs spectacular feats while flying through the air or suspended from an apparatus. Although the glamour of their costume enhances the fantasy of their act in the spotlight, the costumes worn by aerialists must also consider the rigor of their performance and the life of the show. From bedazzled bikinis to hand-embellished bodysuits built around the silhouette of a leotard, the sparkle and fantasy of the costumes in this section belie an attention to function and durability. The aesthetics of the Aerialist's costume enhance the artist's performance, and contain a symbolism unto their own: what better way to draw the audience's eye than to feature an act bedecked in sequins and rhinestones, glittering under the spotlight?

In addition to the aesthetics of the costume, the aerodynamics of aerial arts inform the design of costumes for performers in flight. In their performances and training sessions, circus artists experience the impact of g-force on the body in higher degrees than the average person (Lemire, 2020; Barker et al., 2020) and the circus costume can have an impact on the movement of the circus body as it moves through space. Garments that fit closely to the body enable easier movement through the air by reducing surface area, and distribution of costume weight on different parts of the body can also inform the way a circus artist compensates to execute a trick. As a result, functional design considerations play a key role in the conception and development of costumes for aerial circus artists.

The costumes featured in this section highlight the glamorous female aerialist, either as solo performer or as part of an act. These examples of aerial costume demonstrate a variety of apparatus including trapeze and silks: while each sub-specialty has their own costume adjustments, the overall silhouettes are similar. Tight-fitting bases with carefully-considered ornamentation, and common themes across aesthetics including visibility and silhouette.

The Solo Aerialist: Veronica Blair

Veronica Blair is an extraordinary circus artist and coach who has worked with such organizations as the Universoul Circus, AntiGravity, Universal Studios Japan and Warner Bros. Music, among many others. Her demo reel video seen below highlights her extensive experience, and illustrates the many kinds of costumes worn for aerial performance. The symbolism of a solo female aerialist, dancing high above the audience, bedecked in resplendent finery that draws the eye and augments the artist’s physical performance is illustrated here through Blair’s artistic expression and mastery of her craft.

In an interview conducted with a member of the curatorial team, Blair described her evolving circus costume aesthetic and the ways the embellishments of a costume can impede or require adjustments in the movements of the act, as well as modifications she has made to her own costumes:

"When I first started out, I was into the pageantry of circus. The old-school Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey feathers, capes, rhinestones. My first year as a professional aerialist, we [Blair and her trapeze coach] went to a circus swap meet in Sarasota, Florida. She purchased three rhinestone costumes for me… These were originally worn by an aerialist in Las Vegas. They basically look like Las Vegas showgirl costumes. They’re really, really, really heavy. I wore these on the trapeze, which was kind of tricky. I could only do simple tricks initially because the costume was so heavy... But I wanted to look good, so at that point, that was the most important. The spots where I lost rhinestones, I just found sequins that looked okay. I could fill in spots there whenever I lost the rhinestones. At the point where I purchased this costume, they weren’t making costumes like this anymore in entertainment. There was stretchy fabric with shimmer already on it, and people were mostly using sequins. So to actually find this style of rhinestone was just not happening. They were also dangerous. They’re very sharp. It was very normal for me to leave stage with small cuts and little bruises as well.

At that point, that was what I dreamed, you know? Glam, and I had these huge butterfly wings made that I would wear with these costumes and made rhinestone headbands to match. I also used a lot of capes and stuff like that. Then, as I started to integrate more of a contemporary feel, I went for more coverage. I still liked glitter, so just a plain leo [leotard], but with emphasis on when the light would hit the fabric, having a nice durable fabric that had some shimmer to it regardless of where I was standing onstage. Then I added these [sparkly embellishments] myself just for a little sparkle."

Aerialist costumes have aesthetic and functional needs that must be balanced according to the tastes of the performer, the theme of the show, and the requirements of the act. It is a common practice for circus artists to create or embellish their own costumes, and when no longer in use these costumes may be sold or traded to other performers. The styling of the Aerialist, particularly when in a position to provide their own costume rather than being given a production's designed wardrobe for their act, can reflect their individual taste and aesthetics while potentially including dazzling accents to draw the eye, such as the rhinestones or sequins. As the tastes of performers have evolved and materials change, techniques that were popular in the past may give way to improvements in fabric technologies such as the shimmering leotard fabric described by Blair in the quote above.

Putting On Tights
Putting On Tights

Fishnets in Flight

As seen on many of the following aerialists, fishnet tights create the illusion of a bare leg for audience members sitting far away. Even pop-stars and their dancers utilize the natural look of fishnets in their performances, with Beyoncé admitting to wearing four pairs in one show (Talmadge, 2017). Additionally, it is much more difficult to find a pair of full-coverage tights that perfectly match one's skin tone. In circus performance, the aesthetic focus of live entertainment shows must be balanced with necessary functions. Thus, fishnet tights serve other purposes, enhancing the aerialist’s grip on the bar and helping fellow members of the act to hold onto each other.

Betty Pasco

Betty Pasco's Chandelier Fantasy

More examples of exquisitely sparkling costumes on glamorous female aerialists can be found in the following images. Betty Pasco’s Chandelier Fantasy act, photographed by renowned entertainment photographer Maurice Seymour, depicts the aerialist standing perched on her trapeze apparatus, wearing an elaborately rhinestoned leotard. This garment features a higher-cut leg line, halter neck, and teardrop-shaped cutout on the center front of the torso. The bra cups and leg openings of the garment are further embellished with beaded dangles, reflecting the imagery of her chandelier-styled apparatus and that would have moved and shimmered in the light. She wears fishnet tights and no slippers, which would serve to provide coverage of the leg and grip for the movements of her act. Anecdotes and another image of Pasco in costume on this apparatus can be found on the following pages of the “Yesterday’s Towns” blog: Page 1 Page 2

Miss Pauline

Miss Pauline's Revolving Aerial Carrousel

Miss Pauline’s Revolving Aerial Carrousel was a featured act in the Shrine Circus, and records show Miss Pauline performing with this circus in Victoria, Texas in August of 1976 (Victoria Advocate). In this composite image, she wears two identical costumes in different colorways. In the posed image on the left, she is pictured wearing fishnet tights and clogs, which would have been worn from the backstage area out to the arena floor, then removed prior to ascending to her apparatus rigged above. She also wears gloves with a rhinestone bracelet, as well as a feather boa-style accessory.

The costume style in both the right and left sides of the image showcases a leotard with rhinestone and sequins in vertical rows down the length of the torso, and with flower embellishments along the underbust and v-front of the top. The bust of the costume is gathered, with ornamental clasps just below the shoulders. Miss Pauline wears an elaborate showgirl-style headpiece that sits close to the scalp, and complements her ensemble with heavy winged eyeliner. Makeup application such as this helps the audience to see the performer’s features, especially when they are suspended upside down in the air, as Miss Pauline is pictured doing in the right side of the image. Her costume in the action image mimics the style lines of the posed costume, but with an opposite colorway that reverses the placement of the dark and light paneling. In the action image, Miss Pauline hangs upside down from her trapeze in a “heel hang”, where the bar of the trapeze is snugged into the top of the foot while it is in a flexed position. In the action image it is impossible to tell if Miss Pauline is wearing fishnet tights or has bare legs, but this serves as an excellent example for the consideration of friction in a costume. As fishnets may provide some measure of grip in aerial acts, and as Miss Pauline is pictured wearing fishnets in the posed image on the left, it is logical to conclude that she is wearing fishnets during her act.

The Featured Aerialist: Mary of The Flying Marilees

Mary of the Flying Marilees is pictured here in an exquisite lace and feathered leotard, featuring a sweetheart neckline backed with illusion mesh. The costume, as described in the quote below by her husband and trapeze catcher Lee, was hand-embellished by Mary over a period of months and designed to give the illusion of nudity from afar. Soaring through the air high above a crowd, the fantasy of the circus with its symbol of the glamorous, sparkling aerialist is complete.

“Now seated, the lights dimmed, and the Flying Marilees were announced. A single spotlight caught us in mid-ring. Mary had chosen a flesh-colored costume, weighted with hand-sewn sequins and rhinestones set in a pattern that concealed little but accentuated much. I had watched her sewing these tiny bits of shiny glitter with painstaking care and endless patience. Now it was fulfilled. It was worth her months of tedious dedication. She was glorified. As the first burst of limelight drenched our figures in the dark, circus ring, an audible, muffled gasp flowed in from the crowd. From only a short distance, she appeared nude. This perfectly sculpted body of sensuality seemed stark naked yet clothed in glitter.”

Lee Stath, (2013, pp.101-102)

For beautiful color images of aerialists in costume from the 1950s, we recommend exploring the Aerialist Portraits selection of the Sverre O. Braathen Circus Slide Collection, part of the Special Collections at Milner Library, Illinois State University.

The Flying Gibsons

These two images of the Flying Gibsons portray a trio of aerialists, with a male catcher, male flyer, and female flyer. Similar to the Flying Marilees group composition, trios such as these exemplify the use of a focal, sparkling costume on the female flyer that is complemented by the tights and belts of the male flyer and catcher. In this way, the aesthetics of the group cohere while spotlighting the female flyer. The photographs of the Flying Gibsons’ costumes show the use of a two piece costume in the posed image on the left, as well as a one-piece leotard-style in the action image on the right.

The two piece bikini-style costume is worn with fishnets, and has a low waist for the bottoms. The metallic fabric is enhanced by the intricately beaded detailing on the front and sides of the bottoms, including a subtle v-shape at the center front of the waistline. The accompanying bra top is encrusted with beads and rhinestones, and includes rows of fringe and a dangling beaded focal that dangles on the torso. The headpiece is a rhinestoned crown style, and sits perched on the top of the head. If used in flying performance, this headpiece would undoubtedly have been made with supportive understructure that could hide within, as well as be secured to, the wearer’s hair.

In the action image of the Flying Gibsons, the female flyer’s costume is a one piece, leotard-style garment with a strappy, jewel-encrusted halter neckline and gems scattered on the top and bottom of the costume front. There is a dangling beaded trim lining the sweetheart neckline, and the composition of the base garment is cut in panels, which indicates that the fabric did not have great stretch, and thus required careful consideration of shaping in its pattern pieces. Mid-flight, she also wears fishnet tights with a soft, slipper-like shoe. The men’s costumes are simple silhouettes of tights with shorts or briefs over the top and an embellished belt and slippers.

The Flying Gibson's 2
The Flying Gibsons 1

Function in Flight: Costumes of the Flying Trapeze

“Oh. everybody in the circus wants to be a flyer. You might think it would be fun to be the ringmaster for a while, but there’s nothing like the moment when the tent is quiet and the ringmaster announces, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen — the legendary triple!”

Marketing director for Circus Vargas Charles Burden, as quoted in DeWyze (1980).
The Flying Larrays

The Flying Larrays

Group aerial acts in the late 1970s like the Flying Larrays had the immense pressure of completing an extraordinarily difficult act: the gravity-defying triple somersault. In a feature article written about the Flying Larrays at Circus Vargas, DeWyze (1980) reported: “Men have died in the grip of the triple’s breathtaking accelerations, a grim fact that helped build its mystique. It’s a trick that tortures the body and intimidates the mind”. Larry Gill, one of the four trapezists in the Flying Larrays, emphasized the importance of detailed coordination and working with a close team (DeWyze, 1980). This not only includes daily practice but costume choices like the white leotard/unitard, which streamline the body and make the team visible against the darkness of the circus tent.

Each member of the Flying Larrays supported this idea of harmonious collaboration. For example, while Larry created and maintained the safety equipment for the team, his wife Jenifer designed and created all of their costumes. In one season alone, the four aerialists could have up to seven different sets of costumes. Jenifer added thoughtful details to her designs for the troupe, hand-stitching rhinestone chains, dyeing tights, and decorating matching costume ornaments. She mentioned a phenomenon called “hot hands”, an effect the flyers felt from the previous day’s performance that could deter further costume work: “In the morning you wake up and they just burn... Pins and needles. Sometimes I can’t even pick up a washrag” (DeWyze, 1980).

The Aerial Troupe: Izzy Patrowicz and Tad Payne-Tobin

Izzy Patrowicz and Tad Payne-Tobin are circus artists who specialize in the flying trapeze. As part of the current troupe at Circus Vargas, they soar high above the crowd with Tad as catcher for Izzy, whose talents include the triple somersault. In this series of images, troupe costumes can be seen in motion. In each of these photographs, Izzy wears a leotard with fishnets or unitard, each with a short attached skirt, paired with decorative gaiters that cover the lower legs and end in a stirrup loop under the arch of the slipper-clad foot. The stretch fabrics used in their costumes allow for the the ranges of motion needed to execute their act, and the styling suits the theme of the show and matches their flying trapeze troupe members.

Izzy Patrowicz in Teal Costume
Izzy Patrowicz and Tad Payne-Tobin in Red Costumes
Izzy Patrowicz and Tad Payne-Tobin in Pink Costumes

The video below captures Izzy's triple somersault, and the troupe's passing leap, in which multiple flyers are executing tricks and catches. The pink and white costumes are eye-catching in both the regular lighting of the act as well as the specialty black-light feature, illustrating how color choice in aerial costume can have both an aesthetic and functional purpose.

Ring to Runway: The Aerialist

High above the ground, the Aerialist defies gravity with dynamic grace and often an extravagance of glamour – from the spotlighted place of honor in the air, they command the watching crowd. This role is frequently accompanied by spectacular costuming that catches the light and the eye of the audience, augmenting the aerial feats of the performer. In fashion, the use of aerial equipment such as the trapeze or aerial hoop was exercised in 2020 collections for both the Blonds (Spring) and Valentino (Fall, Couture).

Occurring in September of 2019, blissfully unaware of the upending changes coming in mere months to the fashion industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Blonds presented a fashion collaboration with the Broadway musical Moulin Rouge!. Although the inspiration for the collection was the musical and production design, circus elements were in evidence including Philippe Blond flying in on a trapeze, bedecked in a gem-encrusted ensemble. Interspersing runway models with cast performances from the show, the Blonds created a performance-filled spectacle that would feel right at home in any circus show.

While the world sputtered to a halt with the restrictions of quarantine directives in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, designer fashion presentations were necessarily displaced and reformatted. Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Valentino Fall 2020 Couture line was captured through video and invited the viewer to a world of ethereal beauty where female models wore white and silver confections of with grand proportions, set against a black box studio space. Models were positioned atop platforms to accommodate extraordinarily long trains, as well as perched on trapeze and aerial hoop. As discussed on the home page of this exhibition, the Valentino garments demonstrate direct circus influence not only through their use of aerial apparatus, but also the clown-like appearance of the collared garment and the reminiscence of the 1904 portrait of circus strongwoman Charmion.

“It came out at a tough moment but I believe our job is not to reflect the moment but rather react to it. Couture is made for emotions. It’s not for walking, it’s for dreams”

Pierpaolo Piccioli, as quoted in Aloisi (2020)

While the approaches to their fashion presentations differed dramatically, there is an undeniable connection to not only the symbolism of the Aerialist but also the inspiration of the circus and spectacle as escapist fantasy. From the Blonds’ cabaret-style theatrical fashion showcase to the ethereal video presentation by Valentino, fashion events in 2020 (especially the Couture displays) portrayed a thoughtful response to the uncertainty of the time with themes of surrealism and oversized proportions (Borrelli-Persson, 2020). This imaginative take on fashion and the use of aerial apparatus ties directly to the continuing influence of circus costume and symbols.

For source information, please see the References page under the Final Bows tab.