Costume Stuff 3# Ballet Shoes
Time for another 'Costume Stuff' and when racking my brains for a subject, the book I kept coming back to was Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes. Ballet Shoes is a classic children's novel, and if it only sounds vaguely familiar then you've probably heard of it either in relation to the made for T.V movie that provided Emma Watson with her first film role outside of Harry Potter, or you're thinking of that scene in You've Got Mail where Meg Ryan starts crying in the Fox Books store. I can't remember why or when I first picked up the novel, but I've read it up-teen times since and it never fails to hold my interest.
Ballet Shoes is the story of three adopted sisters - Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil - growing up in 1930's London, attending stage school and trying to make a living for their unconventional family. "Collected" on the travels of an eccentric old professor, the girls are raised by his great-niece Sylvia and her nanny, in a sprawling old house. With Gum (the professor) missing in action, money is short and the family must take in lodgers, yet through these strangers the girls are provided with invaluable opportunities, that include the chance to earn a living for their family by working on the stage.
Despite its dubious premise that seems to promise a sickly story of drama-school types, Ballet Shoes is a very different book from what you might expect - or in fact from most classic children's literature. The world of theatre as presented in the book is colourful and intriguing, but the characters are flawed and genuine and their struggles are mainly of the domestic and personal variety. Although the story definitely has some fairy-tale elements it's more about people living their lives than children having adventures.
One of the struggles that the Fossil sisters regularly come up against is the issue of clothes. Money is tight and when auditions come around finding something to wear is not just a minor problem. As the story is centered in a world of theatre we are also treated to many a description of stage costumes, and - being set in the thirties - even the every day clothes of the characters are a matter of interest, especially when the story is brought to the screen.
The 2007 adaptation of Ballet Shoes was an enjoyable and mainly faithful rendition of the story, with a cast of familiar faces including Richard Griffifths as Gum and Emilia Fox as Sylvia. Despite the Fossil sisters having been raised from children bordering on the teenage to teenage bordering on the adult, I thought the casting of the three girls was near spot on. Emma Watson's Pauline was suitably pretty, and like-able enough to act Pauline's more bratish moments without alienating the audience. Yasmin Paige as Petrova (best known from The Sarah Jane Adventures) was probably the best actress of the three and gave us an empathetic and grounded character to return to when her sisters got a bit too much to take. Posy (first seen as Margaret in the most recent adaptation of Sense and Sensibility) did her best with a character that you're never going to understand on screen the way you do in the book. Posy is a selfish little thing but her talent and charisma sees her through. Actress Lucy Boynton has plenty of that herself and her comic timing is great, but Posy is younger in the novel and a teenage Posy can't possibly display the level of cuteness needed to win the audience over.
The aging-up of the girls, especially in some of the earlier scenes where their book counterparts are only supposed to be five or six, does create some problems in the costume department. It's not my imagination that Emma Watson looks too old for bunches here, is it? Plus there shouldn't really be a need for their Nanny to walk them to school. Yet I like the look of the school uniforms, fitted to a 1930's silhouette and paired with the brown leather satchels and berets.
When I discovered that an adaptation of Ballet Shoes was due for release, one thing I looked forward to seeing was the clothes the Fossils wear to The Academy (the theatre school that they attend). They are described in great detail in the novel - I'm guessing Streatfeild is recalling the clothes she wore during her own time at a similar school - but I could never really picture them, if I'm honest. According to the book:
"As soon as [the girls] got to the Academy they went down to the changing-room. There they shared a locker in which their rompers and practice-frocks and shoes were kept. Their rompers were royal blue with C.A. for Children’s Academy embroidered on the pockets. They wore their rompers for the first half-hour, and with them white socks and black patent-leather ankle-strapped shoes. In these clothes they did exercises and a little dancing which was known as “character”, and twice a week they worked at tap dancing."
Image sources: http://www.soubrettevintage.com/free-vintage-sewing-patterns/
It turns out that a Romper is basically a playsuit, but I can't for the life of me find out what a tarlatan practice frock should look like (see extract below). In the film they went for straight-forward white ballet dresses (see title picture) - maybe the costume designers didn't know either, or maybe the practice frocks were discarded for looking as bad as they sound. Or maybe this is just a really overcomplicated way of describing said ballet dresses. Who knows?
"...At the end of half an hour they hung towels round their necks (for they were supposed to get so hot they would need a wipe down) and went back to the changing-room and put on their white tarlatan practice-frocks. These were like overalls with no join down the back; the bodice had hooks and the frills of the skirt wrapped over and clipped. With this they wore white socks and white kid slippers. The work they did in these dresses they found dull, and it made their legs ache. They did not realize that the half-hour spent holding on to a bar and doing what they thoughts stupid exercises was very early training for ballet....
On Saturday mornings they worked from ten to one at the Academy. As well as special exercise classes and the ordinary dancing classes, there was singing, and one hour’s acting class. For these they wore the Academy overalls. They were of black sateen made from a Russian design, with high collars, and double-breasted, buttoning with large black buttons down the left side; round the waist they had wide black leather belts. With these they wore their white sandals."
- From Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
Aside from their practice clothes, we get the most description when it comes to the audition dresses - the first of which is Pauline's black dress worn to audition for Alice in Wonderland (above.) For Pauline in particular (the other two can generally manage with hand me downs) drastic measures seem to be taken whenever she goes for a new part, as Ballet Shoes doesn't shy away from the fact that in the acting world, looks are important. Pauline is talented, but would she get the parts she did if she wasn't also attractive? And if the family didn't always manage to scrape together the money to get her looking presentable? No, she wouldn't, as Streatfield reveals through Winifred, one of the academy's most talented pupils who loses out to the Fossil girls more than once. She's plain, and she's even poorer. It irritated me that the film made nice, unlucky Winifred a brat, as if to somehow justify the situation. Life's not fair and Winifred deserved those parts. Sad but true.
The second time the girls are in need of dresses - Pauline and Petrova this time - Nana manages to conjure them up a simple white Muslin each (see above). They seem to wear a lot of Muslin in old-fashioned novels (especially Jane Austen) and it always sounds lovely. Do people still wear muslin nowadays? Maybe I'll buy myself some. These were also the dresses for which the girls had to pawn their necklaces (Turquoise for Pauline, pearls for Petrova, coral for Posy) to get material.
The clothes situation in Ballet Shoes also sign-posts how much the girls have aged. They grow out of this or that dress, and when it comes to Pauline's premiere, the style of dress she opts for shows how she has moved from a little girl to practically an adult. The film, I thought, conveyed this transformation very well and the dress was lovely. Not so sure about the colour of the lipstick...
Aside from the family relationships, one of the best things about Ballet Shoes is the way it conjures such a vivid picture of the world the Fossils are a part of - but gives both sides of the picture . As the oldest of three sisters with a love of theatre, I always liked to imagine myself as a Pauline - performing Shakespeare to rapt crowds all soaking up the adoration. But when Streatfeild writes from Petrova's point of view, the realisation always sinks in that when it comes to acting, I'd be much more likely to be hating every moment and getting my 'and I's' wrong, ala. Petrova.
The costumes, as a huge part of the theatre world - and an important aspect both to the book's characters and to little girls first reading the novel - are described in great detail throughout Ballet Shoes. Yet they aren't always enviable. While acting two of the faeries in A Midsummer Nights Dream there is much made of the fact that these costumes aren't the girls' (or Nana's) idea of fairy frocks, but horrible, dull coloured jumpsuits that make them feel ridiculous. The film (see above) gave us something a bit more like what Pauline and Petrova might have wished for, and not so dissimilar from Pauline's pantomime Fairy Godmother costume - the dress that Nana claims is more like a 'proper' fairy'.
In Ballet Shoes Pauline's age progression becomes evident not only through the change in her day clothes, but also in her stage costumes. From her first role as Alice to her first film role as the younger sister of Charles II, Pauline goes from child actress to the real thing. The film's impression of her Henrietta costume is different from my imagination - there's that horrible lipstick again - but it really does highlight the change in the character, as well as the difference in production values between film and stage acting.
Pauline aside, the rest of the cast of Ballet Shoes don't get much variation in their costume. Nana is of course always in uniform and poor Garnie (the girls' pet name for Sylvia) doesn't focus much on her clothes, as her life seems to revolve around her adopted daughters. When reading the book as a child I never really considered the fact that Sylvia - who is young and unattatched - doesn't get much of a life for herself and so despite the divergence from cannon I was surprised, but not disapproving, of the element of romance woven into the film. It made for a whole back-story involving the adults, where the book focuses mainly on the children, but I quite liked it.
Aside from costumes needed for particular scenes, the 1930's period setting requires a wardrobe of everyday clothing for each cast member. As the girls age and the seasons also change there has to quite a variety, but not too much, as they are supposed to be poor (I don't call having a cook and a maid poor, but times have changed.) The clothes have an endearingly ramshackle look most of the time, but some of the girls' dresses are actually very pretty. The character of Theo - as a flamboyant ex-dancing girl, very different from the Theo of the book - also brings an extra splash of colour.
If you're at all interested in fashions of the 1930's, Ballet Shoes the film is a bit of a treat. The book has plenty of descriptions of clothes also, but what makes it special is the characters and the wealth of detail that creates the world the Fossil sisters live in. Ballet Shoes is an easy and engrossing read, and I would recommend to any girl from eight to eighty. The style of writing is a little old-fashioned and I'm never quite sure about the ending, but it's a good story and the Fossils are characters that will stay with you. Apparently they also make an appearance in one of the other Shoes books - Theatre Shoes? I'm going to have to hunt it down. I would also say that the film is worth watching - first broadcast as a BBC boxing day drama, it's a cosy, Sunday afternoon sort of film and although it does diverge from the book in little ways, the essential story is faithful to Streatfeild's novel.