Still Kickin' it: Ballet Flats

Susan Mc Ateer

Sport and athletic inspired clothing have been creeping into our wardrobes over the past few years. As always with a mainstream trend, sometimes it’s for better, sometimes for worse. On the former I’m all for runners (trainers, sneakers, what have you) letting their hair down and getting loose with colour and pattern. Regarding the latter, I’m dubious of the suspiciously pristine head to toe Nike ensemble with full makeup. 

Ballet flats don’t tend to be included in the athletic wear concept. I’ve practiced ballet for years and have defended it as equivalent to sports, particularly in those early teenage years when my attempts at team sports left me on the bench as a sub for the school hockey B team. There was no C team. So to me it makes sense that we regard these shoes as a cousin of runners.

'Although it has been proclaimed ‘dead’ on various occasions, the ballet flat has always remained a wardrobe staple in many ways.'

This season has seen a resurgence of the ballet flat, and while the more classical style prevails it appears that there are two schools of styling – the traditional which has literally gone back to the barre and decided to keep its ribbons in tact like Ballet Beautiful’s offering. And then there is the ballet flat that has run away from home and is discovering punk and sticking it to the man, as seen at Miu Miu where buckles, leather and gingham ribbons take centre stage.

The ballet shoe, both flat and pointe, has significant history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with major shoe makers including Bloch, Capezio, Freed and Repetto, all developing their shoes and establishing their brands during this time. Cobbler Frederick Freed established his trade in a Covent Garden basement in London in 1929, tailoring shoes to the individual needs of dancers which are still handmade in the UK today. Bloch, founded by Jacob Bloch, has its origins in Australia, following his emigration from his native Lithuania in 1931. Looking to Paris, Repetto was founded by Rose Repetto in 1947 in a tiny workshop by the National Opera of Paris.

Bridget Bardot 1952, J ames Vaughan

Bridget Bardot 1952, James Vaughan

What is really compelling about these brands is that they were all founded in quite modest circumstances by individuals who lent their name to the company, acting as a personal endorsement for their products. The craftsmanship has remained as has the ethos of their founders. Made for dancers, the ballet flat differs in form and function from what we find in fashion, but the aesthetic remains quite true to the original. Repetto is particularly responsible for propelling the ballet flat into mainstream fashion. In 1956 Bridget Bardot requested a pair of red Repetto flats for her role as Juliette in ‘And God Created Woman’, and since then the ballet flat has remained on the fashion radar.

A company which has been pivotal in promoting and keeping ballet flats in vogue and on our feet is French Sole. Working with dance companies Gamba and Annello & Davide, Jane Winkworth developed collections of bespoke ballet flats, and from there founded French Sole, a shoe company specialising in the ballet flat. Setting Winkworth apart is the quality of materials, retaining the handmade process, and her background in art and practicing ballet in her younger years. This dedication to classic design and process is key to being relevant and successful despite trends.

I’m still grappling with the 2000s and fashion choices made which cannot be undone. Overlooking handkerchief dresses, pastel polo shirts (extra points for layering), the ballet flat was a saving grace, maybe not enough to balance the velour tracksuits but it made a valiant effort. Kate Moss was a key influence in the ballet flat revival, and as the story goes the trend made its way to every shop and bargain bin making the origins of the ballet shoe seem increasingly further away. Although it has been proclaimed ‘dead’ on various occasions, the ballet flat has always remained a wardrobe staple in many ways, and while it may not usually be termed under the athletic umbrella I’ll still an advocate for it. I'm just hoping inspired sportswear doesn’t start to take its cues from hockey.