How long was Venus’s skirt?

When she danced Venus in John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus in 1717, how long was Hester Santlow’s skirt?

Almost all histories of dancing tell us that the first ballerina to shorten her skirts was Mlle Camargo in the 1730s. Dance writers ask us to believe that earlier ballerinas, like Mlle Subligny and Mrs Santlow, performed the surviving choreographies in dresses that reached the floor.

French ballerina Mlle Subligny, detail of engraved portrait, early 18th century.
English ballerina Mrs Santlow, detail of portrait as Harlequine c1720.

Yet, these dances are full of complex footwork with many small jumps, beaten steps and ronds de jambe. It simply makes no sense that these accomplished female professional dancers would have hidden their footwork from view and run the risk of tripping over their petticoats as they performed these virtuosic choreographies.

While Mlle Camargo may well have taken off some additional inches, there is evidence to suggest that ballerinas wore ankle-length or even shorter skirts much, much earlier.

Terpsichore, detail of late 17th-century French engraving.
Ellys, John, c.1701-1757; Mrs Hester Booth (1681-1773)
Mrs Santlow, detail of another version of the Harlequin portrait, c1720

As Venus, Mrs Santlow would definitely have revealed her ankles!


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