A tutu or three … The Mystery of Anna Pavlova’s Dying Swan costume

Anna Pavlova dressed in her costume for The Swan, photographed by the pond at her London home of Ivy House. Copyright MOL.

Early last month, barely a week before the world shut down and I was destined to be a quarantined historian rather than a travelling one, I visited the exhibition Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse at the Museum at FIT in New York City. This is a wonderful exhibition exploring the influence of the Ballerina on fashion across the Twentieth Century. You can view the exhibition virtually here.

One of the earliest costumes on display was actually an old friend of mine … Anna Pavlova’s stunning tutu worn for her solo The Dying Swan or The Swan on loan from The Museum of London, MOL.

I first saw this tutu when I was working as a volunteer at MOL nearly 10 years ago. This tutu is the star of the Museum’s extensive Pavlova collection which contains costumes, accessories, shoes, jewellery, photographs, and ephemera – click here to view these. Anna Pavlova, b. 1881 – d. 1931 was famed for her performance of The Swan and the elaborate feathered tutu was integral to her performance and has become synonymous with the ballerina.

Anna Pavlova performing The Swan in the 1920s. This is a very similar tutu to the one housed at the MOL.

It was wonderful to see this tutu in NYC but interestingly it is not the only version of this costume to survive. To date I have traced three Swan tutus attributed to Anna Pavlova. Could they all have been hers? Pavlova’s costume-maker Madame Manya stated that “she [Pavlova] never wore her Swan costume more than twice without the skirts of the tutu being renewed”. This was most likely because tarlatan and tulle were much softer and required constant stiffening. Could this also be why three costumes exist?

1. The Museum of London

This first costume was given to The Museum of London in 1931, shortly after Pavlova’s death, by her manager and rumoured husband Victor Dandré. It is a beautiful costume decorated with white and cream goose feathers. This costume is most likely the last that Pavlova wore as it was still in her possession at the time of her death.

ballet dress
The Swan tutu, The Museum of London. 31.81/1a. Copyright MOL.

The tutu is well made and has a green glass stone set in the centre of the bodice. The layered skirts are covered in small sequins and the feather covered ‘wings’ on each side are raised and lift away from the body slightly. The collection also houses the matching headdress which is decorated with feathers and green glass gems.

Queen Elizabeth views The Swan costume at the Pavlova Commemorative Exhibition – November 1956. Copyright, Getty Images.

2. The Bancroft Library, San Francisco

A second Swan costume forms part of a large collection of historic dance costumes and ephemera collected by Californian artist, designer and author, Joseph Rous Paget-Fredericks, b. 1903 – d.1963, and gifted to The Bancroft Library. The costumes are on long-term loan to the de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Celebrities in our Closets | FAMSF
The Swan tutu, 1964.020:004–OBJ. Copyright The Bancroft Library.

This gorgeous tutu was on display in 2016 at The Denver Art Museum where it formed part of the exhibition: Rhythm & Roots, Dance in American Art. This costume is very similar to that held at the MOL but has blue stones in the headdress and on the bodice. Why and when the gems changed from green to blue or vice versa is curious. I understand that the central gem was meant to symbolise the soul of the swan. Later, ballerinas began to wear a red gem in the centre of the bodice supposedly to symbolise the fatal wound inflicted on the swan.

The Paget-Fredericks Dance Collection contains roughly 2,000 original drawings, paintings, photographs and pieces of memorabilia, the majority of which date from ca. 1913 to ca. 1945. You can view the finding aid for the entire collection here.

Joseph Rous Paget-Fredericks illustration of Pavlova in The Swan, 1964.012:683–B. Copyright The Bancroft Library.

This costume very closely resembles the tutu at the Museum of London and was possibly an early 1920s version of The Swan tutu. The collection holds a number of Pavlova’s costumes including her costumes from Rondino, Russian Dance, La Gionconda, and Giselle as well as many accessories. Both Paget-Frederick and his mother Constance were keen collectors. Constance hosted parties for many famous dancers when they visited California in the 1910s and 1920s and this is perhaps how she met Pavlova. Some of the costume items many have been gifts from the great dancer to the family but it is likely most were acquired later.

3. Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra, Paris

A third costume is held at the Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra in Paris. The costume the library holds is believed to have been designed by Léon Bakst in 1907 for Pavlova.

The Swan tutu. Copyright Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra.

Although very similar to the other two costumes the way the ‘wings’ are set on this costume is quite different. This is possibly due to the way the costume is mounted which is making the tutu tip forward. The main difference is that this costume does not have a feathered central panel between the two ‘wings’. The shoulders also appears to be decorated with a marabou style trim rather then individual feathers, although perhaps this was added later. It is also unclear what colour the central stone is. I have not yet been able to trace the provenance of this costume. If anyone knows more please let me know.


This costume was displayed in 2017 at Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra as part of the exhibition Bakst: des Ballets russes à la haute couture. 

One day I hope to be able to study in detail all three costumes and compare construction techniques and design. In the meantime check back soon for a new post on what other costumes of Anna Pavlova’a survive and where.

A new swan …

In 2016 I was asked to source a replica of The Dying Swan costume for a jewellery launch at Kensington Palace London. The costume I sourced was made for the production A Portrait of Pavlova which was first performed in April 1989 by Ballet Creations. The company was founded by Richard Slaughter and Ursula Hageli with the aim to inspire and inform audiences. The couple undertook extensive research to recreate some of Pavlova’s most famous, unique and well loved dances with input from former members of Pavlova’s own ballet company. The pair also recreated her costumes in astonishing detail.

The replica of Anna Pavlova’s Swan tutu on display in December 2016. Copyright Giberg.

The replica costume had been beautifully made but had been stored in an attic for many years. I restored and stabilised the costume, replacing many of the feathers on the bodice and on the wings. I also created armatures to sit beneath the wings in-order to lift them so that they more closely resembled Pavlova’s original costume. I was very happy with the result – I hope Pavlova would have been too!