Turban Chic: Léon Bakst and the Ballets Russes

Léon Bakst was a Russian painter, scenic designer and costume designer. He was a member of Sergei Diaghilev’s creative circle that birthed the Ballets Russes, for which he designed exotic, richly-detailed sets and costumes. He was among the first to incorporate the influence of the East into 20th-century high design. He was also, as we’ll see, a big fan of the turban.

                                                                                                                                           (Costume for La Sultane Bleu in Scheherazade, 1910)

Léon Bakst was born into a middle-class Jewish family in what is now Belarus on 10 May 1866 as Lev Samoylovich Rosenberg. At his first exhibition, in 1889, he changed his surname, over concerns that it would sound “too Jewish”, to a shorter version of his mother’s maiden name – Baxter.

                                                                                                                                                                      (Costume design for Cleopatra, 1910)

He co-founded the influential World of Art (Mir Iskusstva) movement in St. Petersburg in 1898. In the 1900s, Bakst mainly practiced book design, interior decorating and staging exhibitions. However, by the end of the decade, he was concentrating purely on theatre.

                                                                                                                                                    (Costume design for Nijinsky for La Péri, 1911)

In 1909 he collaborated with ballet impresario Sergei Diagilev in the founding of the Ballets Russes. He acted as artistic director and his stage designs rapidly brought him international fame. Between 1909 and 1921 he designed more Diagilev productions than any other artist and his name became inseparable from the Ballets Russes.

                                                                                                                         (Costume design for a character in The Legend of Joseph, 1914)

Bakst was attracted to oriental style; motifs from ancient Greece, Egypt, and the Arab world became signatures in his work. The exotic fantasy Scheherazade, staged in Paris in 1910, was especially influential. Bakst’s costume designs prompted new fashions in dress and interior decoration, and soon fashionable ladies were seen in orient-inspired clothes and outfitting their homes to match.

                                                                                            (Costume design for Eastern Prince and his Page, from Sleeping Beauty, 1916)

Surviving costumes are richly decorated with myriad motifs and decorative shapes. Dense surface textures mix appliqué with painting, dyeing, embroidery, beading, sequins, metal studs, braids, pearls and jewels. And of course, there are turbans. Lots and lots of variously unique and ornate turbans.

                                                                                                                            (Costume design for a young Rajah from Le Dieu Bleu, 1911)

Bakst’s relationship with Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes declined in 1922, and he became terminally ill shortly thereafter. He passed away in 1924, leaving behind a life’s work of beautiful stage designs, costumes, and paintings that inspired many designers in his wake, including another Solid Glow favorite, fellow designer and turban enthusiast Paul Poiret.

                                                                                                                                                                  (Costume design for Le Dieu Bleu, 1911)