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Varvara Jmoudsky, better known as Barbara Karinska or simply Karinska (October 3, 1886 – October 18, 1983), was costumer of the New York City Ballet, and the first costume designer ever to win the Capezio Dance Award, for costumes "of visual beauty for the spectator and complete delight for the dancer".
Along with Dorothy Jeakins, she won the 1948 Oscar for color costume design (the first year costume design was divided into color and black and white categories) for Joan of Arc, and was nominated in 1952 for the Samuel Goldwyn musical Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye. She divided her time between homes in Manhattan, Sandisfield, Massachusetts, and Domrémy-la-Pucelle, France, the birthplace of Joan of Arc. For the stage, she designed the costumes for George Balanchine's production of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, among others.
Barbara Karinska was born Varvara Andreevna Jmoudsky (Russian: Bарвара Андреевна Жмудская) in Kharkov, the Russian Empire, in 1886, to a successful textile manufacturer. She was the third and eldest female of the ten Jmoudsky siblings. Russian embroidery was an art form filled with detailed shades and colors of varying texture of stitches – some tiny and fine and others broad and rough. This was Karinska's artistic medium as a child. She studied law at the University of Kharkov and, in 1908, married Alexander Moïssenko, the son of another wealthy Kharkov industrialist. Moïssenko died in 1909 several months before the birth of their daughter Irina. In 1910, Varvara’s older brother Anatoly, owner of the moderately Socialist Kharkov newspaper UTRO (Morning), went through divorce proceedings that resulted in Varvara winning custody of his two-year-old son, Vladimir Anatolevich Jmoudsky. Vladimir and Irina were raised as brother and sister.
Varvara soon remarried a prominent lawyer, N. S. Karinsky (1873–1948), who, being from Moscow, was residing in Kharkov. With his law practice burgeoning, the Karinsky family of four moved to Moscow in 1916, to a spacious apartment that Varvara had purchased. Karinsky continued to practice criminal and political law and gained fame and prestige throughout the Russian Empire. Varvara, meanwhile, became totally engrossed in the arts and hosted her famous salon every night after the theater or ballet. She developed her own form of painting applying pieces of colored silk gauze to photographs and drawings. Her first subjects were ballet scenes. After much tearing apart and redoing, she exhibited about 12 of her works in a prominent Moscow gallery and was quite successful both financially and critically.
Czar Nicholas II abdicated in March 1917, to the provisional government, first headed by Prince Lvov and then by Alexander Kerensky. N.S. Karinsky was appointed by Lvov as Attorney General and Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeals of the District of St. Petersburg.
As Civil War followed the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, The Ministry of the Interior of the White Occupied Southern Territories assigned to N.S. Karinsky the governorship of several southern provinces. Varvara, Irina and Vladimir spent the years of the civil war moving between Kharkov and Crimea; Karinsky joining them where and whenever possible. With the fall of Crimea to the Red forces, in 1920, Karinsky was a marked man, yet he stayed at his post until the very end helping others to escape. Unable to find his family, several of Varvara’s sisters and brothers forced him to leave Crimea with them by ship, assuring him that Varvara would soon follow. But Varvara had decided to remain in the "New Russia" and filed a “postcard divorce”, legitimate and popular during those years of upheaval.
In 1923 N. S. Karinsky eventually made his way to New York where, unable to speak English, he undertook a variety of menial jobs, including driving a taxi. Nicholas Karinsky never lost his good nature or optimistic philosophy of life. He continued his intellectual pursuits editing for the Russian American press and authored a number of articles and monographs; most notably a history of aviation in pre-revolutionary Russia. When Varvara arrived to New York in 1939, she and Nicholas Karinsky had many friends in common, yet it appears that neither ever sought the other’s company.
Meanwhile, in 1921, Varvara made her way back to Moscow where she met and married Vladimir Mamontov, son of one of Moscow’s wealthiest pre-revolutionary industrialists. Having lost everything, Mamontov remained with nothing except his charm, beautiful piano playing and the delusion that someday his late father’s fortune would be returned to him.
Lenin’s New Economic Policy (1921–1928) provided for limited capitalism to help finance his new regime exhausted and debilitated by three years of civil war. Karinska went way beyond Lenin’s limits. She opened a Tea Salon that became the meeting place of Moscow artists, intellectuals and government officials every afternoon at five o’clock. In the same complex she founded an haute-couture and a millinery atelier to dress the wives of the Soviet elite. She opened an antique store and an embroidery school where she taught the needle arts to the proletariat.
Karinska’s reasons for leaving Russia are multifold. First there was the death of Lenin in 1924 and the uncertainty of what was to come; secondly, within weeks after Lenin’s death the new regime nationalized her embroidery school and turned it into a factory to manufacture Soviet flags (In exchange, she was awarded the title of “Inspector of Fine Arts”); thirdly and primarily, Mamontov, a chronic alcoholic and incapable of performing any kind of work was a symbol of bourgeois decadence and his arrest was imminent.
Karinska devised a plan to save Mamontov. Supported by Anatoly Lunacharsky, Minister of Education and long time friend of her father, she proposed to take a large number of embroideries made by her students to exhibit in Western European cities as a “good will” gesture to demonstrate the great cultural advances that the young Soviet regime was making. The proposition was enthusiastically accepted across the high ranks, although Lunacharsky and others knew quite well what she was up to.
With corruption widely practiced throughout the Soviet government, an exit visa was obtained for Mamontov who left immediately for Germany where he had cousins in exile. A few weeks later Karinska, Irina and Vladimir left together from Moscow station on a Berlin-bound train. Irina boarded the train whimpering under the weight of a huge chapeau. “Stop whining!” her mother would scold. Later the girl of 14 learned that the hat was filled with diamonds. Vladimir boarded the train with a suitcase filled with his Soviet school books, American hundred dollar bills, bought on the black market, hidden between the pages. Karinska boarded the train waving and blowing kisses to the crowd that came to bid her bon voyage. But the crates with her student’s embroideries framed under glass had, hidden underneath each, antique embroideries sewn by the ladies-in-waiting to the Russian Empresses of the past centuries.
Reuniting with Vladimir Mamontov in Berlin, the family of four headed for Brussels where Karinska’s father and several brothers and sisters were living. But Brussels was too quiet for Karinska and after a few months they moved to Paris.
Life in Paris
After two years of luxurious living in Paris, all the treasures brought from Russia were gone. The family was forced to move to a popular quarter of the city of lights and Karinska looked desperately for any and every kind of work using her skills of sewing and embroidery. With her beauty and aplomb she had no difficulty meeting whoever she wanted to meet. It wasn’t long before she made her first costume; an elaborately embroidered robe designed by Boris Bilinsky for the 1927 motion picture The Loves of Casanova. More single orders followed and then larger and larger ones. All the time Irina and Vladimir worked with her.
A newly formed ballet company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, directed by Colonel de Basil and René Blum requested she make costumes for their first season. The costumes were designed by Christian Bérard, André Derain, and Joan Miró, and the choreography was by George Balanchine and Leonide Massine, both choreographers with whom she had worked previously. Bérard, Derain, and Miró would provid a general sketch, an idea, but it would be Karinska who expounded upon the concept, modified it, chose the fabric, quality and quantity, and decided how the concept would be implemented. Karinska soon became in Paris, the premiere interpreter of the costume for the ballet and musical theater.
During Karinska’s brief career in Paris she collaborated with Bèrard, Derain, Miró, Balthus, Cassandre, Soudeikine, and Vertès, amongst a long list of painters and designers. She costumed the plays of Jean Cocteau and Louis Jouvet. In 1933, Karinska costumed Les Ballets 1933 (designed by Bèrard, Derain, and Tchelitchev amongst others), Balanchine's six ballets in Paris before he left for New York.
Life in London
In 1936, and free of Mamontov for several years, a series of circumstances led Karinska to make the decision to leave Paris. Her daughter remained and the business was reopened under the name “Irène Karinska”. Barbara Karinska and Vladimir, sponsored by Mme. Hayward Court Dressmaker, settled in London. The partnership was short lived and, after a second short-lived partnership with another prestigious London dress firm, Karinska and Vladimir rented the Sir Joshua Reynolds House where they each took an upper floor for their respective flats while the spacious lower floors housed the costume making facilities.
The London years were far more prosperous than Paris. They costumed ballet, musical revue, Shakespeare, and cinema while still attending to Louis Jouvet back in Paris. Together with Bérard, Karinska and Vladimir experimented very successfully with new materials never before used in theater. Here Karinska began her long collaborative relationship with Cecil Beaton.
But war was in the making and early in 1939, Karinska abandoned her London empire, on short notice, and moved permanently to the United States, leaving her nephew to close the business with honor; evacuate Reynolds’s House and liquidate his aunt’s accumulation of costume sketches and antiques. Irène came to London immediately to sign all release documents in her mother’s place.
England and France declared war on Germany in September, 1939, and Vladimir, feeling greater allegiance to France than to England, returned to Paris and enlisted in the French army. Wounded, captured and escaping from a German POW camp, made his way to the South of France where Karinska’s sister, Angelina, was living. Angelina, who had just received Karinska’s address in New York from Irène in Paris, by way of the underground, put mother and adopted son in touch once more.
Balanchine, who had relocated to the United States, had given Karinska an unused room at the fledgling School of American Ballet in New York City for her to work. From this space she collaborated with Salvador Dalí on Venusberg from Tannheuser for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo—recently relocated in New York—in the fall of 1939. Through Dalí, Karinska made friends with the Spanish Consul and confided to him her nephew’s case. Vladimir received instructions to make his way to the Spanish border where he would be provided safe transit to a ship leaving Lisbon for New York, via Havana. Emaciated and sickly, he arrived to New York in January 1941 where he was smothered by his aunts hugs and kisses. His new apartment awaited him at the mansion that Karinska was renting on E. 56th Street.
Karinska at that time was ridding herself of her partners, “The Princess and the Baron”, from a fly by night venture in haute-couture. She kept the mansion; the name Karinska Inc. and the parquet floor that the Baron had had brought to New York from a family castle in France.
Shortly after Vlady's arrival they began executing the designs of Karinska's arch rival Irene Sharaff for Gypsy Rose Lee. Miss Lee believed that Karinska understood the impact of her performance and enhanced her ability to deliver her unique style of burlesque to the audience. Vladimir hit it off well with Sharaff and made it possible for the two rivals to work together.
But rivalry soon ensued between Vladimir and Kermit Love who designed Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Vladimir and Love were both makers of masks and hard costumes. But the rivalry was short lived as Vladimir was drafted into the United States Army.
Since the German occupation of Paris, Karinska had lost contact with her daughter, Irène, who was living in Sarthe at the family residence of her husband, Xavier François. It was Vladimir the soldier who found Irène days before the liberation of Paris and from his nearby barracks wrote to Karinska special delivery informing her that she was a grandmother twice over. Vladimir entered the American Army in 1943 as Private Vladimir Jmoudsky and returned to civilian life in 1945 as Lieutenant Lawrence Vlady.
Back to work with Karinska, Vlady brought to the great costumer something she had never known: American military order, discipline and administration. The 56th Street mansion was soon abandoned; Karinska Inc. was liquidated and the Karinska-Vlady enterprise, KARINSKA Stage and Art Inc., made its debut in a rather unsightly loft on W. 44th Street where Karinska’s costumes, always delivered at the last moment, could be walked over to the theaters if needs be. The affordable rent of the dusty atelier permitted Karinska to purchase a townhouse on E. 63rd St. (where the Baron's parquet floor was installed); a house in Joan of Arc’s home town, Domrémy-la-Pucelle, in the Lorraine region of Eastern France, and a George Washington period house that she named "Saint Joan Hill" in Sandisfield, Massachusetts.
During the war years, while Karinska took extensive leaves to supervise costume production for motion pictures in Hollywood, she would rent her 56th St. mansion and her staff to ballet and theater companies, ventures that always ended in misunderstandings. With Vlady permanently settled in New York, he would run the business while Karinska worked in Hollywood. Under this arrangement she won her Oscar for Joan of Arc and her Oscar nomination for Hans Christian Andersen. These were the “Golden Years”. The label “KARINSKA Stage and Art Inc.” was sewn into costumes for Ice Shows, Musicals, legitimate theater, motion pictures, lyric opera and the most important for the Lady from Kharkov –Ballet.
At the end of the German occupation of Paris, Irène Karinska reopened her costume atelier and worked successfully until retirement in the 1970s. Due to the fact that Irène’s work was often credited as "Costumes par Karinska", researchers have credited much of her work to her mother. An example of the confusion between mother and daughter was found in a well-intentioned contribution to this very article. It credited costume design of the 1953 French film adaptation of La Dame aux Camélias to Barbara Karinska when, in fact, the costumes were designed by Rosine Delamere and executed by Irène Karinska. Costumes designed by Raoul Dufy, Georges Braque, Leonor Fini, and Yves St Laurent (for Roland Petit) are the work of Irène Karinska. Costumes for the 1958 Oscar-winning musical Gigi were designed by Cecil Beaton and executed by Irène Karinska.
Aunt and nephew parted ways in 1964, at which time Karinska was invited by Balanchine to join the New York City Ballet at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, newly injected with generous grants from the Ford Foundation. This period –often praised by critics as Karinska’s greatest and condemned by others for “garish” colors–, witnessed Balanchine’s new "Firebird", in 1970, which Karinska created from the sketches of Marc Chagall. Karinska and Chagall had been close friends and mutual artistic admirers since Moscow in the 1920s. With the "Firebird" collaboration, their friendship was rekindled and Karinska would spend several weeks each summer of her final creative years with Madame and Monsieur Chagall at their home in St Paul de Vence, in the south of France.
Karinska’s final work was Balanchine’s 1977 "Vienna Waltz’". Both aging during the 1970s Balanchine and Karinska created a fantasy ballet, "Birds of America," based on the drawings of John Jay Audubon. Elaborate beyond possibility, "Birds of America" was never meant to be materialized; it was a means to keep their attention on life and beauty. Balanchine would spend long sojourns at Karinska’s Berkshire home. Karinska would make endless sketches by pasting pieces of fine fabric onto pencil-drawn figures on heavy watercolor paper. They would walk in the woods daily and Balanchine would choreograph by imitating the dances of different birds. They both died in 1983, Balanchine in April and Karinska in October; two weeks after her 97th birthday.
In 1999, Karinska was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame.
The "Powder Puff" Tutu
With a large assembly of dancers on stage – as was often preferred by Balanchine—the traditional "pancake" tutu with its stiff wired layer would bob and dip when the dancers' skirts brushed up against one another and this bobbing and dipping would reverberate long after the steps were complete.
Karinska solved this problem by devising the "powder puff" tutu, with a shorter skirt made of six or seven layers of gathered net, each layer a half inch longer than the preceding layer. The layers were tacked together for a fluffier, looser appearance than the stiff "pancake" tutu. Because the shorter layers are self-supporting, no wire hoop is needed in the "powder puff" tutu, aka the Balanchine-Karinska tutu.
This tutu design has become standard in ballet companies all over the world since it first appeared in 1950, in the ballet Symphony in C. Balanchine said, "I attribute to [Karinska] fifty percent of the success of my ballets to those that she has dressed."
Karinska collaborated with Balanchine on seventy-five ballets in all. The first ballet she made for Balanchine from her own designs was Bourrée Fantasque in 1949. In 1956, for Balanchine's Allegro Brillante, Karinska created the knee-length chiffon ballet dress, which has also become a standard design for ballet costumes.
- Costumes by Karinska by Toni Bentley, Lincoln Kirstein Publisher: Abrams, Harry N., Inc. 192 pages, 242 illus. (including 78 in color) September 1995 ISBN 978-0-8109-3516-7 ISBN 0-8109-3516-3
- Memories of Madame Karinska by Allegra Kent Dance Magazine October 1, 2003
- New York City Ballet website
- NY Times obituary by Anna Kisselgoff, October 19, 1983
- Barbara Karinska on IMDb
- Barbara Karinska Collection at Ailina Dance Archives