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George Balanchine once said: “There is Shakespeare for literature, Karinska for costumes!”
The lady to whom this accolade was paid was Mme. Barbara Karinska, Principal Costume Designer and former Director of the costume shop for New York City Ballet.
Born Vavara Zhmoudsky in Kharkov, Karinska learned embroidery as a child, and, as a young woman, ran a coffee house and embroidery shop in her native Russia. Shortly before World War I she married the editor of a Socialist newspaper by whom she had a daughter, who herself later had a costume shop in Paris. After the death of her first husband, Mme. Karinska married a lawyer (Karinsky) in Moscow and used his name in her career. In 1928 she emigrated to Brussels and then settled in Paris.
In 1933 Karinska made her first ballet costumes, from designs by Christian Berard, for George Balanchine’s Cotillion for Les Ballets de Theatre Monte Carlo. From then on she made costumes from designs by Marisse, Dali, Beaton and Derain.
In 1938 Karinska came to America. She lived and worked in New York ever since. However, she did work in Hollywood and won an Oscar in 1948 for her costuming of Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc.
Karinska joined New York City Ballet in 1949 to make costumes for Mr. Balanchine’s Bourrée Fantasque. Since then she was responsible for the execution of almost all of the company’s costumes; at first making them, and later frequently designing them as well.
In 1963, the operation of the shop was taken over by New York City Ballet, and since that time Karinska worked exclusively for them.
Her major works included designs for Scotch Symphony, La Valse,#44; Symphony in C, Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, Liebeslieder Waltzer, The Nutcracker, Raymonda Variations, Bugaku, Jewels, Who Cares? and Chaconne. Her last, and perhaps most lavish work, Vienna Waltzes, was produced in 1977.
Karinska was the 1962 recipient of the Capezio Award, an annual honor given for outstanding contributions to the world of dance. She was the only costume designer ever to win this award.
Although illness in her last years prevented Karinska from continuing as an active participant in the daily operation of the costume shop, the line in a program reading: “Costumes by Karinska” still denotes the finest and most beautiful costumes on the stage. Karinska died in 1983 at the age of 97.