Barbara Karinska

From Russia with needle and thread


In 1951, a legendary costume designer who had once smuggled her family's jewels out of Bolshevik Russia by sewing them into a hat would buy a Colonial farmhouse in Sandisfield.

Barbara Karinska, the famed lavender-haired costumer for the New York City Ballet and an Oscar winner for her work on the film "Joan of Arc" purchased the circa 1765 Joseph Wolcott house on Silverbrook Road and named it "St. Joan Hill," in honor of the film. She had, apparently, bought the house with her earnings from her costume work on the 1948 film, according to The Sandisfield Times.

Born Varvara Andryevna Zmoudsky in Ukraine in 1886, she was known simply as"Karinska."

For Karinska, the needle arts taught to all upper class young Russian women at the time was what helped her overcome tragedy and rise to triumphant artistry.

Her first husband died just before the birth of her daughter. After moving to Moscow, her second husband, Nicholas Karinska, was targeted by the Bolsheviks and forced to flee — he went to New York.

With her young nephew and daughter, Karinska later defected to Germany with hidden valuables. It was during this escape that her daughter reportedly wore a "heavy" hat into which Karinska had sewn jewels.

In Paris, the money ran out, but Karinska continued to sew and embroider, and began selling her work.

It was a commission for the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo that would launch her into ballet costuming, and an eventual move to Manhattan, where she began her longtime collaboration and friendship with George Balanchine, New York City Ballet's founder and director.

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Former New York City Ballet dancer Allegra Kent described her first meeting, at age 15, with "Madame Karinska" during a fitting.

"A trim woman in a navy-blue suit, with a short crop of lavender hair, was pointing in various directions to her staff," wrote Kent, who described Karinska's creations over the years as "sumptuous."

"Yet what made the biggest impression on me was Karinska's lavender hair," Kent wrote in Dance Magazine. "I wondered if the beatify parlor had made a mistake. I was soon to learn that there were no mistakes with this extraordinary woman."

Karinska created the "powder-puff tutu," an invention that gave a tutu structure without a metal hoop, and would stop tutus from misbehaving when dancers were moving close together.

Balanchine and Karinska worked together on 75 ballets. He had said she was a crucial ingredient in his masterpieces.

According to The Sandisfield Times, he was a frequent visitor to the Silverbrook Road farm, where "the quiet, formal" Karinska kept sheep and had planted more than 100 rosebushes — only red.

Both died in 1983 — Karinska at age 97.

— Heather Bellow, The Berkshire Eagle


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