Varvara Zhmoudsky (1886–1983), better known under her stage name Karinska, was born in in Kharkov in the Russian Empire. As the child of parents in the textile trade she was early acquainted with the Ukrainian artistically embroidered fabrics. She finally opened her own fashion and hat boutique in Moscow, passed on the embroidery craft in a school, started exhibiting her own works in galleries and studied law.
When the new government after Lenin’s death in 1924 expropriated Karinska’s school and converted it into a manufactory for the production of Soviet flags, the artist decided to emigrate. She came to Paris via Berlin and Brussels, where she quickly found her way into the avant-garde circles. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo commissioned her with the realisation of Christian Bérard’s costume design for George Balanchine’s »Cotillon« – a work which marked the beginning of a lifelong collaboration with the choreographer. In Paris she worked with artists such as André Derain, Joan Miró and Balthus, but also designed the costumes for six other Balanchine ballets. In 1936 Karinska moved to London, in 1938 she followed Balanchine to New York.
Her improved version of the tutu, the so-called powder-puff tutu, constituted a milestone in the history of ballet costume: stitched in layers, the powder-puff tutu proved an ideal successor for the stiff pancake tutu and provided perfect scope for the elegantly contoured forms of Balanchine’s choreographic style. The knee-length chiffon skirts which Karinska created for Balanchine’s »Allegro Brillante« also have become a standard model for ballet costumes until today. In addition, Karinska also worked with Mikhail Fokine, Bronislava Nijinska, Léonide Massine, Frederick Ashton and Jerome Robbins, and designed a number of film and musical productions. Her costumes for Victor Fleming’s film »Joan of Arc« won her an Oscar in 1949, and she was subsequently nominated in 1952 for another Oscar for her costumes to Samuel Goldwyn’s musical »Hans Christian Andersen«. In 1962 Karinska received the Capezio Award, and has been the only costume designer ever to win this prestigious award.