top of page
  • Writer's pictureMacy Berendsen

Let’s Run Away to the Circus

A mini-history of circus chic and campy styling.


L-R: Dior FW11, 2023 Madomorpho campaign shot by Elizaveta Porodina, Undercover FW21

An early memory of live entertainment for myself and many others is the circus. When the circus came around every year, I had to concentrate on avoiding the clowns and keeping my head down. It wasn’t until I was seated that I felt safe enough to look up and invest in the fantasy environment.

My favorites have always been the acrobats — they had the best costumes and the most elegant act. The bling of the leotards and embellishments of the completed look made the acrobats look like punk-inspired ballerinas. 

When the carnival made its way to America in 1793, it ballooned up throughout the 19th century and became the country’s most popular form of entertainment by the early 1900s. The circus was the runway for popular American consumerist attractions yet to come, like amusement parks and shopping malls. As its mass entertainment appeal grew, so did its dream-logic costuming.

Circus costumes can be categorized by their structure, assembly, ornamentation, and fantasy. Carnivalesque design was a deliberate stray away from everyday society at the time — evoking curiosity and pleasure from its audience. French author, designer, and historian Pascal Jacob wrote: “To establish its own visual language, the circus relies on five powerful and synthesized archetypal figures, developed and defined over a little less than a century to date, between 1770 and 1860.” 

Those archetypal figures are the ringmaster, the clown, the horsewoman, the acrobat, and the tamer. (The leotard and the tutu are two contemporary styling items popularized in these archetypes.) These base figures evolved into other circus characters like the bearded lady, the tightrope walker, the mystic, and so on. 

The continual rise of the circus-as-cultural-touchstone offered more material for not just circus-based designers — it became a stimulus for creatives all over the world. The diverse collection of designs and the vivid imagery of this attraction were potent inspirational material. 

L-R: Elsa Schiaparelli Circus Collection, 1938

The circus made its way to haute couture, too — notably in Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1938 carnival-themed collection, bringing circuswear to the rest of society. Schiaparelli’s collection at the time was pure spectacle: loud, radical, and blinged-out, featuring acrobat buttons, ostrich pendants, and embroidered show animals. The collection of circus motifs was described as the most disorderly and chaotic fashion show that Paris had ever seen at the time. Despite initial shocked reactions, Schiaparelli’s circus collection was picked up by American department stores like Bergdorf Goodman and made accessible to everyday people. 

While Americans were receptive to carnival attire, Europeans did not have the same affection for the style. The American sartorial character, like many other things in America, is big and extravagant. Not so much extravagant like a ballgown, but extravagant in our ways of consumerism. After World War II, the revival of the economy put materialism into drive and the nation has stayed fast on that road ever since.

L-R: Dior SS97

Post-Schiaparelli shock, circus chic made its way back to the runway some 60 years later in John Galliano’s Spring/Summer 1997 collection for Dior. While other collections made slight allusions to Schiaparelli’s groundbreaking carnival-inspired couture, Galliano took it to the next level.

Extravagant feathers, loud colors, and blinding sparkles defined Galliano’s collection, all while being showcased in a big-top setting.  The collection reprised the feelings of Schiaparelli’s decades-old work, bringing it back to life with the wave of a wand. 

Amy M. Spindler, the style editor of the New York Times at the time, wrote “It seemed a combination of his [Galliano] marriage to the right house and at last getting the knack of bringing into line the troublesome ateliers, beaders, featherers and other razzle-dazzlers needed for a couture show to be a hit. Mr. Galliano's show was a credit to himself, to Mr. Dior, whose name is on the door, and to the future of the art, which is always in question.”

Circus chic soon enough slipped off the runway and into popular culture — especially in music. In 2008, Britney Spears made a comeback with her hit song and album Circus, embodying the ringmaster aesthetic. Britney’s take on the ringmaster was traditional, with vibrant red-and-blue coloring, gold embellishments, and a structured-and-tailored ringmistress jacket.

L-R: Dior SS19

Dior’s Spring/Summer 2019 Couture collection is also circus-coded — but modernized and made accessible for modern audiences. This collection featured less color and overall felt less chaotic and overstuffed with motifs. It was a darker side of circus chic, with more of an appeal to everyday, wearable, event-ready fashion. The collection still featured the structure and assembly signature in circus costumes, as well as a combination of different textures and patterns to create a more curious look (accompanied by traditional circus makeup). 

Just like Britney in 2008, carnivalesque style inspo is still being used today, elevated to new levels. Chappell Roan, specifically, has been featured in many photoshoots in drag-influenced circus chic — like in Polyester Zine’s September 2023 issue or in Paper Magazine’s June 2024 issue. 

Her style goes back to the original imagery of the circus — funky, radical, and frilly. Roan’s persona follows the path of “freak shows,” with very exaggerated elements across hair, makeup, and outfit. Paired with her stylist Genesis Webb, Chappell has taken influence from drag makeup and performance as well, adding to the campiness of her looks. Gunnar Deatherage and Marie Monique are two designers Chappell and Genesis have worked with to create Chappell’s Jimmy Fallon white swan dress look and her Statue of Liberty Governor’s Ball look.

L-R: Chappell Roan for Polyester and PAPER

As for the everyday individual (like myself!), I take certain elements of circus costuming into my everyday styling approach — like the mismatch of colors and patterns; clothing items defined by their structure; and unique ornamentation such as tons of ribbons and sewn-on sequins. DIY beaded embroidery is having a huge moment, too. The Damson Madder collared blouse reminds me of distant carnival inspiration. The over-exaggerated structured collars paired with bright and bulky collars are all elements of classic carnivalesque style.

Despite its eccentric connotations, circus chic has found popular acceptance online. Popular fashion creator Clara Perlmutter started a YouTube interview series in 2024 called Clarafied. In Episode 001, she interviewed Erika, a nanny by day and professional clown by night. Clara and Erika work together to bring Erika’s circus clown attire into her everyday wear with funky patterns and an assortment of embellishments — like thick belts, furry material, and even suspenders. 

Whether we recognize it or not, circus chic has been integrated into design for many years. Anyone who takes a risk with outrageous and campy design is paying homage to the circus — and the thousands of artists that came before them who embraced their inner “freak.” 

My favorite thing about fashion and creating style is that we can pull from anywhere, from the high-swinging acrobats to the creepy clowns that traumatized us as children. 🌀


Macy Berendsen is a writer based in Chicago. She can be found online at @macyberendsen.


bottom of page