reading the signs

Carrie Bradshaw’s Tutu Paradox

Sex and the City aired its first episode on June 6, 1998. In honor of the occasion, we’re taking a look back at 20 years of SATC. Read all the Cut’s anniversary coverage here.

It’s been 20 years since we were introduced to Carrie Bradshaw and her posse. Twenty years since we encountered that iconic opening credit sequence, which established a tutu-clad Carrie as our onscreen proxy in Sex and the City’s quest romance — the saga of four women seeking the holy grails of love and/or sex. But the show was just as much a fashion romance, an onscreen paper-doll fantasy, inviting viewers to take vicarious pleasure in the characters’ elaborate dress-up games as styled by costumer Patricia Field.

As that xylophone-heavy melody played, we saw a tracking shot, from the interior perspective of a car moving through traffic, intermixed with Carrie (and, significantly, no other character) sauntering down the street. The implication was clear: the show was inviting us to experience the world through Carrie’s knowing yet yearning eyes, to navigate the city as if inside Carrie’s body.

So who was this avatar, this Alice we followed down the rabbit hole? As ever, fashion offers clues: For that opening sequence, Patricia Field put Sarah Jessica Parker in the now-historic outfit of pink tank top and white tutu — an ensemble rich in cultural resonance.

A grown woman wearing a tutu in public is incongruous. Tutus belong on only two types of people: ballerinas and toddlers. Tutus are not skirts; they are not street clothes. They are costumes that have floated down to us from the world of 19th century Romantic ballet. The first tutu was worn in 1832 by the great dancer, Marie Taglioni, for her leading role in La Sylphide — a ballet about weightless, winged, air sprites. Sylphs are not human beings but mythological creatures — and the white filmy tutu emphasized their unearthly, gravity-defying quality.

At the same time, though, tutus had a far more terrestrial purpose: They focused audience attention on the dancers’ shapely legs and thighs, helping to entice the male patrons who provided financial support for impoverished ballerinas — often in exchange for sexual favors. In other words, the tutu offered a disavowed come-on: signaling ethereal spirituality onstage while suggesting carnal availability offstage. Call it the tutu paradox.

An illustration of Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide.

In her weekly tutu scene, Parker conjured a modern-day version of this paradox. Carrie was by far the most sylph-like of the SATC ladies — the thinnest of figure and also the “airiest” and most Romantic (with a capital R) of temperament, the one most desperately searching for true love. (The 19th-century Romantic movement in art and literature overflowed with soulful, pining lovers, angst-filled crises, and the occasional supernatural being.)

Even Carrie’s hair in the opening credits played along: a poof of springy pre-Raphaelite curls on top, visually echoing the springy poof of the tutu’s tulle fabric below. (According to Patricia Field, whom I asked about this, Parker also had a dance background that allowed her to look especially comfortable in this odd garment — which Field had picked up for $5 in a discount bin.)

But Carrie was not, of course, a disembodied fairy. She was often quite frank in her visual sexual display — consider those sky-high Manolos, or the famous “naked dress,” the flesh-colored sheath (worn sans bra) that provoked Big to ravish her on their first date. And the tutu of course revealed her slim legs. It was just that Carrie played coy.

While Samantha openly and unsentimentally pursued erotic pleasure, Carrie longed for a prince to whisk her away: the rich, handsome, and elusive Mr. Big or the rich, handsome, and elusive Aleksandr Petrovsky (played by an actual former real-life ballet prince, Mikhail Baryshnikov). She lived life through the prism of a fairy tale — of Cinderella or really any of the other Romantic ballet plots. It was therefore perfect that every week, Carrie greeted us in a ballerina costume topped with a clingy tank top that showed off her breasts. This outfit perfectly encapsulated the central drama of SATC, Carrie’s essential conflict: can you be both fairy princess heroine AND a modern sexpot?

“In the Wings at the Opera House,” Jean Beraud, 1889. Photo: Photo Josse/Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

She negotiated this balancing act, often with heartbreaking results. Remember the break-up letter that Berger wrote to her on a Post-it note? Or the time she literally fell off her shoes, face-planting while strutting down a catwalk? Or that most crushing of examples, when Big left her at the altar in the ultimate failed-fairy-princess moment?

Such foundering was integral to Carrie’s story — she was meant to be an Everywoman who, however elegant and sexy her life, could be trusted to mirror comfortingly our own failures. And it was all there in those opening seconds of the show. As Carrie confidently makes her way down the street in her toddler-glam tutu outfit, suddenly we see some tires driving through a deep puddle, splashing her with dirty water. As Carrie pirouettes in horror (it’s ballet but with mud), she sees that the offending vehicle was a city bus featuring a gigantic photo of herself — an advertisement for her column. In the photo, Carrie lounges in what appears to be that famous, clinging “naked” dress, with a caption reading “Carrie Bradshaw knows good sex.”

It’s a dense little scene: the bus ad is visible proof of Carrie’s success and cosmopolitanism. She is a famous, sexy writer. But the encounter of “real” Carrie and “bus” Carrie ends in mishap. The very thing that demonstrates professional success (the bus) besmirches and humiliates the woman. Bus Carrie ruins walking Carrie. She may know — and write about — good sex but she can barely get down the street without incident.

The implication was clear: Carrie will be taken down a peg or two — again and again, and professional success was always suspect (a mud puddle ready to sully a princess tutu). SATC was never about an integrated life of career and love. The women’s careers were always mere backdrops to their sex-capades. And by series’ end, each woman had retreated into hetero-pair-bonded bliss.

SATC made it clear that the truest success was princess-hood, especially for Carrie who, after quitting her job and following another man’s career to Paris (Petrovsky), finally gets to cash out of the game just as she loses hope. Learning that Carrie is wretched and lonely, ignored by a career-obsessed Petrovsky, Big rides to the rescue, arriving in Paris to find our heroine and whisk her back home. Encountering him at her hotel, Carrie is relieved and astonished, ready to leap right back into her prince’s arms.

Photo: HBO

And what did she happen to be wearing this fateful night? Why, another tutu. Yes, in that classic final episode, Carrie suits up one last time as a ballerina princess — in a flaring tulle tutu of a skirt. Only this time the tutu is no longer virginal white but mermaid green. And rather than showcase her legs, it is long enough to cover them. No need any longer to advertise her wares: Carrie Bradshaw is — finally — off the market.

The series’ very last scene follows Carrie once more striding down a New York street — only this time, no puddles, no tutu. Instead, she wears a giant fur coat and answers a cell phone call. It’s from Big, whose real name is finally revealed on the phone’s screen. The rich, powerful man giving ultimate meaning to her life is named … John — a name so basic, so generic, that he might as well have been called “Man.”

Of course, “john” with a lower-case “j” carries another valence. It suggests a highly commercial transaction, not unlike those arranged between ballerinas of yore and their wealthy admirers. Had Carrie truly found the archetypal “man” of her life, or was there a starkly cynical note lurking in this last moment? In either case, the tutu had served its purpose.

This article has been corrected to show that Carrie did, in fact, resume her writing career after marrying Big, as depicted in the first Sex and the City movie.

The Real Meaning of Carrie Bradshaw’s Tutu