Costume Catastrophe!

Posted on November 1, 2006 by

Like many studio owners preparing for recital season, Sue Sampson-Dalena of the Dance School of Fresno in California ordered costumes for her June performance in January. But when the arrival date for one class’s costumes passed with no sign of the shipment, she put in several concerned calls to the costume company, only to be met with constant busy signals.

Luckily, just days before the show, a few dedicated parents—who, to Sampson-Dalena’s delight, were also talented seamstresses—volunteered their time to buy fabric and whip up makeshift costumes for every member of the class. She never did get through to the company, though the costumes eventually arrived—weeks after the performance.

Whether it’s a costume shipment lost in the mail, backordered costumes that didn’t get delivered in time or a suitcase of garments misdirected on the flight to Nationals, costume mishaps are often unavoidable. Keep these creative strategies in mind the next time you’re in a jam.

Beg, Borrow or Rent
“Try to borrow costumes from one of last year’s classes—that’s the first line of defense,” says Sampson-Dalena. This works best if you can pinpoint a class where all students have remained local; tracking down a costume from last year’s senior who’s now a busy college freshman can be tricky.

Nancy Chippendale’s Dance Studio in North Andover, Massachusetts, has maintained an in-school costume closet for just this reason. “We started stocking the closet with my three daughters’ costumes and then had everyone donate their old costumes as well,” says Director Nancy Chippendale.

“When soloists need costumes, they go into the closet and put their outfit together, or at least use pieces from our inventory. I encourage my graduating seniors to donate items that they will never use again . . . such as jewelry, headpieces, trunks [and] belts.”

Next, look to local studios that may let you borrow or rent items they’re not currently using. “I can recall borrowing costumes from a friend [who owns a nearby studio],” says Sampson-Dalena. “She always had her show in early May, and she usually kept a lot of her costumes.” Cynthia King of Cynthia King Dance Studio in Brooklyn, New York, has often swapped costumes with teacher friends, especially those who work in public schools. “Sometimes they’ll have a budget [for costumes] and they’re just sitting there,” King says. She also suggests compiling an e-mail list of teachers you meet at conventions and teacher training seminars; in case of a costume emergency, you have a support system right at your fingertips.

If you’ve exhausted local dance schools, don’t overlook local theater companies or high school theater departments; there’s always a chance they produced Cabaret last year and could kindly rent you their hats, canes and gloves for your advanced jazz routine set to “Willkommen.”

Start From Scratch
If you have the time and funds to invest in a completely new set of costumes, consider ordering in-stock items from a company whose warehouse is in the same state as your studio; in-stock items could ship in a day if you pay for premium shipping. Keep in mind you may have to be flexible about style and size, given what’s available—hemming pants or tightening straps are small adjustments that can be made easily, if time allows.

“I have always had parents who are willing to come to the rescue,” says Sampson-Dalena. “I really admire those who can sew.” If you have several parents with sewing savvy, consider commissioning them to select fabric and construct a simple costume, as Sampson-Dalena did in the wake of her class’s costume disappearance. King keeps bolts of stretchy fabric, tulle and elastic at her studio in case her seamstresses need to quickly create a crop of simple circle skirts.

If sewing isn’t your forte, you’d be surprised at what can be put together with a hot-glue gun, says King; or look for no-sew hem tape, fabric glue or fusible webbing (a stiff fabric that becomes adhesive when ironed) at a craft store. Consider taking a basic garment from your local dance retailer, like a simple lyrical dress, and using fabric paint to create swirls, stripes or starbursts. For added sparkle, glue on rhinestones, sequin trim, fringe or beads. For a disco number, a trip to a local resale shop or the back of parents’ closets may yield enough retro pieces to outfit your group on the cheap.

Jazz Up Basics
If buying new or creating from scratch isn’t an option, think of what your dancers already have and build from there, says Sampson-Dalena. To meet one last-minute costume need, for example, she had a class wear black shorts and matching studio-logo tank tops that students already owned.

You can easily dress up your dancers’ classwear basics—black leotards, shorts and jazz pants—without altering them permanently. Start with all-black bodywear and add a big prop or accessory: a polka-dotted neck scarf, bright red satin gloves, glitter-covered top hat, sequined Mardi Gras mask or neon wig could do the trick. If the costume companies you’d usually count on for such accessories are tied up with spring recital orders, proceed to a local party- or theater-supply store. To order fabric in bulk and accessories such as hats, wigs or canes with a quick turnaround, King relies on Theatre House, a theater-supply catalog that can often ship orders by the morning of the next business day.

Another economical option is to buy a bolt of flowy fabric and let each of your dancers layer, drape and tie it over a leotard or unitard. Designs are limited only by their imagination: Sheer fabric can be worn toga-style, tied at the shoulder and belted at the waist with a ribbon; no-sew sarong skirts can be made by cutting a large triangle out of no-fray fabric; and thinly cut strips can be wrapped around legs and arms for a wild, twisted look.

Check out your library or local bookstore for craft books offering design inspiration. For DIY tricks like transforming an old sweater into legwarmers and gauntlets, or a T-shirt into a punk-rocker top or elegant halter, look for these titles: Generation T: 108 Ways to Transform a T-Shirt, by Megan Nicolay; 99 Ways to Cut, Sew, Trim, and Tie Your T-Shirt into Something Special, by Faith Blakeney, Justina Blakeney, Anka Livakovic and Ellen Schultz; and Second-Time Cool: The Art of Chopping Up a Sweater, by Anna-Stina Linden Ivarsson, Katarina Brieditis and Katarina Evans.

Start Shopping
If you don’t have the lead time, helping hands or creative energy to go the DIY route, look to local retail outlets for inexpensive costume possibilities you can bring home the same day.

The sleepwear/intimate apparel department at big-box discount stores can be a great starting place for inexpensive lyrical and modern costumes: Modest slips can double as dresses, while satin pajama pants can be slipped over a leotard. If you can’t find all the sizes and colors you need at one location, ask an employee to locate the remaining garments at nearby stores and designate parent volunteers to pick them up.

One of Sampson-Dalena’s teachers often finds costume pieces at discount stores like Marshalls and T.J. Maxx. “She always manages to find really cool things . . . and it’s always cheaper,” says Sampson-Dalena. Mall stores that serve the teen market—Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, H&M, Deb and Rave, to name a few—often stock large quantities of low-priced trendy garments. Sparkly tops meant for a night out on the town can pair with black jazz pants; bright mini-skirts can be layered over your dancer’s own leotards and capri tights; chain belts can give a solid unitard extra pizzazz.

Raid Your Dancers’ Closets
“Not everybody has to be dressed alike,” says King. Going for an individual look can take off the pressure to find identical garments for a class of 20—and it lets your dancers showcase their personalities.

If you’re doing a casual jazz, tap or hip-hop routine, look to your students’ closets for inspiration. Ten years ago, most dancers wouldn’t have dreamed of taking the stage in their blue jeans; now, however, almost all jeans are made with some Lycra for extra stretch. Start with jeans and have your dancers layer on their own colorful tanks, T-shirts and jackets. Consider introducing one unifying element, like visors in the same color or a bandanna each dancer can tie anywhere on her outfit.

Another option is to choose a color theme—black and red, or pink and turquoise, for example—and have your dancers put together new outfits using their own costume pieces, street clothes and accessories. Host a “costume call” day at the studio when dancers bring possibilities from home and help each other put their outfits together.

Losing your costumes may feel like the end of the world. But with a little ingenuity and elbow grease, you’ll be able to turn any costume catastrophe into a cause for celebration. DT

Lisa Arnett is the Midwest editor of Dance Spirit magazine and a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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