Costumes are so lovely, yet only studio owners realize the hard work, hassles and headaches that lie beneath those innocent sequins. While there is no way to satisfy every student or assure every costume will fit, staying organized, ordering early and choosing costume companies wisely can go a long way toward streamlining the process.
Get a Head Start
“Forty years ago, you could call up a costume company in March and tell them what you needed for April,” recalls Dawn Crafton, of the Dawn Crafton Dance Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “Now, every single year, it gets earlier and earlier.
A studio owner for 55 years, Crafton starts thinking about next year’s costumes before the year ends and orders by mid-December. Owner Nikki Calder, of Top Hat Talent Performing Arts Studio in Oklahoma City, plans even earlier. Last year, she ordered the costumes for her recreational students by the first week in December. Everything had arrived by the end of January, well in advance of April picture day and the May recital.
Studios that order before Christmas tend to get their costumes more quickly, giving them ample time to handle mistakes or wrong sizes. In addition, there are often incentives or discounts provided by manufacturers for those who order by a certain deadline. Watch those delivery dates, warn experts. Sometimes a delay of even a day or two in placing an order will push a delivery back by several weeks.
A company might have a super selection or quality, but only those that deliver on time and with good customer service get repeat business from Backstage Dance Studio in Bellevue, Washington. Office manager Melyssa Noren says she stopped doing business with one vendor for 15 years. “We loved the product, but they had manufacturing issues,” she explains. “With 600 kids, however, we finally decided we needed the variety they offered. Over time, they worked out those issues, so we invited them back.”
Two years ago, Patricia Pesca Santillo of Patricia’s School of Dance in Wallingford, Connecticut, lost $1,500 after an order of hip-hop costumes never arrived, and her phone calls to the company went unanswered. “You have to be careful,” she says.
Now, despite the hundreds of catalogs that arrive in the mail, Santillo limits her choices to six to eight reliable companies, while Noren uses five and Calder, three or four.
Keep Decision-Making Simple
When it comes to costume selection, studio owners say it’s important to limit the number of people involved in the decision. Crafton, for example, selects all costumes herself, based on the instructors’ color and style suggestions. Others allow teachers to choose for their individual classes, within a certain price range.
Costume books—and especially price lists—should be strictly off-limits to parents. At Backstage Dance, where parents once tried to find out the name of the costume company with the intention of calling to “get the costume for less themselves,” catalogs are not allowed out of the teachers’ room. Santillo, whose studio parents also demanded to see the costume books, makes ordering a staff-only decision as well. “The most important thing I have learned is to keep the parents out of it,” she says. “You never know what people will do.”
Once decisions are made, you can download pictures of the costumes from the internet or tear them out of catalogs and hang them in the lobby for the entire studio to view.
Crafton recalls ordering two sets of costumes for one class, and despite having the same measurements, nothing fit. To combat this, Santillo recommends adding two inches to hip, waist and bust measurements, and four inches to girth, to allow for growth. “I’ve never had a costume that was too big to wear,” she says.
Backstage Dance’s Noren hangs instructional posters in the studio and makes measuring the parents’ responsibility. “That way, we’re not to blame if the costume doesn’t fit,” she says.
Establish Personal Relationships
Top Hat works closely with one of its manufacturers to personalize costumes for the studio’s 100-member competition team. Calder initiated the close working relationship after several years of ordering from the catalog. Now, company reps drive three hours to the studio each July to discuss designs and fabric swatches.
Since many costume companies are small, the owner or designer is often easily accessible. Crafton advises finding out who to talk to, then directing all questions or problems to that person only. “Rather than pushing numbers forever, I like to push an extension and talk to Margie—it’s so much better,” she says.
Account for Time, Cost and Loss
After spending hours measuring, poring over catalogs, ordering, sorting through boxes and trouble-shooting, don’t be afraid to fairly compensate yourself for the time and effort. Crafton builds all of these duties, plus her expenses from traveling to conventions each year to feel fabrics and gauge quality, into the price of her “performance package,” which includes costume, accessories, a recital T-shirt, recital DVD, CD of practice music and class picture. All of her students pay the same price.
Other studios charge on a sliding scale based on size, as most costume companies charge $5 or $10 less for a small child’s costume than for a small adult’s. At Backstage, fees run between $45 and $60, and teachers must choose costumes that cost about $10 less. The leftover is used to offset staff hours spent on costumes, along with shipping costs and other related expenses. “We really don’t make anything on costumes,” Noren says.
At Top Hat, no matter the size, all recreational student costumes are $55, and teachers must select costumes that meet that cost. Sticking to the budget can be tough, Calder admits, but everyone is encouraged to customize costumes by using the sequined belts, boas, ribbons and rhinestones in the studio’s sizable accessories closet.
While payment methods vary (from one payment due early in the season to smaller deposits split over several months), all money is generally due in full before orders go in. But faced with struggling parents and the fear of disappointing a child, all studios say they have been left with unpaid costumes in hand after students quit, moved or just disappeared.
Rather than bemoaning the loss, Calder takes leftover costumes down the road to a children’s home. “We lose money,” she says, “but most our kids don’t want for anything, and those kids have so little.” DT
Karen White is a freelance journalist and longtime dance instructor in Taunton, MA.