Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  March 27, 2015

Choreographed Costume – Clothing and Dance

All costumes for stage and screen are notoriously complex and detailed, but costumes for dance are virtually unique. Dance costumes, particularly those for ballet, must portray the vison of the designer but also allow for movement as the choreographer intends. They must be adjustable for multiple wearers and robust enough for an average life of 30 years.
When thinking of dance and movement, people often automatically assume stretch fabric – but this is not always the case. Most traditionally made dance costumes don’t use stretch materials at all.
The construction of traditional ballet costumes has not changed for decades. The delicate top fabrics, often silk, are mounted onto sturdy cotton backing – which assists in prolonging the life of the costumes and protects the top fabric from direct contact with perspiration. The seams on the main body of the costume are never encased, but instead are pressed open to allow for later alterations. Sleeves, bodices and skirts are often detachable to assist with cleaning and any potential adjustments.
Dance costumes must allow for future alterations but they also need to allow for the choreography. Costumes that are going to be worn by dancers who dance closely together must not have anything that could catch on the others’ costumes or bodies. On tutus there is no raised decoration around the waist as this could cut the male partner’s hands in pas de deux. Neither can there be any hanging trim nor open weave lace that might get caught.
Ballet costumes are not only about tutus. Ballet company costume departments all over the world are responsible for keeping alive techniques and continue to provide work for makers. Workshops still employ men’s and women’s tailors as well as pattern cutters, drapers, embellishers, paint and dye artists, milliners and shoe makers. This industry is keeping alive techniques that are no longer used in day-to-day fashion.
These costumes are time consuming and expensive to make, with a single tutu taking over 100 hours of work. In order to justify this expense costumes are normally required to have a life of up to 30 years, although this is not a period of continuous wear. Individual ballets performed as part of a Company’s repertoire may be revived every year, such as The Nutcracker, or every few years. This video describes the life of costumes at New York City Ballet.  

The wide seams and hook and bar fastenings, never zips or Velcro, allow for multiple wearers. In one production sometimes three or four corps de ballet (chorus) dancers will share the same costume over the course of the run. Multiple rows of bars can often be seen on the back of a costume to allow for this. These same costumes will then be reused when the production is next revived – new costumes are rarely made for each successive cast but are simply altered. The only exception to this would be if a costume needed to remade due to damage or if the production was being redesigned and remounted. The Australian Ballet mounted a completely new production of Swan Lake in 2012. This video explain the process.

Ballet costumes each contain labels with the production, character and dancer’s name – with each new dancer a new label is added, often right on top of the other. One of the first things a dancer normally does when being fitted is to look inside to see who wore this costume before them. Aspiring to wear a now famous dancer’s costume is a rite of passage – although to the rest of us it may just look like a tattered old costume.

By Caroline Hamilton, Costume Society Ambssador 2015

  • Costume for Juliet in construction at the National Ballet of Canada Image Credit: Caroline Hamilton
  • A very old label in an even older costume, Royal Opera House Image credit: Caroline Hamilton
  • Rows of hooks and bars Image Credit: Caroline Hamilton