Creating the Perfect Dance Costume
Whether a dance student is four or forty, the rite of donning a costume for their annual concert is a special one… but, as any dance teacher knows, finding or designing the perfect costume isn’t easy.
Nina Levy spoke to costumier Emma Macmillan, who studied costume production and design at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and has been designing costumes for dance concerts since she graduated back in 2000.
Find out from an industry expert what it takes to create a fabulous dance concert costume.
A material world
If you’re making costumes from scratch, here’s a handy checklist of things to consider when choosing fabric:
Wash and wear
“You want fabrics that are durable, and generally you want something that’s easy to clean, although not always as certain fabrics are dry-clean only. But if you’ve got a choice, you want something that’s wash-and-wear and that’s also colour-fast” suggests Macmillan.
“You also want to avoid things that might be itchy. I tend to avoid wool and linen and silk. I use cotton a lot but synthetic fibres are usually more robust.”
Fabric dances too
“You need to think about how the fabric moves and how you need it to move,” says Macmillan.
Some fabrics become static in combination with other fabrics. If you’re combining a leotard and skirt, you want to know that the skirt is not going to stick to the leotard. That applies to undergarments too – you need to consider whether the dancer is wearing tights or not and how that will interact with the fabric of the costume.”
Colour your world
“Colour is what creates a mood, so it’s your first port of call when you’re trying to create a feeling,” remarks Macmillan.
“Bold colour is better because on stage colours tend to get washed out and look paler under the lights. I also suggest upping the contrast between colours because if you go for a subtler difference it may get lost under the lights. It’s a good idea to test colours in different lighting to see what it will look like.”
Under the spotlight
Colour isn’t the only factor that you should consider in relation to lighting. “Some fabrics reflect light really well and some absorb light,” Macmillan explains. “Some fabrics become transparent when lit. What seems like a perfectly normal jersey can become almost completely see-through when you back-light it.
“I like to choose fabrics that have a bit of texture to them because, even if that texture is not going to be visible from a distance, it gives the light more angles to bounce off. A lot of the time something like a brocade, that has an inbuilt texture, will maintain its colour better than something smooth, like a satin.”
“You don’t want anything that’s going to be a hazard, such as fabrics that have beads and sequins incorporated into them,” warns Macmillan. “Unless they’re sewn on really well, they can fall off. The worst thing that can happen is if beads fall off on stage and then a dancer steps on them and slips.”
Other things to consider……
Knowledge is power
“While your costume designer doesn’t have to be dance-trained, it’s important that they have some knowledge of the style being performed,” says Macmillan. “The style of movement for each different dance style varies so, it’s important to understand not just that the dancer can move in the costume, but that they can move in the way that they need to.”
TIP: If your students are performing traditional styles, such as classical ballet, it’s also important that the person designing the costume has a knowledge of the look of that genre so that the silhouette of the costumes reads correctly.
From the silhouette
The silhouette of a costume is what makes the first impression on the audience. “When choosing a pattern or shape, remember that, from a distance, the silhouette needs to read as a certain shape,” advises Macmillan.
“I like to think about proportions,” she continues. “Dance is about creating shapes and lines with your body, so you want to keep the body in proportion and accentuate those lines.
TIP: “Remember subtle differences get lost, so you have to be bolder, more defined than if you were making something to be worn down the street.”
Flattering different body types
Macmillan’s advice about managing a diverse range of body types may surprise readers, but it’s good news. “I actually think that the normal rules about what different bodies should wear don’t apply for stage,” she remarks. “Having a group of students all dressed the same has a really unifying effect, even if there are a variety of different sizes and shapes involved.
TIP: Make sure that you stick with good proportions, and that everyone’s wearing an appropriate size that fits them properly.”
The bells and whistles
“Make sure any accessories are able to be well secured,” recommends Macmillan. “That’s about safety but it’s also about the performance – if someone’s hair clip or earring falls off, the audience members spend most of their time watching that rather than the performance.
“Try not to make accessories too heavy – you want stuff that’s not going to inhibit movement. And avoid accessories that are complicated to put on – if there’s something confusing, guaranteed there’ll be one kid who comes on stage with it the wrong way around.
TIP: “Be careful with hats because they make shadows on faces.”
Complied by Nina Levy, Co-editor of Dance Australia.
Bloch would like to thank Emma Macmillan for her contribution to this article.
Emma is based in Perth and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org