I'm back again with another blog sharing the pearls of my questionable wisdom with newcomer performers in preparation for teaching my own burlesque course Drama Queens Burlesque
In this blog I am going to look at costuming. When I first started performing burlesque I could just about thread a needle. Once I tried to make a skirt from a pattern; it was an unmitigated disaster and I spent half the time having to look up what sewing terms like 'baste' meant. Now, seven years on, I'm still not good at making garments from scratch, but in the course of creating costumes for my burlesque performances I have picked up a few tricks and skills that makes customising pre-made items easier.
So, wading straight in, here are my ten burlesque costume tips that even non-sewers can use.
1. Wear shoes you can dance in.
It's been said by many performers greater and more experienced than I am, but it still bears repeating: wear a pair of shoes in which you can comfortably perform your act. We've all tried on the beautiful pair of shoes that would look fantastic with the costume items you have gathered, but which make us move like Bambi after one too many cocktails. When your nerves kick in, and you're on a stage that may have an unexpected surface (glossy, uneven, covered in glitter from the last turn) you'll wish you wore something more sensible and you'll end up having to hold back on your performance or risk taking a spill.
A lot of performers would advocate proper dance shoes as they are stable and fit for purpose, but everybody is different and you might find you move best in stripper heels or in a particularly well fitting pair of street shoes, and don't forget, you can always customise them with beads, rhinestones or trims to make them as pretty as that other pair that kept threatening to slip off your feet.
2. Consider Striptease-ease.
If you are doing a striptease based act, you'll want to think about how you remove your costume items and how you can make it easier for yourself. Back in my early days of performing I tended to keep the original fastenings on all of my costumes and it wasn't a huge problem, but as I started wanting to perform particular movements or remove items in certain ways it became necessary to start fiddling with fastenings and considering ease of striptease. A move such as taking off a bra one-handed is a skill that only the very dexterous (and well practised teenage boys!) can easily achieve with the average hook and eye fasteners, but by sewing in a couple of large, strong poppers in their place you can easily pop the bra open with a quick flick of the fingers. Similarly, removing a dress with a zip down the back can leave a lass looking a bit like an escapologist but by adding a long ribbon or chain you can unzip with ease.
By changing or customising fastenings or closures you can ensure that you never (well, hardly ever) get stuck in your costume, and that you can remove items in the style that works best for your particular act.
3. Be aware of the stretch.
For sewers, this will be a case of stating the obvious; for me, it was not. When you are sewing trims onto a stretchy item (especially pants) you will need to have the item stretched out when you do the sewing. See, I told you it was obvious, but it was something I had to learn the hard way! If you sew trims onto a pair of knickers (or any stretchy items) ideally you should use a mannequin in your size to ensure that they will still fit you when the trims are on. However, not everybody has a mannequin just lying around the homestead, I only just got one last year and that was only because I found one at the car boot going for a couple of quid! If you can't justify investing in a mannequin there are a couple of low cost ways you can get the stretch into your undies when you sew. If you're crafty and motivated there are several online tutorials that show you how to make a cheap, homemade mannequin. If you haven't the time or inclination to make your own mannequin you can use the back of a chair to stretch your panties over. It may not give you quite as even a stretch but I have trimmed many a pair of undies that way and it still works fine!
4. Use trims that are kind to non-sewers.
If you haven't really sewed before, some types of trim are kinder than others when it comes to customising pre-made items. Trims with a textured appearance such as marabou, broderie anglaise, frilly lace and feather boas will hide a mutitude of sewing sins such as large, uneven or meandering stitches or visible knots. Trims such as smooth shiny ribbon are a bit more tricky as they will show up your sewing imperfections more clearly.
It is also easier to work with trims that don't fray or unravel. When you first begin customising costumes, fabrics or trims that fray can be a real pain to work with, (again, shiny ribbon, I'm looking at you!) so you may want to avoid them, but if you have fallen in love with a particular fray-prone fabric pick yourself up a bottle of fray-block (I think the branded version is called Fray Away) and it will make your life much easier.
5. Research far and wide.
When researching costume ideas, don't think you only need to look at
other burlesque performers for inspiration. That's just the start of it!
You can get costume ideas from literally anywhere: films, music videos,
TV, paintings, comics, cartoons, street clothes, high fashion, drag,
stage plays and musicals. You may find gems, not just in terms of how
your costumes should look, but perhaps also how you could make certain
items or how they might work.
For my Jackalope costume I took
inspiration for my wig design from a shoot from America's Next Top
Model, which starred my favourite contestant, Allison. Above is her image and me in my wig.
6. Don't be put off from Primark
From time to time, there is talk in the burlesque community about whether it is acceptable for newcomer performers to perform in Primark underwear items as part of their costume (for anyone reading from outside the UK, Primark is a low price, value clothing chain). Certain people get a little snitty about performers in good old Primarni and it has become something of a shorthand for shoddy, lazy costuming. However, the problem, in my book, is not Primark, but the lack of effort some newcomers (me included, when I began) put into costuming. In an earlier blog I mentioned the importance of customising your costume underwear and I think this is equally important if you undies are from Primark as if they are from Agent Provocateur. So don't be scared off from buying base pieces from Primark or other budget shops, as long as you pimp them out and make them fabulous. You'd be surprised how many performers use budget priced bras and knickers and then customise the bejeezus out of them!
7. Appliques are your friends.
For years as a newer performer I marvelled and envied over more experienced performers' costumes and the beautiful detailed embellishments they had on them. I puzzled to myself, how had they made these beautiful, beaded, glittering patterns on their bras, corset and pants. I just couldn't envisage how to replicate these techniques, and then one day it clicked into place. Appliques! Often when you're looking at a beautiful piece of lace, beading or sequin work you're actually looking at an applique which has been added as one piece to a costume. The image above is one cup of the bra for my Emotional Strip costume and all the sequin and bead business is a one piece applique. Appliques are brilliant because you can add some really striking embellishment to a costume without needing to have much in the way of sewing skills. In fact, you don't really need to be able to sew at all because even if you can't make a stitch you could hot glue an applique on, assuming that the base material for the garment will take the glue.
You can buy appliques from haberdashers, online stores and Ebay or you could make your own. When I made my Jackalope costume I bought some pretty embroidered bridal lace and used this to make appliques to sew onto my corset. All I did was cut out the bits of embroidery I wanted, painted the edges with my trusty Fray Block (see point 4) and sewed them on. For those of you who are nifty with a needle and thread you could even have a go at making sequined or beaded appliques from scratch to save some pennies, that way you can try out beading ideas but if you make a mistake you haven't damaged your bra or corset.
8. Resist the rhinestone obsession.
Behold! A photo of what happens if you get silly about rhinestones. I bought these shoes back in 2006, sprayed them silver and then began covering them with hot fix rhinestones for a fan dance costume. It was a project I would never finish.
It's so easy to get sucked in. When I first got into burlesque I kept hearing about how embellishment with rhinetones, more specifically, Swarowski crystals, was the be all and end all of costume customisation. I totally bought into it, as did many of my peers. You'd be hard pressed to find a burlesque performer (especially one who started in the mid 2000s) who does not own, somewhere in their fortress of glitter, a hot fix rhinestoning tool and several (hundred) bags of hot fix, flat back crystals. But beware! Rhinestoning is fiddly, time consuming work and while it looks impressive, you have to ask yourself, is it the best use of your time? Would those shoes have looked any the worse for being painted and glittered, having appliques sewn on or being trimmed with ribbon and beads? Would I have actually got them finished?
I'm not slating rhinestones or crystals, nobody can deny that they look fabulous, but many beginner performers (myself included) think they will make an inexperienced or downmarket performance look expensive and in reality, that is not always the case. I'm not saying don't use rhinestones, but remember why you are doing this and, where possible, spend your time on making a great over all costume and, most importantly, on rehearsing. A little rhinestone detailing can still have a strong effect, perhaps stronger than having whole items entirely encrusted and audiences are generally more interested in your overall act than on how many rhinestones you have on your shoes.
9. Get to know the places to buy good (and inexpensive) trims.
Burlesque performers get their costume trims from a wide variety of different places and you will benefit from getting to know where you can pick up customisation kit in your local area. Online haberdashers and bead shops, as well as Ebay are a treasure trove and you have the convenience of shopping from the comfort of your living room, but in the real world, try your local markets, sewing shops and haberdasheries, charity and vintage shops and car boot sales. At Christmas, raid DIY and homeware stores for beaded chains, glittery ornaments and feathered birds and in early January you can pick up some fantastic bargains when they go out of season.
As well as made-for-purpose trims such as ribbons, lace and sequins you can also cannibalise jewellery, clothes and hair accessories as well as soft furnishing items. Taking apart a cheap necklace can provide you with beads or gems to embellish a bra, pulling flowers or feathers off hair bands and bobbles could perk up your pasties and lace removed from an old top could be added to your new costume. For this reason, keep your eye on clothing, jewellery and accessory shops and swoop in when they have a sale on.
10. Take a class.
You can do a lot as a non-sewer when it comes to burlesque costuming, but if you start wanting to create projects that require more than just a little practice you might want to take a class, and you'd be spoiled for choice!
Local colleges and groups often run dressmaking or sewing classes and these skills are transferable but you can also find burlesque specific sewing classes both ran by local institutions and by burlesque performers themselves. By learning with experienced seamstresses (especially those who specialise in burlesque costuming) you can work through your ideas and get guidance to help avoid mistakes.
I hope that my costuming titbits will be of interest to some of you out there, and will help beginner burlesquers out there as they venture into costuming their acts.
Until next time,