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Is it usual for dancers to alter their own costumes?


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DD is a Merliton for her ballet school's Nutcracker, which runs this weekend. The costumes do not fit two of the three dancers. For several months, the girls have been told by the costume crew that they should NOT attempt to alter the costumes themselves, because the problems couldn't be solved by simple things like moving hooks.


At the first dress rehearsal, last Friday, the AD was very displeased about the costumes, and chastised the girls for not sewing them themselves. ("When we were dancing, we had to MAKE our own costumes. Our costumers have 150 costumes to look after, they are volunteers, and we can't expect them to do everything.") The girls were instructed to make the needed alterations (although not allowed to take the costumes home to do so).


Well ... my DD came home from the studio tonight hopping mad, because she'd spent quite a while sewing, and either because of her sewing skills or the way she'd been instructed to do it or possibly even because the costume is just too small (not clear which), the costume still doesn't fit. The bodice gapes in the back. DD is scared that the AD will yell at her tomorrow in the tech rehearsal if her costume comes apart. (It doesn't help, by the way, that if she has to go on as understudy in Spanish she will only have the length of Chinese to quick-change into this costume.)


My questions are: is it usual for kids to alter their own costumes? Not just sewing on straps, but making changes to the costume so it will fit. And what, if anything, should DD say or do if the AD does chew her out? (DD is 16.)

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  • Momof3darlings


  • Treefrog


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Are our kids at the same school? No, they're not but sounds similar. Our case it's the costume mistress wanting them to alter their own last minute.

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Those dancers are caught between a rock and a hard place due to lack of communication among the staff.


In answer to your question, no, dancers at my daughter's ballet school were not allowed to even THINK of taking a needle and thread to their own costumes unless they were doing so under the watchful eye of the one of the costume mistresses.

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I think it is a good idea that the students learn how to alter their costumes and do part of the costuming work. It just shouldn't be last minute and the necessary materials should be provided. Yes, dancers have needle and thread in their bags for just in case but if they are expected to do costuming that's a different matter.


There will be dancers who will go on to either have their own school or work at a school. Having costuming expirience will be very helpful for them. I can understand costumes not be allowed to go home but they should be made available so that the dancer can work on them at the school without interfering with classes or rehersals.

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While it is always a good idea for students to learn to sew, and knit, for that matter, the best costume mistresses/masters prefer that their department handle all the alterations, in order to preserve quality control, and to make sure that all the costumes appear as the costume designer has drawn, and the Artistic Director has approved. Among students this is less of a critical issue, but in some companies, you can get fined for altering or repairing a costume. Some dancers have even been fired for it.

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The larger schools or companies with a team of parents or paid workers generally do not allow students to touch the costumes for fixing. No director or costume mistress wants them to for obvious reasons. However, in smaller companies or where there is no costume staff it is not as uncommon as one might think to have students/parents fix straps and hooks. Those that do generally don't allow them off site to do that work. The problem here seems to be the miscommunication of it not being done and a costumer not telling the director there were still things to do instead of putting the kids and costumes in the middle of it.


I'm sure the dancer is/was upset but I'm hoping that in that upset both parent and dancer understand that even under the best of circumstances and with the best of pre-planning, the head costumer generally doesn't sleep the week (or two) prior to Nutz taking on all the things that other people didn't finish or dropped the ball on that makes what was a perfectly planned schedule not so anymore. So in the scheme of things, I can understand how hooks and straps (which are easy to fix and hard to mess up) would be something passed off last minute. So I do symphathize, I would have handled the kids differently, but I do symphathize.


Just in case: In regards to the gaping backs, it is either the placement of the hooks or that the costume is too small that is the problem. She may need more hooks placed closer together, or in a more zig-zag manner or a piece of same color fabric added to the back of the bodice for the bar part of the hooks but that is hidden from the audience by the way the hooks, hook themselves. If you end up really having to do it yourself, I can send you a picture in an email. It is really easy. (The real fix is letting out side seams, but since you originally couldn't sew on hooks, I'm assuming that would REALLY be off limits. :wink: )


With that said, a general note of how to handle this situation for the dancer today, is to have her go in early and speak to either the director or whomever they speak to (to avoid the director on tech day :shrug: ) so that they know before she hits the stage that she did try to fix it but it still needs work. The key is the everyone does in fact want the same thing, for the dancer to look marvelous on stage. Now to get everyone to pull together to make that happen.

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Ha ha ha ha - you believed people who told you that you wouldn't need to alter it?!!!!


On a serious note, it's easy to forget how totally swamped the wardrobe staff (paid OR volunteer) are, and how impossible it is for them to attend to non-emergency matters this close to the show. My DD is very handy with a needle and has always gone in, explained the problem briefly, explained her solution and then gone ahead with careful (and non-permanent) alterations. Don't MOVE hooks - simply add another set that makes the costume fit your DD. Don't cut out fabric, simply tack it inside so that it fits better. Make any hemming just a tack, rather than a finished seam. If you look at a professional company's costumes, you'll see rows and rows of tiny holes where seams have been tacked and untacked, and rows and rows of hooks and eyes so that every dance who wears it can fit. In the event that wardrobe is too touchy, or visibly too swamped to even hear you - go ahead and make careful changes in a manner that does not permanently affect the costume. DD, now that she has worked with many costume departments, can even do permanent changes such as repairing missing/broken beading, sequins and decorations. When she does so, she keeps all removed parts/pieces in a baggie, and provides them to the wardrobe mistress - with a brief explanatory note of repairs made, after the shows are over. If you have professional-level skills, you can do that type of thing. If not, make do, tack up anything hanging or about to fall off, and remember that from the audience, many of the things that look dreadful close up won't even be visible!

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and how impossible it is for them to attend to non-emergency matters this close to the show


Which is when the "squint" rule comes in. That being: if you can stand across a small living room with full lights on and windows open and squint and it still shows, fix it immediately. If you can't see it, you won't see it on stage on a moving dancer. All costumers try very hard not to use this rule as they know a perfect costume is important to the dancers, but in the last couple of days, the squint rule gets used often and rarely does anyone remember after the performance nor even notice during. :shrug:


A side note that a gaping bodice wouldn't pass the squint rule and would go into the immediate pile.

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Momof3, thanks for seeing beyond my vent to the practical question. I would love to have that picture, as there is a good chance I will end up doing some sewing myself this afternoon. (And I'm not particularly good with a needle and thread either ...) The current problem, according to DD, is not that the bodice is gaping -- DD says she was assigned a new bodice -- but that the hooks are still showing even after she moved them the way she was shown.


D1S1, I hear what you are saying, but I'm not sure what would constitute more of an emergency than three costumes that are totally wrong for the bodies assigned to them. We're not talking moving a couple of hooks for comfort; the hook-moving and strap-adding are last-minute kluges on bodices that are too small, too short, and the wrong shape. On top of this, two girls of vastly different sizes and shapes (think a very slim size 2 and a curvy size 6-8) are sharing a role, but no provision was made for different costumes. I really think this one falls squarely on the costumer -- who, by the way, is well-known for promising more than she delivers.


I asked DD if she wanted to let the director know she had worked on it, but that it still wasn't finished or fitting well. Her practical take was that effort didn't matter here; there's a performance, she needs a costume, and the main thing is to just get it done.

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Treefrog, I can send you the drawing but if it's not gaping, then that photo will most likely not help you. Can you explain a little more what you mean by hooks showing? With the hook, being the actual....... well hook, and the bar or eye being the flat part the hook goes to latch does she mean that the upper right of the bodice back flips back so the hooks are exposed and the bodice is not laying flat on her?


Just in case that is what you mean, she probably sewed the hooks through the two little o shapes but didn't sew underneath the hook section itself to give it more stability. In other words, the hook gets sewn down in three places not just two.

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Sorry, I haven't seen the bodice since last Friday (when I was trying to cram her into it in that 45-second change!). At that point, it was definitely gaping. She says the new bodice fits fine, and the problem is the hooks showing.


If I can get to the rehearsal before my call for party scene, I will check out how she sewed the hooks. That could very well be the problem, and it sounds like something I can fix easily. But just in case ... can you still send me the repair for gaping?

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When I've seen hooks showing it's either because the hooks were sewn where the bars should be and visa versa or the hooks were sewn to close to the outside edge of the lap and they stick out and the lap doesn't cover the bars either.

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Will the hooks be seen on stage, sitting in the audience? That what the dancers often heard, do not worry they will not notice it when you are on stage.

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First - I just want to say... what the heck is wrong with that wardrobe mistress? In our company - dancers are never EVER allowed to work on the costume UNLESS it is approved by me or the other wardrobe mistress - and we NEVER approve a dancer to alter a costume - ever.


I understand that she is probably a volunteer (me too) but it is her job to make sure that the dancers step on stage looking their best. And yes - I don't sleep the last couple of weeks before Nutcracker.


I know it's tough from year to year to make costumes fit different body types and quick changes are really challenging when costumes have "issues" but the AD should be yelling at the costume mistress - not the dancers.


We also operate on the 20 foot rule - if it doesn't show at that distance - no worries!

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