Costuming Your First Act

Today’s post is inspired by the ladies currently on the Bluestocking Lounge advance burlesque course. We are at the stage where talk of costume and act theme is important and the look of panic over budgets and general ‘how’, ‘what’ and ‘jesus christ! how the hell can I costume my act on a budget…’ has got our fingers typing! 

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Firstly, decide on the theme…

Sounds simple but it’s the first thing to consider when costuming your act. Where is your act set? If it’s set on say, a beach, what will you be wearing (chances are you will not be wearing gloves and a corset!)? what era is it – modern, vintage or historical? These are all things to take into consideration when creating the look and feel of your act with costume. Your costume (and your huge stage presence!) is what the audience will see first and will set the tone of what you are about to do.

Make a list of everything you want to take off during your act… 

Also sounds very obvious, but you need a list. Remember that usually, every layer you peel off will reveal an even more fabulous / naughty / shocking / funny item underneath, or might even reveal something to do with a punchline. Think clever. Also remember you do not have to wear everything – you may have been taught in lessons how to remove stockings / corset / bra but if you don’t want to wear any of these things in your act, you do not have to. If you don’t want to wear a bra as well as a corset, don’t wear one. If you don’t want to wear gloves – who dictates you must wear them to be ‘burlesque’? No one. The best costumes are things that are unexpected and come off or break apart in an interesting way.

Do: 

  • Think about what is crucial to the look of your act and choreography…
  • Second guess everything before settling on the item and try out how you would remove it (and how much time it would take to creatively remove it) – do you really need it? Is it going to set the tone or character?
  • Remember that some of the best and most imaginative costumes need not cost as fortune, but when seeing them on stage, the magic is priceless – we’re thinking a bikini covered with inexpensive broken up jewelry parts, covered with a simple ‘grecian’ dress made up of just a length of chiffon held in place with a belt. The chiffon then becomes a veil which can skillfully be used as choreography, and nothing beats confidence, a beautiful strong and engaged posture and bump and grind moves to die for in just a bikini! (plus you won’t have to lug around a massive case!)
  • Make a budget and stick to it – no point in breaking the bank on a costume that will cost more than a wedding dress!
  • Remember that costume can be up-graded as you go on – costume pieces can be replaced, added to or changed for better models the more you do your act.
  • be creative! Think outside the box and look everywhere for something original (car boot sales, chazza shops and ebay).

Don’t:

  • Have all the costume pieces in the world and just spend the length of your act taking one item off after another. As tempting as it is to fill the music with a list of costume pieces (especially if this is your first act and you are nervous about not filling the track), this will not make the act.
  • Think you have to costume to the standard of Dita and other top level performers. Especially if you are just starting out.
  • Grab something cheap and nasty from a fancy dress shop. Those things, as well as being flammable and cheap and nasty looking (hence making your act look cheap) are easily recognisable as fancy dress which anyone can buy and are the quickest way to looking amateur. They look terrible under the lights, even going transparent depending on where the theatre lighting is.

Must haves:

All costumes have a staple item – that will probably be your choice of pants. We cannot say this strongly enough – do not use cheap (Primark and other) pants as your show pants! Remember you are creating a story, your are taking the audience on a journey and as we said above, every layer should be more fabulous than the one you just removed. Cheap pants are not going to cut it. We recommend bikini bottoms (all styles, from thong to tie sided – great if you are going to remove to a merkin – and yes, Primark will do the trick for those on a budget when it comes to bikinis), velvet pants/thongs, and specially made show pants (Daisy Cutter does some ace ones!). You may be asking what the hell we’ve got against cheap pants? what have they ever done to us? Well, we’ll tell you – cheap pants are made of cheap fabric. cheap fabric shows EVERYTHING that you might not want on show (Beetle bonnets, etc…). If you are unlucky enough to be snapped in cheap pants – even black cheap pants, they will become invisible. You may as well be naked… Also, why spend all your time and effort embellishing cheap pants that are just going to get knackered after one wash? Embellish some sturdy pants or bikini bottoms instead. And pasties – if you are going to reveal. You can buy pasties with a tassel on or off – again it’s up to you if you will be tasselling or having a ‘pastie punchline’ in your act.

Your essentials:

  • Safety pants – a nude thong or G string with invisible panty line that will create a smooth line under pants, protect against ‘lip slip’ and in general keep show pants more hygienic (forget this essential if you are wearing a merkin)
  • Nude fishnet tights or stockings – again, creates a professional image on stage. Wear under show pants, cut off the waistband to prevent nasty cutting in lines.
  • Pasties

What you can get on a budget

Bluechristmas_lillyQueenofswordschin_GreatbigshowoffRemember what we said above about being on a budget? Remember you really don’t have to spend a lot on costume. The dress on the left is just two rectangles of taffeta, held together over the shoulders with press studs sewn 20cm in from each corner and cinched in at the waist with a wide belt.

Can you sew?

If you can, you will save £ss on ready made items. You can make a shimmy set (bra and a belt) for under a tenner with some fringing and sequins. Here are some examples – all made for under £15! Pic 1 is a cheap bra from Primark (balcony bra, £4) with straps cut off and changed to ribbon (50p), fringing sewn across top and bottom of band (£2) and a pack of sequin bits from a quid shop sewn on the cups (yes, it took hours but worth it!) cost = £7.50. Pic 2 is a velvet bra (£5 from Primark) a strip of velvet fabric (£1 off cut) roll of pearl christmas bead decoration (£1 quid shop) fringing bought from a seller on ebay (£3 inc postage) and 100 black rhinestones (£3), black velvet thong (£2) cost = £15. Pic 3 is a sequin bra (£5 Primark), 6m fringing (£6) 1m of sequin ribbon 3″ (£2) sewn to any old stiff fabric that I had lying around cost = £13.

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The golden rule here is patience. And you can easily cover bras with a base fabric to match your costumes – here’s one I did earlier! Bra with band and straps cut off (made tie-on straps and band) covered with tribal looking jewelry broken apart, chain-mail style belts cut up with plyers and some brocade ribbon. Total cost of bra and belt – under £20.

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There’s another golden rule. NEVER GLUE! and that goes for embellishments, fringing, fabric – anything you want to put on your costume (aside from rhinestones, which are glued!), especially if you are going to be attaching it to underwear. Glue stains look very ‘unfortunate’ on underwear under the lights (jizz… need we say more).

Fabric can be bought very cheaply from ebay or even in charity shops in the ‘bedding’ section – furnishings such as velvet curtains, etc, look great made up into costumes. Also, if you can’t sew from scractch but are Medusa_with_snakesgood at customising, look at what you can adapt. check out ebay for second hand items, eg oversized clothes / sequin items that you can adapt. buy dresses in a size or two bigger so you can add press studs or magnets to break apart, darts at the back and under the bust to create hour glass shapes, upside down open-ended zips on figure hugging dresses and skirts to expose more and more leg the higher you zip (you will have more control with an upside down open ended zip as the last bit to undo will be the waist – pop a tassel through the Zip eye so you can find it without looking when on stage). Trousers bought in a larger size, cut down the side seams and sew in popper tape (much quicker than sewing individual poppers and less messy, noisy and stiff than velcro) for trousers that rip off!  You get the idea!  The dress above was based on a gold dress bought on ebay and with a bit of chiffon fabric overlayer, gold trim and a few snakes from toys R us sprayed gold and attached to some leaf and fruit garland to make a headdress, this became medusa (for a living statue – she sprayed it with stone flocking and matched her make up).

Think about how things will break away – do arms rip off, does a dress hem come away leaving a mini skirt? Does a top or dress secretly open at the back with popper tape and come off forward? All things to think about. Think also about fastening with press studs, magnets and ribbons (never velcro – to messy, noisy, scratchy and there’s a risk of it catching on other costume pieces)

comeFly_DNAPhotography_LillyLaudanumRailsIf you can’t sew there are plenty of options – look out for wrap skirts, dresses with big necklines to roll out of, big buttons to undo… (all the costume to the left was bought second hand and cost less than a tenner but fitted the act’s trainspotter theme). Look for how an item already fastens up – Zips are good, as are press studs. Ask yourself if they fit to your theme – some of the most authentic costumes we’ve seen have been second hand clothes! Remember, it is how you wear them on stage that is important. Wearing with confidence! Also, remember, you don’t really need to do all the buttons up as you would normally… eg, blouses – for easy removal, just do up every other button! If you are using actual clothes remember to cut the labels out. There’s nothing more distracting than seeing a label peeking out!

To sum up, here’s a few key things to remember: 

  • Ebay is your friend
  • Be creative, think outside the box for what you can customise, and how an item will come off. The more unexpected, the more impressed the audience will be – even if it’s an everyday item they see! an unexpected removal of an ordinary item of clothing is much more impressive than a fully rhinestoned costume taken off in a predictable way
  • Never glue items!
  • Load up on cheap and interesting jewelry pieces whenever you see them – you can wear as much jewelry as you like on stage to liven up a costume, you can also break it apart to make embellishments, head dresses, etc.
  • Cut out labels
  • Customise, cut and add your own personality to items
  • Make sure items fit the theme of your act
  • You don’t have to remove all the bits of costume you think you should have – make a list of the essentials for your act.
  • Budget and stick to it.
  • Your act should be bigger than your costume – by this we mean you need to be more than just a great costume on stage! Make sure you know your act inside out and you own the costume and stage – rather than the costume owning you! Be remembered for the act and not just the costume…
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