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Should Award Shows Provide Inspiration for Dance Costume Designs?

Posted by Deborah Nelson on Tue, Feb 26, 2008 @ 12:02 PM

© Deborah J. Nelson/Satin Stitches Ltd.

You are in charge, or heading the committee to come up with a design for your dance team routine for your studio or high school. You plan on working with a costume company, but you need inspiration before you book your appointment. You know that if you arrive with a blank slate, who knows what might happen! What do you do? Where do you look for inspiration for costume ideas?


Are watching the Oscars, People’s Choice Awards or the Grammys useful? I think so! Sometimes these shows include dance and performance sequences, but I find lots of visual stimulation and inspiration from the gowns worn by the stars. Colors, fabrics and shapes can be emulated especially in lyrical costumes. Details can be simulated in jazzy solo or group costumes. Over-the-top Red Carpet dressing can influence your Broadway tap styles!

Did you watch any inspirational television this last week? Most of my television viewing, besides some current events news shows, are fashion or costume oriented. Of course I watched the Academy Awards Sunday evening, preceded by the Red Carpet shows to get the first views of all the glamorous gowns and dapper mens tuxedo ensembles. I also watched some American Idol, the finals of Dance Wars, Project Runway, What Not to Wear, and several editions of Entertainment Tonight on my big screen TV. Who says it is only for football? I also watched two more of the nominated movies prior to the awards show, to be more knowledgeable in regards to the winners. Elizabeth-The Golden Age, with incredible costumes by the Oscar winner Alexandra Byrne, and a very depressing yet fabulously acted La Vie en Rose which was also up for costume design. OK, I also admit to watching Lipstick Jungle for some fashionable fun this week.

All of these visuals are background information for a costume designer. Being a professional costume designer for Satin Stitches, I am always on the lookout for inspiration. More visual treats this coming week will be watching all the Red Carpet-rehash shows to see which gowns are picked by TV fashionistas, as the pics and the pans. Personally, I agree with the initial overview that most of the gowns were safe, as in boring, but generally most were attractive. I loved Jessica Alba’s and Anne Hathaway’s dresses, to name a few. I hated Cameron Diaz in her pink dress and Tilda Swinton appeared to wear a homemade black gown. Both could have picked something much better.

Many of our clients arrive with this proverbial blank slate when they come to work out a design for costumes, or our out-of-towners email a request for costume ideas. Wow. Starting with nothing, this is a very difficult task. We have to dig deep, with many questions to these clients, to try and figure out what they want. If they KNOW what they want, but do not feel they have the talent to draw it out, this is relatively easy. But if they really have NO IDEA what they really want, it can take a very long time to figure out that perfect costume design!

So, please do your homework, as I have already done mine. What do I mean by this? Well, as a costume design professional, I have a vast background of images in my head, of colors, shapes, fabrics and looks. Because I have a degree in fashion design, from an art college, not only did I receive lots of exposure to current, OK, current 30 plus years ago, fashions, but I also studied color theory and everything that goes along with the history of drawing, painting, sculpture with some graphics and film thrown in for good measure. I was constantly bombarded with the rules and examples of proper proportion, perspective and aesthetically pleasing images of all sorts. Four years at an art college instills creativity and history, along with all the specific fashion design training.

I have a personal library of nearly 200 books, and scores of videos and dvds, on all types of subjects, including historical fashion designers and eras, photos of costumes from movies and Broadway shows, sewing techniques and technical information and museum show catalogs. I also have scores of videos and dvds of old movies of all types that showcase historic fashion and period costumes. I refer to these books whenever I get the chance, to refresh my images of an era or a style. If you are continually involved with design decisions, I highly recommend starting a book and dvd reference collection yourself.

Just this last week, a prospective client requested an estimate for costumes for a group that will be dancing to the music of Cole Porter’s Night and Day musical from the thirties and forties, but really based more on the 1956 movie titled Anything Goes, starring Mitzi Gaynor. The costumes this client had in mind, were showgirl costumes designed by the famed movie costume designer, Edith Head. I have now acquired this movie musical and have a new visual reference for my collection.

There are many other places to look for inspiration for dance costumes. Besides wonderful historic fashions in old movies and stylish cutting edge current styles in new movies and television shows, take note of figure skating competitions, your local and regional dance competitions, your local departments stores and boutiques, fashion magazines of all types, Broadway and community theater productions. Prom and wedding fashions can be inspirational for lyrical costumes. I view museum costume collections whenever possible. We have the Goldstein Gallery here in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, but my New York favorites are the Costume Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Costume Galleries at F.I.T. Your big city may have a costume gallery in conjunction with your art museum. Online, you can view costumes on other dance teams and NBA and NFL cheer teams, along with sneaking a peak at all the national catalog dancewear companies, to see what they are showcasing. I am a member of the international fashion organization, Fashion Group. We recently toured the Costume Rental warehouse of the costumes of the Guthrie and Children’s Theater, here in Minneapolis, and were able to see years of stage costumes, on storage racks. VERY inspirational! Because of Satin Stitches, I am able to attend fabric and trim tradeshows and am always inspired by the new fabrics and trims that are available. You can do the same thing, by stopping by your local fabric store and searching online for costume fabrics and trims.

All of these costumes and fashions can serve as inspiration for your ideas for costume designs. To zero in on ideas, once you know what music is being used for your dance routine, and what style of dance is planned, you can then start to brainstorm what colors and shapes you want to use in your costumes. Then your imagination needs to start flowing, based on looking at some suitable visual inspirations. Let your creative juices flow, and start to put down on paper, the images that start to float around in your head! Ask others for ideas and to critique what you come up with. Think of the pros and the cons of the colors, fabrics and shapes you choose. Then go, open minded to talk with your costume professional, to help finalize what you would like to create for your costumes. If these professionals are any good, they will be able to expand and offer additional ideas for you, based on what you bring in, to help create truly inspired costume designs.

So do not dismiss all of your pop culture television viewing as a guilty pleasure, waste of time. These shows may truly inspire!

Tags: Costume Design Tips


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