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Borrowing Design Ideas from Other Dance Costumes

Posted by Deborah Nelson on Wed, Apr 02, 2014 @ 18:04 PM

Deborah Nelson | Satin StitchesLast month I wrote about the pros and cons of borrowing/lending an actual dance costume. This month I’m going to talk about ‘borrowing’ ideas from other dancers.

What are the rules and/or ethics involved in ‘copying’ dance costume designs?

This isn’t something that is black or white. It is definitely one of those gray areas (or if you are British, it is a grey area). I’m sure you all have thought about it, in one way or another.

First of all, there have been court cases and lawsuits over the years, concerning possible copyright infringement or patent infringement with clothing and accessories. Rarely has any organization or individual ever prevailed with copyrighting clothing, and especially none with costumes. Sometimes there have been patents on the scientific manufacturing of garments.

There is copyrighting with the written word, printed or digital photos or films, and company logos. I have, in fact, a copyright for my Satin Stitches logo and my Satin Stitches Ltd. name. But I have never had a copyright for a particular dance costume design.

In the world of clothing, there really isn’t this same protection. As it has been explained to me, generally a piece of clothing isn’t copied exactly. Some aspect of a design may be used, but the entire garment is generally never copied verbatim. A feature may be incorporated into a new design, but who is to say that this ‘original’ feature was conceived for use on this original garment? Perhaps it was first created, decades ago. It is a well-known fact that fashion goes in cycles. “New” design details could have first been seen decades ago, and then forgotten about.

Clothing and costume design features have been used and reused over the decades.

They are tweaked by designers and dressmakers. I have personally come across this issue on occasion. I have seen that designs may state (on a company website, for example) that they are copyrighted or are patented. If they are patented, then yes, they are off limits (very few are). But I have not seen an actual case of bonafide copyrighting of a costume design. Perhaps a corporate logo was involved, which IS copyrighted. Design features of costumes are fair game for re-interpretation by others.

You may have heard of ‘bootlegged’ or ‘knock-offs’ of famous designers garments or accessories. The legal problem with these, is that the seller is trying to pass off the item as an ‘original’ Prada or Gucci etc. That is deception, and trades on the name of the original manufacturer or designer.

But, just because you can legally copy or ‘borrow’ a design feature, silhouette or concept, doesn’t make it OK, or the best plan. There are other ramifications besides actual legality or moral obligations.

Most importantly, you do not want to cause bad feelings by appearing in a dance costume that is nearly exactly like a co-competitor’s costume. No one wants to ‘see themselves’ on the performance dance floor if they have created a custom costume or gown for themselves (or for themselves). This is very bad taste. You shouldn’t do this.

It is said that copying is the sincerest form of flattery. And it is, as it means that someone really liked your costume. BUT, borrow or copy details from someone’s fabulous design, do NOT copy it exactly.

If you see a sleeve detail on a dance costume that you really like, you can incorporate it into your new design. But you need to consider a few things. Will you be directly competing with the person wearing this costume? Will your sleeves look like the original sleeves or will they be different. Is the design detail copied, but not the color or fabric? How would you personally feel about seeing a ‘borrowed’ detail from your costume, on someone else’s costume?

A design feature should ‘inspire’ a new design that may be reminiscent of the original design feature. You never want to show up with an exact or nearly exact copy of a dance costume, competing against that costume.

Can you recreate that costume, with changes, such as color or other changed features at an altogether different performance?

Yes. Use your common sense. Using a figure skating design detail on a ballroom gown is what I’m referring to here. Copying a design detail from a Red Carpet dress is perfect for a ballroom costume.

Many times costumes are created, and inadvertently they may appear to be a ‘copy’. At Satin Stitches, on occasion, we have created a custom team costume, based on our clients ‘wish list’ for design details. What we didn’t know, was that they were giving us details of a previously designed costume that they had seen. When others saw this new costume, they assumed that we copied the original. If you looked at the costumes side by side, you would see many differences, but without seeing them side by side, yes, even I would wonder if one was a ‘copy’ of the other. It may not have been done on purpose, but the result was the same. We do try to avoid this, but if we don’t know that our client is trying to copy another costume, we can only hope that we create something different and better.

You should take this in to consideration yourself, no matter how much you really like a particular style that you have seen and fallen in love with. The best way to consider your possible design? How would you feel if someone copied your costume that you spend lots of time conceiving it, expecting that you had something totally original and unique, only to find a copy the next time you competed?

In conclusion, ‘borrowing’ design features is natural and expected, but use your common sense to not borrow from those you will be dancing with or competing against. This is just bad form.

This article was submitted in the April 2014 issue of Minnesota Dancer

© Deborah J. Nelson/Satin Stitches Ltd.

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Tags: Costume Design Tips, Minnesota Dancer Magazine


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