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Dance Costume Fabrics: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Posted by Deborah Nelson on Mon, Nov 02, 2015 @ 10:11 AM

Anyone that has visited a fabric store should be aware that there are many different types of fabrics that may or may not be suitable for dance costumes. Many may think that if you are dancing a lyrical or ‘smooth ballroom’ routine, you will want to use non-stretch, woven fabrics, such as chiffon or satin. And if you are dancing a jazzy or Latin-style ballroom routine, you will be relagated to non-woven, stretch spandex fabrics. With all the multitude of types of fabrics currently available, this is no longer the case (it may have been more of a generality, years ago).

Dance costume fabrics. Dancing With the Stars fabric critique from Satin Stitches

It really depends on what type of costume you are wanting. Do you want sleek and body-hugging costume? Do you want floaty or bouffant? Do you want the look of a traditional evening gown that is danceable or the look of a daring, sexy costume? Once you decide the ‘character’ of your costume, this will guide your decision for what type of fabrics to use. And your budget is also a consideration.

The main two categories of fabrics are woven and non-woven. Woven fabrics generally don’t have any stretch to them, unless they are woven with a spandex fiber or if the fabrics are cut on the bias (which is when the length or width of a garment are cut at a diagonal to the edge or selvage of the fabric).

Non-woven fabrics include all types of knitted fabrics, which have a stretch to them. How much stretch is determined by many different factors. All you need to know is if the stretch is enough, or too much or too little for what you need. Some fabrics have stretch in all directions, and some only have stretch in one direction. You need to be aware of which type of stretch you have, in a particular fabric, and consider if it will work for the use you intend.

Some stretch is generally needed in any type of performance fabric because the best, most flattering look, is when the garments are cut ‘close to the body’ for sleekness (but not too close to allow for body buldges to show). Generally boxy-fitting garments are not very flattering, for anyone. If you cut (or fit) a garment to the exact measurements of your body, you need to have some ‘give’ or ‘ease’ so you can allow your muscles to expand, with dance movment and be able to breath (your chest expands when you take in a deep breath). If your clothing is too restrictive, and you can’t breath or move with ease, your dance performance will suffer. Experimentation will determine just how much stretch you need and like, for any costume or gown.

If you think hiding in a tent-like garment will hide excess weight – think again, as it just makes you look larger.  If you’re hoping to hide a few extra pounds or  simply feel your best, make sure that you either wear a slightly looser-fitted garment or that you wear some of the fabulous ‘shaper’ garments that are on the market today, to smooth out any possible lumps, bumps or rolls.

When you are looking to achieve stiffness in a costume, generally speaking a woven fabric will work much better. Woven fabrics come in all types of ‘stiff to limp’ with taffetas or Bridal satins being much more stiff than a crepe-back or charmeuse satin, for instance. Stiffness can also be added to fabrics by the use of a stiffener or interfacing. Interfacing comes in all ranges of stiffness. Interfacings are used with suit fabrics to create the tailored look of a tuxedo jacket or regular men’s blazer. You may wish a collar that stands up – if so, you will incorporate interfacing to achieve this look. Any limp fabric can be fully interfaced to create a very stiff look, but the opposite isn’t true. If you want a limp look, you need to work with a limp fabric.

Many times, the best costume needs to be created with both a nonstretch woven fabric and a knitted stretch fabric. If you are trying to match these totally different types of fabrics – you can run into problems, as usually these totally different types of fabrics are manufactured by different mills, and there is very little chance that specific colors will match. In the Bridal world, many times satins, chiffons and taffetas are all ‘dyed to match’ for use for bridesmaids dresses and such. All these types of fabrics could easily be manufactured at the same company, allowing for easy dye-matches.

Traditionally, when a sheer fabric was needed, a woven chiffon was used. With the availability of stretch, non-woven mesh fabrics, you can achieve a similar look without the labor-intensive use of a woven fabric that needs to be ‘finished’, where a stretch mesh can be left ‘raw-cut’. This can help your budget and achieve a good match to the non-sheer spandex that might be used in your costume.

And in the costume fabric world, different sheer and nonsheer spandex fabrics could be manufactured by the same company, so those could match. It is very difficult to find good matches between these two different fabrics. There are a few fabric retailers who offer ‘dyed to match’ options for the dance world. These offerings are sold at a premium, but are available. If you are shopping at your local fabric store, you aren’t going to be seeing these options. Checking sources Online, you will want the option to see actual swatches, and not rely on your computer monitor to tell you if they match well enough, or not.

The best way to camoflauge possibly non-perfect matching of a Lycra® Spandex to a woven chiffon would be to  work with different textures in these fabrics which will alter your perception of exactly what the colors are. It’s a great way to fool the eye! If you look carefully at two different fabrics, in natural light, or with lighting that is closest to what will be available when you are wearing your gown or costume, determine if the fabrics blend nicely, or if they look ‘off’ to you. Even black fabrics never really match, and a bluer black may not blend well with a redder black. Black velvet will never match a black chiffon, lace or satin, but if they are both of the bluer variety, they will blend nicely. Pairing a velvet with a brocade, for example will generally appear to blend better than if you are going with velvet and another matte-finished fabric.

If you are commissioning a ballroom gown or costume, after you convey your ideas to your professional dressmaker or designer, you should be able to count on their knowledge of fabrics, so that you can take their recommendations on what types of fabrics will create the best look for your gown or costume. 

The number one rule? Don’t fight the natural attributes of a piece of fabric. Don’t try and force a fabric to do or be something that it doesn’t naturally want to do or be. You will be wasting lots of time and effort (and money) in your fight. Never try to create a crisp tailored look out of flimsy, slippery or stretchy fabric, and be aware of the downfalls of trying to create a soft, drapey look when using a fabric that is too stiff!

I’ve written more about different types of fabrics in my blogs titled ‘Fabric 101: A Tutorial’ and ‘Fabric 102: A Tutorial’ which are posted online at www.satinstitches.com. You can access my Archived Blogs and search for ‘Learn About Fabrics’ for these, and other informative articles about fabric.

© Deborah J. Nelson/Satin Stitches Ltd. (December 2015 Minnesota Dancer article)

Tags: Minnesota Dancer Magazine

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