The Wear and Tear of Ballet: Costumes


Last time we talked about the wear and tear of ballet on sets and scenery, but what about those lovely tutus the ballerinas are wearing? How do those costumes hold up against such rigorous man-handling? How do we get them in the first place? Who makes them? Well we’re going to talk about that today, but first a quick update about our fundraiser.

Our 45 in 45 fundraiser is chugging along, and we are slowly approaching $2,000. It doesn’t look like we’re going to make our goal, but time’s not up yet! We still have just short of one month, so let’s pound the pavement and spread the word. People love art, people love dance, and asking a couple more people to help us keep the art alive isn’t going to hurt anyone, right?

So go to make your own fundraising page. Post it on your Facebook page, and tell people why supporting the arts is so darned important to you. And remember, if you can get the most people to donate to your fundraiser page, you will win a tablet computer! It’s the least we can do to thank the person who worked the hardest for us.

Swan Lake 2

Now, on to costumes!

When people think of ballet, they usually think of graceful dances, big sets, and lavish costumes. Images of stick-thin girls in stiff tutus and pointe shoes comes to mind, right? After all, what is ballet without a bevy of beauties in tutus?

But, where do those tutus come from? How does any theater show go about getting their costumes? It’s as involved a process as creating the sets, and often involves a lot more people.

The first thing that happens is the director and producer of the show meet to discuss what will be needed in the way of costuming. Once they have a basic idea, they hire a costume designer – someone who has been trained to look at a script, listen to the director’s vision for the show, and create a wardrobe that brings that vision to life. This is a very involved process, and isn’t as simple as slapping two pieces of cloth together.


Here’s what the costume designer’s process looks like:

        1. Read the script
        2. Read the script again.
        3. Read the script one more time – This is important because the designer has to know the story of the ballet or play as well as they do their own life. They  need to live and breath the script because their costumes will be a large part of what brings characters to life and differentiates them from each other.
        4. Research – Once familiar with – you guessed it – the script, the designer has to do some research. You see, every play or ballet takes place in a specific era, or period, and the designer will need to familiarize themselves with what clothing looked like during that period.
        5. Sketch it out – Next they begin to sketch costumes designs that give each character in the ballet or play a unique personality. These sketches are often fleshed out withwater color in order to give an idea of a color scheme.
        6. Find fabric – The designer has to attach a type of fabric to each single piece of costume. This starts with little samples, or swatches, that are attached to the water-color renderings.
        7. Create patterns – The renderings are turned into patterns. This is not a simple process, and requires special training to understand how pieces of cloth are cut into specific shapes that fit together to become garments of clothing. Yeah, it sounds convoluted. . . that’s because it is!
        8. Take measurements – The designer has to get measurements from the actors and dancers so that they can begin building the costumes to the right SlBeau ndalysewspolinaproportions.
        9. Build the costume – this one’s pretty straight-forward.
        10. Fit it on the actor or dancer – the person who is going to wear the costume tries it on for the first time. There will invariably be adjustments that need to be made, hem lines that must be stitched up, waist lines that are too big and need to be tucked. In addition to that, if it’s a dancer wearing the costume, they may tell the designer that they need to be able to do the splits, press a girl over their head, do a summersault – this might mean more adjustments to improve the costume’s range of movement.
        11. Make changes to the costume.
        12. Fit again.
        13. Make more changes.
        14. Fit again – this can go on and on, until the costume is just right. Then, finally . . .
        15. You have a costume.

Fifteen steps?! Yeah, and that’s abridged. Now, the costume designer may or may not have an entire wardrobe staff to help them – that depends on the size of the theater or dance company. In many cases, designers and seamstresses end up being mothers of cast members, or even the cast members themselves! But in a professional theater, there is always a staff on hand to do this work. And those in the costume department aren’t the only ones involved:

  • Lighting Designer – the costume designer has to work with the lighting designer. You see, colored lights will change what colored costumes look like onstage, so these two need to be in sync.
  • Sound Designer – in shows that have spoken lines or singing, the costume designer needs to work with the sound designer to figure out how to keep microphones open and clear when dealing with wigs and hats!
  • Stage Crew – have you ever watched a theater show, saw a character dash offstage, and then return 30 seconds later in a totally different outfit? This is called a quick change. The stage crew is on hand backstage to help strip the performer and then redress them. The costume designer needs to know when this happens because he or she will have to build costumes that are easy to get on and off in a flash!
  • Stage Manager – this is the person who runs the shows and calls the shots. Once the performance is underway, they are the boss. The stage manager needs to be familiar with the costumes so that they know when something has gone wrong – when there’s a wardrobe malfunction.

You can see there’s a lot involved in creating a costume but what about once it’s made and being used? What happens to it then?

Well, if the show or production is a one-time event, or even just a several month run, the costume may need to be cleaned a handful of times but it usually won’t require any sort of maintenance. This is the easiest scenario for a costume department. Get the costume built, use it, get rid of it.





The picture on the left is Merlitons from The Nutcracker in the early 1980’s.

The picture on the right is Merlitons from The Nutcracker in 2005.


Note: The costumes are the same! How many times have they been reused?


Most companies, however, repeat productions or reuse costume pieces for other shows. In this case, the costumes go through a much longer process. You have the original design process, followed by:

  1. Cleaning – dry cleaning and washing machine where possible
  2. Storage – Costumes must be put away in plastic garment bags to protect them from weather and pests. They are then shipped to a warehouse where they will be (hopefully) hung from costume racks to await future use. Tutus are a different story. After cleaning, they are put into specially designed tutu bags and then very carefully stacked on a shelf so that the tutu won’t become bent or distorted.
  3. Cleaning – when they are ready to be used again for a repeat production or a new show, the costumes are usually cleaned once more to assure that they are fresh for the new actor or dancer.
  4. Fitting – yup, we go through the whole fitting – fixing – fitting – fixing process again!
  5. Performance
  6. Cleaning
  7. Storage
  8. Repeat!

CABallet SDIAT2E10 029

In this fashion, costumes may be used over and over again down through the years. In California Ballet’s case, many of our Nutcracker costumes have undergone this process 40 times! Think about how hard that is on the costumes. If you have a favorite T-shirt, you know that after a few years of use, holes begin to appear. Little holes at first, and then eventually the very fibers of T-shirtness let go and you’re left with a pile of rags. Now imaging that your clothes are going through 30-second changes in the wings, being sewn
 and re-sewn, and re-sewn again to fit different people, getting sweated in, having hands grip them to toss you in the air, going through CABallet SDIAT2E10 005an athletic workout, getting bright lights shone on them, being washed and rewashed thoroughly to get rid of all sweat and any makeup stains (yup, we wear makeup onstage), shoved into a plastic bag, hung on a rack or stacked on a shelf in a warehouse where there will be dust, pests (no matter how hard to try to keep them away), weather, sunlight, and more!

Oh, and we haven’t even discussed pointe shoes! Some dancers will wear out a pair of pointe shoes in one performance! And there’s no way to repair them for reuse – you can only replace them!

Sounds pretty rough, doesn’t it? These costumes require a lot of TLC to keep them looking gorgeous onstage, and that requires a lot of time and money. Is it worth it? Well, the next time you’re at the ballet, take a look at the lead ballerina. See how gorgeous she is in her tutu and tiara, and then you tell us: Is it worth it?




Ballet is hard stuff. Hard on the sets and scenery, hard on the costumes, and hard on the body and the mind. Next time we’ll talk about the wear and tear of ballet on the dancer. In the meantime, get out there and make yourself a fundraising page on StayClassy. Ask your friends and family to help us keep our dancers in gorgeous costumes because, as you can tell, it’s hard work!


CLICK HERE to start your fundraising page!


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