Top 5 Burlesque Costuming Tips
Your costume is one of the most important ingredients in your burlesque act, not only for how it looks on stage and how it portrays your character but also in the functional design so that you can continuously rely on it to be removed effortlessly and intentionally. Not to mention the costume’s maintenance, storage and transportation, so that it continues to look and perform it’s best, show after show after show!
Many times it will be some kind of issue with costume which prevents a student from exploring and developing an act to it’s fullest potential – here are a few tricks of the trade to overcome hesitations in pushing your costume boundaries.
1) HOW DO I CLEAN THIS ONCE I’VE EMBELLISHED IT??????
This fear may prevent you from investing in adding beading, trims, appliques and rhinestones to a garment – all of which are absolutely necessary to customise your costumes to make them uniquely yours and to make your costumes look like a billion dollars on stage.
True, all these beautiful and expensive costumes are not easy to keep clean! I even had a corset refused at a dry cleaning company because they were scared the process would melt the beads and sequins that were part of the appliqués.
Dry cleaning sticks for spot checking are an absolute godsend, but for freshening up and killing off bacteria, many suggest a vodka/essential oil mix. A great product available from performer Caramel Knowledge is her Stripper Spritz in four available fragrances – for info and to purchase, send her an email at [email protected]
For underwear in particular – 99% of the time I will wear a nude thong as a base layer, not only as a protective layer for cleanliness but also added coverage for quick changes backstage (or let’s be honest, in the corridor of the bar!). On some occasions, the costume design might mean that an under layer of thong might show through or poke out the top. On other occasions I’ve ended up at a show accidentally wearing a black thong and about to put on my VERY WHITE snow queen costume.. oops. Try cutting the gusset out of a similar pair of underwear, or even just a triangle out of an old t-shirt and either using small snaps, or if these are too bulky you can always use your double-sided pastie tape to attach the fabric to the inside of your garment. Then, when you need to clean the piece you can just remove the fabric and wash that instead of the entire garment. I’ve even heard of some people taping the inside of their costume panties with fabric sports tape and then removing and replacing in-between shows.
2) GARTER BELTS SCARE ME, HOW THE HELL DO YOU DETACH THEM FROM A STOCKING???
When starting out I could barely ATTACH a garter belt to a thigh-high stocking, let alone DETACH it. Add to that detaching it in front of an audience, in time to your music, all while looking effortless….waaaaa!
But that shouldn’t discourage you from including this in your act. Maybe you decide to use silicone hold ups instead of a garter belt, or just old fashioned ‘hours of rehearsal’ to get this technique down.
If you still can’t fathom the idea and it freaks you out, it’s not worth putting the pressure on yourself so that you consistently panic during those seconds leading up to this particular moment in your act.
Even if you’re a pro at garter belt removal and you like to incorporate my core concept of “cosmetic removal” to use the struggle to tease your audience, maybe your storyline or upbeat music means you want this moment to be more snappy … hey “snappy”, I made a pun!
Take some clothing snaps and sew the female side to your stocking top. Then close the fastening on the garter belt, and use E6000 to glue the male side to the back of the garter fastening. You can then easily snap the garter to the stocking top so it looks like it’s connected using the regular fastening. If you get runs in your stocking and need to replace then, just snip off the female snap and attach it to your new pair. Click here to see a video example of this snap technique.
The garter belt will still function normally so you can use them for more than one act – either with the snaps for quick removal, or as normal, for a slower tease.
3) HELP IM STUCK IN MY … BRA.. CORSET.. DRESS… SHOE… !!!!
YEP, costume malfunction happens to the best of us. Usually the answer is spending rehearsal time figuring out what is causing the issue and troubleshooting the problem, rather than just accepting defeat. The more you can give yourself a break by altering your pieces accordingly, the better you set yourself up for success. First and foremost, there are no rules that you HAVE to use any of these items in your act, and there are no rules that if you DO use them that they have to be removed during your act – if that’s your storyline.
Just don’t let the fear prevent you from experimentation – there are ways and means.
Bras: Make sure to fold over the excess part of the hook and eye when doing one-handed removal this allows extra space for the finger and makes the logistics of unhooking way easier.
For those wearing a larger size bra that has a number of hooks – try replacing these small hooks with larger coat hooks so that the same amount of area is covered but you only have one or two hooks to undo. If you’re still fumbling – try replacing the clasp with ribbons or ties, or consider a front opening bra, either pre-bought or you can just alter an existing bra by adding the specific clasp or tie option.
Dresses: Those which have a back zipper – you can start by not zipping right to the top of the dress, leave an inch or so at the top undone, so you’re already on your way. Tie on a zipper extension to hang down the back so that it’s easier to reach around to pull, this can be decorated with beads or a sequined trim or tassel so that you’re misdirecting your audience from the functional reason for the extension. Dresses with straps or a halterneck – you can detach the straps and add a snap extension so they can be easily undone on stage ready for you to effortlessly step out.
Corsets: Another intimidating item for removal and easy to get stuck in if you don’t loosen the laces enough before undoing a front busk. Again, maybe your act calls for a different energy and instead of a slow removal you want the punch of a quick removal in one moment. I have a fire act where I have a fire stick in one hand and am therefore completely unable to remove a busk-fronted corset with the other. There are a few corsets on the market that have swivel buckles at the front which you can undo with one hand either one by one or all together in one swift motion.
There are also corsets available with zipper front. If you can’t find one you like, then you can easily use a seam ripper to remove a busk and replace with a zipper instead.
Shoes: Many performers use ballroom dance shoes with an easy release clasp. Maybe you don’t want to spend the money, or don’t like the look of these for your act, but you also feel like slip on shoes are not secure enough. Rather than fumble with standard buckles, try using ribbon as below to to tie the shoe to your feet without having to attach it to the shoe.
This also sets you up for some post-peel action with the ribbon, after you’ve undone it, but before you remove the shoe.
4) MY BODY CONSTANTLY CHANGES – THIS EXPENSIVE COSTUME IS SUPPOSED TO LAST ME FOR HOW LONG??
I have previously made costume pieces to fit me EXACTLY (at the time) and then yes, weight gain, weight loss, times of the month, all mean you may fear that the costume will be redundant in a few months or years time. The more you can make your costume adjustable, the better. Feeling less than 100% confident in wearing your costume can tarnish the way you feel about your entire act.
Feeling amazing in your costume off-stage, sets you up for success on-stage.
Don’t settle for less!
Bras: We’ve already mentioned the use of ties for the back of a bra to help with smooth bra removal, but adding ties also means that the bra becomes adjustable, for both a decrease and increase in size. If you don’t particularly like the look of ties at the back, you can always add an extra hook and eye panel cut off from an old bra in order to extend the back. Or, alternatively, adjust the placement of the eyes in order to reduce the size of the back. Make sure to embellish over the top of any extra section so that the whole thing ties together into the original bra design.
To alter the front of a bra that may have become too small, you can add extra trim or fabric to the top or side of the cups, or for halter necks, add trim all the way up along the side to cover any “chicken fillets”.
I’ve even gone as far as cutting the cups in the side to create a “dart” effect to add more fullness to a bra cup as a permanent alternation,
however, most of these alterations can be made temporary so that you can easily switch between the different versions of the same costume. For example, the tie design on my leather fire bra has meant I’ve been able to use this item for styling on a range of body types when running my makeover photoshoots, or to lend to a fellow performer for a one-off act.
Panties: I had some panties made by a third party for an act and unfortunately the embellishment had reduced the stretch of the material (another thing to be aware of when doing your own embellishment). I was able to cut into the seam both left and right, add elastic to the main garment, and then add an appliqué to cover the sight of the elastic. Put the garment on your body and you can see where the appliqué is meeting the garment and place a snap at this point. This means that any weight loss or gain will just affect the amount that the elastic stretches and you will only have to move the snap accordingly in order to change the placement of the applique.
I am a huge fan of using elastic to make things adjustable but really don’t like the way it can dig into the skin. Using the elastic as the base for a garment and then attaching a trim with snaps means that you can always adjust the placement of the trim and it will never dig into your skin.
5) ALL THESES EXPENSIVE TRIMS AND FABRICS ARE DRAINING MY BANK BALANCE.
Yes, yes it will. Although the more you invest in making your costume look amazing as well as standing the test of time, the more you will get out of it, have your act booked for higher paid gigs and gain more festival appearances.
One of my first outfits, my leather bikini and fire dress, in total must have cost upwards of $1200, but I created that outfit in 2007 and am still adding to it and using it today. I’ve had TV appearances wearing it, I’ve rented it out to other performers, I’ve had one-off gigs that paid $650 for one appearance.
Does that mean ALL of my outfits originally cost that much?
But it does show the value of investing in at least two or three “high profile” acts, your favourite acts, the ones that audiences show the most love for. Test out an act and then you can pick your favourites and gradually invest into them more bit by bit.
There are ways of avoiding spending crazy amounts of money upfront and ways of being smart about where the money goes.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure:
Buying costumes new, buying fabric, trims and embellishments direct from the store can all add up when oftentimes it’s not necessary.
Old Costumes into new:
Many burlesque performers will post their old costumes on facebook groups or advertise costume swap events. These are great since these costumes will mostly be personalised, not off the rack, and will have already been adjusted to be easily removable for the purposes of a burlesque act. Re-read how to adjust items above in point 4) and use this knowledge to look at others’ pieces from the angle of how best to make use of their items even if they don’t fit EXACTLY. Can you use that piece as a base for further embellishment, can you use the long dress to split into a skirt and use the top section of fabric to embellish a matching bra.
If something is too large or small can you alter it to fit? This knowledge is also perfect for looking around charity shops with a more creative eye, or for improving an off-the-rack or cheaply made halloween costume to become personalised and stage-worthy.
Thrift stores ( or UK Charity Shops) are amazing hunting grounds. Not just for finished pieces but for what you can scavenge from certain pieces. More expensive fabrics like fur, leather, silk, can be bought as items from a thrift store and then chopped up for your own use, especially when (for example, making my werewolf costume) you don’t really require a full yard of fabric.
For my leather fire dress, I paid a dress-maker to create the dress section personally from scratch, but for the skirt/loin cloth section, I decided to make this myself. I found an XXL men’s leather coat, on sale in a thrift store for $15 – that’s a lot of leather! Not only did I make the skirt I intended, but continued to use that coat material for other pieces for other acts, gauntlets, maleficent crown, a fire proof tutu for a friend’s project, and still there’s material leftover waiting to be repurposed.
Fabric aside, you can also purchase pieces that have trims you can repurpose – use a seam ripper to remove fringing, appliques, stones and jewels from an item and use them to embellish your own. Not only can this be cheaper than buying the trims new, but someone else has already done the work of matching and complementing the colour choices and removed the guess work out of which colours to mix and match. BONUS!
I would love to hear any queries you have about costuming, any issues you might have faced or projects that seem too daunting – feel free to post in the members Facebook Group, if you’re a member, or shoot me an email at [email protected] if you’re not.
For those based in Los Angeles I run a monthly costume creation class where I can help you to source the pieces you need for your project and then help advice and create whatever your heart desires. Check out all the info at: