Creative Costuming for the 99% Burlesque Glamour on a Budget
Big impact on stage does not have to mean big money, and while rhinestones and beadwork are lovely, their low rent siblings sequins and glitter can have all the same — if not even more — impact on stage. Below are some of the costuming tips and tricks I've used over the past few decades, whether my budget dictated that I live on past-due Little Debbie snacks and Kool-aid or sipping champagne in my underground Monster Lab.
The world is your costuming supply oyster. Always keep one eye out for potential fabulousity, whether it’s at the remnant sale at the fabric store or the hardware store down the block. I can’t walk through a Home Depot without thinking “I wonder how THAT would look hanging off of my boobs.” That hideous 80’s prom dress at the yard sale for 50 cents with “eegads-I-hope-those-are-just-beer-stains” on it may have some fabulous unmarred beadwork that you can cut off and glue to your knickers; that gorgeous black lace dress with the broken zipper that’s in the cut out bin at Target has some fabulous sleeves you slice off and turn into fingerless gloves or armlets and can cannibalize the rest of the lace to make a head piece or layer on top of a nude thong and bra. That old computer the garbage truck won’t pick up? It has a mother board that looks all science-y and high tech when you glue it to your foil robot costume and the hard drive has some high-powered magnets you can sew into a quick release closure on a bustle skirt. That 5 year old cell phone that’s been sitting in your desk drawer can connect to Wi-Fi and display video on your anime cyborg helmet. When it comes to budget costuming , the only rule is: Stay out of jail.
Fabric discount store/warehouses (i.e., not chain stores) can be a treasure trove of cheap, gorgeous and unique fabric, trims and appliques, but if you can afford to, it’s usually good to buy as much of anything you find, as chances are you will NEVER be able to locate more. There’s nothing worse than spending hours attaching some gorgeous trim to a costume only to find you are about 10 inches short and SOL.
When buying at chain craft stores like JoAnn’s, etc., use your phone to take a picture of the bar code (smart phones often have bar code scanners), or at least write down the UPC code. This will make finding more of the fabric very easy and allow you to price compare online as well. (This also goes for lingerie/costuming you find at department stores, which will allow you to use something like Google Shopping or ShopSavvy to find the best prices.)
PS: Only a spendthrift fool sets foot into those stores without checking for coupons first. Almost every week there is some 40% off or more coupon for Michaels/JoAnns. Use an app like KeyRing to store loyalty cards and have up to date coupons at the ready for checkout
Raid the clearance racks/bins of department stores like Target, Marshalls, KMart, etc, for “blank canvas” lingerie, especially for those “hard-cupped” foam-lined bras, as they are the easiest to glue, adhere, and sew embellishments on to. If it’s the wrong color, dye it, or cover it up with decor. More often than not, I find making things entirely from scratch is actually more expensive than retro-fitting/customizing an existing garment, not to mention that bras and knickers can be a pain in the cooter to make from the ground up (especially if you don’t possess something like a serger or skill at dealing with elastic). As with any “clearance” item, if it's something you love/fits well, buy as many as you can afford to. If you are in troupe or regularly work with certain performers, keep a list of their bra sizes, shoe sizes, etc., on your phone so you can pick up the real bargains for your compadres as needed for group acts or barter or prezzies.
I find tons of great embellishments in the clearance upholstery sections of fabric stores, especially fringe and tassels, plus upholstery fabric (which tends to be thicker, sturdier and more ornate) is great for corsets or very structured garments. You can often get remnants for a song (save the dance for your gig). Just beware of any trim made with shatter-prone materials like glass beads, which can end up in treacherous shards all over the stage from a vigorous shimmy. Acrylics are your friend.
Get thee to the Dollar Store! Again, I find it faster, cheaper and all around more efficient to build things off of existing foundations; dollar & discount stores like Dollar Tree, Five Below and Ocean State Job Lot are chock full of cheap crap that can transformed into glamour puss magic, such as:
Tiaras (in the kids section) that you can weave embellishments in and out of and hot glue ornaments on to.
Sheets of craft foam, poster board and Styrofoam for much less than at craft stores, as well as fake flowers and leaves. They are mostly cheap looking but coat 'em with some spray paint, glitter, sequins, stones, etc., and they look like they cost a fortune,(which indeed they DO at places like Michaels).
$5 sandals and mules can be turned into boudoir-worthy footwear with some feathers, sequins, acrylic and/or spray paint and rhinestones. They only have to look good from the stage and not be street couture level, so a bit of cracking paint or visible glue is generally not going to make a difference. I do the same with old boots I find at Goodwill.
Fill out your makeup bag with dollar store offerings.
You can buy cheaper foundation for body makeup and darker shades for contouring over your regular foundation.
I consistently find fake eyelashes and nails for about a third of the cost at these stores (especially around Halloween) and since half the time I end up losing/ruining those items in my acts, I stock up whenever I find them.
Unless you are going for highly pigmented shades, most eyeshadow I find in the cheap section works just fine for colors I don't wear too often or for accent shades. I also find TONS of glitter.
Makeup wipes are cheap enough at these places to share with EVERYONE backstage.
Gallon size plastic bags for your liquids, glitters, etc.
Cheap ass makeup brushes you aren't afraid to get all nasty with latex, liquid makeup, etc.
Join the Coy Scouts and BE PREPARED You don’t need to be a sewing maven to make good use of the following essentials. When possible, remain well stocked with:
Flat Dress hooks
Unlike the traditional hook and eye and bra closures, the flatness and width of these don’t usually get caught in fishnets, fringe and beading and the tension is more distributed for a better hold while at the same time being way easier to undo than hook & eye.
Especially for breakaway items like pants, as they provide a better tension distribution for an even rip (and ease the nightmare of spacing your snaps). Metal ones are usually best, but if used frequently, be aware they will lose their hold a bit, so you may have to supplement with the next item.
Large sew on snaps
They come in different sizes and some can be so well made, it’s actually difficult to get them to separate, so test for effect. I also love me the big ole magnetic snaps made for heavier duty items like purses and bonus! No sewing required as long as the fabric has a decent thickness or you reinforce with bonding.
Silk Ribbon in Black and White
Invest in some large spools you can travel with. White can be dyed as needed!
Replace bra closures with ribbon you can tie in bows (though, for those of us that need a lot of support, sometimes the strength of the knot you need to tie makes this harder, rather than easier to remove, in which case opt for dress hooks.
Great for emergency bra strap\g string repair on the fly.
Covering sewing mishaps like crooked stitching, boning, or glue to create patterns.
Making your own snap tape.
Sometimes, regular snap tape won’t do the job, or is sized in such a way that sewing it on would result in a lot of broken needles and foul language. I found if I sew one edge of high quality ribbon (i.e, tough and fray resistant) to a garment, then add snaps (especially stud/hammered snaps), I can use a combo of glue, hand stitching or machine sewing (if the snaps are high enough above the edge).
Last minute hair and jewelry accessorizing.
Adding to pulls for back zippers so you can grab them easily and “prettily.”
Aside from laziness in sewing (especially hems), it’s a great fabric stiffener for more structured garments. It comes in real handy for fraying material and the inevitable underwire/boning “poke thrus” on corsets and bras. Insert some strips into the boning channel, hand stitch the holes closed and then hit it with an iron (and make sure you use a press cloth or iron cover, because it's a taint-ache to get off your iron). Likewise, tears in the panels of things like corsets can sometimes be salvaged with a patch.
It’s thick, it sets fast, it's flexible and that shit hold like nobody’s business. Especially good for affixing rhinestones and appliques to fabric (it washes better than things like Jewel-Tac, though hot fix or prong rhinestones generally withstand washing the best). It can often accomplish the same tasks as the trusty yet vicious glue gun and the hold is FAR superior.
Glue gun (and as many glue sticks as you can hoard)
Because you will ALWAYS run out before you finish a project.
Get a higher quality large one for big jobs. You can also use glue gun sticks to make embellishments like badges, brooches, armor details, etc, from silicone molds that are used for things like candy & candle making (craft stores now carry glue sticks in a variety of colors for just this purpose).
Aside from the inevitable emergencies, rather than store them in something separate, pin your matching gloves together, put your pasties in ziploc bags and pin to your matching costume, etc., (I’m also a BIG fan of binder clips for these purposes). I just buy them by the 100's at dollar stores or borrow them from work….ahem...
I am a new convert to this; you can find it at the craft store and it’s fabulous for touch ups, matching bits and doodads (since retail black fabric dye seems to ALWAYS ends up purple) and on the fly make-it-works.
You always need em, you’ll always lose ‘em. Great for last minute touch-ups, setlists and oh-shit-forgot-to-draw-my-eyebrows-on-again emergencies. (okay, maybe that’s just me...). Your stage managers and crew will appreciate your extras.
Fringe (in basic black and white)
Nothing can take plain lingerie from “meh” to “Hot Damn! Lookitthatass! Lookitthatass!” than a few rows of fringe, and as the divine World Famous *Bob* is fond of saying “Fringe is cheaper than dance classes.” It’s usually easier to hand sew it on, as long as you remember to stretch any elastic/stretch fabric you are working with as you measure and attach (depending upon where and what you are sewing , sometimes it’s a better idea to do “spot” sewing at intervals, rather than attaching the entire piece of fringe).
If you are machine sewing it, it’s a REALLY good idea to keep that connecting thread that new fringe usually ships, as it can help prevent mistakenly sewing parts of the fringe to the garment.
That school room and Papier Mache staple is great for stiffening fabrics to shape into hats, fascinators, etc.,. by shaping netting over something like a balloon and brushing a mix of water and Elmer's onto it. Pop the balloon when dry and voila! Something roughly head-shaped. You can also make slimeand it works for spit curls and (combined a single layer of toilet paper) dead skin/zombie FX in a pinch.
Is there NOTHING that gold and silver spray paint doesn't make look better? Just make sure that if you are painting something plastic, you buy the kind that will bond to plastic or buy a plastic primer to cover the item before hitting it with the spray-paint, otherwise it will almost immediately start peeling off. Also, spray-paints will eat straight through most foams, so buy some specialty primer likeKrylon Foam Craft Primer or you'll just end up with a mottled mess. (This goes for non-metallic paints as well.)
I'm not sure there's anyone reading this that doesn't know the infinite value of having duct tape at the ready at all times because….DUH.
I've used it as emergency hem tape, last minute corset reinforcement, shoe repair, lint brush, hostage situations, etc. One neat trick my friend Shari of Lovely Creature Corsetry taught me is using it to make a custom corset pattern. Simply put on a formfitting tank top, t-shirt or turtleneck and and shape the corset onto you sticking the duct tape directly on the shirt, in the shape of the corset you want, with a decent amount of tension. Then use heavy duty scissors to cut it off of you (the actual corset will cinch you tighter, as this method generally allows for seams if you don't go too too tightly). I've used the same method for leather crafting as well.
Stay tuned for even more tips and tricks from Devilicia!