by Karen White
How do you design a dance costume? First, you listen.
“When I started attending trade shows,” says Lauren Weissman, “all the teachers were saying, ‘My parents are driving me crazy because the kids are complaining about all these sequins under the arms.’ ” Apparently, company designers had been outlining costume armholes with sequins for years, never realizing the sequins’ rough edges would irritate the students’ sensitive underarm skin. “So we had to come up with innovative ways to make costumes sparkle but not itch,” she says.
Lauren was 24 when she began working for her family’s St. Louis, Missouri-based company, Weissman Costumes, learning the ins and outs of the business, from the cutting room to customer relations. On weekends, she’d represent the company at trade shows, chatting with the dance teachers and studio owners who made the costume decisions at their studios. Today, as executive vice president of design and marketing, Lauren, 40, has the final say on each of the 463 or so costumes sold in the company’s annual recital catalog.
It can take up to two years to create a single costume. Weissman designers glean ideas and inspiration from everywhere—TV, magazines, movies, art museums, stores, even dance recitals. (“We watch a ton of recitals,” Lauren says.)
Ideas become garment sketches—despite the widespread use of computers in the design industry, Weissman designers still work with colored pencils on paper. Next, patterns are created, cloth is cut, and costumes emerge. “The first time, it never comes out quite right,” says Lauren—maybe the neckline is too low, or the skirt cuts the leg at an unflattering angle.
What follows is the important process of tweaking the garment, adding this or changing that. Since half of the company’s annual catalog offerings are new designs, Lauren says, designers work under a never-ending time crunch, and there isn’t always time to see each design on a live model. (Mannequins fill in as needed.) Usually, each design goes through two or three permutations before the final costume is approved and sent to the company’s photography department for the catalog shoot.
Dance costume design comes with a unique set of challenges. “When I review designs, I don’t know how many times a week I say, ‘But from 50 feet away, will you see that?’ ” Lauren says. Patterns, colors, and design elements that might look lovely up close aren’t nearly as effective when they appear on a student moving on a distant stage bathed in harsh lighting. Most fabrics don’t stretch—others don’t move. Many of the styles must look good on both a 4-year-old wearing an XSC and a 16-year-old in a LA.
It’s also a surprisingly complex process to find and purchase the flower clip, ribbon, hat, or headband that perfectly matches each costume’s fabric color, Lauren says. From the fabric dyer to the designer to the sewer to the shipper, there are probably “a hundred hands” that touch each costume, Lauren says.
Through it all, Weissman designers pay attention to customer feedback, whether it comes from email, customer service calls, or trade show chats. Those responses might alert designers that lyrical dance is down-trending while contemporary and modern are up-trending, or that the competition customer and the recital customer demand different costumes. (For the first time, this season the company is offering a separate catalog of elite competition styles, Lauren says.)
Weissman designers approach the drawing board knowing that their costumes have to please three people: the teacher, the student, and the parent. “No one at Weissman woke up this morning trying to disappoint a 3-year-old,” Lauren says. “We always make sure we are doing the best we can for the customer.”
DSL associate editor Karen White, a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, has taught dance in private studios and choreographed musicals since age 17 and has no plans to stop.