David Bruce: Costumes Anecdotes

While appearing in the Greenwich Village Follies early in her career, modern dance pioneer Martha Graham’s solos stopped the show each night; however, the stage manager was still not satisfied. He insisted that Ms. Graham appear on stage with the other dancers, wearing a fancy, low-cut gown. The gown disgusted Ms. Graham, and she declined to wear it. Therefore, the stage manager gave her an ultimatum: Either wear the gown, or have your solos cut from the show. Ms. Graham pointed out that her solos were the audience’s favorite part of the show, and she still declined to wear the gown. Her solos were cut, but only for a short time. The show was much weaker without her solos, so the stage manager quickly restored them and stopped requesting that she wear the gown.

Ballet dancers started out by wearing ankle-length dresses, but the nature of dancing demands that the dancer’s form be revealed and as time went on, the dancer’s skirt became shorter and shorter until dancers began to wear tutus—the shortest possible skirts. Such shortening of the skirts has been alarming to many. When Marie Camargo first wore a skirt that bared her ankles, authorities made her wear calçons de précaution—translated as “precautionary panties,” this was an undergarment worn over hose—to protect the audience from accidentally seeing the bare flesh above a stocking.

Edith Head was a costumer to Hollywood stars for decades. Her most embarrassing mistake occurred in a movie starring Dorothy Lamour, who wore a sarong as her costume. In real life, a sarong is a piece of cloth that is wrapped around the body and is not held on by any sort of fastening. However, a scene called for Ms. Lamour to dive into a pool. She did, and she came to the surface—and eventually so did her sarong, a few feet away. After that, Ms. Head used hooks and eyes—and safety pins—to make sure the sarong stayed on Ms. Lamour’s body.

Alicia Markova insisted on clean costumes, even as a very young dancer. While she was a teenage dancer for Sergei Diaghilev, she was asked to wear a costume previously worn by Vera Savina, who was wearing it when she cut her arm badly on jewels worn by her dancing partner, Leonide Massine. The costume had been cleaned, but a slight blood stain remained, which horrified Alicia. Although the blood stain would not have been visible to the audience, Mr. Diaghilev respected young Alicia’s wishes and had a new costume made.

Anthony Dowell both dances ballet and designs costumes, so he appreciates a good costume when he sees it. For example, while performing in Other Dance she wore a costume designed by Santo Loquasto. The costume was made to resemble three pieces of clothing—tights, a waistcoat, and a shirt—but it was made of one piece of spandex, which meant it stayed in place. Cleaning was easy—the costume was just thrown in a washing machine.

In the early 20th century, Frank Craven scored a notable acting success in the role of Jimmy Gilley in George Broadhurst’s Bought and Paid For. The critics applauded his performance and admired his attention to detail in his choice of costume, even noticing his threadbare socks. Mr. Craven, who had been down on his luck before landing the part, didn’t let the critics know that the socks were the only pair he owned.

At times, costumes create problems on stage. Ballet dancer Anthony Dowell was once dancing with Antoinette Sibley when the hook of his costume caught on her tutu. They had to run offstage to get unhooked. While he was dancing with Natalia Makarova, the same thing happened. Afterward, the stage manager said that he was tempted to pour a bucket of water over them because they looked like two dogs in heat.

While dancing for the Harkness Ballet, Jimmy Dunne once was required to wear a veil attached to the mask that was part of his costume. The choreographer wanted more color to the veil, so it was painted without anyone notifying Mr. Dunne. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to see through a veil that has been painted, so midway through the dance Mr. Dunne was forced to rip it off his mask.

Ballet dancers go through ballet shoes quickly. In the 1980s, Briar Brownson, the “shoe lady” of the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, used to keep on hand 30 pairs of pointe shoes for each woman and six pairs of black and six pairs of white ballet slippers for each man in the company. Whenever her stock of shoes got any lower than that, she grew worried about running out.

The great ballet dancer Marie Taglioni is shown in many lithographs wearing a choker around her neck and pearl bracelets on her arms—no matter what role she was dancing. The reason for this consistent costuming is that she had a very long neck and very long arms and the choker and the bracelets helped break up their length.

Peter Ustinov wore a toga in the movie Spartacus, a costume that he declared had significant disadvantages: “To handle a toga properly you have to watch a woman very carefully and notice how she walks and sits down. This type of attention can be grievously misunderstood.”

In ballet, male dancers wear makeup. Fortunately for them, often the makeup can be applied in a mere half-hour, whereas a female dancer may have to take two or three hours to apply her makeup because of the many layers—each layer must dry before the next layer can be put on.

Early in her career, Suzanne Farrell was dancing in a ballet in which the lead ballerina’s skirt accidentally fell off. After witnessing this, whenever Ms. Farrell was required to wear a skirt as part of her costume, she always knotted it three times as well as sewed it in place.

Ballet dancers need to cover their skin yet reveal the form of their body. A person who helped them do this was Jules Léotard, a French acrobat and trapeze artist who invented the body-fitting suit that bears his name.

According to clothes designer Bob Mackie, dancer Fred Astaire always wore long underwear while performing one of his dance numbers in his many movies—the long underwear absorbed his sweat.

Ballerinas are very particular about their shoes. Natalia Makarova inspects 10 pairs of shoes to find one pair suitable for her feet.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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