Penny Starr Jr: Navigating the Collaboration with a Costume Designer
As we all know, burlesque is very much a DIY community. Part of what draws some of us to burlesque as an art form is the ability to play dress up; to make a costume more than the once a year Halloween party or Ren-Faire or Zombie Prom. I firmly believe that all dancers should have a basic knowledge of how to add simple embellishments to a bra and panty set so that you can hit the stage in something that goes beyond off-the-rack (literally), but there are certain times when you are going to want a garment that goes beyond your skill set. A perfect example is that although I have twenty years costuming experience, I do not have the couture and tailoring skills to build corsets or jackets. And because of my build, what Sir MixALot refers to as his dream girl, I do need to have a few bespoke items. That, and you just never see opera coats on the rack at Nordstroms.
So, as someone who’s sat on both sides of the aisle of costume design – as client and designer – I’d like to offer a few pieces of advice so that you and your designer can nurture a relationship that will not only keep you both happy, but will produce some amazing acts.
Since this will not only be your time/money/performance on the line, do your research. Look at their portfolio or pictures of things they have designed. If their online book is a series of corsets and bias-cut gowns then maybe they are not the person to build your light-up post-apocalyptic body armour. Also, ask other performers who have worked with the designer if they were happy with the work done. Was it well-crafted, did it arrive in time to rehearse for the gig? Finding the right designer is like finding the right gynaecologist.
I also recommend working with designers that have a burlesque background or theatrical background, as both of these kinds of designers understand the quick change of getting out of your costume.
I once asked Venus deMille (whose various jobs besides burlesque performer include designing for the Ovation-award winning theatrical troupe, The Troubadours, as well as being a head tailor at the LA Opera), ‘how can you get sizes over the phone and make a garment that fits perfectly without having a fitting?’ Her response: ‘You can’t. You can get close, but it’s never going to fit perfectly.’ So when you are shopping for a designer, look for someone close to home so you can have a proper fitting. If you want to work with a specific designer not within driving distance, there are a few things you can do:
1. Get measured by a local designer. You’re going to need to provide more than just bust, waist and hips. I have needed such measurements as the underbust, base of the neck to waist and the outseam in the shoes the performer was going to wear with the act.
2. Skype your measurements. Have the designer on the other side of the web cam as a friend measures you. This way the designer can coax a pal through the proper way to measure. (For example, your natural waist is NOT where you wear your jeans, but the smallest part of your torso.)
3. Send your measurements ahead and then set a date for a fitting and book a gig at the same time! This way the designer can either make a mock-up (the garment in a cheap fabric, strictly for fittings) or get a head start on the garment. You come into town, get fitted, and then get booked on a local burlesque show to help pay for the travel.
4. Provide a base garment that fits. If you are looking to have embellishments done to an existing garment, send the garment along with a picture of you wearing it. Whether something ‘fits’ can be subjective. (Look at how many women wear the wrong bra size!) Also, this allows the designer to see if the garment truly fits as is; it may need extra fabric to allow for the addition of zippers (which automatically subtracts at least a 1/2 inch on either side for seam allowance).
5. Have two designers. Currently I am working with Ray Gunn on a costume. Here’s the rub: He’s in Saint Louis and I’m in LA. He has a local designer standing by to make minor adjustments to both the fit and the logistics of the costume. Any changes made to the costume have to be run by me first, as ultimately my name will go on it, but this takes the pressure off of mailing a garment back and forth (and upping the chance of losing it in the mail).
When I do custom work, I like to ask upfront what people have in their budget. Then I can determine what kind of embellishments I will be using. A $100 bra and panty set says I will be mixing Swarovski and acrylic rhinestones and using decorators fringe over handed-beaded Egyptian fringe. Also, when thinking of your budget, remember that at least 50% of that budget is going to labour, not just materials. A designer needs to get paid for their time, and that time can include designing/sketches/research, time to shop for materials and time to sew the garment.
I highly recommend that you have the full amount of your budget set aside for your custom work. You do not want to not get your costume because you had to spend your money on the gas bill, and neither does your designer. And be prepared to pay a 50% deposit to any designer upon commencement with the job. I offer people two pricing plans: we can work with a flat rate where you give me the garment that fits and some pictures of inspiration, I do a rough sketch and make the garment. Or we can do hourly where I provide pictures or swatches of all materials, trims and test garments for your approval.
You can ask a designer to see how their budget breaks down (is it reasonable for the designer to spend four hours on research?) and to keep all the related receipts (some materials can not be returned). You should be aware that any budget has a research and development factor, like purchasing a few kinds of boning to see which one works best with the costume.
If you do not have the full budget upfront, talk to the designer about payment plans. I’ve done plans where I worked on each new piece as each payment came through. I’ve also left room on a garment where the client only had $100 to put towards a costume, so we built a design that embellishments could be added to as the client saved more money. For example, maybe only using two gross of size 30 rhinestones on a bra and then later adding another six gross of rhinestones, or only having one layer of fringe and being able to add on more layers with more money. If the designer is local, see if they would be willing to trade time for couture. You may not be able to help them sew, but you may be able to run some errands, do some administrative work for them, or clean their studio.
You are going to want to have your garment with plenty of time to rehearse in it, but you may want it sooner than two weeks prior to the show, as we all know that our choreography and costume is a snake biting its own tail. We imagine the skirt is going to come off like so, but once we dance with it, we realise it needs to be snaps not a zipper. Ideally you should give yourself six weeks prior to a show to work out any kinks, especially if you are working with an out-of-town designer as you’ll need to factor in shipping time.
Another consideration – designers aren’t just sitting around waiting for you to call them. They may have a few clients they are servicing (not to mention they may also be performers themselves and have their own costumes to make). For example, as of this post [originally published] in early May, if you called me for a costume due in early June I would have to turn you away, as I have no less than a dozen costumes to make that are all due in and around the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend (my own included).
I can’t stress this enough. Be honest. You want a bra and panty set and only have $50? Tell the designer. You want it by next week? Tell the designer. You’re not happy with the appliqués on the costume. Tell the designer. There may be financial concerns such as having to pay a rush fee, or adding more to the budget to get new appliqués, but no designer wants to send a costume out in the world that doesn’t work. We would rather have our designs up on the stage.
Before you fork over a couple of hundred dollars or even thousands to a new designer, order a smaller/cheaper custom item. This way you can test drive if you like their craftsmanship. Did they deliver on time? Were they easy to work with? Get something in the same realm as the bigger costume you want to order though; don’t order a fascinator if you are looking to have a gown made – perhaps have a dressing gown constructed to test their skills with the fit and their mastery with the materials.
Be sure that your designer gives you any leftover scrap, trim, beads, etc. Ultimately, you paid for them and you will need them in case of embellishing other garments to match (like making matching pasties) or for repairs. If you want to keep your patterns, that should be discussed before any work commences. Some designers look at the patterns they made you as their intellectual property and some look at it as work-for-hire and that the designs are exclusive to the client. If you are looking to hold an exclusive design, discuss that ahead of time. Certain patterns may be common to that designer and thus unable to be exclusive to you, and if you want an exclusive you may have to pay extra as the designer will not be able to use the effort in drafting a new pattern as something they can resell.
The best thank you to a designer whose work you love is to send them pictures of you in the costume. Snapshots are fine, but if you can wear that costume in a photo shoot, and get permission from the photographer to use the photos for the designer’s own book and promotional materials, you will valued forever.
If you are unhappy about the work, give the designer a chance to fix it. For example, I know that the hand beaded tassels I make for my pasties will shred over time. Just how it is – those things take a beating! I just tell anyone who purchases them that as long as they can find me I can repair or replace. If you are unsatisfied with the designer, simply part ways.
After spending three years making the documentary, ‘The Velvet Hammer Burlesque’, it was no wonder that Penny decided to pick up the mantle held by her grandmother, Philadelphia burlesque dancer, Penny Starr. Or, as Penny Starr Jr. puts it, ”You can only live with the circus for so long before you want to join!” (She and Penny, Sr. have performed the first and only grandmother/granddaughter striptease act.) One year later, in 2004, Penny Starr, Jr. became First Runner-Up at the annual Miss Exotic World (Burlesque Hall of Fame) burlesque pageant.
She has performed and/or instructed at a number of legendary venues, shows and festivals, including the Va Va Voom Room, Starshine Burlesque, Margaret Cho’s ‘The Sensuous Woman’, the Slipper Room NYC, Tease-o-Rama, BHoF, BurlyCon and the New York Burlesque Festival.
In addition to dancing and performing, Penny is the founder of the All-Star Burlesque Classes, and produces and directs the Princess Farhana line of belly dance and burlesque instructional DVDs. A centerfold and columnist, Penny has also consulted on such shows as ‘Chuck’ (including a cameo as a bachelor party stripper), ‘Castle’, and has recently taught tassel twirling to the cast of ‘Water for Elephants’.