Burlesque 101: Costume Fastenings
21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene…
In a new series on 21st Century Burlesque Magazine, Burly Baker Jenni Fleur Silver guides you through burlesque essentials, reaching out to some of our brightest burlesque stars for their expertise and opinion. First up is a highly informative discussion about costume fastenings…
Since I’ve dipped my toe back into the burlesque water, I’ve started experimenting with designing elements of my new costumes. Now, despite the fact that my sewing skills have always seemed to fail me, I’m getting on okay, but I confess I’m totally flummoxed by fastenings! So I decided to ask an expert for some advice – well, two none the less – who, I’m not exaggerating, are famous in the burly biz for creating some of the most iconic costumes to have graced the stage. They’re so famous in fact that I’m not sure they really need an introduction…
Legendary performer Catherine D’Lish has built a reputation as the best burlesque costume designer and creative director in the business. She has created dazzling costumes that are ornately hand-jewelled and feathered, with laborious attention to detail not commonly seen today. Catherine is well known for her work as creative director/costumer/choreographer for Dita Von Teese. The shows and costumes she has created have earned international recognition and acclaim.
After spending three years making the documentary The Velvet Hammer Burlesque it was no wonder that Penny Starr Jr. decided to pick up the mantle held by her grandmother, Philadelphia burlesque dancer, Penny Starr. Together they have performed the first and only grandmother/granddaughter striptease act, and in 2004, a year after starting to perform, Penny Starr Jr. became First Runner-Up at the annual Miss Exotic World (Burlesque Hall of Fame) burlesque pageant. As well as performing, Penny is one of the industry’s most sought after costume and accessories designers with over twenty years experience.
Here’s what the ladies had to say about the technicalities of taking your kit off and making sure your costume’s fit for purpose.
Velcro is up there on the performer pet hate list – does it ever have its uses?
Catherine D’Lish: There may be a stigma associated with it, but velcro doesn’t really deserve its bad rap. There are many places that velcro would be a bad choice; it adds bulk and one side can really snag. On the other hand, it might be a great choice for some functions, and it is very easy to apply.
Penny Starr Jr.: Yes. I use it in small quantities to hold things in place. Part of the problem is velcro will stick to things you do not want it to stick to – like your gloves. And if you use a lot of it, there’s that oh-so-sexy noise to accompany it!
You want to pull a garment away in one swift move – like breakaway pants – what fastening would you recommend?
PSJ: Velcro is good for breakaway pants if 1) you use small pieces dotted along the seam, 2) you have a placket to cover where the seam may gap between the velcro, and 3) you have the upper body strength to pull that nonsense straight off. For slow and sexy, use snap tape. (I myself like to have pants that are three sizes too big; I open them and with a few weights in the pockets it crashes to the floor. Yeah gravity!) With pants, you just have to know what it takes to get them off – are you ripping Chippendale style or popping each snap on the beat? Make sure your choreo/music accentuates that and that you leave enough room in your choreo to get them off.
CD: Snap tape is very useful for breakaway garments, and is less time-consuming to apply than individual snaps. However, this depends on the stress put on the garment before the big ‘breakaway’ moment. Snap tape isn’t mucho macho, so I wouldn’t suggest it for seams that are very tight when worn.
On the other hand, say you’re going for the slow tease and gradual reveal – what’s the best type of fastening to use?
PSJ: I’d say the same rules apply as above.
CD: Every fastening conundrum totally depends on very specific factors that are unique to each project. Choosing the best fastener is a decision best made after carefully considering the type of fabric/materials, location on the body, desired effect, aesthetics, etc.
The best advice I can give is to spend oodles of time practicing with your fastenings so that either they become second nature or you realise you’ve made a bad choice… and there’s still time to change it for a different type of fastener.
Panties and panels – side ties or snaps?
CD: This also is a question that is best answered after giving thought to the costume you’re putting together. Will your fastener be bulky underneath an outer layer? Would hooks be a better choice?
PSJ: I love snaps, because as long as I can get my thumbnail between the two, I will never get stuck. In my History of Striptease act, my panel belt is actually velcro; I grab it in the middle, it separates and gets tossed in two different directions and is gone like a magic trick.
Dresses – side zipper or back zipper?
CD: Depends on the dress. Depends on you. Depends on what looks best. I’ve seen some pretty unfortunate zipper decisions that take an otherwise moderately attractive dress and put an awkward zipper where it just doesn’t look so great.
PSJ: Again, depends on the dress (are you using a thrift store find? Then use the placement the dress already has). It also depends on your flexibility: I can do a back zip, no problem, but Penny Sr. can’t get her arm to her back, so she needs a side zip.
Magnets – when should and shouldn’t you use them?
PSJ: Oh, everyone wants magnets now! I have a magnetic belt on my Charles Dickens act, and the first time I popped the belt, it flew open, snapped back, and the magnet connected itself again. Couldn’t do that again if I tried.
I like to use them if I need to put something ON and can’t/don’t want patches of velcro on me/my costume. They can be hidden on the backside of the costume and covered so as to not be visible to the audience.
One note: I built magnets into the tassticle I built for Eddie Van Glam’s Macho Man act (in the act, he adds the tassticle at the end). He originally bought dime-sized super magnets and the force in them made them snap together from a great distance and with considerable force! I looked at him and told him I would not recommend using those near his penis, and I used smaller ones that were less dangerous.
CD: Don’t put very strong magnets right over your pacemaker. Besides that, magnets can be fun to experiment with. They will work great for some things, and give you a faster strip than you had planned in other things…
Snaps and poppers – can you do anything to prevent them losing their snap over time, or is it just a case of regularly replacing them?
PSJ: Nope. Just replace them. Everything in the world needs maintenance, costumes are no different.
CD: I haven’t yet run into any of mine losing their grip, but if they did, a replacement seems like a very smart decision.
Corsets – hook and eye (busk) or zipper?
CD: I personally prefer a traditional corset closure, but I think this is a choice based on one’s individual taste.
PSJ: It depends. If I wear a corset on stage and I’m not taking it off, a busk is fine. If I’m going to take a corset off on stage, then zipper. Mostly because if I have to watch another broad ball-change while she unlaces herself for 32 counts I’M GOING TO SCREAM. Ladies! Get some real choreography while you’re doing that business.
Any fastenings that performers should avoid like the plague?
PSJ: Buttons can be tricky. I tell my students they may want to sew snaps underneath and mime opening the button. I’ve used hat pins (super important to have a big jewelled one so the pick-up artiste can find it easily and no one gets stabbed doing floor work later in the show). I’ve use hair clips. I’ve sewed myself in and torn it. I’ve cut myself out of things (with either my not-sharp kitchen shears or bandage scissors).
The bottom line is that you work with the costume and choreo. As we all know, when making a new act costume and choreo are a snake biting its own tail: you may have to alter the costume to fit how you want to remove it during the song, or you may have to alter your moves to cover a garment coming off.
CD: I think that fasteners that damage your garment are best avoided; other than that, fasten away to your heart’s desire! Experimenting with different costuming techniques can be educational and fun. There is no ‘fastener law’ that needs to be followed; I recommend trial and error. Mostly trial (but errors happen).
Thanks ladies, you’ve definitely inspired me to start having a play and let go of my fastening fears!
Jenni Fleur Silver AKA The Burly Baker is a performer and lover of all things burlesque and baking. When she’s not whipping up a snowstorm of sugar and sprinkles in the kitchen for her business Burlesque Bakery, she can be found taking to the stage teasing and tantalising audiences across the UK, as well as hosting her own burlesque and radio shows. www.BurlesqueBakery.co.uk
21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.