Opening a series on burlesque costume, legendary performer, author and instructor Jo Weldon interviews noted burlesque costumier Christina Manuge of Manuge Et Toi.
I worked as a costumer for feature dancers in the early 1990s while I was healing from a car accident and couldn’t dance, and although I had been able to sew since I was very young, it gave me a lot of insight into the particular challenges of creating one-of-a-kind costumes for striptease. I’m doing a series of interviews with some of the most admired costumiers in burlesque to give a greater understanding of the amount of creativity from both the performer and the costumier in these unique collaborations.
It’s totally understandable that some people feel too much emphasis is placed on costuming in burlesque, but I’m not sure I agree. I think that any time only one element of burlesque is given priority in a number, the number will be weaker. Only costume, only dance, only sex, only humour, only shock value – any narrow focus can weaken a number.
Burlesque is a visual art as well as a performative art; costuming, sometimes even by its conscious minimisation, is part of the joy of the form. Effective costuming can provide immediate audience identification, help the performer discover unusual movement opportunities, and can amuse, dazzle and inform the audience. In some cases, the costume itself IS the choreography, and there is a choreography of events (this glove drops now, with this drum beat; this zipper goes down, with these horns; this robe floats higher, with this piano crescendo) that defines many burlesque numbers. Innovation in costuming is part of the pleasure for many performers, and working on their visions with a costume maker as a collaborator is a way to discover unexpected possibilities. Understanding what it takes to create a burlesque costume seems a natural way to understand a performing art that is at least partly about taking it off.
Not to mention, some of us are just costume junkies!
In this interview with Christina Manuge of Manuge Et Toi, she honestly discusses some of the creative and professional challenges in her collaborative art form.
Jo Weldon: What is your background in garment construction and/or design and/or ornamentation?
Christina Manuge: I started by making and designing my own clothes when I was a teenager. I took fashion and millinery classes at Seneca and George Brown. My specialties, however, are mostly self taught. I’ve been the singular person behind Manuge et Toi Design, specialising in bespoke corsets, burlesque costumes and special occasion lingerie since 2008.
How long have you been costuming? How did you become involved in burlesque costuming?
I stumbled into costuming, actually. Seven or eight years ago, I decided that I didn’t want to be a fashion designer after all and didn’t even really like sewing! Then I spent a year training to become a special effects makeup artist, where I met someone who had taken a class from Coco Framboise. She heard one day that Coco was in need of emergency costume services and, knowing of my background, recommended me without asking. Having quit my job not long before, I hesitantly agreed to meet with Mlle. Framboise.
She inspired me immediately! I left the meeting with tons of exciting ideas, and a mission. Two weeks later, I delivered the peach and green set for her Candy Apple act. Coco was so pleased, supportive and encouraging that I couldn’t help but keep going. She threw clients at me, booked me for several more commissions herself, involved me in the first annual Toronto Burlesque Festival… and before I knew it, I was in business! I sold my makeup kit and never looked back.
What are some of the specific challenges of burlesque costuming?
Burlesque costuming offers so many challenges! Each performer is unique, and their costumes must follow suit. Budgets and time are often very limited. Innovation is par for the course. As a burlesque costumier you have to be versatile, and proficient even at things you’ve never tried before. Every costume is a challenge, and when you succeed, it can feel as though you’ve worked magic!
Describe one or two of your favourite projects – or most recent or most challenging, if you don’t want to ‘play favourites’.
My favourite projects as of late have been working on made-to-order designs for my online Etsy shop. I get to make pretty much whatever strikes my fancy, so it’s a great creative outlet. Manuge et Toi custom commissions are designed exclusively for each individual client. So it’s also surprisingly satisfying for me, knowing that every made-to-order design can be used more than just once!
My most challenging project in recent times has been the gown and corset for Roxi D’Lite’s newest act, Madame X. Many tests and fittings went into getting this gown just right! It’s made out of organza, which, as any dressmaker will tell you, is NOT the fabric to use for a tight fitting, wiggle skirted evening gown! Roxi and I knew this going in, but we chose it anyway. The bottom of the gown transitions into a huge ruffle-like accordion structure. On stage it glides about at Roxi’s knees, boasting a spread almost as wide as she is tall. For travel, it smartly folds down to fit into a slender box, about half the size of a garment bag.
I always like to challenge myself with designs, and the Madame X corset was no exception. Incorporating two kinds of silk, architectural hip flares, a deadly neckline, and clever structural details; it was a bloody, sweaty, tearful task to build! As with every great project, though, I did feel like a magician when it was finished! When it comes down to it, I love this corset just because it’s beautiful.
What would you like to experience in your creativity and/or your business in the near future? In the long term of your business?
My ultimate wish is for Manuge et Toi to warrant historical recognition. Like a modern day Gussie Gross, I hope to be referred to as somebody who made notable creative contributions, and perhaps was even integral to the growth and quality of burlesque in her time.
My more immediate goal, however, is not nearly as romantic: I want to make a profit. Honestly, I can’t even claim to have made a living from Manuge et Toi, even though it’s been my full-time job since day one. It took years of struggle to come to this realisation: being an artist, artisan, or performer does not make you any less worthy of fair pay than anyone with a ‘regular’ job! I’m focused now on turning Manuge et Toi into a viable, sustainable business.
My sincere hope is that by my own example I can inspire others, and help to change the tide within our little burlesque world. We all need to pull it together. We deserve respect and fair pay, and no one will give it to us unless we insist on it.
Jo Weldon, commonly known as Jo Boobs or Jo Boobs Weldon, is a performer, photographer, author, activist, educator, and essayist based in New York City. Weldon’s body of work centers around stripping and striptease. She established and runs the New York School of Burlesque and wrote The Burlesque Handbook, the first manual ever published on how to create classical and neo-burlesque routines. Weldon is active in the burlesque community, contributing her knowledge and experience to projects and collaborations. Though she now works in the theatrical world of burlesque Weldon has never lost the influence of, and inspiration from lap dancing and strip clubs. She continues to work as an advocate for sex worker rights and freedom of sexual expression.