Posted on 16 December 2021 By Behind Ballet Editorial Team

Over the 60-year life of our company, the way we make and maintain our costumes has evolved. Technological innovations and ingenious solutions have made fitting, dyeing, adorning and cleaning our costumes easier, faster and safer (for instance, we no longer use highly flammable formaldehyde to stiffen tutu nets). The head of our costume department, Musette Molyneaux, tells us some trade secrets.

Thank you to our Living Heritage Partner CHANEL, who is helping us to protect our precious assets for future generations.

How have fabrics changed over the last few decades?

What has been the biggest boon for ballet costumiers is the amount of research and development that’s gone into creating synthetic fibres that really do mimic natural fibres. In the past it was always very obvious when you used a synthetic fabric in place of, say, a silk. It wouldn’t light the same, it wouldn’t move or fall the same – so the designer would always want the silk. However, in the last ten years, we’ve been able to source synthetic blends that behave like natural fibres. The advantage of using them is that they are better at taking wear and tear, and last longer. 

At the same time, there’s been a deterioration in some natural fabrics. In the past, if we used a 100% silk for a jacket or bodice, we would know that we’d get at least ten years’ wear out of it. Now, we’d be lucky to get five. It seems that companies are trying to cut costs, so the silk fibres are getting thinned out and filled out with synthetics. It looks thick and lush when it’s new, but as soon as you clean it once, all those fillers wash away and it becomes very thin and see-through. With the amount of effort that goes into making our costumes, we want to get at least 20 years out of them before we’d need to start replacing sections of them (say, ten years for a lycra costume).

Photography Kate Longley

How have these new fabrics made life easier for you?

There are many more blends and mixtures available now. For instance, we can now get a silk chiffon that has a percentage of stretch in it. Anything that stretches is invaluable for ballet, for obvious reasons. The men’s trousers in Harlequinade are made from a really heavy stretch satin. In Anna Karenina, the men’s tails suits are made from a stretch wool. So these costumes can be cut very close to the body, which looks good, but the dancers still have a full range of movement.

The things you can do with stretch fabrics has also changed. In the past, if we wanted a reflective element on a costume, you would have to hand-sew the sequin or stone to the garment. About 20 years ago, we started hot-fixing them. At first we were wary of this method, where you glue the embellishment on: if one falls off during a performance and is lying on the ground, it can be dangerous for the dancers, someone might slip and fall. It wasn’t until Swarovski brought out really good-quality hot-fixed crystals with a strong, reliable glue that we embraced hot-fixing. But now, there are even more techniques available. You can get iron-on sequins, and iron-on foils that will shine under lights. You can even get foils printed with the pattern you want.

Photography John Tsaivis

Tell us more about how digital printing has changed ballet design.

Digital printing has revolutionised how we add decoration to costumes. It’s so much faster, and we can use it on more costumes in a production and still be cost-effective. Previously, adding decoration was done by hand. Hand-painting is a very specialist skill. You’d only have so many people that were qualified and available to do it, and because it was so labour-intensive, it was very costly; so only the certain featured costumes could be decorated in this way. It was the same with decoration done by sewing on appliqués or multiple layers of braid. You look at productions like Coppélia, where Kristian Fredrikson’s designs have appliqué, and braid, and beads … very hard work! Now you can scan or photograph those elements, print them out, and put them on the pattern pieces before the costume is made. It’s cheaper and quicker to make; it’s also much lighter for the dancer to wear.

Do any of the traditional ways of decorating survive?

Some designers still like to have an element of hand-work on their costumes: for instance, the designer for David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty, Gabriela Tylesova, together with our dyeing and costume-prop specialist Lynn Munro, hand-painted all the fairies’ costumes to give that extra depth. Hugh Colman [who has designed productions of The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Ballet Imperial for The Australian Ballet] is a mean hot-fixer. Give him some hot glue and the bead wall and he’ll go crazy!

How about dyeing?
As fabrics have evolved and different blends have become available, the dye market has expanded alongside it, and you can get dyes to target specific fibres. That’s very helpful where you have something like a brocade, where you might have two different types of fabric, one shiny and one matte, and you want to highlight only one of them – you can target that fabric. It gives you a more nuanced look.

Photography Kate Longley

So, what is tutu droop?
It’s really challenging to keep tutus fluffy. In the past tutus were stiffened with formaldehyde, but that was stopped because it is highly flammable. It was highly effective, though! You can take out one of our tutus from the 1960s and put it on a mannequin and it’s still standing out nice and stiff, because the net has never deteriorated. We went through a period of sourcing all our nets from a UK supplier who specialises in flame-free net – it has a water-based stiffening on it. But we found that with sweat, and cleaning, the stiffening comes out and the tutu loses its shape very quickly. We, along with every ballet company around the world, are constantly experimenting to try and combat tutu droop. We all swap information about net suppliers and cleaning. These days, we stiffen them with a spray developed for vertical blinds.

How are the tutus washed?
Because our ladies are partnered, their tutus get a double whammy of sweat – both from the ballerina and her partner’s hands. Tutus used to be spot-cleaned by a drycleaner, but we’ve recently changed the way we make them so they can get a more thorough wash. We attach the bodice to the basque (the part around the waist and hips) with buttons and elastic so that we can easily detach them. Then it’s a two-part process: the bottom half of the tutu is suspended in a tub of water, and the briefs are handwashed. They get hung up and dried, then they’re turned upside down and the basque gets handwashed in its turn. When you have a full set of 40 tutus, it’s quite labour-intensive, it can take a couple of weeks to clean them all!