Tanya Cheex shares this fantastic interview with her "Costume Fairy Godmother," Penny Starr Jr. "Whenever I have a costume dilemma, I drop her a line," says Tanya. "If you're ever in LA, ask her for her costume making tour to the garment district. It worth the price of rhinestones!"
What is the importance of costuming to the burlesque performance? Do you come up with the act or the costume first?
It's incredibly important. The costume is the first thing your audience sees and telegraphs what the audience should think about your act. Are you a demure lady? Are you a greasy mechanic? As to what comes first, for me it can be anything that hits me first: a song, the costume, the dance. I've had a Napoleon act in the pipeline for years now - I just can't find the right song.
When did you realize that your costumes had to be custom made and not off the rack?
As a set costumer for TV and films, almost everything you see on an actor has been altered to fit them. I still buy a lot of things from costume shops and thrift stores, but I alter my costumes or make them from scratch. And of course, embellish, embellish, embellish!
What are your favorite costumes that you've made? What was the most challenging?
Well, James Bond, which features over 3000 rhinestones (and growing - I keep adding pieces to this costume). My favorite part of this is the very 007 way I take off the tux shirt. The shirt is mounted to a corset with a front zipper, and the zipper pull is the bow-tie. I pull down on the bow tie and the shirt comes off. Hidden under that is a showgirl ass-swag that is beaded and drops down.
Every costume I do is a feat of engineering - nothing beats hearing an audience gasp as something comes off in an inventive way - I tend to spend time wandering around hardware stores looking at chicken wire, PVC tubing, brads, etc.
What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you while making something?
Since there can be a lot of downtime on a set, I tend to bring my costumes to work to bead. I was making pink pearl pasties when the assistant director asked if I were making little hats. I said, "yes, but not for your head".
What materials do you get the most excited about working with?
I love the ease of spandex and swimwear materials because it's forgiving when my weight fluctuates (and whose doesn't?) and if I'm in a pinch, you don't have to hem it because it doesn't fray.
Explain the importance of closures and fastenings on costumes for the burlesque artist.
Well, it's all engineering. And it all has to work within the design of the costume and the choreography. I have one costume that has the tiniest amount of Velcro - I am very still until the music changes, and all I have to do it breath out and the whole thing pops off. But coming to this was trickier than it sounds: using the right amount of Velcro, rehearsing with the music, finding the right color of Velcro so the audience wouldn't see a big patch of it on my costume, etc. It's all a process of trial and error. Sometimes I don't know how to fix an issue until I've performed an act for months.
What was your most bizarre costume?
I just did a Salvador Dali number that was based on the dream sequence from the movie Spellbound. The outer dress is a dark green dress with eyes all over it. I wear a white piece over my face (it's tucked under the wig). As per the film, I "cut" the dress off. There is a line of velcro hidden under the eyes, and I use kitchen scissors. Kitchen scissors are not very sharp and come apart in the middle. This ensures that 1)I don't actually cut the fabric of the dress 2)I can't cut myself and 3)if something goes wrong, the scissors will separate rather than cut. From there I wore a green slip and flapper beads and under that I had a sheer shimmy belt over a g-string with a brown bugle bead "bush" and two different pasties, one lobster and one fake nipple with ants coming out of it.
The one thing about this act was this: although I had manage to "hit" all the Dali-isms, when I sat down to conceive the act around it, it was not entertaining at all! It was literally going from one costume to the next. So the real challenge was being able to link these tableaux with the dance and music.
What tips can you offer those who aren't crafty? What one Penny Starr Jr. secret can you divulge?
Learn to hand stitch! Really, it's as simple as going up and down through the fabric, but keep the stitches small and the more you do it, the better you will get. I advocate stitching over gluing because sewing is archival and will stand up to the stage better than glue. Yes, you should glue anything small like rhinestones and sequins, but when it comes to fringe or applique, if you sew it wrong, or you want to move that piece of trim to a new costume, you can always rip the stitches out and re-sew it.
If you had an unlimited budget what would you make?
Something Ziegfeld: dripping with pearls, giant headdress, an actual set, maybe with a light up staircase and a chorus line in matching costumes. But that's just off the top of my head.
What fuels an outfit?
Three things. Attitude! I've seen beautiful women with no eye contact or connection to the audience. No matter what they spend on their costume, they are never going to be as exciting to watch as someone who really engages and audience.
Posture! There's no point in being in a beaded gown if you can't stand up straight.
And dance! We are burlesque dancers, and so many of us ignore the dance part and don't study. And it's not that I have something against pantomime acts, but that should also be a skill to be studied.
Where can we learn to make our own costumes- what workshops do you offer?
I have several that I teach in LA as part of Striptease Symposium (the all-inclusive burlesque classes I teach with Jewel of Denial) on costume design, embellishment, rhinestone principles. I am hoping to put these workshops on DVD this year.
I'm very excited about a class I am developing on new mediums like Crayola's model magic clay and fabric you can put in your printer. There's so many great things you can work with that people don't know about because quiet honestly, who has the money to buy stuff they may never use?
Photo by Don Spiro