Enhance Your Tutu Expertise
November 1, 2007

Nothing says “ballet” like a tutu. If you’re planning a big ballet number or production, there are many ways of getting the right tutus for your aesthetic and budget. You can work with a professional tutu-maker, buy them ready-made from costume companies, get plain tutus to decorate yourself or even ask skilled parents to make them. Here’s what you need to know to make the leap into tulle.


The Anatomy Of A Tutu

Before designing or purchasing tutus, consider the age and body type and technical ability of your students. Catherine Kingsley, artistic director of the Anglo-American Ballet in New York City, believes that teenage female students often look best in skirts that are at or below the knee. Other teachers prefer the line of a short tutu to show student’s placement.

The next step is to familiarize yourself with different types of fabrics for the bodice, skirt and knicker (the costumer’s term for panties or trunks). The bodice is usually constructed either of  woven fabric with boning or stretch fabric, each of which has advantages and drawbacks in terms of support and flexibility.

As for the skirt, you’ll need to consider the width, number of net or tulle layers and whether or not it will have a hoop. Hoops are used to make the skirt stick out more from the hip and help it maintain its shape over time. Many costume makers use stiffer net for the lower tutu layers and softer tulle for the top layers, which are added just before the decorative plate to give the tutu a softer, more delicate look. “This is why you can’t dress up a practice tutu for performance purposes,” explains Mona Rose Lujano, a California-based tutu designer and maker. “Practice tutus are made of stiffer net and simply don’t have that refined look.”

In terms of construction, Russian-style tutus tend to have hoops, wider skirts and more layers of tulle, and are generally flatter than their English-style counterparts. “The Russian style is believed to give ballerinas a more romantic, feminine look,” says Olga Ousmanova of New Design Concepts, a New York City-based company that builds custom costumes for men and women in the Kirov and Bolshoi traditions. On the other hand, “wider tutu skirts are often harder to transport and more easily damaged during partnering,” notes Ken Brisbin, costume maker and designer for the Boston Ballet and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

The tutu knicker can be cut according to a dancer’s comfort. Russian-style costume knickers are usually cut higher on the hip, which is thought to give the dancer a longer leg line.


Custom Costumes

If you decide to get tutus custom-made, New York City Ballet’s Director of Costumes, Holly Hynes, suggests contacting the costume department of a professional ballet company if you live in or near a city that has one. Many costume makers are willing to do freelance work on the side. However, “be sure to ask about the price first,” warns Helena Pokorny, a soloist with the Aeolian Ballet Theatre in Los Angeles, speaking from experience.

Freelance costume makers often have access to a wide selection of fabrics and materials and can work with you one-on-one to incorporate your specific design requests. A local costumer can also do as many personal fittings as necessary, usually constructing a muslin mock-up of the bodice for sizing and then using it as a template for the actual costume. Andrea Long, a principal dancer with NYC’s Dance Theatre of Harlem, recommends having the dancer move around—bending forward and back, lifting her arms and legs—during the fitting process, to make sure there is no restriction in her movement. “Two to three fittings is the norm for building a custom tutu,” notes Jan Miller, a teacher and costume designer for the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts/Riverfront.

Brett Weidlich, ballet master at the Conejo Civic Ballet Company in California, recommends that dancers always rehearse in finished costumes prior to performance. “The fit should be snug but comfortable,” says Long, adding, “Sweat changes the configuration of the costume, and it may fit a little looser once it’s been worn a couple of times.”


Do It Yourself

Another option favored by many dance schools is to buy pre-made tutus and decorate them by hand. Decoration should be simple and elegant. For partnering, it is important that the woman’s bodice be minimally decorated around the waist, stomach and back, and that both tunics and tutus be free of sharp ornaments that might cut a partner’s hands or get stuck to another costume.

According to Miller, basic tutus can be built on regular cotton stretch leotards using a strip of basque (strong muslin fabric), onto which layers of tulle are sewn. Lycra strips can be inserted in the basque strip on both sides to allow the skirt some give so that it can be worn by dancers of different sizes. If the bodices are separate, stretch fabrics such as Lycra or stretch velvet give you the most flexibility for fitting a variety of dancers and are the easiest to maintain, since they can be hand-washed.

If parents are experienced sewers, they can be recruited to make a series of costumes from scratch. In this case, “have them make a single piece first to make sure the finished product is what you want,” urges Elizabeth Fernandez, founder and co-artistic director of the New American Youth Ballet in NYC. This avoids costly and time-consuming changes later on. Parents can also be recruited to alter or embellish costumes. According to Kingsley, some schools hire professionals to cut the fabric for costumes and then have parents sew the garments. Fernandez notes that parents often add their own touches to a costume, which can make each one unique and avoid a “stamped-out” look. This is useful for production scenes depicting a community, in which dancers should look similar but not identical.

On the other hand, it is also important to be very specific with parents about the type and amount of embellishment allowed on costumes. “Dance directors really have to lay down the law on this,” Miller emphasizes. “Otherwise, some parents will add extra trimming or some other element to make their child stand out on stage.”


Ballet on a Budget

Even if your studio typically asks students to buy their own costumes, you should consider buying tutus for the studio and keeping them, since they’re both more expensive and more versatile than many other costumes. Companies that repeat the same production each year—like The Nutcracker—may incur a substantial costume expense initially, but can recoup this expenditure over time by charging students a costume rental fee or a fee for being in the production. “It is important to build up a stock of costumes that can be re-used for subsequent productions,” notes Kingsley. “For example, a Giselle peasant can be a Coppélia peasant the following year.”

Fernandez urges school directors to “keep their eyes open, as donations can come from unlikely places.” Last year, Fernandez noticed that a large retail women’s clothing chain was using child-size tulle skirts in its window displays. When she told store managers about her school, the company decided to donate the entire stock of skirts from all its displays. Donated costumes from professional dance companies are also extremely useful because of their quality and durability, although alterations may require considerable time and expense. But no matter what your budget, there’s a tutu within your company’s reach. DT


Sigrid J. Aarons is a New York City-based dancer, public health specialist, fitness instructor and freelance writer.

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