Everyone has a different opinion on what they think is the “best” way to line and support a ballet bodice: bones or no bones, steel spirals or rigilene, coutil or a lighter weight lining. Stretch or woven top fabrics. Much depends on the opinions of those who often do not sew – the director/coach’s background, the age of the dancer, whether the tutu will be used for a couple of competitions a year, a one-city-each-night, 50-city-tour, or a professional company’s full-length ballet, in which the costumes won’t be re-designed for ten years or so, and need to last through eight shows a week for more than a few seasons.
My easy answer is this: Listen to the needs of the customer, make recommendations as their hired expert, and then either do what they want, or let them know you are not the best fit for their project. If what they insist upon just does not work with your aesthetic, saying ‘no’ is not a bad thing – it allows the customer to find what they want and allows the costumer to ethically maintain their own set of standards.
There are so many ways make a tutu and bodice well. It is a craft, as well as an art, and fascinating to see all the different ways costumers go about it. Lately, there has been a lot of talk about bodices being constrictive and not allowing the dancer to move in all the directions in which she needs to move. Dancers wear leotards for class and rehearsals, and the costumes often do not reflect the clothing-comfort with which the dancer has during rehearsal. For the younger, pre-professionals especially, this difference can be difficult to get used to.
Ballet is an art, and with all art, it is not static. It is constantly changing. The difference in the technical abilities of dancers over even a relatively short time, like twenty years, is huge. Legs are expected to go higher, pirouettes are expected to be multiple, not only double or triple. Cambré back is no longer just from the upper-back, shoulder-blade area only. Now dancers are expected to bend farther, turn more, twist, and switch directions with lightning speed. Gone are the days when a 90 degree arabesque was considered “high enough.”
All these things tell us intuitively, that the way bodices are made must change. But as all tutu makers know, there is nothing intuitive about making tutus and bodices. In fact, much of the process is counter-intuitive, but there are good reasons for why things are done the way they are done. There are changes happening that do need to happen, but throwing out all the ways things have been done for many years is not the answer either.
Young dancers, who do not have a lot of experience wearing professionally-made ballet bodices have the most trouble getting used to them. They are still used to less expensive, “catalog-style” costumes, made with un-lined, un-fitted lightweight lycra. What they don’t know, is that the stiffer linings, like coutil, a herringbone-weave, 100% cotton fabric, soften up after an hour or two of wear, due to the movements, heat of the body, and sweat. What feels stiff and constricting when first put on, will feel like part of their body very soon. The herringbone-weave keeps the bodice from stretching and becoming loose and baggy. If a sturdy, herringbone weave cotton, like coutil, softens up with heat, sweat, and movement, then what is happening to thinner, lighter weight fabrics? Which to use depends on how long you expect the costume to last. Serious, professional-track students need to get used to wearing professional-quality costumes. Recreational, student dancers do not. A costumer has to decide who her/his clientele is and must costume for that clientele.
Many people skip the step of washing and pressing the coutil before cutting it. You would be surprised to see where it has been before you get it – not-so-pristine warehouses, UPS trucks, shipping containers, etc. I recommend washing it for ballet bodices before cutting it for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it will be going next to the dancer’s skin, the pores of which open up when warm and sweaty. It is also 100% cotton, and sweat can make it shrink, which then will completely ruin the look of the outer fabric, especially if it does not shrink in the same manner as the lining. Washing it also softens it up enough to make it comfortable. The lining in ballet bodices is more important than the outer fabric as far as structure and longevity goes.
There are many other ways to line a ballet bodice and keep its structural integrity – baby flannel paired with a medium-thickness satin jacket lining, for one. Quilting the thinner inner fabrics together for strength before flat-lining them to the top fabrics can make a thinner, softer fabric structurally sound.
Many woven fabrics are made now with a touch of lycra added to the fabric. This gives the fabric breathability. We have found that a great way to give the dancers a high-quality bodice with more movement and comfort, is to use a woven fabric that has a touch of lycra in it, like a stretch taffeta or stretch brocade. We line the center front and center back pieces with coutil for structure, and line the side pieces with heavy powernet. This makes it easier to fit the bodice to more than one person, too. Heavy powernet is a medical-grade compression-type fabric. It stretches just enough for comfort, but has great “return,” so does not lose its ability to hold the shape of the bodice. We also use heavy powernet for classical tutu panties, and even for basques on rehearsal tutus and tutus with which a longline, Russian-style bodice will be used.
Now to bones. There are many different types of boning. What you choose to use depends on how much structure and support you are trying to create. For corsetry, very strong, solid metal bones are used. We do not use these for ballet bodices. For prom dresses and wedding gowns, rigilene and other lightweight plastic boning are used. We do not use either of these types of boning either.
For ballet bodices, we prefer either the steel spiral boning or, for even lighter support, the new Flexi-Stays, which are like steel spirals, but made of plastic. Both types allow for movement in all directions, not just front and back movements. Boning can help keep the bodice shape looking its best. Over the years, with all the changes in ballet technique, less bones are being used than in the past. For example, it used to be that all ballet bodices had bones in the center back. These bones make it easier for the dressers to hook and un-hook the bodice during a quick change and keep the center back of the bodice from looking wrinkly. But dancers tend to hate those bones in the center back and will often pull them out. They can inhibit the dancer’s use of her lower back, impeding her from getting her leg up and directly behind her in arabesque. Having the leg directly behind her in arabesque is an important part of ballet technique. Many costumers do not know enough about ballet technique to fully understand just how important this is to dancers, choreographers, and artistic directors.
We also do not ever put bones in the sides of a bodice. The side seams are where most alteration takes place. These days, bones are mostly used in the center front and bustline seams. Some dancers like the bones to go all the way up over the bust to help support and keep the breasts from moving. Some prefer the bones to be placed to support the body from under the bustline to the waist only. Bones can be placed on the seams or on the linings centered on the pattern pieces. If placed on the linings, using bone casing or Prussian tape, then it is easier to alter seams, but you must be careful not to press the shape of the bone into the top fabric. If placed on the seams, you can also use bone casing or Prussian tape, stitching it only to the seam allowances, or you can stitch down the seam allowances, through all thicknesses, creating a self-casing in which to place the bone.
Bottom line: Know your clientele and what they want and need. Keep an open mind to different techniques and new ideas – the more you learn, the better informed and less opinionated you will be, and the more able to please your customers. Find ways to balance the aesthetic needs of the construction with the movement and comfort needs of the dancer. Remember that in the ballet world, costumers are part of the support team, not the star of the show. Our job is to make the dancers look and feel beautiful.