Making a Dress Into a Dance Costume

Aug 17, 2021 | Dance Costumes, Theatrical Costumes

Selecting Dresses for Dance Costumes

With a few alterations, some dresses lend themselves well to conversion to costumes for heavy dance roles. The best dresses for dance costumes meet these criteria:

  1. Are either a loose style, or are made of fabric that stretches (not as much as a leotard, necessarily, but at least some stretch).
  2. Are hemmed above the dancer’s knees, or have only loose sections below the knee.
  3. Have reinforced seams (especially for muscular “power” dancers) so the seams don’t bust during a dance scene.
  4. Any details and color variations are bold or large enough to be visible from the audience.

Chicago’s opening number traditionally calls for all-black sleek costumes. However, a few years ago I costumed a high school production of “Chicago”, and the director requested true-to-period opening number dresses for the female ensemble. For these costumes, I started with purchased dresses and made them “dance-able”.

Altering the Dresses

To make the ensemble costumes pictured, I began by searching Amazon for “pink 1920’s dress”. This led to the stretch, fringed dress pictured. This exact dress is no longer available, but a similar one can be viewed here.

The dress fabric had enough stretch to allow the actors to dance. The style was also cut a bit loose, which allowed for movement. But the lining was originally much longer than the body of the dress, extending a few inches beyond the top fringe edge.

The dancers in this number had some “big” dance moves, including high kicks, and the extra lining restricted their leg movement. So, I made the dresses more dance-able by cutting off the lining at the top edge of the fringe, and sewing the lining and body fabric together along the top edge of the fringe. The fabric was knit that didn’t need to be hemmed. So I just cut off the lining and sewed the edge to the main fabric. 

For this dress, the shoulder seams were too weak to hold together for some of the stronger dancers, so I sewed a reinforcing seam by hand along shoulder seams for the more active dancers.

Opening Number Dress

Mid-Dress Alterations for Shorter Dancers

Because most of the length of this dress was in the fringe, the length worked as a dance costume for almost all of the ensemble actresses. However, three of the girls were 5’0” or shorter, and the bottom of the fringe originally hit close to their ankles. There was a natural break in the design 6” from the top of the fringe, so I took out 6” of fabric to make the dresses shorter for these girls.

Here’s how I shortened the dresses:

  1. With white tailor’s chalk, I drew a line 6” up from the top of the fringe around the entire dress.
  2. I removed the bottom fringe section from the dress and cut the dress and lining fabric at the chalk line.
  3. I sewed the fringe back onto the dress.

This made the dance costumes for the shorter girls blend in with the rest of the ensemble, while keeping the full fringe length. In the ensemble picture, the actress on the far right is wearing one of these shortened costumes. As you can see, her costume blends with the others, without emphasizing the fact that she is much smaller than the other girls around her.

Shortened dress - Pinned

Accessorizing

Some of the dancers in this number performed high kicks and other moves that required wearing shorts for modesty. Because these costumes had dark trim and decorations, the dancers wore regular black dance shorts under the dresses.. 

We made the headpieces for this costume by starting with a length of stretch sequins to fit around the actor’s head. We glued the ends of the trim together with e6000 glue or a hot glue gun and attached an ostrich feather at the center back.

Long stretch gloves were the only other accessory we used with this costume. These can be purchased cheaply on the internet. Remember that, from the audience, no one will be able to tell whether you paid $3 or $10 for a pair of gloves.

When shopping for dance costume pieces such as gloves, keep in mind that some of the less expensive items on Amazon or eBay are shipped from China. To get the cheaper pieces, you’ll need to allow more time for delivery.

Gloves can be adjusted to fit smaller actors. For gloves that were too large, I bought  hair ties that matched the gloves and secured them around the top of the gloves. This kept the gloves from slipping down during dance numbers.