Anatomy of a Burlesque Costume: The Suitcase Act

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Suitcase Act BurlesqueOne of the things I get asked most by audience members and girls who want to get into burlesque is “Where do you get your costumes?” Of course, there is no one answer to this question. Some costumes are handmade, some custom ordered, some are off the rack (yes, I do use some off the rack costumes, don’t shoot me!). As a result of this, I decided to put together this series, breaking down my costumes into their smallest parts for education purposes. It is implied (or I guess I’ll just outright say it) that while you are obviously welcome to steal some of my suppliers and techniques, make them your own please, don’t steal my concept and my costumes! It’s not nice! For this, the first entry in the series, I decided to focus on my very first, and most likely my simplest costume, that of my Suitcase Act, which I debuted with the Danger Damsels back in March of 2014.

Costume inspiration can come from many places. Perhaps it comes from a theme or concept, perhaps it comes more heavily from the music, who knows? For me all of these things are very fluid and have a tendency to all muddle together in my brain until I have a genuine “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” question on my hands. In the case of The Suitcase Act, the costume and props were inspired partially from the concept (I really wanted to strip into a suitcase and leave no clothes on the stage), and partially by the music, which heavily represented the 40’s.

Suitcase Act BurlesqueBecause my concept began with the suitcase, I had this idea in my head that my “character” in this act was traveling somewhere. Where she is traveling, I have no idea, but I felt strongly that the outside of the costume should very much look like 40’s type traveling clothes. At first I believed this to be 40’s style clothes covered by a classic trench coat, but I didn’t like my trench coat options, so I began to investigate alternatives. What I found was a trench coat dress at Unique Vintage for a very affordable price. When it arrived, and fit absolutely perfectly, I quickly found that the buttons would not hold up to repeated rehearsals, and that the sleeves were a little snug to get on and off easily. I often have to make adjustments to off the rack items that I use for costumes, putting in heavier duty zippers, hemming, embellishing, that sort of thing. I was thrilled that this dress needed very little alteration to work well for my act. What I ended up doing was removing all of the buttons, then sewing them all back on with an elastic thread to aid in using it over and over, and let out the edges of the sleeves.

Next I began looking for a hat. If you watch old 40’s movies where female (or male for that matter) characters are traveling a lot, they are always wearing hats. I was looking in particular for a little pillbox hat of some kind, and ended up finding several at reasonable prices on Etsy, and ordered them all (there were 4 with the right color profile) so that I could try them on and determine which would work best. I settled on one that was black velvet with a bit of birdcage veiling and a beaded accent. It looks great with the dress.

Suitcase ActThe easiest part for me was finding the little things. I went with a true vintage suitcase found in a relative’s home, basic black dance shoes, and the same cuban heeled thigh highs you can find in basically any lingerie shop. The underpinnings were a bit harder. Finding a bra in my size is incredibly difficult, and being that this was my first act, I was loathe to try to make something myself. I ended up with a lace over taupe bra that I then embellished with black sequins to add a bit of flair. I wasn’t sure I was ready to try a thong on stage (I still haven’t actually done that!), so I went with a pair of high-waisted dance shorts from Discount Dance Supply and a basic black garter belt that I already had laying around my house. I finished off the look with a steel boned corset from Corset Story, a pair of pasties from Yandy (I now make most of my own pasties, but you have to start somewhere), and a pair of brown driving gloves I ordered from Amazon.

I know that it is shocking that most of these things were just purchased and put onstage without embellishment or alteration, but I think it’s important for newcomers who are looking at the burlesque GREATS and saying they can’t afford to start performing because they can’t afford a custom made costume to realize that it isn’t about where your costume came from or how much it cost, it IS about how you use it to your advantage. Anything can be a costume, literally anything.

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