David Bruce: Costumes Anecdotes


Emma Calvé 1897: By Théobald Chartran [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Early in her career, while making her first debuts on the operatic stage, Emma Calvé worried about her thin legs. Her mother didn’t help, as she referred to them as “spider’s legs.” Therefore, while singing the role of Cherubin in Noces de Figaro, she decided to do something about her thin legs and stuffed her tights with cotton so that she appeared to have calves instead of sticks. While singing, she was gratified to notice that the old gentlemen in the audience were looking at her calves through their opera glasses. However, during intermission the director told her, “What are those hideous lumps, I’d like to know! I am tempted to stick pins into them! Stupid child! Don’t you know that everyone is laughing at you? Do you expect anyone to believe that those fat excrescences belong to you! Take them off instantly!” In the second act, she appeared without enormous calves, a fact the audience noticed immediately and applauded uproariously.

When George Balanchine’s Four Temperaments was premiered at Ballet Society’s premier performance (a doubly historic event), everything was a smash success—except for the costumes, which had been designed by artist Kurt Seligmann, who neglected to design costumes that did not obscure the dancing. Mr. Balanchine was aware of the problem, and after the premiere, he asked Mr. Seligmann, “Can’t we modify and cut away fabric? Costumes are blocking choreography. No one can see steps.” Unfortunately, Mr. Seligmann objected, “If we cut fabric and change costumes, yes, we will see choreography, but then no one will see the designs. No one will see Seligmann!” For a while, at least, the costumes stayed.

In addition to being an innovator in dance techniques, modern dance pioneer Martha Graham was also a pioneer in costuming. In ballet, costumes reveal the legs; however, during Ms. Graham’s period of long woolens, she wore long woolen dresses that she would manipulate with her legs and body to stretch and create dramatic shapes. She took pains with her costumes, and if they weren’t right, she would tear them apart and work with them until they were right. Sometimes, her dancers would use safety pins to hold their costumes together because there had not been time to sew them together again in a new pattern after Ms. Graham had ripped them to pieces.

Opera singer Geraldine Farrar ran into problems with society women requesting the loan of her costumes to be used in programs to benefit charity. Early in her career, she granted these requests, but after several expensive costumes were returned in poor condition, she declined all of these requests. When a buxom woman wanted to borrow her second act Tosca costume and became obnoxious when she declined, Ms. Farrar told the woman, “Dear lady, until you can lift your façade and restrain your posterior, you would need not one but several of my Tosca dresses.”

In the musical One Touch of Venus, an ancient statue of the goddess of love comes to life. Nymphs are dancers in the play, and the costumer designed costumes that shocked choreographer Agnes de Mille, who pointed out, “There seem to be breasts under her arms and on her back, too.” The costumer replied, “You wouldn’t want ordinary anatomy on nymphs, surely!” (Fortunately, Ms. de Mille did want ordinary anatomy on the nymphs.”)

When she was seven years old, Beverly Sills was fortunate enough to see and hear Lily Pons in Lakmé at the New York Metropolitan Opera House. At her entrance, Ms. Pons made a major impression on the audience because her costume included a brief halter top, lots of skin, and a silken wrap around her hips. Young Beverly exclaimed, “Mama! Mama! Her belly button is showing!”

Christina Aguilera sang the song “Lady Marmalade” for the movie Moulin Rouge, and she starred in a video of the song. One day, she and her grandmother watched the video together; however, her grandmother was not positively impressed by Christina’s costumes for the video, telling her, “Christina, you look like a whore!”

Dance and dancers change over time. Alvin Ailey has said that members of his original company would not have been able to dance his later works such as Streams or Choral Dances. In fact, one of his original dancers told him, “We couldn’t have got into these leotards, never mind cope with the technical challenges.”

Olympic gold-medalist figure skater Sonja Henie felt very comfortable wearing her ice skates. In fact, when she felt uncomfortable filming a romantic scene with Tyrone Power for a movie, she mentioned that she would feel a lot more comfortable in the scene if she could wear her ice skates.

Choreographer George Balanchine was remarkably unperturbed during crises. In 1954, shortly before the premiere of his Nutcracker ballet, he learned that the costumes weren’t ready. Therefore, he picked up a needle and a costume and started sewing along with the seamstresses.

In 1949, Alicia Alonso and her dance troupe, Ballet Alicia Alonso, toured South America, where they sometimes endured financial distress. Once, Ms. Alonso needed a costume so she could dance The Dying Swan, so her mother made a costume out of a pair of curtains from their hotel.

Julia Marlowe believed in thoroughly preparing for her roles in plays by Shakespeare. Before appearing in King Henry IV, Part I, as Prince Hal, she actually wore the character’s armor at home until she felt comfortable in it!

While singing in Aida, Robert Merrill felt the strap of his sandal break, so he kicked the sandal into the orchestra pit. Unfortunately, a too-helpful musician picked it up and threw it back to him.

In 1907, Maude Allan danced her Vision of Salome in a then-shocking costume consisting only of strings of pearls that formed a loincloth and bra.

Opera singer Eileen Farrell was a large woman with a sense of humor. She once joked, “They’re shipping my costume in a boxcar.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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