David Bruce: Costumes Anecdotes

The British tongue-in-cheek spy series The Avengers was known for its leather costumes for its female leads—and for frequently tying up its female leads. Patrick Macnee, who played John Steed, had a friend who wore custom-made leather underwear. This friend introduced him to a man who claimed that the series’ ratings would improve if it used leather costumes and fetishism. Honor Blackman, who played Mrs. Gale, the series first sexy female lead, wore the leather, but complained, “It creaks when I walk and smells terrible.” Mr. Macnee and Ms. Blackman once recorded a song titled “Kinky Boots,” whose lyrics included, “Fashion magazines say ‘Wear ’em!’ … And you rush to obey like the women in the harem … Footwear manufacturers are gathering the fruits … KINKY BOOTS! … Advertising men say ‘Try ’em’ … And you all run amok to buy ’em.”

Tenor Pietro Mongini (1830-1874) once was insulted because a tailor had made his costume too small. He threatened not to go on stage to sing, but impresario James H. Mapleson promised him that he would fire the tailor and force him, his wife, and his four children to starve. Mollified, Mr. Mongini performed, and the next day Colonel Mapleson secretly informed the tailor that he had a wife and four children (the tailor was actually single), then fired him in front of Mr. Mongini. Horrified at what had happened and worried that he would be the cause of the tailor’s family starving, Mr. Mongini begged Colonel Mapleson to re-hire the tailor, which of course he willingly did.

Ballet costumes are usually owned by the ballet companies, not by the dancers—although they do supply their own leotards. This means that they are worn by more than one dancer. Alicia Markova insisted that her costumes be cleaned each time she was to wear them. At a performance of Romeo and Juliet, Nora Kaye came backstage to change into her next costume—but she discovered that that costume and the others had been taken to the cleaners by an overeager dresser who was following Ms. Markova’s orders. There were no costume changes in that performance of Romeo and Juliet.

Entrances matter in Hollywood. Actress Maria Montez would wear an Arabian Nights costume, then walk into the Sun Room, where important movie executives ate at the Universal Pictures commissary. If no important executives were in the Sun Room when she made her entrance, she would wait in the ladies room until some important executives entered the Sun Room, then make her entrance again. Lou Costello also knew how to make an entrance; he once entered the Sun Room accompanied by a three-piece band.

Vaslav Nijinsky was dismissed from the Imperial Theaters of Russia in January 1911 because he had worn an “improper” costume in a performance. The costume, which had been designed by Alexandre Benois, did not have trunks over the dancer’s tights, although trunks were required by the Imperial Theaters. In solidarity with her brother, Bronislava Nijinska immediately resigned from the Imperial Theaters, and the two then joined the Ballets Russe.

Madame Manya was a costumer of genius. She made many costumes for ballerina Alicia Markova, and whenever she decorated a costume with pearls and jewels, she covered the costume with a very fine, almost unnoticeable net, so that no pearls or jewels ever fell to the floor during a Markova performance. Today, Madame Manya’s costumes can be seen at the Theatre Museum in London—the inside of each costume is as finely made as the outside.

As part of her costume while dancing in The Firebird, Alicia Markova applied a sticky body-wash to her arms and back, then her dresser threw gold dust on her so that the gold dust would glitter as she danced. Because the gold dust was rough and would scratch her skin, she was unable to simply wipe it off, so after a performance she would put on a sweater, go out to eat with friends, then soak off the sticky body-wash and gold dust at home.

As a young ballerina, Illaria Obidenna Ladré wore the very short tunics that her teacher, Ms. Vaganova, wanted the students to wear. Later, as a dancer for Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, her short tunic shocked the wardrobe mistress, who remarked, “Any shorter, and you’d need lipstick!” (At the time, early in the 20th century, lipstick was worn mostly by prostitutes.)

In opera, singers must be heard in the back rows of the opera house. Occasionally, this striving after volume results in a spray of saliva that can drench an innocent co-star. The tenor Pasquale Brignoli was known for his spraying. While on stage co-starring with Brignoli in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, contralto Emily Lablache asked him loudly, “See here, my good friend, can’t you for once spit on Donna Elvira’s dress?”

Ballerina Yvette Chauviré always took rehearsals seriously, regarding them as important as the actual performance. Once, at a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beautyat Covent Garden, she was the only dancer in costume.

Ballet shoes last for only one performance, but they can be worth the expense. After each performance, ballerina Alicia Markova had to be cut out of her shoes. However, after each performance, four men had to help carry the bouquets of flowers she received.

At the beginning of a long tour, Anna Pavlova took along a huge number of ballet shoes. She would try them all on, quickly reject many of them as unsuitable for her feet, then give them to the members of her company.

In 1892, Umberto Giordano wrote the opera Mala Vita. In this opera, a mechanic marries a harlot. Unfortunately, the opera failed in Naples—the opera-going Naples public refused to accept a tenor dressed in overalls.

At a New Year’s Eve costume party in 1963, actor Patrick Macnee went as a broom. His partner, who wore cotton wool sprinkled with a gray powder, went as a piece of dust.

Werner Klemperer used to wear a monocle while playing Colonel Wilhelm Klink on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes, but it took him a while to learn how to wear it, so in the early episodes the monocle was glued to his eye.


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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.”


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