Costuming for Plus Sizes

With the Summer performance season almost over, I am always rather surprised at the amount of items I had to make; it seems that no matter how much costuming I’ve got, I always end short of *something*, but based on my own experiences, and listening to what other plus size dancers tell me, I think the costumes are often a source of stress.

Why? Simple. Sizing is difficult. A lot of the cheaper costuming options (e.g. China) don’t really offer plus sizes or if they do, they are wildly inaccurate. Even for some US manufacturers, sizing can be inconsistent or confusing, citing US sizes like L-XL without measurements or with different measurements for the same pieces in different colours, or even ignoring easing. For those of us outside the US, these mistakes are EXPENSIVE. Custom sizes, if offered, can take months to get to the front of the queue. Ill-fitting clothing can also be very unflattering, knocking down confidence.

If you are a plus size, you are probably very aware of everything I have said so far, and probably all I say below. When you are planning your own costuming it’s not that bad, but when someone else is, either for troupes or group dances, these issues and more can come to the fore. You might have felt anxious, shamed or dejected as a result. You might wonder if it’s just you. No, it’s not you; sometimes even people with the best intentions can’t avoid these pitfalls, because they don’t live with a plus size body. And if you are not a plus size and you landed here because you have one or more fluffy people in your group and you’re not sure what to do in terms of costume planning, I do get it: as a teacher or director, you’ve got a “Vision”. You want things to look a certain way. As I was reminded not that long ago, putting a plus size on stage is an act of defiance and rebellion, but for that rebellion to have its full impact and meaning, it needs to look the part. You trust your plus size student or troupe member to be on stage, and they trust your experience and guidance. So maybe, if you are not a plus size yourself and you arrived to this page looking for ideas, you should trust their experience living in their body, to know what might or might not work for them.

A few suggestions then, which you can take or leave; these are written mostly for non-plus-sized readers, and the language will reflect that.

  • Timing: Decide on your costumes early; very little is available off the peg for anything above a UK size 20, so while it is possible to have an extra cool outfit, you should consider the extra time it will take for that custom order or for making their own, unless you are doing a group order for everybody; for those of us making our own pieces, we will need to develop a pattern if necessary, find the correct fabric, and make it; that’s not a small or fast endeavour, and neither is modifying existing kit to fit
  • Support: It is not a truth universally acknowledged that any plus size is in need of good support, but statistically, it’s often the case; cute yoga tops, simple triangular tribal bras, bandeau tops, or cholis without bras might work perfectly fine for C cups and below, but remember that a C cup on a 38 bra band is the volume equivalent of an F cup on a 32 bra band. Keep this difference in mind when looking at coverage, something that looks cute on that 32C cup might look beyond bountiful on a 38C cup. You want all your dancers to feel beautiful and confident, you don’t want your dancers worrying whether they will have a costume malfunction because that cute little number on the top cannot handle their bust!
  • Cost: This should go without saying, but custom or plus size is usually much more expensive than off the peg (we can discuss the reasoning behind this some other time); if you all just have to have that particular piece, try to make the purchase worthwhile and not a one-off
  • Pre-loved: Suggesting items that you think are common in charity shops is, in theory, a great way of reducing cost and consumerism. Except that most charity shops rarely stock anything above a size 18, and when it comes to belts, what comes as standard might not fit anyone above that size anyway, so would be useless. Plus sizes would either need to find the right size, or look for two identical pieces that can be joined together, which is even rarer.
  • Tribal sizing: A lot of the Tribal pieces are small: tribal belts rarely go above 42″ hips, which is a size 16; banjara type skirts are equally small; you really don’t want your plus size to have a huge gap at the front or wear an overskirt which looks like an ass-cape because it’s too small; there are solutions to this often involving some creative work- so accept that some items will need extra effort and some mild cultural vandalism to make them work
  • Silhouette: believe it or not, quite often plus sizes will really rock stylised looks that elongate the body proportions; tents make everybody look shapeless, and capri pants look awful on everybody unless they are Audrey Hepburn, as they cut the lines of the legs and make them look shorter. Boxy or bulky silhouettes will do no one any favours, and big drapes -whether on chest or legs- will highlight the bulk instead of covering it up. Don’t be afraid to suggest mermaid skirts, if available! (hint: there’s a tutorial on this site). Same goes for arms or tummies: long sleeves elongate the lines far more than cap sleeves, covered tummies often can elongate short or boxy torsos.
  • Stigmatising: what I mean by this is, avoid temptation to single out your plus size. I can’t count how many times, while I was dancing Cabaret, I was told by costume sellers -and even some teachers at workshops- that I should just “get a galabaya“, regardless of what style I was dancing, or how the rest of my dance mates looked; being the only one dancing in a particular type of costume singles you out rather badly, and the same can be said of using cheap fabrics for a quick knock off, or something three sizes too small. Also, goes without saying, if you hear other dancers making nasty comments about the plus size dancer’s costumes, you should speak out; don’t penalise your fluffy dancers

So, how best to deal with the above:

  • be flexible: and be prepared to allow for variation to compensate for the issues you find. What do I mean by this? if you really have to have those triangular bras because of the V neckline with the halter, check if you can make the band taller instead to add support and coverage, for instance. And always ask, maybe some of the non-plus sizes would also feel more comfortable with a bit more coverage or side support
  • introduce variations: unless you are going for a perfect army-look, having slight variations on a theme will add visual richness and avoid singling out *one* dancer: have a variety of options for pant legs and tops, including at least one sleeve option, so you get a unified, but not uniform look
  • use colour, accessories and other less size-dependant cues to tie the group’s look together: hoods/snoods, shrugs, hip scarves, gloves or gauntlets and even jewellery can help with this
  • be aware of which manufacturers do affordable, consistent bigger sizes and support them; avoid the manufacturers who will send you three items marked the same size but sized all over the place, and will charge you an arm and a leg for the privilege; if possible, tell them this, as inconsistent sizing is a problem that can be mortifying when trying on pieces
  • avoid the fashionable item which only comes in sizes mini, tiny and small; if you are a teacher/director who have them, save those for when you are dancing on your own; if you aren’t within the size range, and you really want one, enquire about custom order, or look for alternatives; more often than not, there are some out there
  • don’t assume that your plus size dancer will only have or want to wear drab costume pieces; ask what we’ve got available and if enough of the other dancers have it -or if there’s enough to go around- use it! Keep a list of who has what available, so you know where your group stands at any point, and can build from there.
  • don’t put the burden of costuming on your plus size dancer all the time: it’s unfair if they are the only ones that always need to modify, adapt, and make things; if they have a suitable item but another non-plus size dancer doesn’t (e.g. tribal bras) and that dancer can get a loaner, maybe make that dancer use the loaned item instead of dictating everybody uses sports bras with thin straps (see support above); this also applies for skirts, trousers, etc
  • encourage costuming sessions: these allow for bonding time among dancers, are fun, remove the isolation factor, put everybody on a level playing field, create staples like decorated bras, and you never know, maybe that lady is actually quite good with a needle or has an eye for design, and everybody benefits
  • find key staple pieces: wide bottom trousers, mermaid skirt, cholis, single colour pantaloons and 25-yard skirts; encourage making or purchasing of other staples like bras and belts. These allow for a lot of repeated use and are pieces worth investing on; use them and abuse them
  • find local seamstress if no member of the group offers to do it, and give them your custom: they might not be big names, but they are probably going to be able to produce those staples I mentioned above; stimulate the local economy!
  • manage costume from the beginning: related to the previous five points, see if you can put together a list of basics from the start, and if appropriate, have a set colour palette too e.g. for ATS® black short sleeved choli, tribal belt, flat colour skirt, flat colour pantaloons, velvet burnout hip scarf, eventually adding a tribal bra; once you have these, USE THEM. This means everybody knows where they stand and what they need to have as staples, avoids people wasting money on pretties that won’t be used, and gives a level playing field that can be built upon as time goes on.
  • finally, don’t leave costume decisions to the last minute assuming that inter-group lending will sort it all out, because most often than not, plus sizes are left out of this; allow PLENTY of time for ordering, making or modifying

Or, to put it more simply: use your empathy to see where people are coming from. If you are not and have never been a plus sized, don’t debate or negate their experiences. If you were ever a plus size but aren’t now, remember what it used to feel like to be embarrassed and afraid of not fitting into the clothes you requested. If you are a plus size, cut yourself some slack: you deserve to look your best, and even if you can’t buy the brand name off the peg, learning to make your own well fitting clothes will fill you with confidence and make you look fantastic.

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