Lake Charles Civic Ballet

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Inside the Wardrobe: Part II

The Houston Ballet Wardrobe Department occupies a good portion of the second floor in the new downtown Center for Dance. Bolts of fabric, costume accessories, and racks of ballet costumes are just a few of the staging areas inside the wardrobe. Wardrobe Manager Laura Lynch moved our small group of visiting moms past the ballet bibles to an office space reserved for guest designers and local artisans. This area provides their guests with ample office space complete with desks, work surfaces, and plenty of storage space to work side by side with HB wardrobe staff.
Just past the guest office space in the northeast corner of the wardrobe is the Spray Room and the Dye Room. Where some tutus are designed to be spray painted to give them a distinctive color and shape many times the fabrics are dyed. The Dye Room houses several washer/dryer sets with one set reserved just for dying fabrics. In the corner of the room stands a restaurant grade food vat used to heat the dyes to a higher temperature for those hard to dye fabrics. There is a separate hot water tank to serve the high demands of this room. Laura explained the multiple techniques used to clean ballet costumes. The techniques include hand wash, machine wash, dry clean, and ozone treatment. Dry cleaning is the hardest on costumes because the chemicals break down the structure of a costume and the fabric. Ozone treatment is more costume friendly. Houston Ballet has plans to install an ozone facility on the premises. Costumes are routinely spot cleaned with a fine mist of straight vodka. Most of the moms had never heard of this technique.

the thread wall in ‘notions central’

Anyone in Houston would love to have the views designed into this building. Walls of windows surround this end of the department. One of the most colorful spots in the costume area is called ‘notions central.’ Here you will find trimmings, buttons, beads, and spools of thread in every color imaginable. ‘Onie’ White, wardrobe volunteer, shared her bead story with our group. During a rehearsal for Marie one small area of beading broke loose from one of the costumes scattering the beads across the stage floor—a potential safety hazard for the dancers. Onie was given the job of removing all the beading from the costume so the beads could be reattached in a more secure manner. By the time she finished her job, the beads filled a large hat box. Everything on stage is larger than life.
Cutting and sewing requires light and power. The wardrobe department has power brought into the room from the floor and the ceiling. Several outlet locations are necessary to run the commercial sewing machines and irons. Here is where Laura says the design could have been improved. If the electrical outlets in the ceiling had been installed on tracks, the space would be more versatile. I don’t think anyone is complaining about that one small error in design. Scraps of thread and run away pins are always a safety concern so no slippery floor tiles in the wardrobe—concrete floors throughout. AFA Code requires one dressing room be handicap accessible, and fatigue mats are standard equipment in every dressing room since dancers can’t stand still for 
longer than 15 minutes per fitting. That must be a union rule.

 theatrical wardrobe cabinet


Only costumes for the current jobs are housed inside the wardrobe and the Academy Summer Showcase was on the books the day of our visit. The wardrobe department has moved three times over the years, but the bulk of the costume and prop inventory remains at HB’s warehouse location. The warehouse offers some climate controlled space and houses costumes, props and scenery for the company’s extensive repertoire.
One table in the wardrobe held two partially constructed costumes for Cincinnati Ballet’s all new Nutcracker. Laura’s department is one of only a few professional ballet companies that ‘job out’ work in the off season. This generates income for their department and work for local artisans. Laura shared her complex system for scheduling contract workers around a ballet season. It is extremely important to stay on budget, but also to provide enough work to attract the local artisans. Laura answered all our questions and shared many helpful tips such as where to buy practice tutus, how to clean and care for our purchases, and career opportunities in the arts.
Just a few days later Laura Lynch was seen entering the dance lab to attend one of the performances of the Academy Summer Showcase. She was just another guest—to most, but a few of us seated in the audience knew differently. Our small group of moms will forever remember the day we were invited inside the wardrobe.
Many thanks to Houston Ballet, Laura Lynch, Onie White, and Debby Brown for inviting us inside their new home at the Center for Dance in downtown Houston, Texas.
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