Painting a Costume

Most of the costumes I create have embellishments such as ribbons, braid, beads, sequins, rhinestones, tassels, fur and feathers, all of which are attached to the fabric by hand with needle and thread. However, one costume I made stands alone:  its decoration is painted directly onto the bodice, skirt and sleeves. This is “Columbine” and you can see the finished costume in my “Pavlova as Muse” Gallery.

Painted costumes are not uncommon in ballet.  Many times, budget constraints or time crunches necessitate this short-cut method.  But sometimes, when famous painters such as Pablo Picasso or Giorgio de Chirico have been called upon for designs, their visions are best realized by applying paint directly to the garment—which often is already on the dancer–as though it were an artist’s canvas.  Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes made extensive use of painted costumes, and we are fortunate that many of them have survived. A wonderful book published by the National Gallery of Australia, entitled “Ballets Russes: the Art of Costume,” contains page after page of astonishing costumes–many of them painted. This book is real eye candy for someone like me!

I decided that I wanted to try this technique for myself, so I chose a color sketch I saw online by Konstatin Somov in 1909.  This costume for the character Columbine was designed for Pavlova in 1909, during her brief appearance with Les Ballets Russes.  But there is no record of her ever dancing this role for Diaghilev’s company, which she left after a short time.  I don’t think the costume was ever made, so it seemed a good choice for exercising my own artistic license.

I used a finely woven cotton percale in off-white, and pieced major sections together before I started painting. The tightly fitting bodice, made up of several different darted pieces and lined with china silk, was particularly challenging.  It was important to paint the triangles so that they harmonized with the curves of three-dimensional form. The paints I used are called “LuMiere© by Jacquard”, made in California by Rupert, Gibbon & Spider, Inc. They are an acrylic-based paint especially for fabric, and their metallic/pearlescent quality would make them perfect for any stage.  I used gold, blue-green, and rust, leaving the white of the fabric in thin lines between colors. Their luminescence shimmers in the light.

The cylindrical sleeves are rectangles of the same percale, lined in silk and painted before being stitched up lengthwise.  Again, the surface design needed careful planning to achieve the desired effect. The skirt, a circle of percale 16” in diameter, gave me more room, hence larger triangles, but still had to be done in consideration of the bodice and sleeves.  Several flounced and ruffled petticoats are underneath it, to give it the fullness required.  The pillbox hat was adapted from a people-sized pattern.  Again, the percale was pieced before painting, and then completed with silk lining and a painted “feather.”

I’m not sure if I really saved time by painting the triangles instead of piecing fabric together.  It was a tedious affair. But it is always fun to try something new, and I am very pleased with the way the costume looks.