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Troupe Costuming: The Design Brief

In my last post, I talked about an assemblage hamsa pendant I made for a recent performance by my dance ensemble Swirl.  I received an interesting question regarding our costuming.  “How did you decide on these costumes and how much did they cost?”  So I thought I would take a moment to share how I use a design brief as a tool when planning costumes for a troupe.  At left: Swirl post-performance at HaflAdira. Zemira is in purple, Vakasha is in black, redvelvet is in rust, and I’m in blue.

What is a Design Brief?

A design brief is a tool used by designers of all ilk to communicate the process and scope of a design project with a client.  As a dance ensemble leader, my role is to guide the decision process.  I really like to get input from all of the members, but ultimately, as the leader, I’m the “buck stops here” person who makes the final decision.  So when I’m working with Swirl, I’m both the designer and the client.

Design Brief Questions

I like a design brief that’s simply a loosely structured set of essential questions.  These answers form the framework for completing the design project.  When working with a troupe, you need to be exceptionally clear with each of the members of the group. To keep everyone on the same page, I like to document discussions via email, so that we have all the same details about budget, sources, and deadlines.

  1. What is the “Style” of the costume?
  2. What is the Budget?
  3. What is the timeline?
  4. Are we starting from scratch, or do we have items in our wardrobes?
  5. How many pieces do we need for the basic costume?
  6. What accessories do we need?
  7. What is on the “Do Not” list of exceptions?
  8. Who are our sources?

Swirl Design Brief Answered

To give you an idea of how a design brief works, I’m going to share the answers that our ensemble Swirl discussed and decided upon for our October show. When you start discussing costuming options, it is a good idea to have some photograph examples or samples of the garments and accessories you’re considering.

  1. Our style is Ethnographic fusion, based around the fabric Assiut
  2. Our budget is flexible, but pulling most pieces from our existing wardrobes.
  3. Timeline – We had two weeks to dress rehearsal, four weeks to performance.
  4. We pulled most of our pieces from our existing wardrobes, sharing pieces within our group when someone was short of an item. I lent Vakasha an assiut panel to use in her headdress and I lent Zemira a purple silk veil. Sharing keeps costs down!
  5. Our costume was composed of black pants and bra as our base layer.  An assiut robe in a unique color within the group.
  6. In addition, we each were tasked with putting together multiple necklaces with the word “Rich and Lush” as our guide, and a headdress that included assiut, jewelry, and a silk veil.  The note for makeup was “Go Extreme.”
  7. Our “do not” was simply – Do not match.  We each choose a unique color.  We also wanted to spend as little as possible.  Each of us already collects assiut costuming pieces and owns both a black robe and a colorful robe.  Pulling from our wardrobes meant keeping our costs minimal.
  8. Because we pulled from our own costume collections, we didn’t put together a source list.  One of the group bought a scarf to use as a headdress base, and I put together a new necklace.  Each troupe member was left up to their own devices to source the items they needed.

Design Brief in Action

When we had our initial conversation, everyone was keen on the coordinated look but unique color approach wearing assiut robes we already owned.  However, the complicated headdress required time together to master the art of putting it on, and then practice to get used to dancing with heavy turbans and jewelry on our heads.  We all brought our jewelry and to the group to admire and help choose the pieces for performance day.  At each rehearsal on the run-up to the show, we fine-tuned our costuming plans until we all had our complete head-to-toe together. At right – assiut and jewelry headdress first experiment.

Learn More: Troupe Costuming Class with Sara Shrapnell

My co-author Sara Shrapnell who lead the team who put together the book Becoming Belly Dancer: from Student to Stage has created a super-affordable class about picking costumes for a troupe.  If you are a member or a leader of a dance troupe, you will want to check the course out at the Belly Dance Business Academy.  Sara includes a wide variety of styles and themes in these troupe costumes and discusses how to strategically choose the right costume for your group. 

At left: Troupe KPS featuring Sara Shrapnell, Poppy Maya, and Ekatarina. I styled this troupe ensemble with the same overall look, but using a monochrome palette of colors.  Photo by Alisha Westerfeld for our book The Cloth of Egypt: All About Assiut.

Swirl – Costumes in Motion

Below is a little snippet of video shot of Swirl at our last performance. You can see how these costumes move and relate to each other.

It was a pleasure to dance with these ladies, all of whom have had private coaching sessions with me and I am proud to call them protegees and friends. If you have questions, or are interested in continuing this conversation, I have a vibrant and active group of costumers and dancers on Facebook called “Studio Davina: Behind the Seams

Happy Costuming!
Dawn Devine ~ Davina
October 30, 2017

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