Recreating Vintage Aerial Costumes
Updated: May 8, 2022
Creating aerial costumes that capture the mystery and nostalgia of the old circus.
I used to walk up and down the dusty, dark aisles in the attic of the opera where I worked and look at the costumes of old productions. I loved the weathered, handwritten, muslin labels. I loved reading who wore them, what role they played, and looking closely at the materials and trims that were used. They were always an odd mish-mash of things, things that were available, or things that had been repaired and replaced. Every costume felt so mysterious and romantic. Every costume told a story.
A vintage costume isn't too perfect or polished
This experience is definitely my approach when I design an aerial costume with a vintage circus look. If you think about it, the circumstances of the circus were really similar to that of the tight-budgeted theaters and operas I've worked for. Circus performers didn't have huge access to materials and trims and probably used what was available, cannibalized old costumes, and did their own handwork while traveling. I absolutely love the often haphazard mixture of materials in these old costumes much like the ones in the old attics I used to wander.
Some of you might recall that wonderful aerial costume Zendaya wore in "The Greatest Showman". It had that random mixture of elements I'm talking about. I often find embroidered saris at estate sales, vintage trims, and appliqués that I squirrel away just knowing I will find a magical moment for them.
Recreating old circus costumes with modern fabrics
Fabrics back in the day didn't have the stretch and technology modern fabrics have and costumes relied on seams to contour and fit the body. I really love incorporating contouring seams over the bust and throughout my costumes. Although most are for aesthetic reasons, the seams I use over the bust line help shape, support, and avoids the "smashed boob" sports bra look. This type of compression is often needed and desired in the competition dance world but I've found in the world of aerial dance, aerialists want a more shapely bust line.
If you look at the AMAZING image "circus costume with seams and feathers", you'll see the many seams in the costume and how perfectly it contours her body. You can't get this look relying on the stretch of fabric alone. Also, take a close look because you'll see the fabrics aren't perfectly uniform in color and polished. It's a challenge to take ubiquitous, modern fabrics (like that shiny metallic spandex from Joanne's that's recognizable to all of us) and turn it into something that looks befitting for a vintage circus costume.
I rarely use a fabric straight off the bolt without dying, painting, shredding, or manipulating it in some way. For instance, sequins (or anything metallic) used to be made out of real metal which corrodes, patinas, and changes colors when exposed to sweat and wear. Also, unlike modern chemical processes in fabrics, fabric dyes back then weren't very color fasted and would fade and discolor with wear. It's important for me to put this craft into the process because it adds layer, depth, and the result is a more authentic looking vintage costume. I know for a fact this concept was influenced by my work in the theater where nothing on stage could ever be pure white (refrigerator) or pure silver (tin man) or pure gold (hokey). Not ever.
Old-world costumes require old-world craftsmanship
I also like incorporating appliqués and embellishments from India and other countries. There's an old-world look and warmth to them that I don't find in the machine-perfect ones available here in the US. Many of the techniques and materials used in these pieces are the very same that were used in the decadent costumes of the early Ziegfeld Follies and the Orientalism rage brought forth by the introduction of the Ballets Russes in the early 1900's . Again, finding materials that aren't recognizable or identifiable are key to immersing the performer and audience into another era, by crafting a costume that invokes mystery and re-creates the past.
Women in the circus paving the way for feminism & what we wear today
One of my biggest, bursting-heart feelings for circus costumes is what the circus did for women during a time when women had few options. In the 1800's you could marry well (best option), be a governess (second best), be a "lady of the night", or be in the workhouse. There was really no great opportunity for a woman to be independent and move against the grain of a repressed society until the introduction of the circus. It also happened that in 1896 the first modern Olympics occurred and there was a sudden resurgence and fervor for athleticism.
Dressing properly for the sport, not for propriety
The introduction of women in the circus brought on an interesting dichotomy during a time when it was improper for a woman to even remove her gloves in public! However, short skirts, high-waisted bloomers, and skimpy tops, where in any other context would be considered underwear, were never improper or about sex. During a time when film actresses and vaudeville dancers wore skimpy getups for the pleasures of men, circus performers and aerialists wore them because they were necessary for their acts. It was certainly not considered lewd or sexual (although it's plenty sexy!)
This was something understood by all and it was perfectly accepted. I love recreating the looks of this period when women could independently choose a career path for themselves and become as famous as any silent film star for her strength and athleticism.
I love this quote from "The Circus 1870s-1950s". Take it with you...
"To progressive urban women, the circus female performer often appeared as a role model. She was successful, independent, strong and fit, not afraid to show who she really was, living proof that in many ways a woman could outshine a man."