ID School Dress Design: Chapter 1

I am re-opening the blog to public viewing with chapter 1 of Susan Gowin’s treatise on “ID School Dress Design.”

For the record, I do have vested interests. I sell an ID dress pattern. I sell designs for solo and school dresses. I make and sell solo and school dresses. So what I say should be considered biased. Feel free to comment from your own point of view. I am open to intelligent discussion. The focus here is to offer advice to new TCRGs who are developing their first school dress.

The following is directed to the school dress design team. The team may consist of the TCRG and no one else, or it could include parent(s), student(s) and even the school’s dressmaker (if you already have one).

The ID team dress makes a statement about the school it represents. Everyone involved – TCRG, parents, students – hope for an attractive, flattering dress with great stage presence that will fit and last for a long time yet cost very little. Unfortunately, these goals are somewhat at odds with each other and the mission of the design team is to weigh the importance of each, set priorities and make some tough decisions for their school.

The issues the design team must address are:
1) Select a dressmaker/embroiderer
2) Select/commission/approve an embellishment design
3) Decide on colors
4) Select fabrics
5) Select dress pattern
6) Establish an ordering process
7) Document dress fitting, construction, and embellishment standards
(Discussion of these issues will be out of order.)

The circumstances unique to your school will determine what you consider when. The order is important because every decision you make will influence all your subsequent decisions. The team CAN control the order in which these issues will be addressed. Be aware that your approach order will limit options available for the next selection.

The team also must determine which selections are absolute (unchangeable) and which may be treated as “preferences” (open to revisions or substitutions). Here’s an example:

The team has selected an embellishment design, colors and fabrics. Now they are looking at dressmakers (DMs). DM-A insists that significant changes be made to the design for reasons related to her equipment or methods. DM-B refuses to use the fabric the team has chosen. Both DMs may (and most likely do) have very good reasons for their stands. Is the team willing to change the design and/or fabric? Or, will these DMs be excluded and the search continue? In this case, we’ll say the team’s design choice is absolute and the fabric choice is flexible. They were unhappy with the changes DM-A wanted to make, but they will consider alternate fabric types. So, DM-A is out and DM-B is still under consideration.

I will continue to discuss each issue in the design process. As you read and consider my opinions, please remember that this is one of those situations where you need to get it right the first time. Any changes made to the design, construction, embellishment, color, fabric, or fitting standards of the dress will make previous versions obsolete. Parents will be very unhappy, feel cheated, “unfavored,” and blame the TCRG and the rest of the design team members personally. Resale values drop and disappear.

In other words, making mistakes and “learning as you go” will be costly, both monetarily and emotionally. Be prepared to pay upfront in order to save in the end. You may be asking dressmakers, embroiderers, and suppliers to provide you with samples for approval. Since a significant amount of time and effort will be required, expect to compensate them. Be prepared to spend the time it will take to get the dresses you want. Don’t let some deadline pressure squeeze you into accepting a less-than-expected dress because it is better than no dress. Plan on it taking at least a year from the time you begin this journey until your dancers perform in their new costumes.

On Getting Hit by a Bus

The bus is the bad thing that Murphy says will happen. The bus is life interfering with the best laid plans. The black bus brings sick children, dying parents, natural disasters, fires, auto accidents, legal problems, emotional breakdowns, divorce, discontinued fabric, broken machines, and postal strikes. The white bus brings prayed-for pregnancy (with triplets!), the spouse’s promotion and transfer to a different region, the daughter’s engagement and wedding plans. A bus will eventually hit us all. No matter what you do, you can’t prepare for it all, but if you address the right issues you may still get your dresses.

What do you really need?

Before you begin making any dress plans, analyze your school’s needs. First, how important will team dresses be in your school? Is yours a “solo school” with little team dancing? The school dress is a step up from skirt-and-blouse but once outgrown, generally not replaced. Dancers with solo dresses wear them for performances and parades.

Or, do you have a “team school”? All dancers are required to dance figures and school dresses are worn for performances and parades.

Most school fall somewhere between the two extremes, but deciding how central the dress will be to your school image will help you to develop workable solo/team dress policies. Will your dancers have to “earn” (reach a particular level of competition, such as preliminary championship) solo dresses or will each dance family have the option to purchase a solo dress whenever they feel like it (within your dance organization’s rules, of course)?

Will the school (or some booster organization) be subsidizing dress costs? For instance, you may choose to apply performance fees towards dress expenses. Besides facilitating dress purchase, this may allow the school to stake partial ownership of the dress to prevent sale outside of the school.

What is your overall costume plan? What will the new students (who haven’t yet committed themselves to ID) wear? Generally it is the skirt-blouse outfit. Some schools have a skirt made; others select a skirt & blouse from a uniform catalog or just leave it up to the parents to find something appropriate. In my observation, the uniform catalog option works best. Even if it eventually costs more than a “custom” skirt, parents feel better about purchasing “real” clothes. They can justify the expense – dd can always wear the outfit if she gives up ID.

The main school dress will be around for years. Changing it will be very disruptive, even if there is strong dislike for the dress throughout the school. It is tempting to try to design a dress that will be all things to all dancers and suitable for every opportunity that arises. There is pressure to have a dress that is as fancy/glitzy/jazzed-up as those on the podium at major competitions.

Some feel the need to provide a less-embellished version of the school dress, a “junior” dress for older beginners (often some sort of jumper with embroidery on the bodice).

And don’t forget about special “performance” costumes used for shows or recitals. Typically, these are more “Riverdance-y” and not stiffly embroidered.

Adults need their own dresses that are more tolerant of a “full figure”.

And so it goes. But is all this necessary? For a new school, to start, all you really need is some sort of beginner option(s) and a team dress. All the others can be added as needed. (Just be sure you anticipate the need and start early.) Even though changing the design of the team dress is difficult, if you start simple you can gradually add in an “improved” version of the team dress for “senior” teams that will be dancing in major competitions. The older style dresses can eventually become the “junior” dress.

After you analyze your school’s needs, take some time to analyze your TCRG’s needs as well. The TCRG needs to decide his/her role in the costume drama. After the dress has been designed, approved and ordered, it is common for the TCRG to wish to “back out” and just let it happen. Complete withdrawal is not possible. Much of the ordering process can be delegated; however the TCRG remains the final authority. There will be situations in which the dancer and DM disagree. Many of these problems and issues can be anticipated and covered in the fitting, construction and embellishment standards document. But there will still be tough decisions which result in either an unhappy parent or DM. Try to avoid it and the DM and parent will be angry and you could lose both.

Fitting, Construction and Embellishment Standards

Your objective is to present your definition of a well made dress and to itemize the points of agreement that you have worked out with the DM. I want to make clear that I am not advocating that you dictate to the DM how she should conduct business. What I am suggesting is that you decide what you expect. The DM may agree to it or not. Or she may have a different approach that would work for both of you. This is not meant to be a hostile document to be used against a DM. It is meant to specify exactly what you want so the DM won’t have to guess. Most DMs really want to please their clients. If done correctly, the document will outline exactly what it will take to do that. It will cover common “what if” situations and clearly state who is responsible for what. This will be the place to state what payments are due to whom and when the fees should be paid.

Fitting standards will protect both you and the DM. Many parents pressure the DM to construct the dress too large (“room to grow”). The result is a dumpy-looking, sagging dress that twirls around the dancer. To look best, the ID dress must fit snugly to support the skirt. Otherwise it hangs from the shoulders, the sides of the skirt fold in towards the front, and the skirt spins at the waist. Since the DM is being paid by the parent, she may feel she should comply with the customer’s wishes. However, if a fitting standard is available, the parent will know beforehand what has been agreed upon. The fitting standards should provide a reasonable range that will accommodate just about any age, size, shape and allow the DM and parent to work together to make a dress that will be acceptable within the school. Extremely unusual cases can be addressed individually but will necessitate TCRG consultation. You may also find you need different ranges based upon a dancer’s maturation/size/potential for more growth. You want to be flexible and take advantage of the DM’s expertise.

“Ease” is the term DMs use for the “how much bigger than the body measurement” they make parts of the dress. For instance, if your chest is 40” and I make your dress with a 40” bust, you will not be comfortable, able to breathe or move much. Some ease is required. An experienced ID dressmaker can help you set a range (or ranges). Setting them down in writing, beforehand, and giving them to the parents will anticipate many conflicts. Consider ease guidelines for the bust, waist and (for younger dancers) the shoulders. It is also good to detail hand/wrist points between which the sleeve should fall.

Skirt length is the most difficult to specify because there are several ways to measure “above the knee”. Pick one – kneeling is probably least open to misunderstanding – and then specify a range (X” to Y” above the floor). Again, you may have different ranges depending upon age/size.

Standardizing how/who measures your dancers is the key to adhering to the fitting guidelines that are mutually set between you and your chosen dressmaker(s). You cannot have ten people measuring ten dancers in ten different ways and expect a DM, no matter how competent, to fit each dancer well or consistently. You will need to work with your DM. If she is local she will probably measure the dancers herself. If you have chosen to use an overseas or long-distance DM, you will heed to be trained in how measurements are expected to be taken. EVERY DRESSMAKER WANTS DIFFERENT MEASUREMENTS TAKEN DIFFERENT WAYS. Even if your DM is local, it is a good idea to have someone within your school trained in taking measurements for the dressmaker. Growth-spurt emergencies happen and it will facilitate things if the DM doesn’t have to come back to re-measure. Both DM and parent should keep copies of the measurements.

Your construction/ordering standards are statements of how you want your dresses made and how the ordering process will work. You will discuss and come to an agreement with your DM about each specification. At a minimum:

1) Specify your base fabric(s) – type, color, manufacturer(s), product code(s)
2) Skirt/bodice/sleeve lining(s)
3) Interfacing(s) – list dress pieces that you want interfaced and the type of interfacing you want used
4) Stiffener – specify where stiffener should be used and the type/amount.
5) Seam Allowances – specify amount at key seams for easy alteration (center back, bodice sides, bodice waist, skirt waist, sleeve, etc.)
6) Sleeve hem – how much?
7) If the bodice princess seams/darts must align with the center front panel, say so.
8) Seam finish – do you care if all your seams are finished and how? Pay particular attention to exposed seams in the skirt. Should they be bound? What about the back zipper- do you want the zipper in the skirt finished with the lining so that it doesn’t show during kick up?
9) What happens if dancer grows before the dress is finished? (Commonly an alteration fee will apply.)
10) How/when can a dress be cancelled?
11) If multiple dresses are ordered, who decides on priority?
12) Bodice lining – do you want the bodice interlined or bag lined?
13) Sleeve lining?

Chapter 2 to follow soon.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Dancers' mom
    Jan 20, 2007 @ 16:18:00

    Susan and Ann,
    Another extremely informative post! You ladies do such a great job … keep it up!

  2. Caroline
    Jan 23, 2007 @ 17:24:00

    This is a great post! I was a bit scared of trying to deal with school costumes for my own school. This post is gonna be printed and sent to the TCRG straight away 🙂 Thank you so much for writing down everything in detail. Wonderful job!

  3. Trackback: New ID School Dresses: Design, Digitizing, & Finding Fabric « Taoknitter

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