Irish Dance Dresses: Beginning of a Revolution?

On the message boards lately there have been posts about the cost of dresses, the cost of competing, the fact that there have been a couple of feiseanna that have prohibited solo dresses…as you can imagine, the ranting can really get going. Here are a few links to some of these discussions:

Main board #1, #2 , #3
Southern region board
Board for UK, Ire, Eur (The post here was removed by the moderator because things apparently got nasty. Gotta love that moderator! But I have included this as a link to that board.)

This is the first time since I have been doing this that I think a change may actually be in the offing. And then this morning, I read this:

Our TC would love to see simpler costumes and is aware of costs. Our parent org. pays for entry fees to majors, warm-ups, etc. Classes are very reasonable. However, the costs to compete are beyond her control. We are not compelled to buy new dresses but, you reach a point in Open and PC when it is obvious to break the ceiling you have to shell out for a Gavin or Siopa Rince, also, have seen a middle of the field placer suddenly take the podium in a new Gavin. have to believe it is just not my imagination! — Mo Dance Mom

Have some guts, Mo Dance Mom! Say no!!!! You are feeding into the psychology of it and that influences your daughter.

I find all of this very interesting, because believe me, if I was not able to make solo and school dresses for my own daughters, we would not be dancing beyond the recreational level. Yes, I make Irish dance solo dresses, and yes, they can cost a pretty piece of change because of what folks want….but they do not cost what a Gavin or Siopa Rince or an Elevation or a few cocky others cost, and even better, when it comes to my daughters, they love what I can do. They have yet to look at one of those other dresses and swoon. Because I am clear about the must-have-because-I-will-win psychology of the BN dresses, my divas are VERY clear that the dress will not MAKE them win!!!!

My perspective:

What is driving this market for expensive dresses?
I do not have a definitive answer. From my perspective, I see a few things.

First, there is that such a mystique has been built around the BNs (big names) that we have a severe case of the Emperor’s new clothes permeating our gullible ranks. (Look under Rants if you want to read more of my squawkings about these folks, and no, that’s not me on the boards posting about the Emperor…I was so taken with the analogy that I now use it.) And for better or worse (and perhaps more power to them), the BNs are riding the wave. For now. I do believe a backlash is in the workings.

Then, there are the teachers (TCs). You read time and time again about TCs insisting that students buy their solo dresses only from the BNs. And for parents that accept this CRAP, this means that they HAVE to pay what they are told to…for a dress that they probably have no input in, will know nothing about until the day it arrives, and if it does not fit (which seems to be the usual case), they are stuck because the BNs do not take returns or fix their mistakes. We are paying the TCs for their Irish dancing expertise, not their dressmaking abilities. (Just in case it is not implicitly understood, I am not including TCs [or ADs] that are also dressmakers in this category…I think the reasons are obvious.) I give our TC the respect of passing ideas by her and she is working personally with her students that need new solo dresses, but not only would she NOT insist on spending outrageous amounts of money, I would not agree to it! One of the discussions that I posted links to above includes a post that says their TC accepts commissions on all dresses she gets her students to purchase from a particular dressmaker…not the first time I have heard that. And this is actually pretty common practice at non-Irish dance studios that put on end-of-year recitals…but those costumes are usually less than $100 a pop! I am thinking that making money is getting in the way of common sense and ethical behavior. And it brings me to another thought that has been percolating in my brain about teachers as gurus…but that is for another day.

One of the above links also includes posts about adjudicators who think that WHAT a dancer is wearing is very important. Perhaps I am naive, but I truly find this hard to completely believe (quiet, Susan!). Ok, at the very top, when dancer A and dancer B are so good that you cannot decide, maybe the dancer in the soft floral dress appeals more to one judge than the amazon in the modern black dress…and vice versa for the next judge!!! And yes, I had one very credulous TC tell me that she had changed her stance on solo dresses for her school because 1 (ONE) adjudicator told her that she looks at the dresses before the dancers even begin and decides who to watch and who to ignore. What makes me MOST INCREDULOUS about this is that this TC did not see this adjudicator for the twit she is! I know this ridiculousness exists, but you also read time and time again about (and I have witnessed) dancers who place first in school costumes or out-dated costumes. I choose to believe that the majority of adjudicators are looking at the dancing first and foremost. Aren’t we here for the dancing?

And then there are the parents. I have read posts that blame the current state of things on the “mamas with the checkbooks.” Yes…but no. First of all, I would assume that most parents trust their TCs and follow their advice. Remember this post of mine about the dress that need “jazzing up?” Case in point…yet what I appreciated about this mama is that she came to me to hear another point of view, I gave it to her, and she compromised. And, I do understand how those of us who take our daughters to feis after feis can get caught up in the look, the pageantry of it all. But, I do not blame parents…most are simply trying their best to make sure that their daughters feel and look their best. Why? Because we love them to distraction, and a happy dancer has happy feet.

But, as the post above reminds me, we as parents have got to keep this in perspective so that our children can. Ok, so a mid-level dancer suddenly won in a BN dress? I am venturing a guess that she felt pretty spectacular that day and danced that much better…is it the magic of the dress or the magic of the idea of the dress? Don’t know about you, but I feel it is my job to make the difference clear to my divas.

Do the BNs charge too much for their dresses?

I am going to go way out on a limb here and make this statement: Because they do not make them as well as I do…Ha! I have now put that in print! And I am not the ONLY one who creates well-made dresses. My experience has been this: until this weekend, every time I have examined a dress made by a BN, I have been amazed and appalled by how poorly made they were. (Go here for that first rant.) And dress after dress on the for-sale racks that do not tell you who made them are beautifully made – neatly, precisely, carefully. (I have already posted about the SR dress I saw this weekend…beautiful and totally unlike the others I have inspected… except for that zipper!) I think most of us lone dressmakers are driven by our own demons/angels/neuroses to do good work.

Here’s the thing, though: if the BNs took the time to craft their dresses as carefully as most lone dressmakers do, their would be no question that their dresses are worth the price. Why? I am looking at this answer from my perspective which is this: wherever it comes from, clients now want so many bells and whistles that Vera Wang would tell them to mortgage the house! (I know, I know, which came first? The BNs or the bells and whistles? The chicken or the freaking egg!?!) There is a simple fact here…the dresses are so complex, made from such expensive fabrics that take such great care to use well that the labor alone is expensive. It is time that ID dress consumers understand that FACT!

Some clients come to you and want all the bells and whistles that they see on the BN dresses…but they do not want to pay the same amount. I now set forth my basic price list (and it is rather detailed) so that clients get a good idea what it will cost to get what they want. And I think it is fair. I could charge more…if I actually charged what my inner Donald Trump thinks I am worth, my dresses would cost as much as the BNs. But I do not do it…mainly because I love doing it and do not want to price myself out of the biz! The point is that what clients now want (because of the BNs!) is costly! And this brings me to this:

If you want your dresses to be cheaper, work with your dressmaker to CREATE a cheaper dress.
What makes a dress cheaper? Many things, but ultimately it all comes down to how long it takes to create one of these wearable pieces of art: all the embroidery & applique; the expensive fabrics and overlays; engineering the stiffness of all the various skirt styles; the expensive threads & crystals & feathers & beads, etc, etc, etc, etc…

You cannot cut down on the price of a good design…but you can cut down on how much of the dress it covers which lowers the embroidery costs.

Good fabric that will last is worth the money, but are you going to turn around and sell it in 6 months? No one will care in this market now how much you originally spent. Having trouble myself with this mentality. If you plan on keeping your dress for quite awhile, invest in the good stuff that will stand up.

Do you need that $30/yd overlay, those $99/yd sequins? Do you know that it costs more to make a dress like that?

Can you apply the crystals yourself? I have good sources for the supplies and it will cost you less if you do it.

How about taking a risk on a soft dress…you know, the way they used to be way back when!?! I will charge you less if I do not have to keep working out to deal with the wrestling matches aka attaching that damn skirt!!!!!

Ultimately, what is important to you? I understand wanting to satisfy the daughter’s inner diva…but we all have to remember who the parent is. I know, easy for me to say…but I am resolved to continue instilling in my divas a sense of the dancing being most important, not the dress. I would love nothing better than for my daughters to dance in simpler costumes. If I have the guts to make it, maybe they will have the guts to wear it. Perhaps I need to put my money where my mouth is, eh?

Should the ID commission ban solo dresses?
That’s a tough one. I do think that suddenly making plain costumes mandatory, as some folks are calling for and some feiseanna are trying, is a bit heavy-handed and reactionary. As with any change, it goes over better when it is phased in slowly. But I am not sure we fractious, independent Irish would take all that well to being taken in hand that way. Many are frustrated with the way the costume rules are written now…maybe they are written so obliquely on purpose. For those that need rules, they are there, but for those who chafe, we can laugh that they really do not seem to say much!!!

And considering that the commission did set rules about what levels allow solo dresses, maybe they are thinking ahead. Maybe there will come a day when they set a deadline for having simpler dresses in place at the champ levels.

Would I mind that? No. As a dressmaker, this would mean a change, yes, and dress prices would fall, but I am sure I could make more dresses in the time it takes me to make just one now. As a parent, I would love to see more of my divas when they dance and less of the dress.

What about the current dress glut?
Interesting situation. And it reminds me of the housing situation here where I live. Between one road and the next, there are 14 houses for sale. And they have been for sale for a long time. These houses were bought when the market was booming and houses did not stay on the market for a day! Folks bought them thinking that in a few years, they would turn around and sell them for 3 times what they paid! Well, it’s not happening. Folks are in a panic. Each house goes up with an astronomical sale price…and then they sit there. They drop the price…and sit there. If they really want to sell, they will have to drop the price to something attractive to people and get over what they wanted to make off of it. Every once in a while, an owner takes the house off the market and decides to stay for the long haul.

Seems to be the same for the dresses. I do not think the glut of dresses will abate any time soon. Perhaps we should live in our dresses for a while. And wait.

There is something frantic in our Irish dance world right now. That is what struck me like a runaway truck when I walked into that feis this past weekend. The energy that greeted me was not happy, it was agitated. Have we let things get too out of control?

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Rebecca
    Jul 24, 2007 @ 19:59:00

    I agree Ann! Thank you for saying it. There is something to be said for simple elegance, and I’m always trying to encourage it. The colors seem to trending towards more classic combinations, but the fabrics are getting out of control. I hope that quality and simplicity are the next wave of ID dress fashion!

  2. Anonymous
    Jul 25, 2007 @ 04:15:00

    Hear, hear, Ann. I find the international Irish Dance Scene a bit scary at the moment. Most of my “out-there” dresses seem to end up in the US, but in my isolated little corner of the world there is a strong trend towards “simple with knotwork”. Even so, we have a glut of used dresses here too, and many of the custom dresses I have done recently have been for fairly new dancers. On the one hand I’m pleased that they come to me for a dress, on the other hand they could have picked up a lovely second hand dress for half the price. Better leave my comments there or I could start a rant of my own! Cheers, Anita – DOE Aus

  3. marthasmom
    Jul 25, 2007 @ 08:35:00

    Thank you for the wonderful insight…As a mom who is now in the market for her now prizewinner dd’s first solo, the glitz and prices(of even the secondhands) can be overwhelming. I tried unsuccessfully to revamp (un-pimp the ride my dd laughingly said) a BN dress only to have it start fraying upon being altered…so we are left with a sea of secondhands’ curling tattered glitter squares or buying new. Our TC luckily is great and trusts parent decisions but have heard of many dancers at a nearby school who feel yes, “required” to have a certain name brand. You have hit the nail on the head…I hope you have some openings to make my dd her first solo. 🙂

  4. Gina Foster
    Jul 25, 2007 @ 08:51:00

    Ahhhh … when will you realise that the voice of reason has little volume in this ‘sport slash artform” … Seriously though ..

    I have had an ADCRG tell me over 50% of her marks are based on the package (wig, tanner, dress, makeup) – my DD will never dance in front of that woman even if it means walking off the stage at a Majors. (this is the same woman who told me that Blues look ‘horrible’ on redheads)

    Do some teachers demand certain BN’s — YES. Do some teachers have critical input — YES. Do all those teachers have the taste or demonstrated ability to have this input — NO.

    We are lucky -our TC now has impeccable taste.

  5. Ann
    Jul 25, 2007 @ 11:19:00

    But I can keep creating a breeze and maybe it will lift a butterfly and…whatever!

    Marthasmom…you said you emailed me but I cannot find it…try again?

  6. ENC
    Jul 25, 2007 @ 11:54:00

    I’ve been signing myself ENC or Emperors New Clothes for well over a year now. It began with my first “BN” experience. This well known DM I will refer to as “HE who will not be named” My dd and I listened with amusement to a young lady who couldn’t wait to tell her friends that her dress was made by “he who will not be named” we were amused because the design strongly reminded us of “little bottoms” all over the dress. Another friend of ours received a dress from this same DM covered with “Toyota” symbols. I’ve personally seen dresses made by the “Big three” that don’t fit, have shoddy workmanship, are boring and repetative, etc… I’ve never bought into the “sheeple” mentality and I’m not starting now. I really appreciate this blog and I hope that the stones that I’ve thrown into the river will continue to ripple and create a tidal wave of change. I would like to think that blogs like yours and posts like mine have started a revolution. It is supposed to be about the dance and not the dress after all.

  7. ENC
    Jul 25, 2007 @ 12:09:00

    I have been signing myself ENC or Emperors New Clothes for over a year now on the boards. I felt compelled after witnessing some of the “BN’s” dresses at a feis. The most memorable was the “bottoms” dress which was basically a repetative pattern of little upside down peach hearts which appeared to both my dd and myself as “little bottoms”. I’ve seen shoddy workmanship, dresses so short that they were indecent and repetative boring patterns made by the “Big Three” and wasn’t impressed. Both of my dd’s dresses have been made by a local dm and are beautiful, unique, well made and reasonable priced. I don’t buy into the “sheeple” mentality myself and never will. I just don’t get why people feel that they have to have a “BN” dress to succeed and if an adjudicator factors the dress into the DANCE competition then shame on them!

  8. Ann
    Jul 25, 2007 @ 12:28:00

    Thank you for joining the noise, ENC! I posted both of your comments because they each say something a bit different. So very nice to “meet” you!

  9. YKW
    Jul 25, 2007 @ 13:08:00

    Don’t forget: It is easier to buy your kid a new dress than nag her to practice.

    It is easier for the teacher to blame less-than-expected results on the “old/out-of-style” dress than to analyze what went wrong.

    It is easier to look at dress styles and prices than exercise.

    It is easier to just go buy that flashy new to give your self a temporary boost in esteem than it is to go for long-term, achievement based esteem building.

    It also makes the parent feel as if she has “helped” the effort, and thus become fully vested in the whole competition thing.

    And, don’t forget 10-15 years ago, there weren’t the hundreds/thousands of picture of ID dresses available online. There weren’t any dressmaker websites and there was absolutely no exchange of information about dressmaking or dressmakers. In other words, there was no way an average Irish Dancer could see new trends. You had to wait until someone brought it to you at a feis you attended or a classmate. Now we see those pictures from NANs or World’s within hours or days. Makes things change faster and more extensively. Before if you were a little dancer from Nowheresville who wore your older cousins dress that her mom made 10 years ago, that was fines. Everyone was OK with it. Now, that little dancer and her mom knows that her hand-me-down dress is not the “current thing” and her teacher feels vaguely ashamed.

  10. Whitney
    Oct 04, 2007 @ 17:14:00

    I tripped over this website and found it very interesting. I’m 18 years old and recently came back to Irish dance after three years of no lessons. My school was changing dresses when I left, and i had never owned a solo dress, so when I returned, I was left with nothing. I competed in a feis almost immediatly after I started back in a simple black, knee length, soft wrap dress from Dillards and my wig. I borrowed my school cape from one of my friends and pinned it to the back. I swept first in every dance I entered except one ( I got second in that. I entered 7 dances) I have to say it was actually one of the most inspiring moments of my life. I walked into that competition feeling silly for not having a huge, sequined, expensive dress, and walked out with a new sense of freedom. I knew it was nothing but my dancing that had won me those awards. I’ve always favored the dresses that I left when I started. The pretty colors with the irish knotwork.( Oh, how I miss the knotwork.) Keep on your mission. I’m about to purchase a solo dress since i’m going to compete in open, and I’m frightened….

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