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ballet advice ballet competitions

The Tutu Dilemma: costs versus practicality

It is that time of the year where high-end tutu makers or costume makers are taking deposits for the next competitive season. If you are new to the ballet competitive circuit, brace yourself, because it's about to get very tricky, sort of expensive, and somewhat intense. Looking at photos on Instagram will show you that when it comes to finals or a major international competition, the cost is the last thing people think of. But, how much is too much for a tutu? What are you paying for? And, is it even necessary?

It is that time of the year where high-end tutu makers and costume makers are taking deposits for the next competitive season. If you are new to the ballet competitive circuit, brace yourself, because it’s about to get very tricky, sort of expensive, and somewhat intense. Looking at photos on Instagram will show you that when it comes to finals or a major international competition, the cost is the last thing people think of. But, how much is too much for a tutu? What are you paying for? And, is it even necessary?

As someone who formerly worked in fashion, I can tell you that a good tutu is definitely worth the price. But what makes a good tutu, and how does it change the price of a tutu? And, are you getting ripped off?

Construction – It isn’t a secret that the more intricate the pattern, or the number of pieces, whether the costume is a stretch bodice or a boned bodice, makes a huge difference when cutting and sewing these beautiful works of art. A stretch bodice might have 6 or 8 pieces to construct and finished with surging, where a boned bodice might have 12 pieces, plus the boning, lining, piping, and finishing. The tutu/skirt itself might have 8 layers of tulle or more and whether or not it is being tacked, and whether or not you need a hoop. All of this is time-consuming. You really need to know what you are looking for, especially when looking at the grain and quality of the materials.

Fit – One of the biggest things you are paying for is fit. When ordering a tutu that is mass-produced, adjustments usually have to be made. When you are ordering a custom tutu, a good tutu maker will send you the toile (prototype made in muslin) for fitting. This will make all the difference. If your tutu maker is local, you should have two fittings.

Materials – Materials can get tricky, especially if you really don’t know what you are looking at or what certain materials feel like. The difference between cheap synthetic materials or actual silks. It is the difference between cutting a skirt in georgette or chiffon. These things add to the cost because the quality fabric is not cheap, especially when so little fabric is actually used in bodices and skirts. It would be very different if you were mass-producing 30 skirts or 1,000 bodices, but when the average bodice is about 1/2 a yard of fabric, the lower the quantity of fabric, the more expensive it is. Not to mention the grade of tulle/netting you use, or if there will be a hoop or no hoop. The list goes on. Not to mention the embellishments of a tutu really make a difference.

Design– One of the biggest things when it comes to purchasing a costume from a professional costume maker and/or ordering a custom-made tutu is that you are really paying for the design. Each tutu is basically couture, and the average couture dress costs about 10k-20k, not to mention we aren’t even going into haute couture. Design is the element of dance we often forget. Costume designers literally go to school for this and are paid to create works of art that move. They understand or should understand how the body moves, what is needed from the costume, and how the costume tells the story.

Okay, so now that we understand factors that change the costs, let’s look at some of the pros and cons of different companies and tutu makers!

If you are new to ballet and are trying to save money, the first place everyone looks is Aliexpress, where you can find tutus that range from $20-$300. This isn’t actually a bad idea, especially if you are on a budget. On the downside, you will need to know how to sew or take it to a sewist or tailor if you need any alterations. And you should definitely bling it up. The downside, well, sort of downside, running into someone in the same costume as you. Awkward.

If you have some intermediate to the advanced skill level of sewing, I actually think Conservatory by Prima Donna is a good way to go. Order blank bodices and tutus, plates, and such, sew them yourself, and design and decorate your tutu how you see fit. This way, you have the most control of your tutu. At The Ballet Clinic, we use this a lot. Annabelle Gourley used this company for both her tutus, Italian lace, and then her mom went to rhinestone town.

Semi-custom stretch tutus from Empire Tiaras will run between $600-$1,000. They are all stretch tutus sewn onto white tutu blanks. We used Empire Tiaras for Paquita but used our own embellishments as I like the bling, and I “need” control of how it looks. The only downside was the platter was too small based on the blank platter.

Ashley Hod, New York City Ballet, in A Ballet Network’s Paquitaww

A custom tutu from a high-end designer and costume maker will cost you between $900-$2,500. High-end designers around the world are extremely sought after and require deposits now, with the hopes of getting your tutu by December. These designers usually have stand-out tutus and are usually more stunning than a lot of professional tutus. These designers will talk with you, design and sketch, send you the toile, and then create the final. Many of these tutu makers will also fly with the tutu for the final fitting and adjustments of the hooks and eyes.

In my opinion, a lot of the costumes you see at YAGP or Lausanne are actually better than most ballet companies. Best costumes, though usually go to the Australian Ballet, Paris Opera, and New York City Ballet.

The biggest problem? Spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on something you will wear for one season and on something that a dancer will perform in maybe twice and then have for photos. The reality is ballet costumes are a huge investment, for what may be little to no payout. Do costumes help on stage? They really only help the dancer feel more professional and feel more performance-ready. Most judges really only care about the technique, the body, the facility, and the potential of a dancer. Keeping reading!

So, how do you save money?
Borrow or rent costumes. (Tutu.com offers rentals here)
Buy a used costume. (Costume groups on Facebook)

Or, you do what I do. At the YAGP semi-finals, very few of our students competed in costumes. In fact, most of them did not. Ava Maskin placed third in San Diego wearing a Grishko Leotard and rehearsal skirt I made. Leonidas and Nikolas Adarmes placed in Phoenix just wearing their ballet uniforms. Evelyn Lyman competed in a freed rehearsal skirt and leotard, and the list goes on. Now, did that start a tizzy for everyone when it came to finals, absolutely?

But, I am also going to tell you that another student wore a standard $70 leotard from So Danca and used a $99 rehearsal platter, sewed some embellishments on it, banged out about 6 gross in Swarowskis, ordered a $10 tiara from Amazon (other ballet websites will charge you about $80 for the same things, and if you are in LA, you can go to Downtown LA and get even more premium tiaras for like $15) and called it day. Yes, you heard that right. Not to mention, she also made the final round at YAGP.

Laina Mae Kirkeide, YAGP Final Round, photo by Star Action Shots

Finally, if you are skilled at sewing, and I recommend having a decent surging machine, I definitely say, go to Tutu School. Tegan Chou’s mom has made all of her costumes over the years, and they are killer.

Here is a list of tutu makers that can be trusted and worth the price:

DQ Tutus
Diane Quimby Schaubach is the owner and designer of DQ Designs & Boutique. Her mother, Adele, an art teacher, gave Diane her very first sewing lessons — sparking a love for art and design from a young age. When her own daughters started dancing, Diane volunteered to help out backstage with the other moms. She took an interest in the construction of professional ballet tutus and started designing from her home studio in Cary, North Carolina starting in 2011. (See her lookbook here)

Matryoshka Tutus by Pamela Martin
Custom classical ballet tutus. Handcrafted on the Westcoast of Canada. You can shop her patterns via etsy or order from her website. (See her work here)

Atelier Risa
Based in Japan

Tutu.com
Tutu.Com was founded in 1994 in Charlotte, NC and is home to several divisions specializing in professional-quality tutus and ballet costume service and supplies.

Bella Dolce Tutus

Empire Tiaras

Encena Costumes –
Made in Brazil.