Costumer: Sew much work, sew much reward

Georgette Braun

Sheer chiffon. Smooth satin and silk.

These are the fabrics Julie Seger occasionally pulls from old prom dresses and wedding gowns to make some costumes for ballerinas of the Rockford Dance Company. The materials flow with the dancers.

It’s Seger’s job as volunteer costume coordinator for the group to make sure that the way the dancers look is as seamless as their moves.

Designing, sewing and fitting the traditional classical tutu isn’t always breezy, though. They’re made to be stiff. There is boning in the bodice and metal hooping in the tutu ruffle.

“They are beautiful to look at, but not very comfortable to wear,” Seger said. “The dancer must keep her posture upright so the costume doesn’t pinch.” She won’t use sequins on a tutu because they’re sharp and will get caught in the costume of the ballerina’s partner, or worse, cut his hands. Instead, she’ll use crystals for trims.

Seger has made between 250 and 300 costumes — sometimes with the help of other mothers and the occasional dad — over the years that her three daughters, Natalie, 21, Megan, 18, and Rachel, 15, have been involved in ballet. The Thanksgiving weekend production of “The Nutcracker” at the Coronado Performing Arts Center this year will be the first year in eight that all her daughters won’t be performing.

Her two eldest daughters are in college. They’ll be in the audience, “and I’ll have things for them to do backstage, but I will miss seeing them perform,” Seger said.

For the “Nutcracker” alone, Seger estimates she’s made 80 costumes, plus five horses and a dragon. The holiday ballet features sugar plum fairies, soldiers and a Mouse King, among others.

Monette Tanuyan, 17, of Rockford, who has appeared in the ballet a half-dozen years, said one of her favorite costumes this year is a Snow Flower Flute that Seger made. “It’s gorgeous: the colors — pink, green, purple, yellow — are vibrant,” she said.

Practices and rehearsals of her part can be tiring, she said. But when she puts on that costume, including a tutu, “the luster comes back.” Of Seger’s costuming, Tanuyan said: “The work she puts in is amazing.” And as Tanuyan has grown over the years, adjusting this or that costume to fit her has become second-nature for Seger. A tutu can last up to 10 years.

During the “Nutcracker” season, Seger works more than 40 hours a week on costuming. “Each costume has to be tried on, labeled, accessorized and probably altered and/or repaired.”

Sure, Seger has help. After all, the cast for “Nutcracker” is large, with 80 members. She has a crew from one to eight parents assisting. For each production, the parents are required to volunteer six hours. Some don’t sew, but there is a lot of hot gluing and organizing needed for the costumes.

She makes costumes for the company’s main productions. The company has already performed three events since August. And immediately after “Nutcracker” comes “Peter and the Wolf,” “Rhapsody in Blood” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Why doesn’t the company just buy costumes? Buying online can be costly. The average price for an unadorned, unfitted tutu starts at $300. The company of four full members, two apprentices and two trainees each will need one to three different tutus throughout “Nutcracker.” Seger estimates that by making costumes, the company saves 75 percent in the costume budget. The costumes are stored at the Riverfront Museum Park in a sewing area that Boy Scouts recently built for the dance company.

Where does Seger get the ideas for the costumes? She studies costuming and history books.

Margaret Faust, the dance company’s artistic director, choreographs the ballets and steers Seger where to go to get the ideas to design what she has in mind for the piece. “Most of the time, I sketch out my ideas before I dive in. But there has been the occasional blind, go-for-it frenzy. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it goes in the recycle pile to be used as a patch another day on another costume.”

Her favorite ballet to make costumes for? “The Sleeping Beauty,” which the dance company performed last spring. “I can’t even remember how many tutus and courtier costumes we made. It was a ridiculous number for a handful of moms, a couple volunteers and a dancer or two. ... We had a lot of fun singing old songs and watching movies on the computer while we worked.”

Georgette Braun can be reached at

Profile: Julie Seger