Developing a Dancer’s Toolbox: The World of Wardrobe

Guest Writer: Jaclyn Youngblood, Academy Intern

Many dancers look stunning and move flawlessly in costumes, but not all of them understand the decisions that go into costuming a full ballet. Thanks to one of two career studies courses offered at the Houston Ballet Academy Summer Intensive Program, Wardrobe and Costume Design, some of the Level 8 (the highest level at the Summer Intensive) students will be able to explore the world of Wardobe. [The other career studies course is Set Design and Production; look for an update on that class July 20.]

Barb Dolney, a member of Houston Ballet’s wardrobe team for over 16 years, has been teaching the course since 2006. This year, there are 21 Level 8 students enrolled in the course, which takes students from initial concept to final design.

Houston Ballet Summer Intensive Career Studies Class
Students in the wardrobe class sharpen their sketching skills, focusing on body proportionality and silhouettes.


The students are paired up (with one team of three) for the final project: a minimum of six, complete color designs, three of costumes and three of hair, make-up and accessories. Dolney assigns each team to a ballet—this year’s selections are Giselle or A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and the teams decide for which period they’d like to design, such as Baroque (1715-1740), Art Nouveau (1910-1920), or Empire (1790-1815). Each team will present their designs on the final day of class, and some of the top teams will be selected to present their designs during the lower school’s final performance on July 29.
A typical class consists of going over the assigned reading, a brief lecture on the day’s topic, and an opportunity to practice drawing and work on their sketches.

Houston Ballet Summer Intensive Career Studies_Costume Sketch
Eado (Israel) works on one of his costume sketches for Giselle in the Depression era. His sketch emphasizes clean lines, structured beauty, and simplicity.


Eado (Israel) is designing for Giselle in the Depression era. He said learning about color, texture, fabric, and lighting decisions is helpful to him as a dancer because it adds to how he understands characters and plot. Dolney said she reminds students to make reasoned decisions, understanding why they are designing in a certain color or with a certain fabric, because it affects the audience’s perception.
To encourage students to engage the period they’ve selected, Dolney organizes a research day. Typically, the students meet at one of the branches of the Houston Public Library, scouring the stacks for art history books on sculpture, painting, and fashion. Due to scheduling conflicts, research day went paperless this year. Students used their laptops to research online articles and search for images to gain inspiration for their projects. Eado said he enjoyed studying about the Depression era because it gave him context in which to understand his contemporary perspective on the period.

It’s not only about the period, though. This summer, there is an extra element for students to keep in mind while they design: they’ll be designing in the style of renowned American choreographer (and Artistic Director of the Hamburg Ballet) John Neumeier. Dolney said Neumeier designs are typically sleek and restrained, with clean lines, regardless of the time period in which he is designing. Why is there an essence of John Neumeier in the Career Studies courses this year? Neumeier will be visiting the Houston Ballet in the fall; Associate Director of the Academy Shelly Power, Dolney, and Director of Production Tom Boyd (who is teaching the Set Design and Production class) thought it would be a relevant tie-in for students to focus their studies on Neumeier’s style.

Dolney said the students take away more than an artistic portfolio from the class. They learn what goes into creating a ballet. “It’s not just the dancers, but hundreds of others that contribute to get the production on stage,” she said.

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