Costumes for Entertainers & Performing Artists

Costumes for Entertainers & Performing Artists

By J C Sum.

As an entertainer, your costume or attire is part of the production value of your show. More importantly, it communicates the style, feel and character of your stage persona or the theme of the show.

Over my 18+ year career, I have gone through many costume changes. These were not just changes in the cutting or colour of a jacket but were completely different looks to represent the style of my show at a particular time.

It is very important to ensure your wardrobe is contemporary or original unless you are performing in a show with a specific theme. I generally would not be caught dead in a sequin jacket but I was costumed in one for a production show that had a 1960s theme so it was necessary to fit the overall image of the show.

Unless you are performing a period or themed act, are you still dressed in full sequin jackets or tailcoats? Or are you still stuck in the Matrix with long black trench coat and PVC pants? Do your costumes look outdated even though they have worked for you for years?

It is also very important that your costume fits the venue you are performing in. A nicely cut tuxedo with cummerbund will look great in a high-end casino, but if you are performing on a beach for a family show, it will look silly. Jeans with a belt chain and a skull T-shirt looks cool in a music or street festival but will look inappropriate at the awards ceremony at a corporate event.

Naturally, the same line of thinking must apply to your assistants or other talent working on stage with you.

Upon deciding on the style of attire and wardrobe for your show, the next step is to purchase or have your outfit made. There are five sources that you can tap on to get your attire for your show:

  • Professional Costumers
  • Fashion Designers
  • Designer Wear
  • Tailors or Seamstresses
  • Free-lancers

Professional Costumers

A professional costumer who has experience designing and fabricating performance costumes will have all the necessary equipment and experience to produce a costume that meets your needs. They are experts in designing stage wear and know how to make something look good on-stage. And that is the key word: ‘on stage’.

To the professional costumer, costumes are meant to look good on stage. Thus, when viewed up close, the costumes will definitely not look as good as designer or tailored outfits. They are also not made for comfort. However, professional costumes are whizzes at making great-looking stage costumes at affordable prices.

Many costumers may have catalogs of photos or ready-made costumes that you can buy or modify for your needs. You can also show them pictures of costumes that you like and ask them to use it as a reference and custom-design something for you.

Fashion Designers

Fashion designers are an interesting breed of people. There are usually highly artistic but all seem to have their own quirks. However, all of them pride themselves in creating fashion pieces that are unique and aesthetic (although beauty is in the eye of the beholder).

If you can find a fashion designer that fits your style, speak to them to see if they are interested to design and produce something for you. Just be warned that they usually work on their own timetable and not yours. Design fees can vary greatly between designers so make sure you check before committing to a project.

Designer Wear

If you are performing a modern contemporary show, you can purchase your clothes from a designer brand outlet. Good brands will have well-cut clothes that will make you look good. The cost of a good complete outfit with accessories can easily run into the thousands for branded stores.

This is the source of my current attire due to my performance style, current show formats and target audience. While I have switched between looks and material over the last 5 years, the one good thing about designer wear is that I will always be relatively “in fashion” and look contemporary.

Tailors or Seamstresses

A professional tailor or seamstress will be able to custom-make a suit to your needs with some kind of frills to make the outfit flashier. However, the general tailor is usually used to making standard suits and may not have the ability to produce a special costume that you have in mind. While they are experts in cutting and sewing, they may have little creative design beyond the standard suits.

You should bring photos of a costume you like as a reference or better yet, get a dress pattern that the tailor or seamstress can follow.

For female magicians and assistants, one professional resource for these dress patterns is this very website:


The advantages of employing the help of free-lance designers or fashion students are that they are likely to be less expensive and will be willing to work with you on every small detail. However, the trade-off is that they may not be as experienced.

While their designs may be artistic and fresh, they may not have experience on the small practical details of performance attire, such as the durability and ‘behaviour’ of different fabrics and materials. Another problem with free-lancers is that they may not have a full appreciation for deadline and schedules as they have other priorities and commitments.

All the best and look good for your next show!

Based in Singapore, J C Sum
Based in Singapore, J C Sum

Based in Singapore, J C Sum ( is an award-winning international illusionist & designer of original illusions with extensive international experience performing for corporate & special events, luxury cruise liners, theaters, showrooms and television.

His website educates entertainers on business, marketing and investing.

Costume design and stage lights

Costume design and stage lights

Lighting a scene or stage is an important job when you think about the final impression of any stage show. Different colored lights can work differently in terms of impression, with the same costumes and make up.

As a performer there are a few things to think about to give the best impression for your audience:

Importance of stage lights
Importance of stage lights
  1. colored lights can give different impression of your costume – talk to the director and lighting expert of the show beforehand
  2. try your costume and fabrics with the show lighting to test their impression and colors appearing
  3. communicate your request concerning lighting with the director or the designer of the scenery – to highlight or cover some parts of your performance
  4. think about the props of your performance (stick, hat, jewelery etc.) and ask for a rehearsal with the final lights – audience in even the last row must see clearly
  5. sidelights can sculpture the costume – think about it details what you want to show and how the fabrics of your costume would work
  6. makeup – even the most natural look – has its on color – so include your makeup in the lights rehearsal
  7. rhinestones support the most impactful visual effect – test your final, decorated costume in scene lights
  8. media and the cameras can modify the actual scene – consult the relevant expert how to show you


See also:

Stage costume for three generations

Stage costume for three generations

My grandparents used to be famous Hungarian artistes in the 60s, 70s and 80s with their acrobatic show – called Duo Ernesto and later Susy & Ernesto. They performed in the best vaudevilles, cabarets, shows and revues.

This blog post is written based on my grandma’s storytelling: costumes and stage dresses were extremely important in stage performances at that times as well. She explained how the stage costumes influenced her whole professional life…

During my entire professional life my stage costumes had important roles and had a huge effect on our success as artistes in Europe during the 60s, 70s and 80s – says Zsuzsanna Kövesi Farkas.

My costumes were designed and prepared by myself. At the designing I always took into account my figure and my movements on the stage and the impression it gives in terms of being attractive and sexy.

I had so many stage costumes that the colleagues came to see each time what I wear…

Variete posters
Variete posters

Except Romania and Albania we performed in all European countries with my husband in different well-known and famous vaudevilles, caffés, cabarets, casinos etc. throughout 25 years with an acrobatic show. This show was special, because I was wearing high heel shoes for the acrobatic elements.

We performed in places like Friedrichstadt Palast, Urania Palast (East Berlin), Red Rose (West Berlin), Mocambo Cabaret (Bern), Kursal Casino (Baden), Eden Cabaret (Leipzig), Café Drag (Dresden), Steintor Variete Halle (East Germany), Intermezzo (München), El Amra Variete (Rotterdam), Splendid Cabaret (Luxembourg), Rozmaryn (Czechoslovakia), Aeros Variete (Leipzig), Tabaris Variete Rosand (Switzerland) etc.

Working together – Duo Ernesto

Working together - Duo Ernesto
Working together – Duo Ernesto

In the 1950s the performing artistes’ dresses in Hungary did not have any decorations – or just a few – because at that time it was impossible to buy rhinestones and flitters in Hungary. In 1957 my husband was performing in Spain in an acrobatic trio act. For the first time in his life he has seen glimmering and shining costumes and so called net tights on dancers – and he was impressed. He discontinued the Spanish contract, returned to Hungary and told me that he had missed me a lot and he wanted me to be with him always… I was a dancer and a gymnast and he was a very good comic character – so we took all the possibilities in consideration and had the idea of a funny dance and acrobatic act together.

The very first costume

The very first costume
The very first costume


We started to work hard on our common showpiece. After several months of hard practicing we could start performing. But before starting to contract with our act, we needed a so called artistes’ licence, and to get the licence we had to take an exam with our showpiece in front of the artiste committee. The exam was at the Kamara Variete in Budapest, for what we had to invent a costume very quickly.

At that time there was not a huge supply of costume fabrics in Hungary – so I bought blue and white striped fabrics and prepared my costume in sailorman-style. So we performed our show as sailors on the exam.

It was so successful that the director of the Kamara Variete offered a several months’ contract for us. We accepted it happily.

When we started our performances at Kamara Variete, the director called for the theather company and said that we would have foreign guests on the next week’s performance: directors of varietes and different agents seaching for new show elements. I don’t have to say how suspenful we were…

And the day arrived when the agents and other important people were sitting in the first row. We were very exited, but the debut was successful. After the performance a piece of paper was hanged behind the stage with the names of the artistes who were interesting for the agents or directors. We were surprised to read: “We call Duo Ernesto to the Manager Office; Aeros Variete wants to discuss with.”

We were extremely happy to get a one year contract for 1958 to Leipzig, to the Aeros Variete. This was our first common debut with my husband in abroad.

The first step to abroad

The first step to abroad
The first step to abroad

We started our performances at Leipzig Variete. One day after the performance a gentleman came to us, an agent, and said that he was searching for show elements to Friedrichstadt Palast, East Berlin for 1959 and our show fit perfectly to the concept.

He asked us whether we were interested in this opportunity. During the iron curtain era, after the 1956 Hungarian revolution it was very difficult for Hungarians to get visa – we mentioned this to the agent. His answer was: “we take care of it with MACIVA”. (MACIVA – Hungarian Circus and Variete, an association of artistes in Hungary)

Of course we were interested, so we discussed the details and two weeks later he brought to contract with him to Leipzig. We did not know too much about Friedrichstadt Palast, but the colleagues in Leipzig explained us that this was a high quality, well-known revu show, and it still is, even nowadays: one of the highest quality, biggest stage revu show worldwide. Our colleagues explained that this was a famous place with fantastic costumes, huge scenery and ballet. Hearing that we came to the conclusion: we couldn’t perform in our sailor costume in such an elite place!

Returning home after our Leipzig contract we spent all of our money on stage costumes, elegant and marvallous ones for our show, hoping that it would suit the Berlin revu…

Berlin – Friedrichstadt Palast

Berlin - Friedrichstadt Palast
Berlin – Friedrichstadt Palast

In the spring of 1959 we travelled to East Berlin,, to a new world, very excited. East Berlin was a “political shopwindow” of Eastern Germany: it was possible to buy everything and entertainment was top quality. They wanted to show that they could keep the pace with Western Germany.

At that time we heard in Hungary: “Be careful with western people, they are bad and provocative…” We went to East Berlin, not West, but we were very curious about the life of western people…

When the rehearsal period started at Friedrichstadt Palace, the director came to us and said that we would be in the Boat Scene, where the scenery was a huge boat, the dancer girls would wear sailor costume, so we had to perform with our acrobatic show in our own sailor costume! They asked us to dress up into our sailor costume and show ourselves.

We were looking at each other with my husband and said that the sailor costume is not there, because we have new costumes… The director and the others were astonished – what could we do? Due to the visa issues we arrived late to the rehearsal, and time was not enough to sew a new sailor costume. Therefore they asked us to show our new costumes. We stepped onto the huge stage excited.. As we were coming to the stage in our new elegant costumes, the director shouted: “that’s it! That would be perfect!”

After the debut the director of Friedrichstadt Palace came to us saying: “A great carreer is waiting for you in the west!”

During the performances we admired the stage costumes of the dancers, and we were impressed by the glamour, decorations, rhinestones, feathers and sexy lines of the stage costumes. That was the point when our attention was really drawn to elegant and nice costumes in stage appearance. We realized very quickly that we could step forward only if we put huge emphasis on costumes! We spent more of our monthly salaries on costumes, to reach the best appearance and impact.

After getting known that the shining decorations for the stage dresses were from West Berlin, we went there to do the shopping for ourselves. Before the building up of the wall it was not so difficult to get through, and we had a special diplomat visa, so we could go as many times as we wanted and could bring whatever we wanted from West to East!

Soviet tour – where a nice costumes was a sin…

Soviet tour
Soviet tour

After the Berlin contract period we returned to Hungary. MACIVA – the Hungarian Circus and Variete – sent a complete performance to the Soviet Union with a longer contract. The company was performing in the bigger towns of the Soviet Union, in circuses.

Just returned from Berlin and having seen the sexy costumes of the dancers, I thought I prepare a stage costume for myself in crochet! This crochet costume was covering only the most feminine parts of my body!

The company performed in Moscau when a delegation arrived from Moscau, from the so called Russian State Circus. After the show they called the director of our company asking him what this dress was on the lady in Duo Ernesto??? Seemed they did not like my costume. The director reported it to MACIVA in a telegram… We did not know about it, of course.

Getting a sack… the biggest luck!

Getting a sack... the biggest luck!
Getting a sack… the biggest luck!

As the Soviet contract was finished, we returned to Hungary. We were called to the office of MACIVA, and said that the Soviets were “hurted” by my costume, and we were cosmopolitans, West-loving people. They said that we couldn’t be MACIVA artistes in the future and gave us a sack!

They stated that 10% of all of our future contracts must be paid in. In return they took care of the visa and let our family members visit us. If we miss the 10% payment, our performing licence and passport would be withdrawn.

We accepted, and we came out of the office extremely happily! It would meant that our income would be multiplied (because the artists who worked for MACIVA got a very low daily payment) – and we were full of contract offers from East to West.

After this point our career was kicked off, as the director of Friedrichstadt Palast had predicted! We performed throughout Europe in the best places, and we were occupied for the next 2-3 years all the time.

Three generations’ costume design

Three generations' costume design
Three generations’ costume design

At the end of the 70s we created one aditional act. It was a Magic act and I thought I design a very sexy costume for that, because during an magic act I didn’t have to make so many movements. I wanted to prepare a very sexy dress, made of beads solely. I ordered beads from the U.S., and I prepared the Costume of My Life during one of our tours in abroad. I even did not dare to think that this costume would look perfect even 30 years later, and my daughter and my granddaughter would wear it!

I wore this costume in Moulin Rouge, Vienna for our illusionist show. After the performance the director came to me, saying: “It is all the same what you do, but if your wear this costume, it is an attraction and total success by itself!”

That is the role of the costumes in a show – in my life it was such an important element. We could have been grateful to our simple sailor costume that our career has started. What if I had bought red fabrics…

I am over 80, but I still feel myself an actress in my heart. If I would be born again, I would be an artiste again…

The Three Generations!!!

The Three Generations
The Three Generations

…and I wear my granny’s costume proudly today…

Kristina Eötvös

Change costumes 8 times in 6 minutes

Change costumes 8 times in 6 minutes

I think there is no other act on the stage where the costume design is so important than in a quick change show.

Quick change – where the performer changes her/his costume in no minutes. The miracle is: how can they do it so quickly? It is illusion, but being a part of the illusion is always a fun – for me and for my partner, Sebastian, and hopefully for our audience as well.

Our act is a bit more than quick change, because it is combined with dance performance. I dance and change at the same time in the act – 9 times in 6 minutes!

Therefore the act and costumes required adaptation not just in terms of dresses, but the dresses have to be in harmony of the music and the style of the dance:

We sorted out the costumes very carefully. All of them should have suited me, to my figure, and support my movement on the stage. At the same time they should have been in line with the melodies’ style and on top of that they have to be showy on many types of stages and stage lights!

Time to time we change a part of the costumes to show something fresh for our audience.

My advice for you: think about the style of your act as well as your personal style first! Be clear in your mind what you want to emphasize: your breast part, bottom part or your long and nice legs! Choose the costume design with what you feel “love at the first time”.

I hope that all of our costumers in Costume Design Plans will feel the “miracle” what a well-thought costume means for a performer!

Kristina Eötvös

Costume design failures

Costume design failures

What is a costume design failure from the designer’s view? All costumes which are not in line with the performer or the act, is a costume design failure.

Well, if you look at some videos via internet, you won’t need a detailed explanation how important a costume’s fit:

A wardrobe malfunction comes when a dress is not functional: it is designed just on paper and it was not tried during stage movements.

What do we expect from a good costume?

First of all it has to be a part of the show, like any other member of the act or performance. It has its role: mainly supporting the actress, giving her self confidence, highlighting her voluptuos innermost personality. (Women know exactly that being sexy is not the question of physical shapes, rather the inner feelings. A good stage costume supports these feelings.)

On the other hand we all know that the act is not the same in a jogging… The costume has to be something different. Cheapy fabrics, wrong color combinations, wrong choose of the style could result the same.

Last but not least, a costume designer must keep in mind that the costume must be alive on the stage or in the circus ring. The performer moves, jumps, runs, sits down or touches others during the show. As you can see, huge wardrobe disasters can happen…

Thanks to my own dancer career, I am fully aware of these requirements, and my designs include this experience.

Wishing you successful performances in your costume design plans dresses,

Zsuzsanna Völgyi

P.S. You can ask for your own costume design:I will be happy to get in touch with you.