Garments are usually considered functional if they stay on, but for the burlesque troupe Cherry Blossom Cabaret, whose costumes are intended to be stripped down to pasties and panties, a wardrobe malfunction generally means clothing stays put.
Such is the world of the costume designer, whose concerns are so far removed from those who design ordinary streetwear that it’s rare to find one with commercial designer aspirations.
“Project Runway” season 4 contestant Chris March brought this dichotomy to light when the theater costumer aimed for commercial legitimacy by most famously creating an ensemble of human hair deemed creepy by judges.
‘VARIETEASE: CARNAL CARNIVAL’
Presented by Cherry Blossom Cabaret
Cherry Blossom Cabaret designers Lola Love and Shelly Catwings thrive on that kind of visceral response, with every production presenting a new opportunity to bring their every fantasy to life.
“Most performers are inspired by dance or a song, but the way I work is I come up with the concept for a costume, then create an act for that. That’s backward,” said Love, who has taken a year to work on a flamingo costume due to her arduous search for a particular shade of pink feathers.
Half the battle is finding materials. “Because we live in Hawaii, it’s hard to get materials. The United States doesn’t carry much, either, so we’ll order from England, China, even Greenland,” she said.
The flamingo costume is one of dozens adding color and whimsy to Cherry Blossom Cabaret’s annual “Varietease: Carnal Carnival Cirque du Soul” at the ARTS at Marks Garage this weekend and next for an adults-only crowd. Populated by angels, devils, carousel horses and clowns, the audience will learn just what happens “when an Angel and a Devil bet on the fate of a human soul.”
“People always want to know where we get our costumes, but they can’t buy them. Our rule is you can’t use store-bought things,” Love said. “Half the troupe doesn’t sew, so we’ll buy things and embellish them, but they have to be changed in some way. Their costumes are simpler, and that’s fine, but I like to make all my costumes from scratch.”
Love said she started performing in high school in California as a cheerleader and dancer. Costume design came with the territory because it was expensive to use a tailor. She enrolled in a sewing class, and the rest was trial and error.
Today, she said, it would not only be “ridiculously expensive” to ask a costumer to create what the group wants, “it would be funny to ask somebody to make a hamburger or Victorian geisha costume. Things like that, most people would have no idea what you’re talking about.”
And no matter how silly the costume, it has to be sexy, glamorous and easy to remove, which doesn’t always happen.
“Every time we perform we have a wardrobe malfunction, but it’s all about being a great performer, making it look like it was supposed to happen that way, whether you’re a dancer, singer or actress. If the audience sees any faltering, then they’re not sure about your performance because you’re unsure about your performance,” Love said.
Catwings appears tired when she walks into Marks Garage. By last Thursday she had already spent more than 30 hours on the koi mermaid costume she started in January, and had more paillettes and monofilament yarn to apply to fins.
“All of these are hand-sewn,” she said of the nearly 3,000 spangles on the costume. “I’ve been keeping track so I don’t go insane.”
The entire costume is handmade because she doesn’t have a sewing machine that can handle its neoprene base.
With various performers representing the Seven Deadly Sins, the koi mermaid is Gluttony. Catwings said she was inspired by the idea of a fish consuming itself.
“I like comedic burlesque and making people question what is sexy,” she said.
She also challenges the perception of what mermaids look like. They’re no Ariels, for sure.
“Have you seen a Japanese mermaid? They’re ugly!” she said.
Sewing came naturally to Catwings, whose mother was a crafter and whose grandmother sewed and crocheted.
“I just see something I want to make and figure out how to do it,” she said.
She also applies her creativity to making hats, hairpieces and pins that she sells to people who want them. Her recent creations include monster hats of faux fur that can be styled for a smooth or wild, windblown look.
Although at one time she aspired to be a fashion designer, “at this point it’s not something I want to pursue. I really like costume making and performing.”
Love echoes her sentiment. “I’ve always considered myself a performer first and costume designer second. Now I have to say it’s equal in that I enjoy designing as much as performing.”
But she doesn’t imagine the average person will have much use for sequined and feathered work inspired by Marie Antoinette.