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'Dancing With the Stars' costumer puts the razzle in the ballroom dazzle

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Flashy costumes were part of the semi-finals of "Dancing with the Stars." (ABC)


By Miriam Di Nunzio

Ever wonder how the celebrities and pros look so amazing every week on "Dancing with the Stars?" I mean, besides their spray-on tans and rock-hard bodies? Just who's behind the "wow" factor of every stitch of clothing they wear?

The answer is the man behind every costume on the show since season 2, Emmy-winning costume designer Randall Christensen. He's also responsible for most of the fashions worn by the three judges, and hosts Tom Bergeron and Samantha Harris. And if all that is not enough, he also costumes every guest singing star and Macy's "stars of dance" performance (unless the guest star has specific costuming in tow).

So how does all the magic, no, make that artistry, happen? I spoke to Christensen this weekend to get the 411 on what goes into all those sparkly, sexy and dazzling costumes. Oh, if you were wondering (and because I asked), Edyta Sliwinska's costumes require a measly half to three-quarters a yard of fabric. "She's got the hottest body of any dancer I've ever worked with," Christensen said.


Q. How long does it take you to create the costumes from week to week?
A. We do it all in 4½ days. Every Tuesday after the results show when the couples get their dance assignments and music assignment, it's a mad rush for the costuming department because every couple wants to get to wardrobe and nail the color and style they want for the next week. Then on Wednesday it's off to shopping to pick up what we'll need for each costume.

Q. How much time do you spend with the couples to get their costumes going once the general idea is in play?
A. I'm lucky if I get 15 to 20 minutes with each couple in the planning stage. But the celebrities put a lot of trust in their pro partners and me. I come from the dance world and I've watched most of these pro dancers grow up. So there is a lot of mutual trust and understanding. As long as we nail the general concept and the celebrity is okay with the color then it's up to me and my team to run with it.

Q. How many costumers are working with you?
A. We have probably the largest on-lot wardrobe/costume department of any television show. The first few seasons, we didn't have a work room on site so we were driving back and forth from Burbank two or three times a day as needed. In season four, the producers asked me what could make the process better, and now I have a full work room and a 20-plus staff of sewers. We're right down the hallway from the ballroom, so if there are any changes, we can instantly make them on-site.

Q. What makes all those costumes sparkle so much? Rhinestones? And do you have any idea how many you buy/use on a weekly basis?
A. We use genuine Swarovsky crystal rhinestones and they're sewn on one at a time. We easily purchase 75 to 80 gross of them at a time and a single woman's costume can easily have 12,000 to 15,000 sewn on by hand. The feathers are ostrich feathers that we will take from a boa or from regular plumes and just strip them down to threads and attach them piece by piece.


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Cody Linley and his partner Edyta Sliwinska perform on "Dancing with the Stars." (ABC)


Q. From what America has watched for eight seasons, it's a given that Edyta Sliwinska's costumes use the least amount of fabric.
A. [Laughing] I've never seen a quarter-yard of fabric look so good on anyone. She's my muse. She gives me the essence of what she wants for a costume and leaves it to me.

Q. What keeps those revealing costumes in place, for the most part at least?
A. We can't use sticky [two-sided] tape because nothing sticks to the bronzers they use and the amount of perspiration that occurs. So we really use a lot of nips and tucks and darts everywhere. We pick up anything that's gaping during the last fittings and dress rehearsal. Keep in mind that dress rehearsal is only two hours before show time.

Q. What happens to the costumes once they're worn and it's on to next week?
A. They are all still here, catalogued. You really can't discard them because you never know which couple will be asked back to do an encore dance during the results show, for example, and their costumes have to be ready to go.

Q. Is it hard to work with celebrities who aren't used to the types of costumes that pro dancers wear for competitions?
A. It's not that it's hard, it's just that for the first few weeks there are a lot of scared women celebrities because they know they will be crucified in the press because of what they're wearing. But by the fourth week, their bodies are really getting in new shape and they're much more comfortable with the way they look out there and they get the spray on tan and they want to show more skin. It's almost the same for the men. They can't get into wearing say a red sequined shirt and red socks or a rhinestone jacket. The pros are used to it, of course. So the celeb guys are always reserved in their appearance the first couple of weeks, and then they get it; that the costumes are part of the story of the dance and they're cool with trying new colors and some sparkle.

Q. Tell me about the various dance shoes that they must wear. Some of those heels look ridiculously high for dancing.
A. The shoes are all professional dance shoes and they differ depending on the type of dance the couples are doing. We use a place in Beverly Hills that creates every style of dance shoe in any color. The men, for example, will wear a Cuban heel for the Latin dances. For ballroom, they wear a ballroom shoe that features a one-inch heel. All the shoes have suede on the bottom side to give more traction. For women, the Latin sandal is different from the ballroom shoe which can have a 2 ½-inch to 3-inch heel. The shoes are paper thin, super light and very, very flexible.

Q. What's it like to costume celebs each season that come in all shapes and sizes?
A. It's a very detailed process because these are not typical dancer bodies that I'm costuming. So I do as much homework in pre-production weeks as I can. For example, Shawn is 4 foot 10, so we met in pre-production and went through magazines and such and made tearsheets of looks that she liked. I have a complete file on every pro and every celebrity for reference in terms of colors, styles, fabrics and such. By mid-season this year, Shawn came in and went through the books again to get more "looks" into her file and you'll notice the overall tone of her dancing has changed. So the costumes reflect that. The more the celebs come to understand the movement and cut that a dress has to have, the more open they become to trying new and different costumes.

Q. What about the fabrics that are used. How laborious is that process?
A. We shop the garment district in Los Angeles every Wednesday, and I have some regular suppliers there who know what we need. We use a lot of silks, silk charmeuse, and silk satins. But if what we're looking for is not available, say a specific color of chiffon, we move on to another color. We just don't have any wiggle room to redesign something because our only shopping day is Wednesday each week. We also have to pick out jewelry for Carrie Ann [Inaba] and Samantha, which are pretty much loaned to us each week. And thread! We're always buying threads! Keep in mind we might use 20 to 30 yards of chiffon on a single dress and that requires a lot of thread to sew together.

Q. What's the average cost of each costume?
A. Well, we use only union costumers and sewers and because there's so much overtime involved because we literally have just a few days to make all the costumes, the cost of each garment goes up rather quickly. I'd say on average a man's costume can be as much as $5,000; a woman's costume can run upwards of $5,000 to $8,000.

Q. So what happens to all these costumes once a season is over?
A. We actually sell a lot of them, and this year, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is letting us have an exhibition of the costumes at the Fashion Institute in Los Angeles prior to the Emmys.

Q. So, after eight seasons, do you have a particular costume that is your favorite?
A. That's really hard, because we will have made about 110 costumes by the time each season ends. But I did love the white dress Mel B wore for her rumba. And I also loved the "Matrix"-like paso doble costume that she wore. She was just a phenomenal person to work with and costume.

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This page contains a single entry by Miriam Di Nunzio published on May 17, 2009 4:09 PM.

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