Time, skill and creativity: The things you need to become Joburg Ballet’s wardrobe mistress

One watches a ballet performance, often not realising what goes on behind the scenes.

As you walk through Joburg Ballet’s studios, music echoes through the halls and every now and then, as you climb the stairs, you catch a glimpse of company ballerinas doing chassés and tendus at the barre.

It’s hard work being a professional ballerina, but it also takes a lot of time and effort to be a ballet company’s wardrobe mistress, we recently learned.

Yolanda Roos, Joburg Ballet’s one and only wardrobe mistress makes it look easy, but underneath her calm, humble appearance is a woman who can take charge.

Being a wardrobe mistress takes a lot of behind-the-scenes planning, production, proofing, pinning, propping, and praying. Here are five things you did not know about Joburg Ballet’s costumes:

Joburg Ballet’s wardrobe mistress is actually an engineer

Joburg Ballet’s wardrobe mistress, Yolanda Roos initially studied Civil Engineering and only later went on to study fashion.

She then started designing and making wedding dresses and other evening dresses, which later evolved in her making Latin-American dance attire.

One of her clients then introduced her to Joburg Ballet, where she initially just made the costumes for the company and worked her way up to becoming their official wardrobe mistress.

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Many stories to tell

According to Yolanda, Joburg Ballet has about 250m of double dress rails filled with costumes.

Some of Joburg Ballet’s classic costumes – those typically used for ballets like Giselle – are more than 45 years old.

Swan Lake’s costumes were made in 1991.

According to Yolanda, some of the costumes’ fabric – especially those made from silk – have started to disintegrate, and when dancers put them on for a performance, they are encouraged not to touch it or fiddle with it as it might damage.

They literally dance and be done with it.

“Some of these costumes have a very rich history,” says Yolanda. They look after the costumes very well, as many of the costumes could never be replaced.

Iain McDonald, who is currently the creative director of Joburg Ballet, danced with the company since he was a young boy and worked his way up to principal dancer.

Some of the costumes which he used when he was still a boy are often still used by dancers today.

It takes skill

Sewing is one thing. Sewing leotards is a whole other ball game.

According to Yolanda, there is a definite need for South African seamstresses who know what they are doing, which is one of the reasons why she makes most, if not all of Joburg Ballet’s costumes herself.

She has an assistant who helps with the basics, but when it comes to the more difficult sewing techniques and stretchy fabrics (which are the norm when it comes to ballet attire) she does it herself.

That means that Yolanda makes round about 23 dancers’ outfits for a production like the recent Evolve (which included four different dances with four entirely different costumes).

“It’s not bad,” Yolanda says. “At the beginning it was 36.”

Legae costumes with sublimation printed leotards
Legae’s costumes with sublimation printed shweshwe leotards. Image: Supplied

Costume up-cycling is a wonderful thing

When she can, Yolanda is happy to reuse tutus or other costumes that have been gifted to the ballet company. One such tutu was recently up-cycled for the production, Evolve’s Paquita.

The long-forgotten tutu, which was found among donated costumes was brought to life and looked exquisite on stage.

The original tutu had a red base, which was replaced with black net and the tutu was given some new gems and trimmings.

Yolanda says that judging by the base of the tutu, it could easily be older than ten years.

Paquita tutu
Paquita’s tutu. Image: Supplied

Creativity is key at Joburg Ballet

With a tight wardrobe budget, Yolanda Roos often has to be very creative and come up with clever ideas to make the choreographers’ ideas work.

In the recent production, Evolve, some costumes’ fabric were sublimation printed at a Joburg-based Postnet in order to get the look they were after.

They even 3D-printed crowns for the king and queen in a chess-themed dance called The Game, with each crown’s printing taking about 8 hours.

Yolanda says she wishes more people would be interested in creating costumes as it is a position in fashion where you can always be creative.

“You get to a point where pants are just pants, whichever colour you make it,” she says. “Here you can be creative all the time.”

Keep an eye out for Joburg Ballet’s new production, La Traviata, in theatre soon.

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