The previously-unheard-of-convenience of ordering custom-made costuming online is now available to just about anyone who can use a computer. Now, whether certain individuals should be allowed to wander loose on Teh Interwubz is another story. But the fact is, in this glorious electronic age, no one needs to make a physical trek to the doorstep of that one brilliant costumer who made that gorgeous costume for so-and-so and lives waaaay out in Podunk, Nowhere. Walking hand-in-hand with that convenience is a responsibility to behave as honorably and politely as possible. Or there should be.
After receiving a particularly abusive and unreasonable email from a client recently, it occurred to me that there really isn’t anywhere to learn how to be a dream client, and, in return, attain a dream costume from a delighted and devoted artisan. I think a lot of us might need to talk a bit more candidly and openly about expectation and projection. For the sake of keeping my hair from turning white by next week, and for all the other costumers I know that are eking out their living in the mostly-unexplored-realm of making custom-fit costumes for clients they’ve never met face-to-face, as well as for all of you, dear clients —each of whom deserves a costume that lets you look and feel truly powerful, beautiful, and respected— I’ve written this. IT HAZ VISUAL AIDS AND EVERYTHING.
Erring on the side of compassion will almost certainly save you some grief. It may or may not also keep your garment from having tiny chunks of trout sewn into the hem after some costumer finally snaps under the pressure and decides that you should smell like the sack of assholes they now think you are made of.
::Laughs nervously and glances behind self::
Seriously, though? While you won’t have fish sewn into your garment probably EVAR, many of us do, in fact, know each other. We do warn other costumers about the more egregious PITA [more on that in a minute] clients we’ve been abused by. This certainly ain’t the “Nuts-In-A-Rubberband” scene of Fight Club, but nevertheless, bear in mind that if you tear into one of us, it’s quite likely you may not get “friend prices” from anyone else in this close-knit community, ever again. (We really do look after each other. It’s also worth noting that when we are treated kindly and humanely by our clients, we look out for them, too.)
Which brings me to the next item on the list:
2.Thou Shalt Not Haggle (or complain about price).
Please. Please. Do. NOT. You are requesting a luxury service from someone with very specialized knowledge. They have worked very hard to become professionals in their field. Be prepared to pay them professional rates. If you’re not prepared, please save up until you’re ready. Ask yourself, do you really want to try to barter that empty “Genuine Clinique” cosmetic case and a fancy shoebox for a bespoke $300 belt, lovingly hand-crafted for you from vintage materials (true story). Rrrreally?
Asking for discounts on your own costuming is widely considered by any costumer with any healthy degree of self-respect to be profoundly tacky and disrespectful. We are not at a flea market. Unless a discount is offered freely (with no prodding or guilt-tripping), asking for discounted prices puts your costumer in the awkward and demoralizing position of having to say “NO” in the friendliest way he or she can. Oh, sweet, merciful client… Please. Don’t. Do it.
EXCEPTION: Troupe orders. Most costumers WILL give you a special rate if you’re ordering in bulk. Broach this subject with them early on, in a straightforward-but-polite manner, and you’re likely to be amazed at how accommodating and reasonable we are.
Another exception is asking about combined shipping on multi-piece orders, which most sellers will do, happily.
3. Read Everything Thoroughly.
Everything. All of it. ALL. Take your time— we know it can be a lot to take in. But definitely do it, for your sake as much as ours. After you’ve read the fine print, please don’t be afraid to ask any questions that aren’t already answered. We are here to serve, we are here to listen, and we want to make you happy.
With that said… please try not to ask questions that already ARE answered. If you do ask questions that we have already answered, we are within our rights to clarify for you, and gently request that you to refer back to the fine print in the listing to make sure you understand all of our policies before the interaction continues. If we have to do this once, please reread the full spiel before asking the same, or other redundant questions, yet again. If we have to do it twice, we may start to feel frustrated and disrespected.
Trust me when I tell you this: there is always a very good and sensible reason for every last inch of policy in a listing or on a website, and that information is usually dearly won by the artist.
4. Be Very Clear About What You Want.
Please, do not tell a costumer that you’ll love anything they do. No, no you certainly won’t. Know that if you do say that, (once the mental alarm bells stop ringing) we’ll expect one of two things: you’re either a passive-aggressive, bunny-boiling obstructionist (which is most of the time) …OR… YOU’RE A FUCKING UNICORN. Congratulations on that. Seriously.
Kristin Gallup of Kraken Whip Designs puts it very well: “Giving someone Full Artistic License means “I have a general idea what I want but I can’t be bothered/don’t want to give specifics…” Or:” I trust you as the artist to not make something horrendous and I’ll stay the fuck out of your way and not bitch about the end result if it’s not EXACTLY what I had in mind”. Amen, sister.
We’re not psychic. If you can’t articulate what you want, we can’t understand you. Whether you cannot fully convey your needs due to limited skills with a second language, or have a learning disability, or simply don’t believe that spell-checking, proof-reading, or punctuating is vital to coherent written correspondence, we all need to accept, together, as adults, that this is true. There is absolutely no shame in getting help with expressing your ideas from someone you trust, or just having someone read the boilerplate to you aloud. Be realistic about your limitations, whatever they might be, and be honest and up-front with us about them, and we will bend over backward to help you realize your vision. All it takes is a bit of mutual respect and patience. We’ll get there together.
On the other end of the spectrum, this, too, is VERY important: If you have incredibly specific ideas about fabrics and colors, be prepared to send swatches. If you’re providing your own fabric, please sent us enough of it to complete your vision/adequately ensconce your sweet tushie. Iffen ya gots bodaciously ample bazooms (like me!), be ready to purchase a bra that fits you properly. Don’t forget to tell us up front if you’re allergic to certain metallic alloys/fabrics, or linen makes you chafe, or ixnay on feathers or bone beads, because you’re vegan. None of that’s gonna be a problem if we know right out of the gate. If you tell us, we will make it so. Like dis:
5. Be Very Clear About What You’re Ordering.
Get it in writing, and (once again!) read that writing carefully. Be clear on what is possible with your specific budget, measurements, and material requests. You may WANT it to look like _________’s bra from that one YouTube video, but if you have $100 bucks and you want it in four days, well… frankly, that’s not going to happen. Get out the felt and macaroni, kiddo, ‘cause you’re on your own.
(Using graphic design as an example, Colin Harman illustrates the principle with this clever venn diagram)
If, however, you’re a professional dancer who needs a full costume in two weeks, you already know that you need to pay a rush fee, sometimes upward of a 40% surcharge on top of the preexisting total. Rush fees mean that your order will be pushed ahead of all others, that absolutely bugfuckingreeeedonkulous shipping charges are sure to be incurred, and that your faithful costumer will most likely lose a lot of sleep. Let it be plainly stated: you are paying to have another human being live and breathe your costume above all others. This is a privilege, not a right. Pay a pro what they’re worth, and that pro will bust their ass for you.
6. Thou Shalt Not Pester.
More than four emails asking where your item is, two weeks before the expected due date automatically makes you a PITA: Pain In The Ass. It’s REALLY not going to help make your costume faster. In fact, pester us enough, and your priority level may drop. From Sameerah Logan of Wicked Harem: ”Don’t email me every 12 hours to see how it’s coming”. You are NOT ordering from Zappos or Amazon. You are ordering from a real person, who is MAKING YOUR COSTUME BY HAND. You’re ordering it from them because you: A) Like what they do. B) Can’t or WON’T make it yourself. Give them the benefit of the doubt and refrain from sending that twelfth email because you’re nervous about your first solo. Word.
Your costumer is not stressed about your performance. You are. And while they can empathize with that kind of stress, they are not here to be a receptacle for your anxiety. A costumer’s job is simple, and if they’re worth our salt, it’s going to be a relatively stress-free endeavor for them: they will make your costuming as beautiful as it can be, and get it to you on time. Your job is to give the right measurements, to communicate with them rationally, and to wait patiently… not to obsessively tug at them because their task relates directly to something that is scary or difficult for you.
Most costumers have worked extensively in the field in which they costume for. They get it. That’s why they do what they do. They LOVE what they do, or they wouldn’t do it. Trust me on that one. So let them do what they do, and your costume will turn out well. Harass them, and you risk giving them PITA PTSD, and nobody benefits from that. Oof. It ain’t pretty, let me tell you…
7. Measure Twice, Order Once.
Get someone to help you measure yourself, preferably someone that knows how to sew WELL. It’s worth the hassle. Take the requested measurements exactly the way the costumer asks you to. Everyone has their own style and parameters. This may seem nit-picky, but two inches (for example) makes as big a difference in terms of clothing as two inches make on a… well, you know what I mean. *cough* Consider that some people want a tight measuring tape, some want it slack, or taken with two fingers underneath it for ease. (Hurr hurrr.) This is important to the fit of your garment.
If someone (like Ms. Katherine Summer O’Neal) mentions in her listing that she needs you to measure with a measuring TAPE, not a ruler or yardstick, it’s usually because she’s actually seen people (plural, mind you!) try to take their own measurements with a ruler or yardstick. *headdesk* “Trust that if I mention not to measure a pre-existing garment instead of yourself, it’s because I’ve had someone get angry at me for a skirt not fitting when they’d given me the measurements of a differently patterned garment instead of ones taken from their own body.”
Measure your body, and do it a couple of times. My friend Shannon of Rhiannon Jewels says: “Do not let optimism or vanity take control of your measurements”. Oh, this is so very, poignantly true. If you provide incorrect measurements, the person sewing will work to incorrect measurements. And if that costume doesn’t fit, guess whose fault it is? Measure for the body you have, not the body you want, or, for that matter, the body you HAD. Measurements must be current. Be kind to yourself. Be loving and accepting of the current shape of your body. If you do, we will do everything in our power make that body feel comfortable, and look incredible.
8 There Are No Refunds on Custom Work. None.
Most costumers will work with you on fitting issues, which do occur on more complicated garments, no matter how many precautions are taken with online orders. There’s simply no substitute for in-person fittings. That doesn’t mean we won’t get there, it just means we need to be patient. (Did you know that even a proper Haute Couture garment must have one or more in-person fittings to legallybe considered “Haute Couture”?) Unless you ordered a size 10 in lime green and coral, and you got a size 0 in red and black, you’re probably not gonna get a refund. Then again, if that happened, your costumer might be crazy.
9. You Order It, You Buy ItIf your bespoke costume fits, and, upon donning it, you decide you simply don’t LIKE it, you, dear client, are the one that has to sell it. Not the maker.
But wait! There’s more! You also have to finish paying for it! YAY!
Any costumer worth their salt has been all over the place, tracking down just the right materials to purchase for your piece, and they’ve also done the work of making the costume, by hand. The money is officially spent. There is no sweatshop full of diligent ten-year-olds making your costume. (Let’s hope not, anyway!) Usually, there’s one person making it, sometimes with an assistant, but mostly it’s just one human being, doing more work than you’d ever expect. It is not fair, nor is it the responsibility of the artist to wait around for some nebulous client who has your exact proportions and wants your custom-made costume. This is why I stress the importance of being very clear on what you want, and being CRYSTAL clear on what you are getting. If you gotta read between the lines to figure out what’s going on, you’re not asking enough questions.
10. Thou Shalt Not Disappear on Thy Costumer.
From Alyssum Pohl, a brilliant friend and jewelry designer says: “if you ask about doing custom work, and give specifics in the first email, I assume you’re interested. If when I send you pricing for that work, you realize you are not financially able to go through with it, I understand. But please don’t just disappear. It is polite and totally fine for you to simply say you’re not able to afford the work right now. I don’t like being left hanging, wondering if I’m missing emails and supposed to be working on something fer ya!”
Treat my time as you would treat your own. As a valuable commodity. Doi.
11. Thou Shalt Not Request Thy Costumer to Copy Thy Costumer’s Neighbor.
You’re usually welcome to include inspiration photos of things that you feel contribute to the general look and vibe of your costume, but it’s a big no-no to expect an exact copy of _______’s costume. “Understand that a lot of pieces your favorite dancers wear are one-off/ unique and can’t/shouldn’t be replicated.” That last quote comes from Benne Gezeritt Designs; they’re a super awesome TWIN sister design duo out of Tulsa.
12. There is No Such Thing As “Just” Anything.
This comes from Azrakesh, and she put it very well: “You can’t “just” change one design detail by waving a magic wand —- move a seam, change a closure, use completely different fabric, because it’s all gonna take extra time to prepare and to consider, and because it will also probably change how something performs.” I agree wholeheartedly with her on this. If you’re getting a wedding gown made and spending possibly thousands of dollars, generally, your dressmaker will make a mock-up of your gown to address any fit issues. This is NOT true of belly dance costuming, unless you’ve got the scratch to have a cloistered team of blind virgin nuns make it with their toes. This may come as a surprise to some, but you can’t change your mind in the middle of construction. That’s for bridezillas. It’s like asking an acrobat to do a back-flip while they’re in the middle of a cartwheel.
13. Do Not Ask Your Costumer Where They Get Their Materials.
Just don’t. It’s none of your business. We’ve spent hundreds of payable hours (especially the antique textile nerds) learning, scouring and hunting. It’s part of the job. It’s part of the cultivation of craft. Please be mindful of that, and leave it alone.
Also, don’t ask to use a costumer’s patterns, especially to take to another costumer (because it’s a trashy thing to do). I’ve been hearing more cases of this lately, and having experienced it myself, it’s pretty frustrating. While no one can stop anyone from imitating, it’s a whole ‘nother thing to give the burglars a key to your front door.
Finally, DON’T ASK COSTUMERS FOR FREE ADVICE. Don’t ask them how they do things, don’t ask them how you can do something similar to what they did on ______’s costume piece. It’s their job, and they should be compensated as such.
14. Expect to Pay a Non-Refundable Deposit Up Front.
Do not for one minute think that any costumer you know is rolling in the dough. They need the money you provide to track down and purchase supplies. I’m not going to go into micro detail with this one, because deposit policies vary drastically from artist to artist, but expect to pay from 1/3 to the entire cost up front, if the costumer takes deposits at all. Some brave souls don’t require payment up front at all (you might wanna be wary of them). Most have strict limitations on the number of payments you can make. I won’t do more than three myself….I.E. SURE, you can pay me 5 dollars a week on a $500 headdress… if I can pee on your head with every payment you make. Also (for me anyway) the more payments you make via etsy, the more expensive it’s going to get. Etsy and Paypal fees add up. We can’t eat those fees for you. We just can’t. Please don’t expect that of us. It’s very much like financing a car with interest, but from the 99%. You’re paying for the convenience, and the fact that I mostly have to hunt you down to get paid.
We work hard. We work long hours. We don’t have insurance. Our fingers hurt from all manner of sharp things, hot things, and repetitive use. Our necks hurt, our backs hurt, and we mostly don’t get enough exercise. And we’re GOING BLIND, some of us.
You don’t have to be rude to get your point across. We WANT to make you happy.
Like every relationship, it’s great when communication is good. It SUCKS when communication is bad.
We are committed to making things we see as beautiful, and if we’re lucky, you’ll agree with what we see individually and support that. That (in my eyes) is a gorgeous thing.
So… let’s keep things calm. Let’s keep things kind. Together.
Don’t be a dick.
Thanks for reading.
There we go. That first bit is the kind of unsettling imagery I like in my belly dance. Plus a bunch of other great stuff.
I would very much like to start a dialogue on something that troubles me quite a bit:
Dancers openly putting down other dancers on public internet forums.
It happens all the time. My perspective is that it’s an unhealthy phenomenon that won’t be fixed if we just ignore it and pretend it isn’t hurtful.
I feel strongly that we are all active members of a close-knit community full of creative performers who all make ourselves vulnerable to one another and to the world. Famous or unknown, advanced or beginner, every time any one of us gets onstage, every time we allow our performances to be filmed and posted online, every time we attempt new choreography or costuming, every time we make a choice to either try something different or continue exploring previously established techniques, we are opening ourselves up. We are offering something of our hearts. It might not be perfect, or even good… but it’s always brave. And that’s something to be honored, not abused.
And yet, so often, abuse happens, and it comes from within this community. It’s one thing when some random, bored kid trolling the internet leaves a comment tearing down a dancer’s performance in a public forum. But to watch a PEER pick another dancer apart with non-constructive, petty language on YouTube, or elsewhere… somehow, that’s always extra heartbreaking. While healthy critique can be a very helpful tool, no one ever seems to benefit from that particular kind of negativity. Not the performer, not the dancer who leaves the comment, and certainly not our community in general.
So… why does it happen so much?
I would like to say something, specifically, to my fellow dancers who leave those types of comments for our peers online:
Our community as a whole is TINY, with a handful of big fish swimming around in it. None of us are immune to unsolicited, unkind criticism. If ya gotta preface a YouTube video remark or forum comment with “no offense, but” or “I’m not trolling, I swear”, it probably means you should reconsider your language. All that preface does is reveal that you’ve made a conscious choice not to keep your commentary gentle and constructive, yet feel JUST enough responsibility to want to cover your ass. That is not being helpful. You will not convince anyone that your intentions are good. Rather, your remark reads like a misguided attempt to feel a bit bigger and better about yourself. But it won’t work. All it will do is make your community a little less kind, and a little less inspired.
Let’s face it, YouTube comments in particular are one of the lowest, most dehumanizing forms of social discourse that modern society has at this juncture. But does that mean it’s not worth trying to improve the way we speak to each other? Why do we let these kind of public put-downs from peers sit there, unanswered and unchallenged? Is it always better to ignore them? Are the instances where (gently and respectfully) responding to these kinds of snipes might encourage better behavior?
What do you think? Have you left commentary online that you felt was useful critique? What made it useful? When does useful cross the line into catty? Have you gotten critique that you felt was helpful? What made it helpful?
As for me, I’ve had good results with speaking to offending dancers as directly and as kindly as possible. How about you? What are your experiences with this kind of thing?
Phew. Thanks so much for reading, and for letting me get this weight off my chest. I’m so grateful to have this forum, and looking forward to your insights.
1991 Northern Renaissance Fair
Dancers: Mish Mish, Farideh (Cathryn Balk), Rebaba, John Compton, Sage, Paula
Gypsy Moor Dancers Original Group co-founders Mish Mish & Sage
The ladies of Bal Anat, Ren Faire, sometime between 1969 and 1973