Spandex Costume Design Principles
This tutorial is excerpted from The “Spandex Simplified” line of books by Marie Porter. All photos, & accompanying tutorial are copyright @ 2012- Marie Porter, all rights reserved.
“Spandex costuming” covers a wide variety of end uses and purposes, from figure skating outfits to swimwear and cosplay.
It encompasses garments made for dancers, gymnasts, professional wrestlers, body builders, pole competitors, and more.
For the purposes of today’s blog - while applicable to more generalized usage as well - I’m focusing on the performing sports and arts.
These basic principles of design are good things to keep in mind when designing your spandex costume, whichever discipline the end user is practicing!
Sport Specific Rules
Each sport, each discipline within a sport - and even different federations within a sport - come with their own set of rules or accepted standards regarding posing suits and costuming.
That is something that should be kept in mind when designing competition outfits.
If you are costuming for a sport you’re unfamiliar with - or an athlete in a foreign country - it’s a good idea to look up the rules for the federation that governs their sport in their specific country.
Colour - how colours work, both with other colours and with your athlete - is a big enough topic that it deserved it's own post: Colour Theory for Spandex Costuming
Proper Fit and Usage Considerations
Aside from suiting a wearer and camouflaging any figure flaws, a spandex costume should fit well, and this means that it will not cut in at the legs, arms, neck, or anywhere else.
Once you make your first outfit from a given pattern, try it on and move around.
It should lie flat against the skin, and not bunch or pucker much when you move. Both bunching and puckering can make the suit - and wearer - look sloppy.
A suit that wrinkles on the sides when you move is too long in the body.
Another thing to take into account is the specific needs of the wearer.
Environment / Temperature
Is this a person who becomes overheated while training or competing, the benefit from a sleeveless garment with cut out back, or is this person going to need full coverage?
Will a thin, wicking fabric be appropriate, or should you consider something heavier and plush - like 4 way stretch velvet - for added warmth?
If a skater tends to practice in an extraordinarily cold rink, you might want to consider using a different type of fabric, such as Polartech, a fleece backed spandex, or moleskin lycra, which is a bit heavier than the average Lycras.
A change in fabrics may affect your finished garment when it comes to style and colour - many performance spandex fabrics are only available in a limited range of colours.
How much are they likely to abuse this garment?
If the athlete tends to ruin outfits easily, try to keep it as simple as possible, using durable fabrics and embellishment techniques, if so desired.
Consider washability, when sewing for an athlete that tends to sweat a lot. A basic lycra will hold up to more washes than, say, something with foil stamping.
Body Area Camouflage
Does your athlete have any potential figure issues that they want to cover up/ distract from, or aspects that you would like to play up?
Distracting the Eye
A very general rule of thumb is that if there is a problem area of the figure, accentuate a different area to distract the eye.
For instance, if you are self conscious of your waist/hip area, then make the lower part of the garment in a solid colour like black, and have the upper part be a bright colour, or bold print.
Have a funky neckline, interesting sleeve, or an eye catching applique (see my post on How to Applique on Spandex!) near the top, to distract the eye.
A few general guidelines:
- Legs can be made to look longer and leaner by cutting the leg openings a bit higher. Bikinis for fitness models and other contests are usually cut up to the waist, for this reason.
- Placing the skirt (when applicable) a little bit higher that normal - without adding compensation length to the skirt - will also make the torso look shorter, lengthening the appearance of the legs.
- Another trick is to buy beige skating tights that have a built in skate cover.
- Distract the eye as described above.
- Use colour blocking to accentuate the waist, or to give the illusion of a narrow waist on a blocky figure. As an exampl, you can have hourglass shaped colour blocking down the front of the suit to trick the eye into seeing a narrower waist.
- V shaped or Basque waistlines tend to be flattering, as long as they are not placed too low.
A person's torso can appear long if their legs are disproportionally short. Horizontal lines can shorten the appearance of the torso.
Again, skirt placement can help.
If you have a short torso, you will want to draw the eye up, away from the waist.
Vertical or diagonal stripes (or design elements) can help to lengthen the torso, and you can experiment with colour blocking to aid you in this.
- Make sure the back skirt is long enough to cover, but mind the amount of volume being used. More fabric = more bulk, both literally and visually.
- Slight tail skirts can be very flattering, just don’t overdo it. A little big of a “tail” draws the eye up and down. Too much of a tail shortens the legs.
- Distract the eye, as described above.
- Higher cuts for the leg openings also help.
- Synchronized swimmers use the trick of having the fabric which covers the bum be as small as possible, to give the illusion of a smaller butt.
Take care when using this theory, it only works if you don’t have most of your backside hanging out! Also: see your competition rules first!
- If the legs are larger due to being well muscled, or you aren’t too worried about them, showing more leg with a high cut bottom works well.
- Low cut bottoms aren’t a good idea when combined with larger legs, as they may create unwanted lumps in the suit.
Attracting the Eye
Just as you can use distraction to draw the eye away from problems, you can also use it to draw attention TO areas in other ways.
- If your body is rather boxy, you can use a vivid waistband accent to give the illusion of a waist.
- If you want to appear less flat chested, you can give the appearance of a bustline by using advancing colours (bright) around the chest, especially combined with an interesting neckline.
- Are really proud of your sculpted shoulders? The arm openings should angle in towards the neck a bit, instead of straight up.
Use of Colour for Attraction / Distraction
As far as distracting and attracting colours go, this is basically the scoop:
- Advancing colours are the ones that stand out, and grab the eye first - bright, bold, or light colours, big prints.
- Receding colours are the ones that fall into the background when contrasted with a bright colour. These are darker colours, like black and navy blue. These are the colours you should use when you want the eye to go elsewhere.
- The idea of advancing and receding also applies to the finish of a fabric.
A shiny fabric will be “advancing”, while the same colour of fabric in a matte finish will be more “receding”.
As an example, while black is a receding colour, very shiny black becomes advancing. In this case, you’d want to use matte black to hide, shiny black to draw the gaze / accentuate.
All of these ideas can be combined for an overall flattering outfit. Remember these guidelines, and experiment with the design of your skating dress:
- Vertical lines add length, and slenderize the torso. Horizontal lines shorten and broaden the torso.
Beware though, WIDE stripes can have the opposite effect! (A torso divided into 3 wide, horizontal line may look longer than it actually it.)
- Diagonal lines can slenderize, and will sometimes add or reduce torso length, depending on the angle.
The closer to horizontal the lines are, the more that the rules for horizontal will apply.
The closer to vertical (steeper angle) the lines are, the vertical rules are more likely to apply. Once again, really wide stripes can provide an effect opposite to the main rule.
- Curved lines soften the figure, and will make it appear to be more curvy. This can be achieved through colour blocking, cut, or both.
- Dark or matte fabrics can make the body look smaller, as they absorb light.
- Shiny or bright fabrics can make a very thin body look a bit larger, as they reflect light.
- Light colours visually add pounds to a body
- Square necklines can disguise smaller bust lines, but can also give coverage to a larger bust
Designing for the Athlete
Always Discuss Your Ideas with the Wearer
Ask for any opinions, and what aspects they like about their current and previous garments.
Do not be afraid to try something new, but also be sure to work within their comfort zones if necessary.
If an athlete is uncomfortable with what they are wearing, it will likely come out -negatively - in their movements.
Talk to the Coach
Many times, a coach and/or choreographer will have a general idea of what they’d like to see done for a competition outfit.
Even if they leave it completely up to you, run your design by the coach before going to buy your fabric.
When you are designing competition costuming, there are several factors which go into making an outfit suit the wearer.
Even the most beautiful competition outfit can look just plain weird on the wrong person.
For instance, a person’s look and personality play a strong role in deciding how the finished garment should look.
While competition suits may end up being suited towards a character, role, or theme being portrayed, they should also reflect the personality and attitude of the wearer.
As an example, if the wearer is a sporty, no nonsense athlete, odds are, they won’t want something super “girlie”, light pink, frilly, etc.
In that example, try to keep the lines simple, basic colours, and no frills.
Outgoing people tend to look and feel good in bright colours and bold prints, sharper lines, etc, while quiet people are more suited to muted colours, softer lines, and small prints.
When in doubt, ask the athlete and/or coach for an opinion.
Designing for the Music
What do you think of when you are listening to the music that will be used?
What mental imagery comes to mind?
A good idea for when you are designing a competition outfit, is to write down words that come to your mind when listening to the music, and elaborate on those ideas.
Talk to the coach. Sometimes, they will have a specific design, or even a small concept, of what they would like the garment to look like, or could advise you of where to start.
In the case of soundtrack music from movies or musicals, it is usually a good idea to watch the movie or musical in question.
Although you are not bound to borrow your design directly from something you see, it can definitely help to get the creative juices flowing.
What kind of mood is the music? Will people associate it with a particular period, artist, film, etc?
Though it is a good idea to not “typecast” your outfit, sometimes a piece of music will be such that a certain theme of outfit is pretty much required, or will almost look out of place.
As an example. A more modern outfit will not look appropriate with baroque music, and a jazzy sequined outfit will look out of place with the theme from Robin Hood.
Another good source of ideas is the local library, especially for period music. No judge is really going to care if you wear an Elizabethan style dress with a Victorian piece of music, but it can’t hurt to look into it.
Although some aspects of period costumes are impossible to duplicate in a skating outfit, take a look at some other details.
Huge portrait collars may not work, but what about the sleeve? Style of trim? Maybe a certain way the waistline looks.
Listen to the music, close your eyes, and see what comes to mind... a colour, shapes, style, or whatever.
It’s a good way to start.
Designing for visibility is incredibly important! One thing that I cannot stress enough: What looks good up close won’t necessarily look good, or even show up that well from a distance, or when subjected to the particulars of that sport’s staging.
Conversely, what doesn’t look all that great up close may look amazing in competition. Some general considerations:
You know how you’re supposed to exaggerate the makeup for competition? You’d never send your athlete to school looking like that!
It’s because from a distance, small details do not show up as well, and you NEED to exaggerate.
The makeup principle also applies to decoration of a garment.
- Don’t drive yourself crazy spending months beading an outfit that is meticulous. Odds are, it will show up as just a general sparkle.
- Individual seed beads DO NOT show up from a distance, so don’t even bother (unless close up promotional photography will be a consideration!)
If you want a rounded bead effect, go for the chuckier Rocaille beads. Clear beads lined with silver will shine more than unlined beads.
- There’s no real need for meticulous accuracy.
- Also, small variations in colour will not show up, it will all look as if it is one colour.
Fabrics look much different under the florescent lights used in skating rinks and pools, so taking a sample piece of fabric to the rink or pool is usually a good idea, to see how it looks.
Is this outfit ONLY going to be used from a distance, or are you making it for an accomplished competitor who will probably need it for publicity photographs and award photos, etc?
If it’s just being used to be seen from a dustance, it doesn’t really matter how accurate your beading is, but if it will be used in close-up photos, you may want to be a little more meticulous about it.
First and foremost, spandex costumes are *sportswear*.
They are active wear, and are pretty useless if they hamper the athlete’s range of motion or confidence.
- Use good, durable fabric with a good amount of stretch.
- Take care of the costume, rinsing well after every use. Hand wash competition suits, and always air dry - Never washing machine, never put them in the dryer. Taking care of the base fabric of your suit will make it last!
- Zippers can be a touchy issue. Personally, I have no use for them.
The thing with zippers is that they were not intended to be used on stretch fabrics in the first place, and every time you add something like a zipper into a seam, that is introducing a point of weakness to the garment.
As a bit of trivia, many professional ballet dancers (I’ve been told Russian ballet dancers in particular) don’t even use zippers in their costumes, they are sewn in to them.
I’d be willing to bet that most, if not all “performance athletes” (Figure skaters, gymnasts, synchro swimmers, etc) have either busted a zipper, seen someone bust a zipper, or heard a story about someone busting a zipper in competition.
Aside from the fact that a zipper busting is very embarrassing and a hassle, even just having a zipper can add worry to an athlete’s mind during the competition.
As stress can negatively impact performance, I find it best to just steer clear of zippers whenever possible. “I hope my zipper doesn’t break”, as a stress, can be avoided by not having one to worry about - leaves more time to worry about landing that axel!
- As a synchro swimming consideration : Synchro swimmers step all over each other, so some coaches prefer to not to design team outfits until the choreography is done. Ask the coach about what areas - if any - should not have sequins or other embellishments on.
On that note, see the end of this post for a whole section of design considerations to keep in mind when designing competition swimwear for synchro swimmers!
When designing a costume, another major consideration to take into account is the athlete’s safety, as well as the safety of other athletes.
Make sure that you don’t have sleeves that are loose and could blow in the skaters face, or cumbersome skirts that could get in the way.
Think of what all your particular athlete does... Is the skirt long and loose?
Would it end up under a skate in a sit spin?
A good performance garment won’t have any parts that could blow into the athlete’s line of vision, or affect their range of motion.
Any embellishments, such as sequins, rhinestones, and beads, should be SECURELY attached.
Depending on the sport of these items can be very dangerous if they come detached - a skate will stop dead in its tracks if it runs over a sequin, sending the skater flying. Not a pleasant thing.
Note: If you're designing a costume that involves full, over-the-shoe/boot covers, be sure to check out my tutorial on How to Add a Non-Slip Sole to Spandex Boot Covers
What is design unity?
This is actually a hard thing for me to describe, but easy to pick out in a finished garment.
Unity is how all of the elements of your suit work together to make a pleasing, and visually balanced finished suit.
You don’t want to overdo your design, making it too “busy” to look at. Don’t try to throw in all kinds of design elements at once.
For example, if you have a really interesting fabric, say a metallic hologram, be careful with beading / sequinning it.
Also, don’t go overboard with the actual cut of the suit - all kinds of funky design elements, cut aways, etc.
Let the fabric speak for itself.
In short, have one main “interest” element of your outfit, and concentrate on that.
Main elements would be things like fabric, colour, texture, shape of the design, and embellishments.
Another form of unity to consider - which is definitely open to interpretation - is how a colour or fabric can be used pleasingly.
For example, pale colours tend to look best in “feminine” designs - curved lines, soft textures etc.
Anything with harsh, geometric lines may look slightly out of place, or lack the drama that the shapes would normally evoke.
In the situation of funky fabrics, such as hologram... less is better.
If you use one of these fabrics in a full coverage suit for a team, there is a good chance that it will look like “too much”.
Take it easy, and use these fabrics sparingly. The fabric can be used successfully, as long as you have, say, an open back, and lower neckline.
If in doubt, ask someone. A trusted opinion can mean the difference between an amazing outfit, and fashion disaster.
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Well, the published nonsense, anyway!
Designing for Synchro Swimmers
Generally speaking, synchro swimmers like their suits to be up to a couple of sizes too small.
In addition to sizing, there are some “cut” style considerations to keep in mind when designing for synchro swimmers.
For one, synchro swimmers like to show a lot of skin in the back, because it makes them appear to be higher out of the water.
This can be accomplished in two ways - by having an open back or open section at the lower back, or through the use of flesh-toned mesh.
When having the low back open, whether as part of a largely-open back, or just a smaller opening, you’ll want the design to scoop down a little, rather than cut a straight line across the lower back.
Not only is this the most flattering way to cut such an opening, but it also works the best towards achieving the desired “higher out of the water” illusion.
Leg openings are another consideration when it comes to synchro-specific swimwear design.
Although younger synchro swimmers are usually ok with a normal swimsuit pattern, older swimmers will definitely want a higher cut to their leg openings.
Higher leg openings not only elongate the leg, they aid in how the swimmer’s form looks in the water.
Coming from a figure skating background - where I went out of my way to *prevent* people from getting wedgies with my costumes... I was pretty shocked when I made the transition to synchro swimsuits.
The idea that many of the older swimmers actually WANTED wedgies was definitely an eye-opener!
The reasoning that was been explained to me at the time was that if the butt of the swimsuit rides up a bit, it makes their legs look longer, and their bum look smaller.
Synchro swimmers tend to be very specific about the cut of the bum, so be prepared to make alterations.
As an example, I had a pretty standard, “synchro cut” leg style that I used for most of my older swimmers... but that sort of went out the window when working with the national team one year - those girls wanted the legs cut almost up to the waist!
All that said, personal preference can only go so far when it comes to designing the suits.
Always be sure to work within any regulations stipulated by any applicable Synchro Swim governing body, as they relate to suit cut and design.