Wardrobe Confidential! Secrets from the ‘Dancing With the Stars’ Costume Designers

Dancing with the stars - wardrobe
Paul Hebert/ABC

Costume designers Daniela Gschwendtner and Steven Lee spill some sequin-studded secrets about designing the custom-made outfits for every performance on Dancing With the Stars.

What’s the costume-making process like?
Gschwendtner: We meet with the set and lighting designers, dancers and talent and create a story [for each pair]. Then we sketch out ideas. We have five days, max, to make all the outfits. That’s half a day per costume, not including all the rhinestones. The fitting and trimming we do later. We have about 20 people in our department and then we have a separate tailor shop. It’s a big enterprise.

What are the most important aspects that a costume has to have to work for DWTS?
Lee: Everything has to have stretch. For the boys, we build even the suits and the shirts. The arms have to have movement, the shirts not come un-tucked when they dance and the shoulders can’t rise on the jackets, so there’s no malfunction. They wear it [for the first time] literally two hours before the show, so it’s not like we have a day to fix everything. Everything is really tucked-in, stretched, then pulled.

So, you have to really brace yourselves through the live show.
Gschwendtner: I cannot watch the live show without thinking about the costumes. All I look at is their boobs and booties [laughs]. I need to watch the show a second time to really watch the show, after I know everything is fine.

Do the stars ever complain about the outfits?
Lee: Some of the guys aren’t used to the glitz and rhinestone style of ballroom and Latin dancing. The sports guys are usually surprisingly easy – it depends on who you get, but you have to get them used to the whole dance world. At some point they want to win that Mirrorball Trophy so they have to play the game, but in the beginning I have to break them in a little bit.

For the dancers you’ve been dressing for years, do you ever re-use their outfits?
Gschwendtner: Not for the main show. We do reuse things for group numbers or promo shoots, but not for the competition. We don’t reuse things unless there’s a specific reason to do so. We try to keep everybody fresh and new in something different every week, so it stays interesting.

Lee: We might use a pair of pants again for the boys, but other than that it’s so thematic that we really can’t. For the guys we always want them to match the women and coordinate the colors – even if it’s a shade lighter or darker – we try to make those almost perfect matches. That makes it harder to use what we have in stock. Other than that, every week is going to be custom-made.

What designs are you most proud of?
Lee: We’ve always liked the theme nights like movie-themed or Disney night. Those are fun because we get to make our own interpretation. When we did The Little Mermaid’s Ursula with Rumer Willis and Val Chmerkovskiy [below], Val was the eel. We were like, ‘How do you make Val an eel?’ We ended up doing this shirt with scales on it.

Gschwendtner: We like doing something where you obviously can’t do it how its drawn. Otherwise you can’t dance in it, or it’ll look like a hokey, weird Halloween costume. It needs to seem stylish and cool, and I think those are the best challenges.

Dancing with the stars- Rumer Willis

DANCING WITH THE STARS – “Episode 2005” – “Disney Night,” on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Adam Taylor)

Lee: We’ve always liked Mark Ballas for these. He’s not with us this season, but he always gets creative. For Alice in Wonderland he’s been the White Rabbit, Woody in Toy Story, he’s been a ninja, a peacock, Adam of Adam & Eve – he does so much. We love that. It’s also cool that he lets us do our thing and not get in the way. I think when people over-think it, like too many cooks in the kitchen, it gets a little messy, but he just lets us do our job. Those are the most fun though, the ones with the themes.

Do you have any live-show horror stories?
Gschwendtner: Last season, Gleb Savchenko stepped on Jana Kramer’s skirt during dress rehearsal and he absolutely destroyed it—it ripped completely in half. We had to make a completely new skirt right before the show!