Ever since watching The King and I (1956 version) at a very impressionable age, I have been rather fond of dancing (and crinolines – but that’s another story). My grandmothers and I spent many happy hours marvelling at the clothes, hairstyles and make-up of the participants in the World Championships broadcast on television. The ample-skirted gowns worn for Standard or Ballroom Dancing were my favourites, which will not surprise you once you had a look at this footage of the 1979 World Championship. The rather more risqué Latin American dresses always provided food for discussion particularly about how they could possibly stay up. The gowns worn in this clip from the 1980 Championship are relatively tame but have a look at the outfits worn three years later for the Cha-cha-cha final, when the fashion for asymmetry and bleach-blond hair was starting to get out of control. Cha-cha-cha was always my favourite among the Latin American dances, mainly because it always gave me great pleasure saying it (still does, but one does not often get the opportunity).
The imminent launch of the new series of Strictly is as good an excuse as any to have another look at some of the competitive dancewear in our collection, part of a larger group of Dress for Dance. While I am more of an enthusiast rather than an expert, I would like to propose a few rules the prospective purchaser of a dance gown might want to bear in mind.
1. A little flesh-coloured nylon goes a long way
This beautiful dress exemplifies all that is great about Latin American dance gowns. It is asymmetric, it involves movable parts (fringes in this case, but feathers were also a popular option), and there is a distinct design theme. This particular model was made and worn by no other than Hazel Fletcher when she and her husband Alan won the World Professional Latin American Dance Championship for the fifth consecutive time in 1981. The skimpier Latin American dance gowns became, the more their wearers had to rely on judiciously-placed, tan-coloured, see-through stretchy fabric, to use the technical term.
2. It isn’t all about the ladies
While most eyes might well be on the female dancers, it is of course of utmost importance that the outfits of the dance partners do not clash, unless they do so deliberately and in a good way. This catsuit worn by Alan Fletcher shows how this is done: the black and white sequin decoration of Hazel’s dress above is discreetly echoed by the embroidery around the V-neck and collar. Notice the elastic bands at the bottom of the trousers that ensured a creaseless appearance. According to what seem to be Hazel Fletcher’s notes from a presentation about the history of dancewear, it was the German Wolfgang Opitz who first dared to put on a catsuit in 1970. Apparently this new dance apparel involved the wonderfully named ‘Helanca‘, a sturdy tw0-way stretch fabric.
3. There’s no point being colour-shy
While we do not know the maker of this eye-catching gown, they certainly knew their colour theory, choosing two opposite colours on the colour wheel to great effect. The former owner of this gown danced in one of Peggy Spencer’s formation teams (I adore synchronised dancing!).
This dress also proves another point:
4. There is no such thing as too much tulle
This is of course more of a general life rule but it is especially true for dancewear. Here two shades of net are mixed: eight tiers of a mid-yellow shade are surmounted by two further layers in fluorescent yellow providing additional zing.
This dress by another member of the Peggy Spencer formation team demonstrates a use of rhinestones that is rather too subtle for my liking. But don’t forget that you can use your shoes for added sparkle. The pair of sandals below were made by the aptly named ‘Supadance’ company and donated by the Oak Tree Old Time Dance Club in 2002 to show that comfort and glamour very occasionally can go hand in hand.
6. The back is where it’s at
The low-cut back décolletage of our black and white dress hints at its use for Latin American dance, an impression supported by the hint of Flamenco provided by the skirt ruffles and the touch of Carmen furnished by the red rose. It seems that judges of Latin American dance rely on the back ‘as an indicator for body action’.
7. Don’t forget what’s happening after the dance …
… or before, for that matter. It is easy to let the embarrassment of tulle, lace, diamanté and sequins go to your head, but take a moment to think about how you will get yourself and your dress (never mind your partner) to and from the venue in one piece. The very practically minded wearer of the fluorescent dress discussed above owned this wonderful dust coat to protect her gowns when worn and also donated a protective cotton bag specially made for storage. (You might have to invest in an additional wardrobe.)
8. Lastly … it is okay to reveal your inner princess!
Sometimes you just have to hit them over the head with loveliness. I adore this gown with its perfect combination of salmon and purple; the somewhat random strip of gauze caught at the wrist by a band trimmed with artificial flowers; the way the (terminology alert!) pointy bits of the bodice sit over the full skirt and the sprinkling of diamanté around the décolletage.
Strangely the history of the glittering phenomenon that is competitive dancewear does not seem to have attracted much (online) attention. I would love to know more about the influence of the development of high-tech materials and dyes on the look of the gowns as well as how new designs spread. For now I shall be content to look at more images and occasionally to say …