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Feature

Fashioning Culture


By Lisa Ann Jackson, ’95

Sure, they can move their feet, but they have to look good doing it, too.

As much attention as the choreographers pay to authenticate the steps of the folk dancers, costume designer Colleen Nelson West, ’83, pays to authenticate the look.

“Designing folk costumes is not a casual affair,” says West, an assistant professor of dance. “The dancers learn the choreography and work hard on developing good technique. When the costumes are added, the whole performance comes alive. It’s the lifeblood of the whole organization.”

From headdresses to boots and from color to fabric, West’s challenge is to bring all the elements of a costume together so the final production will portray the dance’s culture most accurately. “If we are going to be a dance group that represents excellence, our costumes need to be exceptional also.”

In addition to her background in folk dance and Ukrainian studies, West learns the details of costumes across the spectrum, quite literally. For instance, she says, “Other cultures don’t just pick any color because it’s pretty.” In Ukraine red is a spiritual, yet political, color; in Turkey blue represents good luck and the sea; and in central Ukraine they would never wear pastels.

To learn these details West travels abroad to study costumes. She also meets with costume designers of folk dance ensembles from other countries, interviews guest choreographers working with BYU students, and does extensive research with books and videos.

She also studies the history of the costumes, which helps her better understand why each costume needs its particular elements. For instance, the Ukrainian costumes used in “Hopak” grow out of the 16th-century Cossack heritage. Defenders of Ukraine’s rich soil and farmlands, the Cossack men wore baggy pants with deep pockets to facilitate horseback riding and to conceal weapons. A sash was used to carry swords or knives and was believed to have spiritual powers to ward off evil.

But West’s biggest challenge is choosing fabric. “I work on selecting fabric that will hold up in humidity or that won’t wrinkle when it’s packed in a costume bag and has been on a plane for hours and hours.”

West’s research and designs are translated into costumes by a team of nine seamstresses who outfit up to 20 couples, typically adding several new costumes each year.

The authenticity of the costumes is attested to by students and others. Chevonne E. Allred, ’02, a vocal music major and a member of the International Folk Dance Ensemble, was visiting the town of Krakow, Poland, during a Study Abroad program in 1998. As a folk dancer, she had learned a dance called “Krakowiak.” The town happened to have a festival the day she was there. “They wore the exact same costumes as we have, and I got so excited.”