Revealed: The woman who creates 500 Strictly outfits every series… with the help of three million crystals, 500 feet of feathers – and just days to knock up her dancefloor dazzlers
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While the Strictly Come Dancing costumes might take shape in little more than 24 hours, planning for the show’s wardrobe — there are in the region of 500 costumes — begins in May.
Costume chief Vicky Gill — who has headed up the department since 2012, and whose fashion CV includes designing for Kylie, Girls Aloud and Dancing On Ice — meets all the contestants over the summer.
Though she will have researched them, it’s only at that first meeting that she discovers their tastes and idiosyncrasies.
Viscountess Weymouth, for instance, wasn’t a fan of purple, while Anneka Rice didn’t want to wear pink.
Vicky Gill (pictured) has headed up the Strictly Come Dancing costumes department since 2012, and has a fashion CV that includes designing for Kylie, Girls Aloud and Dancing On Ice
And their opinions will inevitably only grow as the show goes on.
‘Early in the run they haven’t got a lot of experience, so where we are now they are much more confident to say what they like!’ laughs Vicky.
Vicky and her team — about 35 of them, although it grows throughout the week — like to have a few dresses made for each celebrity prior to launch, but once the knockout process begins, it’s a week-by- week affair.
‘It’s very fast-paced; I feel like we all step on to a train back in August and then it picks up speed and it’s a case of us keeping everyone on the train,’ says Vicky. ‘We don’t know who is going out so it is very much a seven to ten-day process.’
Having started to thinking about concepts for the following week on a Thursday, once she knows who’s survived the weekend’s results show, it’s all systems go.
‘On a Sunday night, Monday morning I do very, very rough sketches of all the silhouettes I feel will exist within the show,’ she explains. ‘I need to think about the whole picture, not just one person and then I go back to each individual and try to think what shape do I need for the dance style and what shape do I think they will be happy wearing.’
On Monday and Tuesday, she prefers to work quietly in her personal studio, while a team of six in the BBC studio deals with ‘buying, shoe requests and general upkeep of the Strictly wardrobe’ — although she’s rarely left in peace.
AJ’s waltzing wondergown
A hit with fans, Musicals Week creates a pressure for the design team to live up to the expectations of viewers.
For AJ’s waltz to Edelweiss from The Sound Of Music, Vicky wanted to capture ‘the essence’ of what people think of when they recall the musical.
She opted for a delicate pale blue three-quarter length number reminiscent of the chiffon dress Julie Andrews wears as Captain von Trapp sings to his children.
The celebrities get first glimpse of their costumes on Friday, when fittings take place and three seamstresses and two embellishers join the team for rehearsals
‘We are trying to set that scene of The Sound Of Music, also we are trying to make the celebrity feel glamorous and ready to perform,’ explains Vicky.
Spot the twinkle? That’s from about 3,000 crystals. And the delicate pale blue stretch skirt consists of 4.5 m of satin, below which is 45 m of net.
‘[The costume team] have a million WhatsApp groups, pictures being sent left, right and centre to what feels like all corners of the earth, to action whether it be the shoes, or the construction of the dress.’
By Tuesday morning, the costumes are taking shape; in the case of the dresses, it’s bodice first, then top skirt and then underskirt, which can be prepped in advance and adapted.
Each costume takes from one to four days to complete, whipped up by Vicky’s BBC team and the talented staff of DSI London, the studio where Vicky herself was previously the in-house designer.
There, dozens of pattern cutters, machinists, designers and stoners (the deft-of-finger crew who apply all those sparkles) bring Vicky’s sketches to life, ready for final adaptations and embellishments to be made at the end of the week.
The celebrities get first glimpse of their costumes on Friday, when fittings take place and three seamstresses and two embellishers join the team for rehearsals.
Come Saturday, eight dressers arrive for dress rehearsals and the live show.
Rose’s sizzling samba dress
The first step in every costume is a collaborative creative ‘vision’.
In the case of Rose’s samba, ‘she was going to be strutting her funky stuff down the red carpet at a Press event, so it had to have a fashion feel and a late 1960s early 1970s vibe running through it, hence the white boots,’ says Vicky.
The original sketch for Rose Ayling-Ellis’s samba outfit (left). Rose loved the knee-high white leather boots she wore for her samba so much that she still has them (right)
She then moved on to the cropped top and skirt, which both featured silver sparkles and white fringing.
‘For Rose it was a silver reference, but we felt because we were working with a white boot we should keep the base of the garment white and introduce silver,’ says Vicky. Then came the sparkles, in the form of lots of silver Swarovski crystals, glued on by hand.
However, a 1970s-style mini skirt, even with crystals, doesn’t scream the bounce of a samba. The solution? Fringing.
Some 200 metres of silver Lurex fringe was stitched to the white Lycra skirt for maximum shimmy.
It’s not unusual for alterations to go down to the wire, because only by watching the dress in action amid the lights and props can Vicky judge whether her concept delivers both impact and practicality.
‘I might not know what something needs to look like in terms of the colour of the embellishment [until the rehearsals], so I will fit those people at 7.30 pm on a Friday, so we have got 24 hours to embellish it ready for Saturday,’ adds Vicky.
Dragons’ Den star Sara Davies went into one dress rehearsal in her dressing gown because her rumba frock was incomplete.
‘Bless Sara,’ says Vicky. ‘She had two or three weeks where we were embellishing her garments close to the lines. I’m sure her inner self was thinking ‘Girls, this is getting a bit close now!’
Each ballroom dress uses 8m to 10m of fabric, usually synthetic, such as Lycra, which can withstand the rigours of dancing.
‘If we choose fabrics that are too fine, they just don’t work for the job,’ says Vicky, who studied fashion at the Newcastle College of Art.
There might be as much as 500ft of feathers rolled out per series and one feather-laden gown requires 33ft of adornment. The wardrobe team has even given the application of ostrich feathers a name: feather-ography
‘Often I will find some lovely silks or some really nice suiting, but then five minutes on set and they are creased.’
Take John and Johannes and their ravishing rumba. Vicky reveals the duo had to keep removing their trousers in between appearing on camera so the dressers’ could hastily steam out the creases.
‘The boys were like ‘we’re fine’ and we were looking at them going ‘I don’t think it’s fine! Take them off!’
A heavily embellished dress requires about 12,000 crystals, which come in 750 colours and sizes, while an estimated 3 million will have been applied by the time the series ends.
‘We don’t want to use sequins on everything,’ explains Vicky, not least because they are expensive and labour-intensive — adding that she tries to maintain a fair approach to dishing out ‘the sweeties’.
There’s also practicality.
‘Once sequin is applied to cloth it reduces the stretch; we don’t want a heavily-sequinned cloth that doesn’t feel comfortable.’
A heavily embellished dress requires about 12,000 crystals, which come in 750 colours and sizes, while an estimated 3 million will have been applied by the time the series ends
A mixmatch of pins helps keep the scarlet material in place as it is being constructed
Folds of the dress we held precicely as they should be by coloured pins and a safety pin
There might be as much as 500ft of feathers rolled out per series and one feather-laden gown requires 33ft of adornment. The wardrobe team has even given the application of ostrich feathers a name: feather-ography.
Most of the dresses are built round a leotard-style ‘body’, while the men’s shirts are like adult romper suits, hidden underneath their trousers, so nothing comes untucked.
‘Everyone is stitched into their costume,’ says Vicky. ‘So when they need to take a bathroom break their dresser will unset and reset, so to speak.’
Built-in bras are created for the women.
‘Boobs are a concern in terms of what we do,’ says Vicky, who still shudders at the memory of actress Chelsee Healey’s dress slipping perilously low.
While Strictly is famous for lashings of fake tan (50 litres per series), often what appears to be a flash of skin is a flesh-coloured panel incorporated into the costume according to the celebrity’s personal preference. However, sometimes it is the celebrity’s real skin you are seeing.
The taut midriff displayed by Rose Ayling-Ellis during her samba was real.
‘Rose is really young, she is such a free spirit, she’s got no real worries,’ laughs Vicky.
For as Vicky well knows, a costume is far more than just something to wow the cameras; getting it right can be the all-important nerve soother for an amateur dancer on Strictly.
AJ Odudu found herself at the bottom of the leaderboard after a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it slip on her floor-length Pasodoble dress.
So for her waltz the following week, Vicky wanted to be sure AJ had something ‘comfortable’ to give her confidence after a ‘tough dance’.
However, dressing AJ is usually a dream.
‘When I look at AJ, I imagine she could win an Olympic medal she looks so athletic and on point, she has these amazing legs that feel like they go on forever!’
For the average shopper, it would cost about £2,000 to buy a custom-made dance outfit from DSI. Though Vicky is discreet about Strictly’s budget, she is thrifty.
‘We won’t ever make one celebrity wear another celebrity’s dress,’ says Vicky. ‘But if I bought something which has only had a 30-second use I will take that and redesign it. Normally, it will go from a celebrity to a professional dancer’s wardrobe.
‘I love making something out of nothing, the girls roll their eyes and go ‘There she goes, she’s pulled four things off the rail, she’s going to make something out of that…’
However, some celebrities have been known to buy their outfits after the show.
Vicky confides that in this series, Rose loved the knee-high white leather boots she wore for her samba so much that she still has them.
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