By Rachael Kelly
Linda Angus loves colour. With her cropped auburn hair, chartreuse coat and small but striking silver claddagh ring, she’s as hard to overlook as one of her vibrant Irish dance costumes.
Angus is a local costume maker for the Diaga Irish dance studio, located in downtown Halifax. While she describes herself as a 50-year-old “dance mum who sews” rather than a businesswoman, her recreational costume making seems to border the line between work and play.
An individual solo costume can take up to 80 hours to complete. Less ornate school costumes generally take around 40 hours. Combine this with a part-time job as an administrative assistant at a chiropractic office, and Angus doesn’t have a lot of free time.
“It’s a labour of love that gets out of control from time to time,” says Angus, laughing through her Irish accent. “I keep thinking I’ll get away from it, but I can’t say no.”
Celtic costumes are a vital part of the Irish dance tradition, which originated in Ireland during a period of English colonization. Legend has it that the Irish were forbidden to dance during this time, so they created a kind of dance that focused mainly on leg work, with arms held rigidly at the sides of the body. This way, if English soldiers looked through a window, they wouldn’t notice illegal activity.
In a dance characterized by a rigid upper body, you need something neat and compact, and if you move in a dress that doesn’t fit properly, it makes the body look like it’s moving when it’s not.
After emigrating from Bangor, Ireland, 24 years ago, Angus decided she wanted her two daughters to know their Irish heritage. She learned to sew after enrolling Stephanie, now 20, and Nicki, now 25, in Irish dance classes 17 years ago. Another dance mom taught her how to sew by hand.
Angus still has the first costume she made for Stephanie.
“I made her a little velvet dress with a little claddagh ring on the front,” she says. “I didn’t keep my oldest daughter’s first dress and I regret that so much.”
Angus’s designs are usually inspired by the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of Latin gospels decorated by Irish monks hundreds of years ago. Once she’s found a design, she enlarges it on a photocopier, traces the pattern on the back of a fabric strip, irons it on and then hand-guides the pattern through a sewing machine.
Where sewing was trial and error before, the process is now second nature. Angus loves going to fabric stores to select fabrics like penne velour (crushed velvet) or silk-mimicking polyester. The fabric sets the tone for the entire piece.
“Sequined fabrics are horrible to work with,” says Angus. “I have to work with safety glasses on, because if you’re appliqueing and you hit a sequin or something on a fabric, it breaks the needle. It’s lethal. I bleed on every dress.”
Angus started making costumes for Diaga when daughter Stephanie joined at 16. She makes every single costume for the school. Styles change with the seasons, and Angus needs to keep up.
Older costumes have shorter bodices that fit at the natural waist and stiffened skirts. More contemporary styles have longer bodices and softer skirts.
“I can look at a dress and date it,” says Angus. “For the solo ones especially, styles change every six months.”
New designs come out of Ireland for the World Championships in February and March. For Nationals in July, these patterns begin to migrate to North America. Styles change every year.
“If you’re at the championship levels, you’re changing your dress every year to stay current,” Angus adds.
And these dresses aren’t cheap. A well-made solo costume for competition can cost upward of $2,000. On top of the extensive labour required, rhinestones and Swarovski crystals jack up the price. Imported costumes from Ireland can cost up to $3,000. Diaga class costumes seem inexpensive at $500.
“I like to see [one costume] all through to the end and then I need about a week away from the sewing room. By the time I’m finished a dress, there’s a love- hate relationship. By the time I get to the end of it, it’s like, ‘My God, I can’t stand to look at this another minute.’”
But the hate never lasts for long.
“Once you see it on the dancer on stage, to see it move across the stage and to see the look on the dancer’s face whenever they put their costume on for the first time, that’s the reward,” she says.
Angus once considered going into dressmaking full time. To make that work, however, she would have had to hire other people, and she couldn’t fathom the idea of sharing her creative process. She wants complete control over her costumes.
She says the negotiation process with Diaga’s owner, Zeph Caissie, over his class costume design was extensive. [pullquote]Our dresses are nice – Kara Koskowich, dancer[/pullquote]
“He wanted a blue skirt, but I knew from competition experience what would look better on stage,” says Angus. “We had to compromise between the two of us, but we worked it out.”
Diaga costumes have black velvet bodices, white skirts and a light blue trim at the neckline and hem.
“Our dresses are nice,” says Diaga dancer Kara Koskowich. “They’re not over the top or anything, which is why I like them.”
Katrina Carver, another Diaga dancer, also loves her dance school costume. “The one we have is really pretty. Some [of the ones] in other schools are really ugly,” she says.
Although both of her daughters have retired from competition, Angus still loves to watch daughter Stephanie perform recreationally.
She also still enjoys the competitive scene, driving to Irish dance competitions in Montreal and Ottawa for fun and to support her “extended family.”
“You follow other dancers’ careers because they grow up with your girls,” says Angus. “They’ve competed together since they were five years old and now they’re 21. You get to know them and their families.”
At some of these competitions, Angus can see some of her old costumes circling around. Dresses she made years ago are recycled among competitors. She’ll often be approached by the parents or siblings of dancers she’s made costumes for in the past, begging for a new piece. It’s hard to say no, but every so often Angus has to turn people away because she doesn’t want to spend all of her time chained to her sewing machine.
Sometimes Angus thinks she’d like to retire, but she doesn’t see that happening any time soon.
“I’d love to branch out into other things,” she says. “There’s stuff I’d like to do. But I have a room full of sparkly fabric that I honestly don’t know what I would do with otherwise!”