Costume Catastrophe

My name is Kathryn McLane, and I am working on an honors thesis that combines my interests in dance and American Studies. During the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the American Civil War, it is important to consider why people continue to commemorate the War one hundred and fifty years after its close, how these commemorations have changed over time, and what role collective memory plays in the commemoration process.  To analyze these questions, I am both writing a research paper and choreographing a dance for the twenty-five members of William and Mary’s Orchesis Modern Dance Company.  I applied for a Student Research Grant through the Charles Center in order to create costumes for my dancers that would subtly represent Civil War uniforms. After receiving the grant, I ordered long, flowing shirts and decided to dye them in an ombré fashion, with the dye in a gradient from light blue at the top of the shirt to dark gray at the bottom. This blending of blue and gray—the colors worn by the Union and Confederate armies, respectively—symbolizes the post-war reconciliation and reunification Americans achieved through the process of remembrance and commemoration.

The Dyeing Process: Round One

I am by no means an expert at dyeing clothing; therefore, I ordered extra shirts in order to account for any mistakes that I would potentially make while dyeing them. Along with the shirts, I ordered blue dye, gray dye, and a soda ash fixative, which is supposed to help adhere the color to the cloth permanently. With the help of my best friend and my mother, I began the dyeing process by washing the shirts and mixing the dye according to the company’s recipe consisting of specific amounts of hot water, dye, soda ash fixative, and salt.  We then began to dye the shirts one at a time—a very time-consuming process.  We dunked the entire shirt in blue dye for three seconds, and then dyed a shorter portion of the shirt in the dye for ten seconds—thus accomplishing an ombré, or gradient, appearance.  We then washed the shirts under cold water, and then ran the shirts through the washing machine to remove any excess dye from the fabric. However, when we removed the shirts from the washing machine, not only had the gradient effect disappeared, but the colors of the shirts were no longer consistent.  At this point, I had thirty shirts in thirty shades of blue, and I was back to square one.

dye  materials and first attempt at dyeing the shirts

dye materials and first attempt at dyeing the shirts


The Dyeing Process: Round Two

About a week after the first failed attempt at dyeing the shirts, my friend, my mom, and myself decided to start the entire process over again.  I called the dye company to ensure that the process we had followed the first time was correct, and I received advice and reassurance that what we were attempting to do was actually a pretty difficult technique.  So, we modified our process by pre-soaking the shirts in the soda ash fixative before dyeing them in hopes that it would help the fabric to absorb more of the dye.  We also left the shirts in the dye for longer periods of time—one to two minutes rather than a couple of seconds—so that the fabric would have more time to soak up the dye.  When we finished dyeing the shirts in both the blue and gray dye, we had achieved a beautifully visible gradient, just like I had envisioned.  However, after hand-washing the shirts and letting them dry overnight, I woke up the next morning to find that the gray had turned green and the blue had mostly faded out of the fabric.  To make matters even worse, each shirt had turned different shades of blue and green.

the final product before and after washing

the final product before and after washing


The Finished Product

At first, the shirts seemed unsalvageable; they were nothing like I wanted or expected them to be, and I was not sure what else I could do to fix them.  After sixteen hours of seemingly futile work, it looked as though my costume vision would never come to fruition.  However, after considering my options, I discovered an unlikely solution.  I bought gold buttons to sew down the front of the costumes in order to make them look more uniform despite the variance in their colors. I also am planning to discuss lighting options with the lighting designer for my piece to see if there are any lighting colors or effects that would make the costumes look more gray rather than green.  I have also taken comfort in the fact that not all Union and Confederate uniforms were identical due to material limitations during the war.  As it turns out, unintentional deviations from a plan often force you to creatively solve problems, which can ultimately lead to greater results.  I am much happier with the final design of my shirts with the buttons—an aspect of the costume, which I would have never considered had it not been for the mistakes that occurred during the dyeing process.




  1. Hi Kathryn,

    I am sorry to hear that the dye job did not come out as envisioned, but quite impressed at your creative and historically-based solution to work around this issue. I hope the lighting turned out. You should post some pictures of the dancers in their costumes after the performance takes place. Best of luck with finishing up the thesis!