What Not to Wear: Costume Malfunctions and Fashion Faux-Pas

costumemalfunctionToday, I’m super fashion-conscious and happier designing my own clothes than buying them.

But I wasn’t always so put-together: I was a tomboy/nerd in school. Can you imagine me in baggy jeans and jersey, frizzy curly hair in a baseball cap, with no makeup?

Dancing taught me to look like a lady, but it was learned through trial and error. I was a quick study, because just as in dancing, I paid attention. I watched what the other followers wore and noted what worked and what didn’t. I formed my own personal style using the culture of WCS as a baseline.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not preaching conformity, but you want to look ready for the game you’re playing.  You can’t show up to the pool for a swim wearing a fleece onesie and claim you are expressing your “personal style”. Form follows function, and you want to dress the part, especially for a cultural activity like this.

I only wish there were some guidelines like this way back when I entered the scene, so I’m hoping to pass on some hard-earned wisdom to both the men and the women.

For social WCS dancing, you can wear whatever you want – no one is judging your 3T’s here. So be yourself, and prepared to be judged socially as you are in every other life circumstance.

But for competitions, it’s a different story. The fashion for WCS improvised competition is a combination of the current fashion trends (which are also attached to music trends), the formality of looking “dressed up for the occasion”, and sheer practicality. For routines, there is an expectation that partners will match each other and the musical genre, and look more stage-friendly (flashy) than your average strictly swing outfits.

But in attempting to choose and assemble fashion for either competition or social dancing, dancers often overlook a few basic functional rules. These tips are not meant to insult, but rather, rescue. They are meant to be informative and educational to help you avoid hurting/annoying your partner, offending anyone, or detracting from the judges judging your dancing. Some of seem to be no-brainers, but need to be said for those dancers who have never had an opportunity to hear this info any other time in their lives.

Thank you to Myles Munroe for the contributions in the Men’s section, and thank you to Bradford Whelan Photography for most of these glorious anonymous example images!

For both Men and Women:

Screenshot 2016-03-29 20.44.06

Plain jeans & t-shirt = not trying


While great for social dancing, jeans are never a good strategy for competition, unless you get the “jeans memo”. This is an announcement made by the contest co-ordinator of the event indicating that jeans are allowed and encouraged. It will be an all-or-nothing thing, so everyone in the division looks like they are playing the same game. Fewer fashion variables = easier to compare dancers based on their actual dancing. If you are the only one wearing jeans,  judges might question how seriously you take the dance when you don’t bother to dress up. The majority of events prefer to keep things formal, so never forget to pack your dress pants.

Pants Fitting

This is an extremely common faux pas made in all divisions.


Way too revealing

1. Tight pants reveal everything. We’re talking bulges here people. All of them. Go up a size and have them tailored if necessary. No wedgies, no camel-toes. Don’t distract us with the anticipation of you bursting through the seams.

2. Skinny pants reveal everything. I mean your legwork. 😉 If you can’t straighten your knees, you are going to look like a spider in those pants. Same goes for leggings, girls. If you don’t roll your feet yet, you are exposing your weakness to the judges.

3. Length: loose pants should touch the floor when standing still in dance shoes. If they don’t, we can see your entire shoe and some of your socks. This breaks up your leg line aesthetically, makes your legs look shorter, exposes any poor foot technique, and makes you look like they shrunk in the wash. When you have them hemmed to the proper length, they will look too long when you are standing still, yes. But you will never BE standing still when you’re dancing, and as soon as you bend your hips and knees, they rise to a non-trippable length. Tighter-fit pants should reach the top of the heel of the shoe while standing still.

4. Loose-ness: Pants made of denim, twill, or cotton don’t flow as well as rayon, wool, or polyester. You want flow to show off your legwork and hide imperfections. Part of the character of WCS is busy footwork, and flowing fabric contributes to this look. The ideal pants should drape or hang nicely like a suit.

5. For costumes, consider sewing in elastic stirrups to keep pants in place while bending through tricks and/or lifts. If your pants have pockets, check that they don’t have white fabric inside that be be exposed when you bend. Better yet, sew them shut.


For the whole story on footwear, please see the very popular article: Shoe Review: Footwear Trends Dissected

Formal Wear

Don’t forget to check the event website for special theme nights or “dress to impress” nights. Be sure to pack at least one formal outfit, including shoes, to wear for red carpet Saturday night. NASDE competitors typically dress for awards on Sunday as well. Better to to be overdressed than underdressed in the photos. Even if you’re not into skirts and heels, a blazer dresses up any outfit, male or female.

Attention, Women:

Do: Model the style of current champions and advanced dancers, and add your own personal flair.
Don’t: Be a carbon copy of those dancers. Also, don’t wear dresses or skirts in improv competition: WCS dancers wear pants to show off funk and blues footwork, which is inhibited by a skirt. Seems obvious if you pay attention to every single clip of authentic improvised WCS on YouTube, but it still needs to be said.

Do: Cheat and wear yoga pants IF they fit the above criteria and we can’t see the logo.


Leggings need boots

Don’t: Wear obvious yoga pants if you want to avoid looking “sporty”, avoid hungry-bum/camel-toe, and avoid any unintentional jiggling.

Do: Pair leggings or skinny pants with boots
Don’t: Pair leggings with sandals: The square sandal heel is too ugly to expose, the leggings stop at your ankle cutting off your leg lines, and the proportion between your hips and bare ankles is not flattering in 95% of women unless they are in either bare feet or higher heels. Save the tights-and-legwarmers look for the practice studio or 80s theme parties.

Do: Take instruction on flat shoe/boot dancing technique. This is a thing! Also, check your strap length and cut off the excess to avoid flappy pieces.
Don’t: Compete in flat boots/shoes before you have trained in how to use them.

Screenshot 2016-03-29 20.44.42


Do: Wear longer, flowy tops with leggings and boots. Try to minimize exposure of crotch or crack.
Don’t: With leggings, wear tight or short tops that stop short of your hips, giving you a camel toe and making it look like you’re wearing longjohns, or should be out for a run or in an 80s music video.

Check the transparency of your pants, especially light-coloured pants. If you can see the pocket lining, other things are visible too.
Don’t: Reveal the colour of your thong to the audience

Do: Dance-test your jewellery and accessories
Don’t: Shed on the floor. Don’t wear hairbands without pins and hairspray, wear earrings with no back stoppers, slippery or snap-on bracelets, long dangly necklaces or scarves.

Do: Balance loose top with fitted pants or flowy pants with tight top.
Don’t: Wear flowy on the top and bottom – it will look like pyjamas and the judges can’t see your body movement. Don’t wear tight on top and on the bottom at the same time.

Avoid dangly scarves

Do: Design your hair to match your outfit, considering the leader’s needs.
Don’t: Leave your hair straggly – put in a little effort. Don’t wear flowy hair with flowy top – too much flailing. Don’t let the photographer catch you with your hair in your face every shot – take a lesson in hairography.

Do: Wear clothes that are flattering on your body type, regardless of age.
Don’t: Get caught with a muffin top. Curves are great but cutting off circulation isn’t. Go up a size. No one can see the label inside but you. Don’t think you “can’t wear something because you’re too old”. Age is an attitude. As long as it’s flattering on you, go for it. Get a trusted friend to give you feedback and encouragement.


Do: Wear something distinctive that is describable in 2 words, such as “blue stripes”, so the judges can remember you in their notes.
Don’t: Wear black or something nondescript. Black is classy, but you blend into the masses when you really want to stand out. So only wear back if it’s a very unique shape/silhouette.


Whale tail.

Do: Plan and dance-test your undergarments in advance. Discover the wonders of clear bra straps, bra anchors, safety pins, velcro, and toupee tape – the good stuff from the wig store, not the drugstore crap. Get a proper bra fitting at Victoria Secret. Whatever it takes to stay contained.
Don’t: Get caught with a nip slip or whale tail (see pic).  Don’t wear a visible plain beige bra- it’s like the bra equivalent of granny panties. Speaking of granny panties: No. Just no. Every woman deserves to be pantyline-free.

Do: Create a colour-story. This fashion term refers to the way you might describe your outfit: “Grey pants with pink and grey top”. Since these colours go well together, this colour story is easy to digest. A safe guideline, but not a rule, is to keep it to 2-3 complimentary colours or neutrals.
Don’t: Create confusion. Orange top with pink hair, blue stripe pants and burgundy shoes? It creates aesthetic dissonance that will bring you the wrong kind of judges’ attention.

West Coast Swing-47

No control-top pantyhose

Do: To hide any undesirable rolls, wear a tight lace or compression tank top under sheer or short tops, or chose a more tailored top.
Don’t: Hide under heavy draping or unintentionally expose your jiggle.

Other Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Socks in sandals
  • Control-top pantyhose peeking out under shorts
  • Visible washing instructions tags on sheer shirts
  • Fishnet tops that catch wristbands
  • Adhesive bra inserts that might get wet and slip out

Boots and pants split all the way up the side!

Dated trends to avoid:

  • Bell sleeves
  • Low slung chain belts
  • Tight vests
  • Side-split Hustle pants


Attention, Men:

Do: Match your socks to your shoes and/or pants. Or, wear crazy fun socks, which intentionally may or may not match your shirt or tie. Make sure they are long enough.
Don’t: Wear short ankle socks. Don’t wear white socks with black pants and shoes.

West Coast Swing-38

Too short socks!

Do: If you wear your shirt untucked, do the arm lift test to see if you get belly exposure, and if so, wear an undershirt. Many guys prefer Underarmour brand, which wicks sweat nicely and allows the top shirt to slide.
Don’t: Moon the audience with your male muffin top.

Do: Carry your shirt down to the ballroom with you, and put it on right before you compete.


Before the routine even started!

Don’t: Do all your warmup dances in your comp shirt, creating pit stains before the comp even starts.

Do: Pair a nice t-shirt with a vest and slacks to balance the casual with formal. If you’re a big guy, an open vest can help trim you down. If you’re a skinny guy, it can help give you a little volume up top. Try to choose vests that are unique, since they seem to be too common these days.
Don’t: Wear a dirty t-shirt. And never wear JUST a vest. Yes, we’ve seen it. :/


Visible nipples

Do: Wear an undershirt with thin, light coloured shirts.
Don’t: Put your nipples on display. You’ll lose man-points. Also avoid wearing coloured or patterned underwear under transparent linen slacks.

Do: Wear a belt. Even if you think you don’t need one. Especially if you tuck in your shirt!
Don’t: Wear a dress belt with jeans or a casual belt with dress pants. If you need a fabric belt, check out the nice ones available for golfers.

Do: Ask your friends to be brutally honest with you before you commit to competing in a hat. Hats are a big gamble, and should only be considered if they are on trend and match fabric with the rest of your outfit.
Don’t: Let the hat wear you. No baseball caps for comps. No derbys. No cowboy hats.

Do: Learn on YouTube how to roll up your sleeves nice and securely. If you are lean and muscular, be careful of short sleeve shirts: your biceps muscle tone could make you appear as an “arm-leader” whether you deserve it or not.
Don’t: Compete in a sleeveless shirt. Actually, consider avoiding them for social dancing, too. Think about where she has to touch you.

Screenshot 2016-03-29 20.46.32

Cuffs rolled right

Do: Look into wearing technical fabric golf pants, which not only breathe well, but drape and flow nicely.
Don’t: Forget to upgrade when your pants gets too faded or melted from ironing. Check to see if your light pants change colour when wet to make sure when you sweat you aren’t going to you look like you soiled yourself.

Do: For social dancing, plan on changing 2-3x per night, as you soak through each shirt.
Don’t: Fool yourself into thinking one shirt will get you through the night. Don’t ever wear the same shirt for day workshops and evening dancing. Sniff-sniff-ew.

Pitfalls to avoid

  • Tie-dye anything, unless it’s a theme
  • Head to toe monochromatic, unless it’s a theme
  • Dirty shoes or un-ironed dress shirts
  • Visible underwear waistband above the belt
  • Wearing wristbands on the right hand

    Screenshot 2016-03-29 00.54.11

    Don’t scrape her armpits with your wristband! Wear it on your LEFT hand.

Dated trends to avoid

  • Mandarin collars
  • Affliction/bedazzled shirts
  • Shiny/satin shirts or pants
  • Pleated-front pants
  • Turtlenecks


Am I a perfect example? Heck, no! I have personally committed a handful of these faux-pas, but I learned my lessons when they caused me embarrassment or incident.

Won’t the judges judge your dancing, not your fashion? Yes, but some will be more influenced by it than others. It’s just a fact. You are in an aesthetic art form – be prepared to be judged on your aesthetics.

Are there any more you can think of? Feel free to comment here! I have plenty more secrets regarding routine costume construction, but they are reserved for those who hire us for choreography or me for costume design. (You’d be surprised what engineering is going on under our costumes!)

As you inevitably audit your wardrobe, be sure to save the pieces that will one day either come back in style, or be useful for a costume or theme party. Don’t throw the rest out – gather some friends for a clothes swap, or donate your used clothes and shoes to starving student dancers or even dance and theatre programs at high schools.

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18 Responses to “What Not to Wear: Costume Malfunctions and Fashion Faux-Pas”

  1. Adrienne Driggs March 30, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    This is fantastic! I feel like it would be a good set of rules for everyday wear, not just dancing haha.

  2. Damn, there goes my idea out the window, to expose my man nipples! Great article and a fun read. Guess you’d frown on men wearing booty shorts during comps! HaHa.

  3. Audrey Smycniuk March 30, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    Awesome article and summary! I cant wait to share with team Sask-a-moose 🙂

  4. Audrey Smycniuk March 30, 2016 at 7:42 pm

    Oh and can we add for leads (or anyone) -to avoid wearing watches and also to check to see if buttons on shirt cuffs are small or can be tucked in….. Oh so many scratches from watches and lost tufts of hair on buttons….oh the suffering :/

  5. Greatly appreciated tips!
    For Competitors that wear athletic support garments like ankle support (Tommie Copper) ,in skin tone / beige color,with a beige dancing shoes, any tips on how to hide them ( without wearing tights/ stay up stockings)?
    Thank you!

    • Hi Raiza, I think athletic tape, supports, and first aid bandages are excused by all and not considered part of your fashion sense. However, this brings up a good point about Kinesotape: No reason to put up with glaring hot pink tape on your shoulder when they make the stuff in beige and sell it at CVS and Target. Supportive AND subtle!

  6. I wear socks with WCS sandals because it’s the only way to avoid leaving the floor with blisters after 3 songs or less. I realize it’s not the best look and try to compensate by having fun, brightly-colored socks. Do you have better suggestions, either for what socks to choose or other less obvious ways to avoid the blisters? My feet don’t seem to ever toughen up; I blister in the same spots over and over again, in pretty much any shoe that’s not a sneaker (including non-dance dress shoes). I’ve tried knee-high nylons but they aren’t thick enough to do the job.

    • Irina Popova May 2, 2016 at 5:03 pm

      I also wear socks when wearing sandals socially, but for competition, I put on nude shoe liner socks. I don’t think you can really see them. Perhaps that would work for you.

      I also recommend putting on bandaids as soon as you feel a blister coming on. And I found blister gel guard band aids, which have gel padding, seem to do a good job protecting blisters that have already developed. However, these band aids often stick to my socks and bits of them remain there after I take my socks off. So I guess it’s a tradeoff. You can also permanently put moleskin on the parts of your shoe that often rub and leave blisters.

      I have also found that boots are a lot more comfortable than even socks with sandals for dancing for long periods. I don’t feel comfortable competing in boots, but I do dance socially in them.

  7. Please guys, empty the front pockets of your pants. Then there is that wonderful hot weather look of shorts, black socks, and dress shoes!

  8. Disagree about women in dresses. I’d love to see more women in them. Very feminine. Here is some “authentic WCS on YouTube” and she’s wearing a dress and looks amazing in it: Here is another: (NASDE)

    • Blake Hobby is a famous exception to this rule. Her years of dance training and experience in heels have made her a master, but what’s more impressive is that she still looks like a swing dancer (as opposed to a latin dancer). Unfortunately, the vast majority of women do not possess these skills, and as a result, are hindered by dresses and/or heels. Dresses fell out of favour back when more R&B and hip hop movements started to become popular. Since these involved opening the leg stance wider, pants allowed more freedom and better lines than dresses do.

  9. if your strictly partner is wearing tape, wear some as well and match =]

  10. I’m going to a wedding, and don’t want to wear slacks, even though WCS is our favorite dance. We’re not pros, but not too shabby either. Blake looks great in her dress, but I hear the advice following… Any other dress suggestions?

    • Depending on your age and body type, and the season of the wedding, you have a few options:
      1. Drape-y slacks like palazzo pants look like an elegant long dress when you are standing still.
      2. A stretchy knee-length pencil skirt has a beautiful silhouette, but flexes with your steps. (I recommend wear Spanx underneath to avoid chafing)
      3. It’s a wedding. wear whatever makes you feel pretty and comfortable. There are no WCS judges there, so don’t worry about it.

      I would avoid: circle skirts of any kind (spinning = over exposure), business-suit skirts, and tight mini-skirts that will ride up during dancing. Also think hard about your footwear and bring a few different pairs of shoes to stash in the car in case the floor isn’t ideal.

  11. Victoria’s Secret isn’t actually a great place for a bra fitting – better off looking into a specialty bra store!

  12. Thank you!! Love this article. Very helpful 🙂 !!

  13. George Hughes May 30, 2019 at 7:59 am

    Thanks, Tessa.

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