Home » She manages the opera’s costumes — and has excellent laundry tips

She manages the opera’s costumes — and has excellent laundry tips

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When you’re the costume director of a major opera company, you often find yourself tackling weird laundry challenges. Marsha LeBoeuf, a 36-year veteran of the Washington National Opera, can tell you how to clean large amounts of fake blood or make new garments look dirty without causing lasting damage.

But many of the things LeBoeuf has learned while caring for and creating thousands of petticoats, breeches, robes and dresses — ranging in style from Egyptian to Elizabethan — can actually be quite helpful to those of us trying to keep our own, much more boring clothes in decent shape.

It starts with her mind-set: “It is an investment for our company to get these costumes created,” she says. “And it is our job to maintain that investment and get a little bit back on our return, if we can.” It seems to be working — the WNO has usable costumes from 24 operas, including a 1983 production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” a 1986 staging of “Daughter of the Regiment” and 1990’s “Die Fledermaus.” The rest of us can also adopt this philosophy to get the most mileage out of a more typical wardrobe.

As LeBoeuf prepares to retire this fall, she and her successor, associate costume director Mark Hamberger, gave us a tour of the WNO’s vast costume collection — housed in a huge practice space in D.C.’s Takoma neighborhood — sharing their best laundry care tips and tricks along the way.

1. Buy quality items

You can do your darndest to maintain your clothes, but if they’re badly constructed or made of poor-quality fabrics, they’re still going to fall apart.

The Washington National Opera has a leg up on the average consumer here, given that the team tends to design and fashion its costumes from scratch. Even so, they work on a budget, so they tend to seek out fabrics that offer a real bang for their buck.

“We’re big fans of natural fibers. Then again, you know, we can’t put a chorus of 100 in 100 percent silk all the time onstage, either,” LeBoeuf says. When it comes to synthetic fabrics, they opt for nylon or rayon rather than polyester. “They tend to lay better and lay more like natural fibers.”

And when it comes to making sure that garments fit well, “we cannot avoid the temptation of Lycra and spandex either, even if it’s just 5 percent,” she adds. “Nothing beats a piece of wool and a good tailor, but just having a little bit of spandex in there helps too.”

2. Wash your clothes less

Most items worn onstage don’t get washed between performances. In fact, costumes tend to see the laundry for the first time after the show’s run ends — which can equate to more than a dozen uses. A main reason for this (aside from the logistical challenges of frequently laundering hundreds of delicate garments) is that washing clothes causes significant wear and tear.

For items that you wear regularly, you can apply the same principle (within reason, of course; workout clothes and other heavily used garments should go in the wash immediately). LeBoeuf, for instance, launders her jeans seasonally. “Obviously, you’ve got to spot clean, but they fade so easily, [especially] on crease lines,” she says. “The best way to [wash them] is not to do it very often.” When you do send them through the machine, turn them inside out and put them in a load with only other jeans.

If an article of clothing needs freshening up between washes, a wild-but-true hack is to spray it with some vodka. (No need to break the bank here — bottom shelf will do the trick.) “It’s a deodorizer more than anything,” Hamberger says. Costumes often get a spritz between performances. If you try this at home, turn your clothes inside out and target the armpits and other spots prone to odors.

One occasion when costumes always get a thorough wash: right after a show closes, before they head into permanent storage. Otherwise, the lingering oils and other grime could cause discoloration and become a target for pests, Hamberger says. For special-occasion outfits that you’ll only wear once in a long while, the same rule should apply. Give those items a good laundering before hanging them back up.

3. Be wary of dry cleaners

LeBoeuf can think of a few memorable times when items she sent to the dry cleaner didn’t survive the experience. A beaded tunic came back still wearable but severely faded. “What used to be like a vivid turquoise is now just sort of a gray-blue,” she says. A recent production of “Turandot” involved costumes with specific buttons and insignia that the costume team 3D-printed. Though the color survived the dry-cleaning process, the shape of the buttons did not. “They got wonky,” she says.

There is certainly a time and place for it, though. Despite some of her misgivings, LeBoeuf admits that “we do depend a lot on dry-cleaning, and pay a lot for it.” Items that will do well: garments where the manufacturer’s label specifically says to dry-clean, or any garment with a lot of structure, like a dress overcoat, lined jacket or trousers.

If you go the dry-cleaning route, make sure to take your clothes off the provided metal hangers and out of the plastic wrapping afterward. Those hangers can rust over time — a potential stain hazard. And the plastic wrapping won’t allow your clothes to properly breathe. Instead, store your prized items in reusable garment bags that allow for some air flow. (Any fabric described as “breathable” ought to do the trick.)

4. Don’t discount the delicate cycle

After staging “Songbird,” a version of Jacques Offenbach’s operetta “La Périchole,” set in a jazzy speakeasy, the WNO had a slew of beaded flapper dresses that needed laundering.

Concerned about how they might fare at the dry cleaner, Hamberger did a test run in the regular washing machine, placing one of the beaded dresses in a mesh bag and running it through the delicate cycle. The dress emerged clean and whole. So they used the method for the entire collection, including one dress embellished with feathers in addition to beads.

The feathers, which had been dyed, bled slightly onto the fabric. But because Hamberger examined the dress when it was still wet, he was able to get the stain out. He recommends “really paying attention … when you’re trying something new with the cleaning process — you can’t just set it and come back to it.”

Those same mesh bags can come in handy at home, too, especially when washing delicates such as lingerie and hosiery. They’ll keep straps and hooks from catching or pulling on other items in the machine. You can find them easily online or at big-box stores.

5. Skip the dryer

The dryer, it would seem, is a particular enemy of a long clothing life span. While LeBoeuf will put towels and underwear in the dryer at home, that’s about it. The rest of her clothes all hang dry. “I have T-shirts probably older than you because of that,” she says.

There are a few ways the dryer can wreak havoc. For one, if you have a stain in a garment, the heat will set it in place. Plus, the heat can cause fabric fibers to deteriorate or change texture. For example, many microfiber towels are woven with plastic, “and if you put it in the dryer it will seize up and won’t work as well,” LeBoeuf says. Most notoriously, dryers can shrink items even when you think you’ve been careful.

When you do use the dryer for, say, regular towels, LeBoeuf prefers dryer balls to dryer sheets. The latter can irritate people’s skin, whereas the former fluffs up towels just as well without the same concern.

One exception to LeBeouf and Hamberger’s dryer skepticism: the tumble cycle, which does not use heat. This function can actually be a great way to give clothes a bit more body and get rid of any dust that’s accumulated over time. Hamberger says it works particularly well for feather boas.

6. Minimize how often you touch your clothes

Pawing through your wardrobe to locate the one piece you need to complete your outfit can take a toll over time, leaving behind oils that damage fabrics. “The less you have to touch something, the better,” Hamberger says. “So if you can, store things in a way that you can see them without having to touch everything else in the pile.”

7. Use the hanger loops on garments

Many people cut out hanger loops — those circles of ribbon that generally dangle near the armpit of shirts and dresses — because they sometimes stick out while wearing the garment.

But those loops serve an important purpose, especially for items with heft or shape: They more evenly distribute the weight of the garment while it’s on the hanger, which will lengthen its life span. “If a heavy costume is hanging from the shoulders, like a woman’s Victorian dress or something, all of the weight is borne with those fibers and they can get weakened over time,” LeBoeuf says.

Good hangers make a difference, too. For heavier items, she recommends wooden ones. But for lighter garments, you can save space by using thinner, rustproof metal. In her own closet, she puts skirts on hangers with clips because they take up less space, increase visibility and help avoid creases.

And some garments shouldn’t be hung at all. You’re much better off folding knits and sweaters — otherwise, you could distort their shape.

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