17th September, 2014


Bev Williams asked an old friend to ‘show and tell’, at the annual Ballentynes Fashion Parade, a fund raiser for Manawatu Federation of Women’s Institute, of which Bev is president.


The friend is Alison Underhill, who for 35 years bought materials, made them up, improvised with all sorts of bits and pieces, and sewed costumes with amazing ingenuity for the RNZ Ballet. It was fascinating to hear about, and see some of the costumes she had made, up close, with lots of tricks of the trade she’d improvised over the years.


She’d brought mostly children’s costuming with her, but also some adult’s, such as the knee breeches and character frock coats that Jon Trimmer has worn. Capt Hook’s for example. Magnificent is the word. Lined with satin or similar, not one unfinished seam to be seen. And so heavy! Someone wanted to know how he’d dance wearing such weights, but as Alison said, he didn’t dance when doing character parts. She brought Peter Pan’s lovely tunic along with Tinkerbell’s deceptively simple dress.


And both black and white swans’ tutus from Swan Lake.   The skirt and small shoulder coverings of Cinderella’s dress was a beautiful, iridescent sequin covered fabric, made from the last metre available from a shop in Melbourne, at the price of $500.00, we were told. The costume designer who was with her, required this fabric and nothing else would do. The designer would draw the costumes in pencil, for Alison to interpret, and even these were little works of art, and framed.   He also sorted the colours he wanted although his etchings were uncoloured, and she did quite a bit of dyeing of fabrics (with Dylon, only dye available) to achieve the effect he required. I didn’t catch his name but I’m sure we’d know it. Bev said she’d go down to Alison’s on an odd weekend and be sewing on domes, hooks and eyes all the time, to help meet a deadline, usually on the Monday following.


I think Alison had sewers to help her, but hers was the responsibility to present the finished piece, which had to fit perfectly. She showed how in the children’s costumes especially, there could be four or five rows of ‘eyes’ down the back, to accommodate the different sizes of children, for when the company was touring different places and using local small dancers. She showed the use of buttons, and elastic loops, to keep tops connected to pants and skirts so they wouldn’t ride up.


This presentation was an eye-opener, absolutely riveting, I’m very glad not to have missed it.


Alison has received the QSM for her work with the Ballet, and also for her work in Guiding.