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How to Make a Show Girl Headdress

So for reasons that I can’t quite wrap my head around, I’ve fround myself making show-girl headdresses.  This is great, except that I don’t fully know how to make a show-girl headdress.  I’ve a notion that it’s definitely a wire-and-plier project….

I did a little internet research.  I need to make headdresses that will work with (or without – there’s discussion) wigs, so that sort of limits the possible architecture.  I’m pretty sure that I need a system that will tension off th ear/forehead/back-of-head areas so that it can’t fall side to side, or back to front.  (Systems that fit the head fully around are out, due to the possibility of wigs.)

What I’m working on also needs to be “built to withstand the unexpected”, as the truck ad says.  (I don’t get that.  How do you build to withstand the unexpected?  I mean, isn’t the whole deal with unexpected that “I did not see that coming…” sort of feeling?  Like, “Ok, let me get this straight…You added ctrl-alt-O-Z-opt-shift-QXZ-F1 to your URL and the internet crashed?”  Anyway, my personal point is that these are being built to withstand the completely expected: actresses, actors who would rather be in a drag show, and the possibility that our hair and makeup lady might not actually like the idea that hats go on top of her hairdos and hide them.  This last bit isn’t exactly my fault: it’s just the natural order of things.)  Anyway, I’ve settled on a wireframe structure.  I want something stronger than ordinary millinery wire, and something terrifically cheap and readily available as I have a budget and no idea how much wire I’m ultimately going to need.  I decided this would be a good project to use to cull the herd of wire coat hangers that are taking over the theater’s basement.

To start, I need to get an idea of what shape I want to create….

pipecleaner mockup
Here's a mockup of the desired headdress, done up in pipe cleaners.

I’ve spent some time twisting pipe cleaners around to make a working mockup of the shape I intend to make.  Pipe cleaners aren’t terribly sturdy, but they’re great for rapid prototyping of wire-framed headdresses because they’re really easy to work with.  I’m trying to make something that looks like it’s from the 20s, so I want the sort of flapper style band on the forehead.  This is also structural – it keeps the headdress from sliding backwards on the head.  The weird cage on top will ultimately hold feathers.  There’s a V of wire in back, holding onto the head and preventing the headdress from sliding forwards.

side view
From the side.... The research I've done on the inter-web tells me that I'll need these odd little ear-thingers....

So that’s the plan I’m working with.  I’ve come into the temporary possession of a balsa wig stand through my theater, which makes the following steps much easier.  I have to make six of these, because show-girls travel in packs.  (If there’s justice in the english language, the proper group noun should be a “grope” of show-girls.)  Since I’ve never made anything like this before, this is going to be a little bit of a trick.  My thought is that any time you have to mass produce an item that you have no idea how to make, you do an easy mockup (whether it’s small scale, or just an easier/cheaper material to work with), then use your mockup as a pattern.  (And often your lining, if you’re sewing.)

or you can measure...
Use your mockup as a pattern.

In this particular case, I have that balsa head at my disposal.  I decided to use it to make a jig of sorts, so I could check my forms as I go since making the same thing twice is really not my strong suit.

making a jig with T pins
Make a quick jig by inserting T pins along the mockup.
finished jig
The T pins should mark any important features that need to be in the final wire form.
remove the mockup
Remove the mockup from the form, and you've got your jig.

Once I had the jig, I got started….

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  1. Sandy
    Sandy June 11, 2010

    Pics of you dancing with the pipecleaners on your head, just to pre-test it?

  2. missa
    missa June 11, 2010

    *laugh* There’s an image – you’ve clearly never seen my try to dance. ;) How about pics of me chasing showgirls with a pliers?

  3. The Cheap Chick
    The Cheap Chick June 21, 2010

    Wow. You really CAN make anything, literally ANYTHING!!!! As usual, you are my costuming hero. And congrats on how fabulous Chicago looked – excellent work!

  4. LuLu
    LuLu November 7, 2010

    I recently bought a showgirl headdress for a dance recital. It is quite large and will not stay in place. It often slides backwards. Any tips on how to make it stay in place?

  5. missa
    missa November 7, 2010

    Hi, Lulu,
    I’m sorry, but since I don’t know how it’s made and what sort of structure it’s built on, I can’t even guess. You should contact the maker and find out what suggestions they have.
    Sorry I can’t be more helpful!

  6. Kathy Bee
    Kathy Bee November 10, 2010

    Thanks for sharing this information. I’m learning more about hat designing from from friend Josie Silva at She also wears big Show Girl Hats…I am going to pass this site on ton her!
    Thanks again!

  7. karen conti
    karen conti September 14, 2014

    thanks for your site. I have to make a Fastasy Fest (Key West) show girls’ headdress. My headdress is for a garden club’s exhibit made out of plant material!

    • missa
      missa September 15, 2014

      hi, Karen – That sounds like awesome fun! There’s more than enough room to embed a wet sponge or something in the middle of this design to keep more delicate flowers alive. I’d love to see pictures when you’re done!

  8. Hi, I am new to this site and I am so impressed! I needed to purchase some white collar sailor hats recently for a show and they asked what I was using them for. In this case it was to make cloches for a 1920s show.( If you fold down the brims they make a great base to build your hats.) Anyway I asked why they wanted to know . They said that this is what the Mummers use in Philadelphia to mount all of they’re elaborate headdresses with the many feathers. I tried it and they do make a very sturdy base if you can use a helmut -looking headdress. I have cut out the ears at times and added wire where needed. I also found if I cut out at the back of the neck it fits better. Anyway , just wanted to share.

    • missa
      missa July 27, 2015

      Hi, Rebecca – Thanks for the tip! That’s pretty fab. :) Glad you’ve enjoyed the site, and I hope to keep impressing you!

  9. lia dana
    lia dana October 17, 2016

    its very nice!!!!!!11t hanks for sharing your wonderful ideas how to make show girl headdress…….its wasting my time..

  10. gbet63
    gbet63 August 31, 2017

    Hair and headpieces do not mix unless it’s a Carnival type event. For a showgirl in Vegas, the hair is never shown.

    • missa
      missa August 31, 2017

      The director wanted period wigs and show girl headdresses. So, that’s what we did. (IIIRC, we put most of our wrestling for artistic control into not having to costume our male actors as literal giant babies in diapers and bonnets.)

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