Cabaret Tip Tuesday At McElrath Cabaret: Clothing To Flatter The Cabaret Performer–Join Us!

The stylish KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler! Learn More: KT Sullivan  —  Mark Nadler

Welcome to Cabaret Tip Tuesday at McElrath Cabaret, where we offer cabaret performance tips to help you put together a great performance at your next show!

Today I’m thinking about the look of a show, so my tip for you today is this: use clothing that flatters the cabaret performer.

Today’s tip may require a bit of research, and may only involve taking a look at what you currently have in your closet and perhaps recombining options or adding a few new pieces to complete a look.  I enjoy this aspect of preparing a cabaret show, and would like to offer a few tips that we’ve found bring style and class to the cabaret stage:

  • It helps if you know what the dress standard is for the audience for which you will perform your show.  If you know that it is a casual atmosphere, you may not want to wear your tuxedo with tails or formal evening gown, for example.  However, it is usually a good idea to dress a little nicer than your audience.
  • You may select clothing for your act based on the theme of your show.  If you are doing a bunch of songs from the 1920s and 30s, for example, you may want to work in some vintage clothing styles, which will help set the style and mood for the music you are presenting.
  • You want to make sure that whatever clothing you choose to perform in is comfortable and allows you to move unhindered.  Make sure you can comfortably raise your arms over your head and out to the sides. Make sure that hemlines on ladies’ dresses are long enough to cover when the arms are raised.  Too-short skirts and dresses make for a very uncomfortable performance experience, especially if you are working on a raised stage, and if you are seated on a wobbly stool and trying to cross your legs, you can give quite a peek of parts you might not have expected to your audience.  Also check out your clothing and how it fits in both a standing and seated position, because it should be comfortable and cover your body properly in both positions.  I really like materials with a little stretch in them for this reason–they skim your body yet stay in position pretty well even as you move around during the act.
  • Men:  Tuxedos are always nice.  You should invest in tux pants, a coat, and a couple of white tux shirts, with a black bow tie.  That is a basic outfit that will serve you well in a number of performance situations.  For more casual gigs, you can’t go wrong with the “musician’s uniform” of grey dress pants, navy sport coat, and a solid light-colored shirt with a tie that goes with all.
  • Ladies:  Be honest and comfortable with the way you look in clothes.  This is tough if you feel that you are a little plump, as I often feel.  But everyone has good points in their appearance, and so you will want to play those up, and minimize those that could use some camouflage.  It really is all “smoke and mirrors” as in theatre!  I like a solid color dress in a color that works for my hair and eyes, and my preference is a v-neck style, because it looks best on me.  You should go to your closet or a clothing store and try on some different styles and see what looks good on you.  Some people look great in sleeveless, and if you can pull it off, feel free, but bear in mind that sleeveless adds at least five pounds to the way you look, and not everyone’s arms look best exposed as they age, if you know what I mean.  However, one look that is great is a sleeveless sheath dress topped with a shrug or a short sleek knit sweater on top.  This slims and sleeks and gives just a bit of coverage where you might like it. You could also try a sleeveless or short-sleeve dress with long gloves as another option.   Whatever you choose to wear, make sure you have the right bra to go with your clothing’s neckline and support needs.  A nude-colored, sleeveless leotard is also a good investment for sheer dresses.  I also sometimes like to wear a plain above-the-knee length black skirt with a little stretch built into it.  This can be dressed up or down depending upon the type of top you wear, and is a good basic piece that can work in many performance situations.  I always pair the black skirt with black hose and heels, to elongate my legs–creates a slimmer look.  When it comes to heels, don’t go crazy on the height–you can really distract the audience if you are teetering around on 5-inch spikes–all they can think about is if you are going to fall or not, and not your performance.  I always wear New York T-strap character shoes, which I can strap down and I know they won’t go flying off my feet at an inopportune moment.  They’re also the most comfortable heels I’ve ever worn, and they look best on my legs and feet.  Select what works best for you.
  • Again for ladies:  I think the hands and face are super important in cabaret performance.  I always wear long gloves, usually black but geared to the dress color I’m wearing, and each wrist sports rhinestone and pearl bracelets.  Again, if you’re using a mic, you want to bring attention to your mic hand, and the hands help to express emotion when you perform, so people will end up looking at them a lot, so highlight them with light-sparkling jewelry.  I prefer bracelets that have an elastic center rather than a clasp, because I find that they don’t catch on my delicate dresses and in boas as much, and they just stay in place through the course of a show much better.  Wear earrings that enhance your hairstyle and face.  Although I have short hair, I wear long drop earrings made of pearl or rhinestone to make the neck look longer, and to even be seen with my hair style due to the way the hair falls at the front of my face.  Use makeup that flatters your face.  (If you are new to makeup application, there are hundreds of how-to you tubes out there!)  If you’re mature, stay away from the glittery eyeshadows in general, and go for matte instead for a more natural look.  If you have dark hair like me, you can go deep with the eye shadow colors that look best with your hair and eyes, as well as liner, to add depth and create the eye shape that looks best on you, but wear what looks best on you.  I always wear eyeshadow primer on show nights–it just helps the shadow to stay in place longer, and if you perspire as you perform, it will help a bit in keeping the shadow where it belongs as well.  It’s a great idea to try out all the makeup you want to wear in advance, at home, and then look at it under different lighting to see how it looks.  You can always practice and make adjustments ahead of time to make it look better, and it saves you from panic the day of the show when you’re rushing to get ready.  Remember that you usually will be performing in low lighting in most cabaret venues, but this varies.  The actor in me has to say to make sure your hair is out of your face enough that the audience can see your face clearly–it is a primary means of communicating with the audience, so don’t do the Veronica Lake bangs and hide your face!  Also be careful with really long necklaces when performing–if you are doing arm and hand motions, that can be a disaster if you get tangled up in your neckwear.  I usually don’t wear any necklaces–again because I want to elongate the appearance of the neck, but you need to do what looks best on you–and I prefer instead to put the jewelry focus on the earrings and wrists.  At times, depending upon the dress, I might add a rhinestone pin to the waist of a dress at the side, and that is also a nice touch that shouldn’t get in your way as you perform.
  • Shapewear is our friend–’nuf said.


In the end, you want to look nice, feel comfortable, and have your clothing choices add to the ambiance of your show as well as the venue.  And bear in mind, these are tips, not unbreakable rules!  Choose what looks good on you!   Attractive cabaret clothing can help set the stage at a plain venue to bring it up to the glory of the famous venues of yesteryear, like the Latin Quarter, like the Copacabana, and besides, it’s fun to dress up!  Your clothing choices do not necessarily have to be expensive to look great–start shopping now, take your time, and ferret out some good deals on items that you need to round out your performance wardrobe.  (You might be surprised to find a great dress or suit at a consignment store or formal-wear store that sells used clothing–many people buy clothing for one big event, like a wedding, and then sell it after wearing it once.  You might find a deal that way.)  Keep the clothes clean, and hang or fold them properly when they are stored so they stay in good shape and you can use them for many years.  Iron whatever needs it prior to performance, and polish your shoes. I always try to bring a spare pair of hose with me to each gig–inconvenient if you get a run on-site a few minutes before you have to go on.


What types of clothing do you like to use in your cabaret performances? Where have you found the best deals on clothing that you use in your cabaret act?  Have a cabaret performance tip you’d like to share with us?  Let us know down in the comments, —we always love to hear from our readers!


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Weekly Post Lineup At McElrath Cabaret:

Mondays: Cabaret Soiree Cabaret Blog Link Party

Tuesdays: Cabaret Tip Tuesday

Wednesdays: Ask A Cabaret Question

Thursdays: Featured Cabaret Blog, Website, Performer

Fridays: Cabaret Through Time

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About Athena at McElrath Cabaret

Athena McElrath is an entertainer with a love for theatre and singing. She enjoys delving in the area of historical cabaret, researching the singers and clubs that were in business from before 1920 to the present, in New York and beyond.
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