In Fashion?

In guard fashion, one day it’s in, and the next it’s out. Halftime Magazine spoke to 12 different designers, companies and instructors to find out what’s hot, what’s not and what’s next.

Illustration courtesy of Algy

Classic black or vibrant color? Minimalistic or lots of sequins? A single look or different designs for each performer? Guard instructors and costume designers ponder these questions—and more—in their quest to make their outfits complement their show’s story and music.

Though various opinions emerged about what’s hot and what’s not, one thing is for certain: Most all agreed that everyone has the desire to be unique. Each guard wants something that’s never been seen before—or wants to put its own twist on an old favorite.

“Almost every request I get is: ‘Make us look unique; we don’t want to look like anyone else,’” says Michael Gray, designer at DeMoulin. “As competition becomes more prevalent and more heated, people will go to more extremes in order to have a more unique identity, and that’s reflected in their design request.”

The quest for uniqueness split the designers into two camps: those who feel the trend is to have showy costumes and those who think the guard world is now in a minimalistic phase.

“It seems like we’re back to a simpler time,” says Alan Spaeth, guard products manager at McCormick’s Enterprises. “I think the sparkles, feathers and sequins have really died off in the competitive world. People are looking for things based more in current fashion, more simple and elegant in the last few years.”

But other designers felt that sequins and more detailed costumes are in. “I’m seeing a trend that is leading to the costumes being busier than they’ve been in the past, very ornate, going away from the minimalistic phase we had been in,” says Tim Lee, designer at Algy. “Fashion is in the middle of this wild sequin trend thing that I think will last a few more years. … Sparkly fabrics are more popular … big collars, five-foot trains, faces covered in lace. You’re just seeing color guard costuming going over the top.”

Both sides agreed that trends are constantly cycling, recycling and evolving. “There’s nothing new under the sun; we’re putting together old costumes in new ways and doing fresh takes on something that’s been done before,” says Tommy Keenum, designer at The Band Hall. “Things will go more intricate and theatrical, and then it will become simpler, more vibrant and then more muted and earthy. I think that will always be the way it is.”

Fashion Faux Pas

While most trend descriptions were sweeping or vague, designers deemed a few things to be out of fashion. “Two words: Palazzo pants,” says Joe Heininger, lead designer at A Wish Come True.

Celestino Sosa, instructor at Little Elm (Texas) High School, agreed. “Palazzo, jazz pants, big baggy pants—that’s gone,” Sosa says. “We’re enhancing the body more. Movement is more developed.”

Other than big pants, the designers mentioned hats, boots, puffy sleeves, dresses, and twirler or gymnast-esque outfi ts as things that are now mostly out of the guard costume landscape.

But the most-mentioned out-of-date style is military-looking uniforms designed to match the rest of the band. “The militaristic look used to be the standard,” says Gray, who also serves as visual coordinator at Wando High School in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., and program coordinator for the Bluecoats Drum and Bugle Corps. “In the 70’s all color guards were masculine-based, echoes of the drum corps or marching band. They literally wore, in many cases, the exact costuming that the marching band wore, and we’ve lost that.”

Thematic or Identity Wear?

Guards moved away from band uniforms and into dance wear and theatrical costumes that reflected the themes of each year’s show. While no one expects the adapted band uniform look to make a comeback, many guards are finding they need an alternate, consistent look that doesn’t change with each season.

“In the fall marching band season, we’re seeing a return to what I call ‘identity wear’—it’s a color guard outfit, but it’s meant to go with what the band uniform is doing,” says Michael J. Cesario, design director at Fred J. Miller. “That doesn’t mean it’s the band suit; it’s just something that refl ects the character of the band. The directors are looking for something that is appropriate for Memorial Day, the 4th of July or Rose Parade, where they need to be offi cial and looking like they’re a part of the school.”

Hot, Hot, Hot

On the positive side, trends that are now popular in the guard world include ruching (or pleating), shearing, leather, sheer fabrics, high waists, off-the-rack or “street” clothes, multiple textures in the same costume, earth tones and monochromatic costumes.

The one trend mentioned by most of the designers and instructors was costumes that change throughout a show or even complete costume changes within a show.

“People want to add an element of surprise—taking things off and changing the costume mid-performance,” says Georgette Corron, owner of Georgie Girl Costumes. “I’ve done things where they’ll have different colored tails in the back hidden behind a cumberbund, starting off in muted tones and then taking off a skirt and having something flashy underneath, unzipping the sides of a leg.”

Onyx, the 2010 WGI Independent World Champions, hopes to utilize this trend in its 2011 show, “Abandonment to Impulse.” “There’s a little bit of a costume twist for us this year,” says Michael Lentz, director and designer for Onyx as well as Independent Open Class champions O2. “It’s gonna have mostly black, but there will be use of color. We’re using the top of the costume to create new shapes once it’s pulled above the head.”

Like a Runway

Costumes vary from guard to guard and, increasingly, within a single guard. Designers are getting more requests to create a different costume for each individual in the guard or multiple variations on a costume within a group.

“One major trend is stepping away from everyone wearing the same costume to everyone wearing a variation of that same costume,” Keenum says. “It gives a little more sophisticated look sometimes, and you can flatter different body sizes that way. It gives it a runway approach of a collection of costumes.”

As guard becomes a more co-ed activity, designers need to accommodate both male and female performers. In the past, male costumes usually consisted of a shirt version of the female costume with black pants; however, the trend is now to accentuate the male and female bodies separately. “I sometimes design the boy outfit first, so it looks amazing on him and is not an afterthought,” says Sosa, whose guard has almost as many boys as girls. “I don’t want the boys to look like they’re wearing a male version of a female costume; I want them to be accentuated.”

Depending on the number of men in a group, the guard must decide whether to go for a unisex look or feature specifi c male characters. “When I’m teaching a high school guard, a feminine look for a girl and a male, stronger look for a boy, is much more appropriate,” Lentz says. “In [Onyx] it’s more unisex; the females and males don’t really stand out.”

Designers also place priority on creating costumes that can be flattering and comfortable for all body types. As a result, designers mentioned velvet as the most popular fabric for its forgiving stretch qualities and ability to create different textures.

“I think it’s important to create bra-friendly designs, so that everyone can wear proper undergarments and feel comfortable,” Corron says. “I think if the biggest girls in the group look good, the whole group looks good. A lot of times groups pick something that looks good on their thinner girls, and then sometimes the bigger girls feel uncomfortable.”

Body type, gender and age range all need to be taken into equal consideration when designing guard costumes. “This is still an education-based activity, and we need to take that into the design with us,” Gray says. “We need to be sensitive not only to the needs of the program but also the needs of the kids and the impact that our clothing choices have. These kids are vulnerable, and designing something they can feel comfortable and confident in enhances the performance.”


Costumes alone do not make a show; floor tarps, backdrops, flags and props all come into play when designing and many times can influence the costumes.

The advent and growth of digital printing technology has allowed all of these items to match down to an exact pattern—if that’s the look you’re going for.

“That attention to detail is one of the big trends, and designers can go nuts and make things have far more detail than ever before,” says Bob Jacobs, creative director at The Art Department, a design agency that specializes in digitally printing fabrics for pageantry productions. “This is a whole new palette to work with; they can think photographically almost. It gives you a product that is artistically so well-coordinated that for the short period of time the guard is on the floor or field, it’s striking how effective the mood changes can be.”

Jacobs has even printed wraps for rifles that blend into the floor or patterned drumheads for indoor percussion shows.

Fred J. Miller can also create uniforms, backdrops and flags with the same pattern throughout—a formerly custom option that the company added to the catalog this year, according to Cesario, who also serves as artistic director of Drum Corps International (DCI).

Some guards prefer the floor and costumes to contrast rather than match. “My thoughts about that have changed,” Lentz says. “There was a time I thought they should complement each other. Now it’s more of a contrasting idea. I don’t think they all have to be exact.”

Kelley Kramer-Mardis of Kramer Graphics has also noticed a contrasting trend. “When tarps are designed with dark or rich colors, we see the uniforms being simple in design and light in color,” she says. “When tarps are designed using light colors, we tend to see the uniforms being very colorful.”

Another trend is what Jacobs calls “floorigami,” the folding or unfolding of floor tarps during the show to reveal different colors and create different moods. “It is fairly complicated,” says Jacobs, who also serves as the director of Jersey Surf Drum and Bugle Corps and director of marketing at DCI. “Just like everything else in the world of the design process, for people who figured it out and do it well, it’s very clever and shows a level of design that helps to elevate the group to a whole new level.”

Electra Tarp offers floors that open and close to reveal three different options within a show. Onyx currently uses two separate tarps with an open space in between—creating three different areas of floor that can be moved and flipped.

While digitally printed tarps are rising in popularity, their cost is still very high, so most groups use painted floors. Electra Tarp’s biggest seller is a double-sided tarp that allows maximum longevity.

“They can create at least four different shows with one floor because all our floors are paintable,” says Bitsy Paul of Electra Tarp. “Sometimes guards will even bring fl oors back to us to add a border or cut out the center and put a different color in there.”

Recycle, Reuse, Reduce

Tarps aren’t the only area where guards try to save money. As school and band budgets get tighter, reusable and adaptable costumes and flags have risen in popularity, and guard consignment is more popular than ever. “We have requests for things now that have more longevity, elegant, still makes a bold statement but has a generic quality to it, so that it may be a two-year or every-other-year usage,” Gray says. “People are trying to stretch the lifecycle of costumes and fabrics just as they are stretching the dollar.”

Dancewear basics are still huge sellers, and many times guards will just add an extra sash, layer or other detail to make an old or borrowed costume into a whole new look. “Sometimes some smaller school may borrow our uniforms, and we’ve done that in the past,” says Sosa, who took Little Elm to victory in the WGI Scholastic A Championships in 2010. “It doesn’t devalue the show at all. Some people reuse floors and interpret a different show idea.”

Yet economic troubles have not crippled the guard world. “I know schools have been cutting budgets left and right, and somehow parents and groups come up with the money they need,” Heininger says.

Flash Forward

Other than the continued cycling between elaborate and minimalistic costumes, very few people had predictions for the future—although it could be that lights are the next big guard thing.

“If you look in the theatre/Broadway/ ballet world, there seems to be a lot of battery-operated lights put on costumes, so you never know,” Heininger says.

Lighting as part of a set or prop is also starting to emerge in guard shows. “Some groups are beginning to explore lighting, but I don’t know if lighting will continue to be a trend,” Lentz says. “I like to believe that lighting and sound and sets and how we approach the stage and engage the audience will continue to change, and I’m hoping that WGI continues to support change.”

As guards continue to experiment, innovate and look for inspiration, the possibilities for show concepts and costumes will only expand. “Every year I’m surprised by a new idea that just takes my breath away,” Cesario says. “The creativity of what’s being displayed currently would indicate that there’s no second guessing them. I’d predict that there’s no predicting what they’ll do.”

About author

Elizabeth Geli

Elizabeth Geli is the assistant editor of Halftime Magazine and a journalist/communications professional in Southern California. Her 11 years at the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band included time as a flute player, graduate teaching assistant, and student advocate. She holds a bachelor's degree in Print Journalism and master's degree in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC.

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