Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend: Zerbinetta’s Harlequin Costume

It was a summer afternoon ─ the summer before I would attend the Live in HD performance of Ariadne auf Naxos in the theater ─ and I was watching the same opera and production from 2003 with Deborah Voigt and Natalie Dessay. Fulling intending to dress as Ariadne for the theater showing, I closely espied her costume, looking for small details that could aid in my creation. But as the opera progressed, I realized… Ariadne is boring ! It was Natalie Dessay’s high-flying Zerbinetta that had me completely smitten, with both her character and costume, and I decided then that I would dress, not as Ariadne, but as Zerbinetta for the theater broadcast.

Natalie Dessay as Zerbinetta

With the close-up camera shots of the costume, I could make out slubs in the costume fabric and knew that I would use a polyester dupioni as my base material. The sleeves on the bodice were a sort of gathered puff and unintentionally, while browsing for something else, I came across a sewing pattern with just the right sleeves and pointed bodice (E).

McCall’s 8043, circa 1996

How to apply the wild checkered colors was still up for decision… Hand cut pieces of fabric ? Paint ? Realizing that both methods would be extremely time consuming, but that painting the fabric would be much more precise and less of a guessing game, I bought a set of jacquard fabric paint to begin work on the harlequin design.

I used the above photos of Diana Damrau and Kathleen Kim as a guide in marking and painting the diamonds on the bodice and skirt. Thinking that painting fabric was just like painting walls, I marked off sections of the sewn princess seam bodice, which I altered and boned, with 3/8″ electrical tape, assuming that the sticky tape would hold back any and all imperfections when I peeled away the pinned on strips…

Wrong !!!! The black and red paint bled beneath the tape, into the white lines. Twill tape saved the day, turning a watery canvas into a striking harlequin.

Trimmed with (painted !) red lace around the sleeve hems, black shank buttons down the front, and bias binding around the neckline finished the zippered bodice. A hook and eye was fastened at the top of the back.

The Skirt

Itching to utilize a new patternmaking book in my collection, I experimented with transforming a full circle skirt into one of equal area with 12 gores, still maintaining the same proportions as the regularly cut bias circle. The purpose behind this maneuver was to better my chances of accurately marking out the diamond design and to prevent uneven and sagging edges from the circular bias cut.

A page from “Basic Pattern Skills For Fashion Design” by Bernard Zamkoff

This was accomplished. However, something went amiss in my calculations and I ended up having to remove two gores from the skirt to fit the waistband. Therefore, it became a 300° instead of a 360° skirt. All’s well that ends well, right ?

The new center gore pattern piece (with the discarded side sections), seam allowances added

Marking the diamonds on the skirt was torture ! Staring at the pictures of the model skirt only led to frustration when, after spending hours elongating sticky tape into impossibly curved lines, I stepped back to eye my design and beheld kites and shields ─ not harlequin diamonds !

I probably spent close to a week taping and re-taping the same design over and over again. I don’t know (and may never know) how the diamonds on Zerbinetta’s skirt stayed so regular. Even as they became larger at the hem, they still looked like perfect diamonds !

Brenda Rae as Zerbinetta and Isabel Leonard as the Composer

Time was running out and I needed to move on from the insanity, so… kites and shields it had to be !
Painting the skirt fabric was much more time consuming than the bodice and sleeves, but I finished it just a few days before the opera.

When I pulled off the electrical tape, it made a tremendous difference in the look of the design, but not as much as when the twill tape was sewn over the jagged white lines. Then, the outfit popped.

The skirt before the twill tape was sewn over the lines

There was a near catastrophe when I soaked the skirt in an attempt to remove the remains of newspaper that were stuck to the backside of the fabric and some of the black paint smeared onto the bright yellow segments. Egad, what horror ! Against instructions not to scrub with soapy water, I did just that, scouring the yellow diamonds in hopes of removing the black tinge. Thankfully, it dried with hardly any trace of black on yellow and my painted diamonds remained in good condition. Whew !

A lining of light satin was used to finish the underside, a zipper was installed, a waistband added, and the skirt was complete. During Zerbinetta’s hair-raising aria in the “Opera” portion of Ariadne auf Naxos, a red petticoat beneath her skirt is revealed as she flings herself aback on a chair, utterly exhausted from oxygen-depleting coloratura. With the need for a crinoline, I searched online and found a steal of a deal ─ a vintage red nylon petticoat that I snagged for $1.25 off eBay.

Best $1.25 I ever spent !

The Hat

One of the best parts of Zerbinetta’s costume is her 18th century tricorn hat with plumes of brightly colored feathers…

Lise Davidsen as Ariadne and Brenda Rae as Zerbinetta

Looking for patterns online led me to Angel’s terrific mini pirate hat tutorial from Fleece Fun.

Anyone can make this cute little hat and it’s great that the pattern pieces become a part of the construction. With the hot glue gun running, a bejeweled cockade of feathers and tulle was attached.

Now I was ready for the opera !

Zerbinetta’s harlequin costume was a labor of love, but an absolute joy to wear ! Diamonds really are a girl’s best friend.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

For my review of the Ariadne auf Naxos, see here: https://costumeclosetcouture.com/2022/03/13/ariadne-auf-naxos/

7 thoughts on “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend: Zerbinetta’s Harlequin Costume

  1. I applaud your patience, tenacity, and creativity in completing this project. The entire ensemble is artfully and beautifully done–as usual!

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  2. I cannot believe that you created this design! You are so artistic and creative! You look fabulous in the outfit and I love the hat and shoes!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is outstanding! I love hearing about how you create these, what works, what doesn’t, how you get around obstacles to produce such beautiful outfits! Ariadne auf Naxos is not an opera I’ve been able to sit through (not a Strauss fan), but I absolutely love the costume you created!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You are AMAZING, even that word cannot describe your many talents and creativity. The pattern and design turned out beautifully. And I love the finished costume including the hat, red stockings and shoes

    I sure miss seeing you and your wonderful outfits at the opera. Living in lakeland has made it difficult to travel to WH when I can see the opera here.
    Keep up your wonderful work. 😘

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  5. Loved this, the process and the product! Authentic and perfectly festive, plus an Easter bonnet! Congratulations! Have fun wearing it. Do you ever offer a fashion show of all your costumes to date, by any chance? Gene would have enjoyed seeing them also. Easter Blessings to you and yours, Johanna Schedler

    Liked by 1 person

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