Vinilla Burnham is a London based designer and also a free-lance contributor to several Creature Shop projects. In 2010, she was asked by Peter Brooke of Creature Shop to create a dress in collaboration with the Haus of Gaga, together they made "The Living Dress".
Originally, Peter Brooke of Creature Shop hired Vin Burnham in January of 2010 to design a dress to be worn during the "Battling a Paparazzo" with The Fame Monster, a giant angler fish. The original concept of a "firefly dress" that moved was pitched on the phone to Burnham by Haus of Gaga's art director, Matt "Dada" Williams. Gaga's inspiration came from an animatronic dress after seeing one at the Spring/Summer 20007 ready-to-wear "One Hundred and Eleven" collection by Hussein Chalayan. She wanted a moving dress but only on a bigger scale than the one by Hussein Chalayan.Burnham started sketching mid-January, “My early sketches were fairly literal with antennae, but Lady Gaga wanted something more like couture fashion.”, says Burnham. Gaga explained that she wanted a fashion - couture piece and not a costume so it had to be glamorous. The design had no relating period, although the shape have a kind of Victorian feel to it with a corset, bustle and train. The main reason they used such elements was mainly to have a strong base on which to build the animatronics and find places to house the motors and cables.
When the 4th sketch was approved, Burnham and her team comprised of Sten Vollmuller and assistant Susan Smith started working on a prototype. They worked in London at Elstree Studios under the supervision of producers for Creature Shop, Martin Baker and Pete Coogan at Baker Coogan Productions Ltd. As Gaga was in Los Angeles, Burnham asked costume designer Dorothy Bylac Eriksen to fit a toile and take accurate measurements of Gaga for her. For the animatronic part, Burnham hired Adam Wright who also did the Hussein Chalayan dress. For the job, he hired Ed Dimbleby, Richard Blakey, Helly McGrother, Jonathan Saville, Adam Keenan, John Nolan and Oliver Jones.
The dress was made using a combination of materials including woven stainless steel, various forms of nylon fabric, sheet and rods, different weights of pleated plastic sheeting and coutil for the corset. The dress was finished two hours before its debut, taking six total weeks of creation. On the first three nights Gaga wore the dress, Adam Wright was backstage with Grace Defried and Josh Lee as technician and operator.
Prior to it's debut, Lady Gaga posted a statement about it on her Twitter.
2nite Haus of Gaga debuts "the living dress" inspired by Hussein Chalayan, as a fashion moment to be performed in "pop show" at Monsterball.
In the beginning of a performance where the Living Dress is used, two pieces from Gaga's breasts cover her face, and, in the Monster Ball, the pieces move out of her face, and she begins to sing "So Happy I Could Die" in 2010 to 2011. The headdress opens and closes, and body of the dress opens and closes, revealing her legs, and the train of the dress moves up and down, "just like a dragonfly coming out of its shell." The headdress, dress movements and face fans are all connected to motors and remote-controlled from offstage. Wright used an elaborate system of motors and pulleys to pull the skirts up and back, and to enable the wings to spring up from behind Gaga’s back (which she operates herself with bungee chords).
It was originally an idea of Gaga’s to create an animated couture dress for the Monster Ball World Tour.
I was called in by Pete Brooke at the Jim Henson Company in LA, because they were making the huge animatronic monster for the show in London, so we made the dress there too at Elstree Studios.
How long did it take since the first idea until the whole creation was completely finished?
I had the call early January 2010 when I was doing costumes for a TV campaign, so I couldn’t start straight away, but loved the idea of designing this creation for Lady Gaga!
So I alerted my A team, I needed the best people, to work fast, and luckily I got them. I started around the third week of January with some concept desisgns, and was in discussions with the Haus of Gaga and the Jim Henson Company finalizing the designs and fabric choices which changed a couple of times.
Animatronic designer Adam Wright, who animated the dresses, for Hussein Chalayan, was also shooting a commercial elsewhere, but came to join us just as soon as he could.
It was a tight deadline, and we had no instant access to Gaga for fitting as she was in LA, and wouldn’t arrive in the UK until the last minute (it’s normally like that, so nothing unusual there!). I had a good costume designer friend of mine in LA, Dorothy Bulac Eriksen, fit a toile and take accurate measurements, so at least we had a good starting point.
I was particularly concerned about the headdress fitting and wanted to have her head cast for accuracy, because of the weight and balance involved, but there was not time for this, and we adapted a base as near her size as possible.
At that stage we had no idea of how much hair would have to fit inside it, so to some extent it was guesswork. By the time the costume was completely finished (2 hours before the Liverpool Arena show!), we’d had about 6 weeks.
What is it made of?
It’s made of a combination of materials including stainless steel, various forms of nylon fabric, sheet and rods, different weights of plastic sheeting and coutil for the corset.
How does it work?
Adam Wright stipulated weight and any potential obstructions with the materials so that his mechanics could run smoothly and not get caught up.
He used an elaborate system of motors and pulleys to pull the skirts up and back, and to enable the wings to spring up from behind Gaga’s back (which she operates herself with bungee chords).
Also the hat has 3 giant fans which open and close as she sings, as well as the fans which cover her face at the start of the number then ‘dissappear’ to reveal her face.
The headdress, dress movements and face fans are all connected to motors and remote-controlled from offstage.
It looks like the dress lives, breathes… doesn’t look heavy at all… but how much does it actually weigh?
I don’t think we ever actually weighed it. As a dead weight it probably does weigh quite a bit, but it’s how the weight is distributed that matters.
We built it to fit Gaga very securely to her body so that she is able carry it without it dragging her back, and we made sure that there was nothing that could dig in anywhere. Tightness and weight are fine with a properly made to measure fit, after all, opera singers wear tight fitted corsets all the time and are able to expand their lungs and sing, but it has to fit like a glove.
It helped that Gaga is strong and athletic and able to out perform the dress!
Does it need a special care or maintenence?
Yes, and I am indebted to Gaga’s wardrobe team, Tony Villaneuva, Perry and Dan who work really hard to keep it looking it’s best.
Because of the speed of the show, it is inevitable that the dress receives some rough treatment backstage, and it picks up a lot of dust through static, but with the love and care of the team, it’s doing really well. I went to see the show again at the 02 in London back in December. The dress had done 100 performances by then, and although there had been some ongoing repairs and cleaning, the dress still looked great on stage under lights.
If this dress had been made for a film, we would have made at least 2 of them to have had a back-up should any of the mechanics malfunction, but this is a complete one off!