Dressing La Fiesta

Meet the Seamstresses Who Make the $300,000 Worth of Flamenco Outfits That Make Fiesta

A SAGA OF SEWING: Seamstress Maria Lazcano (pictured right) often worked late into the night with her sister Socorro Avila to make more than 90 dresses for this year’s Fiesta. “It’s very emotional for me to see the dancers up onstage in a costume I’ve made for them,” said Lazcano. “It’s very satisfying.”
Paul Wellman

“Olé, and viva la siesta!”

Fiesta begins in earnest at tonight’s La Fiesta Pequeña, but for the seamstresses who have toiled tirelessly on hundreds of handmade dresses, this week is the calm after the storm.

After months of sewing marathons to produce the colorful and customized flamenco costumes paraded across Santa Barbara this week, months of meticulous artistry is finally complete.

No more last-minute alterations or unstitching and stitching of that one unruly hemline.

No more lugging around heavy bolts of fabric, or late-night machine malfunctions.

No more desperate trips to downtown L.A.’s fabric mart to scour the stores for missing inches of lace trim in “chartreuse, not lime, not emerald, not kelly, but chartreuse!” or that extra yardage of the elusive crespón polyester meant for flamenco dresses: not too heavy, not too light, not too stretchy, not too slippery, never scratchy, wrinkle-free, at the right price, and at least 8-10 meters of it per dancer, in all one color or coordinating colors, or forget about it; keep scouring. Or get ready for a pricey, sometimes unpredictable import from Spain, where polka-dot, floral, and solid flamenco fabric is everywhere but still 6,000 miles away.

In any given year, there is a small but mighty group of women ​— ​maybe six or seven ​— ​who are commissioned to produce these figure-hugging, ruffled trajes in mass quantities on deadline. Along with talent, they have the disposition and intuition to work side by side with hovering mothers and often demanding studio directors who look to the seamstress to carry out their artistic vision (often from a simple, colored-pencil sketch designed by the directors themselves).

A GOOD FIT: Seamstress Candi Cruz (far right) checks on the dresses of young dancers in Linda Vega’s dance studio. “It’s a tremendous amount of work and pressure, but I love it,” said Cruz. “I really do.”
Paul Wellman

In Santa Barbara, flamenco costuming is big business, and those in the sewing trade have responded in force to satisfy the demand.

Some seamstresses, such as Maria Lazcano, Candi Cruz, and Angelica Ramirez, sew costumes most of the year with a lull during ​— ​and after ​— ​Fiesta. Other sewers step in to help with the smaller dance groups, maybe part-time during the months leading to Fiesta. Some moms learn to sew, embroider, and attach adornments out of sheer necessity, and get darn good at it with all the practice.

Estimates are that we have about 400-plus flamenco dancers in the Santa Barbara region, belonging to a handful of studios or private teachers. Each dancer performs at least one routine, but most perform two, three, or four unique routines, with a different costume for each.

On average, each costume costs somewhere around $300-$700. That includes the fabric and adornments of embroidery, lace, and trim, as well as the seamstress’s labor and time. More extravagant dresses, such as those with handmade fringe or a lengthy bata de cola, can cost $800-$1,000 or more.

Look around this week, and you’ll see upward of 1,000 dresses, representing a $300,000-plus industry. And that doesn’t include the additional work seamstresses do for the Old Spanish Days dignitaries or other Fiesta-goers needing costumes.

Paul Wellman

“It’s a tremendous amount of work and pressure, but I love it. I really do,” said Candi Cruz, who has been making dresses for Fiesta for nearly 15 years. She produced more than 100 dresses for this week’s festivities. “It’s very stressful, honestly, but when you see the finished products, those beautiful colors and textiles up on the stage with the music and the incredible choreography … it’s the best payback you’ll ever receive.”

After watching her grandmother sew and embroider while growing up in Mexico, Candi Cruz attended a school of corte y confección, where seamstresses learn their trade. She had a gift and wound up making wedding dresses in a bridal shop. That prepared her for the transition into making flamenco dresses, which typically incorporate different colors and patterns of body-hugging solids, florals, and/or polka dots down to mid-thigh, and then multiple layers of ruffles or flounces cascading down to create that large, flowing flare for spins.

“I don’t think people in town, even in my own studio, grasp the time, money, and work that goes into producing a show,” said flamenco studio director Linda Vega, who designs the costumes and works in collaboration with Candi Cruz, who does the sewing. “It’s not just learning a dance or incorporating the music. The designing and making of the costume is critical. They are the first impression the audience has when the dancers go out onstage.”

Studio director Rose Marie Cruz says she’s used hundreds of seamstresses during 40 years of wearing and designing costumes for Fiesta. She’s got the process down.

“I’ve been working with the same fabric company for 30 years,” said Rose Marie Cruz, who will order thousands of dollars’ worth of fabric and have it shipped overnight. “It is breathtaking and a dream come true when a seamstress captures the vision and creativity from a pencil-sketched drawing.” But it’s not always so dandy. “There have been instances when a seamstress does not see our vision and instead creates her own vision which changes the design,” she said. “I politely say to the seamstress, ‘You are a creator of costumes, and I am a creator of choreography. I have the knowledge of skirt width, length, sleeve design, ruffles, etc. to allow the dancer to execute her dance correctly, so please do not change my design.’ A few have tried,” said Cruz, “but quickly understand why they shouldn’t” when they see the dancer try to perform in a costume with the wrong fit.

HOBBY BECOMES HABIT: Pat Dunselman (above, seated) is a former schoolteacher who makes dresses at her home in Goleta for her granddaughter, Anastasia Maria Sagawinia, and others. “I sit and sew and put on old movies,” said Dunselman. “It’s so many hours, so much detail.”
Paul Wellman

Cruz has a deep appreciation for the role of the seamstress and expects her dancers to, as well. When a dancer is asked to report for a fitting, Cruz frowns on those who fail to arrive on time or not at all. “These poor women have wasted their valuable time in waiting and being delayed on their projected date of completion toward a show or Fiesta,” Cruz said, describing the inevitable wrinkles in the process. “Personally, I jump when a seamstress makes a request; without her incredible work, we are left in leotards and tights as costumes!”

Longtime seamstress Maria Lazcano now has her own thriving business in town, made possible in part by the demand for flamenco dresses. In recent months, it was not uncommon to see the light on and hear the buzz of her machine humming until midnight as she worked to finish costumes for studio director Daniela Zermeño. She made more than 90 costumes for this week.

“I love working; I love what I do, but it is difficult when the pressure of finishing sometimes causes you to have to sacrifice the creative process,” said Lazcano, whose shop is wall-to-wall with bright bolts of fabric and dozens of spools of thread in every color of the rainbow. “It’s very emotional for me to see the dancers up onstage in a costume I’ve made for them. It’s very satisfying.”

NOT JUST FOR GIRLS: Even the boardmembers of Old Spanish Days, including Primera Vice President Rhonda Ledson Henderson (left) and Segunda Vice Presidente Denise Sanford, get dresses handmade for the citywide party. “The fact that any of these seamstresses have the time, energy, and material left to help dress our board in traditional flamenco attire — after the thousands of dancers they dress — that is pretty much heroic in my opinion,” said Henderson.
Paul Wellman

Pat Dunselman, a former schoolteacher whose granddaughter has danced with Rose Marie Cruz for 20 years, has helped make costumes from the beginning. “I sit and sew and put on old movies,” said Dunselman, who was working to finish a complicated bata de cola, a dress or skirt with a long, ruffled tail. The bata requires up to 25 yards of popelín fabric and another six yards of can can de flamenca, a stiff nylon material that gives the tail more body and shape so the dancer can move it about the stage with a kick of the heel.

The hours she’ll have put in to complete it won’t necessarily result in a whopping paycheck. “It’s so many hours, so much detail,” Dunselman said. “The amount I get for the number of hours I’ve spent … it’s just the tip of the iceberg … But I love sewing and interacting with the kids, fitting them, making sure it works. I’ve been involved long enough now to know to ask them to raise their arms, move around, because I want them to feel good out onstage.”

The dancers aren’t the only Fiesta-goers pining for good costuming. Old Spanish Days Segunda Vice Presidente Denise Sanford has relied on Candi Cruz for years to dress her for the many Fiesta events she attends throughout the spring and summer.

“The seamstress is an intricate part of presenting the best of Fiesta,” said Sanford. “Candi has a unique eye of what works and what doesn’t work and how to present it in the best light possible. I’ve had a design and a fabric in mind, and she has gone out and found exactly what I pictured. It doesn’t get any better than that. Everything she makes for me fits perfectly with very little altering because she just knows me. Her dresses are impeccably made, down to the last detail, including lining and every stitch!”

Sanford paid tribute to all the hundreds of seamstresses who have created costumes for the Old Spanish Days celebration over 92 years, some of which are now on display at Project Fiesta! at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum. Some wind up at Old Spanish Day’s annual Fiesta costume sale. Others are too precious to donate or give away.

“These women are amazing and truly artists in their own right,” Sanford added. “Their art is displayed throughout the year at various events and venues all over Santa Barbara.”

“The fact that any of these seamstresses have the time, energy, and material left to help dress our board in traditional flamenco attire — after the thousands of dancers they dress — that is pretty much heroic in my opinion,” added Primera Vice Presidente Rhonda Ledson Henderson, whose Fiesta look is reminiscent of a flamenco runway model in Sevilla, Spain, a hub for designers. “These seamstresses are simply amazing! The pure talent we have in Santa Barbara is incredible.”


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