I was struggling to end my first serious relationship and working a nightmarish bussing gig at a 24-hour diner. Heather was living in a two-bedroom basement suite making cupless bras and body cages on her industrial machine.
While I was miserable in both love life and career, Heather could barely keep up with demand for the exotic dancewear her business, Glitter Pretty Costumes, was producing. After a homemade sangria-soaked craft night, she realized I could sew, and furthermore, that hiring an assistant she already knew was the perfect way to sidestep her social anxiety. Not only that, it gave her license to crack her sparkling whip like a coach on "The Biggest Loser."
“You are my minion,” she told me lovingly after we’d been working together for a while. “And I will never let you go.”
Hiring me was the push she needed to take her biz to the next level, because now she could stop wasting her highly skilled hours on mechanical grunt work her minion could do -- embellishing. Or, to put it more accurately, bedazzling. Sparkling.
That’s the thing about stripper costumes -- every inch of the garment needs to be decorated. The glitter is overwhelming. You have the big sew-on gems for making snowflake patterns on the back of a blue metallic Ice Princess jacket. You have the tiny, glue-backed rhinestones to be attached with the soldering iron-like Bedazzler along the seams and hems of almost every outfit. Sometimes, the sparkle takes more unusual forms, like the tiny plastic bones I spent hours coating with glitter and adhesive for an elaborate Viking Babe costume, which also included a sparkly horned helmet and skulls on its fun-fur epaulets.
Soon I was spending at least half my nights on Heather’s living room daybed.
Often, I’d catch only a few hours of sleep between passing out over half-rhinestoned bootcuffs, TMZ still playing in the background, and waking up to shared breakfasts of cupcakes, instant coffee and Dexedrine. It wasn’t just the work that kept me there -- my own empty basement suite held nothing but painful memories. The Glitter Pretty workshop became my sanctuary, a place that was feminine, comforting and safe.
Heather gave me a lot more in exchange for my hard work than thick stacks of fives and tens. More than anything, she showed me that someone other than a boyfriend could make me feel valued and loved.
“I’m such an emotionally needy person,” I once confessed to her as we sat outside, her with a cigarette and I with a Coke-bottle bong.
“It’s okay, Genevieve,” she answered. “I’m very emotionally giving.”
Depressed and heartbroken, I was having crying spells nearly every day, and she did whatever it took to boost my mood and keep me working, from sewing me a fleece panda onesie to force-feeding me cubes of cheese.
But wait! You are probably saying. Don’t strippers just wear bikinis? How could there be enough money in clothing those who get naked for a living to finance the lifestyles of two 21-year-olds with extravagant taste in takeout and taxicabs?
The answer is that high-end stripper costumes are some of the most unique and elaborate outfits you’ve ever seen in your life. Even the simplest of bikinis would earn Heather at least 50 bucks. Hell, she had suitcases of bikinis -- when we needed some cash, we used to taxi them to The Penthouse and hang out backstage, hawking our newest styles to whoever happened to be dancing that day.
If three pieces of Lycra and some ribbon run that much, I’m sure you can imagine what the rest of it cost. Prices would start at $300 for something relatively simple (in stripper terms, anyway), and run to as much as $800 for a chiffon and latex Vampire Bride number with black lace garters and a veil so long it would float across the stage.
All of the costumes have the same basic parts. Thong, hot pants, maybe a tiny little belt of a skirt joined at the hip with Velcro for easy tearing off. Some of the costumes have assless chaps, others a waist cincher or cupless bra. This type of design is full of anomalies, clothing meant not to cover, but accentuate.
The perfect example is the aforementioned body cage -- a web of embellished Lycra that, criss-crossing the torso, is worn beneath undergarments. It’s the last thing to hit the floor before the dancer walks, naked but for a pair of stiletto heels, up the winding staircase to the Brandy’s back room.
The fabrics are PVC, stretchy, or covered in sequins, which would shatter and pile up like glamorous snowdrifts where Heather cut out the patterns on the white tile floor. I’d sweep them up and, as I poured dustpans full of sparkle into the garbage, wonder if I was living in some kind of surreal cartoon.
These clothes are so expensive because not only are they pretty, they work. They are the cheerleaders of the garment world -- bimbos in appearance, athletes in action. Hot pants have a reinforced zipper on either side of the crotch, so they can be yanked off and flung away without interrupting the routine. Corsets abound, but they are rarely boned, and any lacing is just for show -- the girls don’t have time to fuck with that shit on stage. When Heather designed a pink and white, Swan Lake-inspired ensemble, she made the feathers removable, superglued to tiny snaps. Why? Because they show dirt like nobody’s business, and no self-respecting stripper would rock dingy plumage in her act.
Like the pink sequin booty shorts and shrunken schoolgirl outfits we made, I learned to be tougher than I look. Glitter Pretty didn’t just teach me about the power of female friendship, although it certainly did that too. It taught me that work could be something inspiring, something that gives you life.
Because if me and my best friend could spend six months in an East Vancouver basement suite thriving off sleep-dep and stripper costumes, then absolutely anything is possible.