Miss New Jersey 2017 Kaitlyn Schoeffel performs in the talent portion during the first preliminary night of the Miss America 2018 competition at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. (Tim Hawk | For NJ.com)
Miss New Jersey 2017 Kaitlyn Schoeffel performs in the talent portion during the first preliminary night of the Miss America 2018 competition at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. Photo: Tim Hawk | For NJ.com

The talent portion of a pageant gives you a unique opportunity to express yourself in a way that is completely different from anyone else. Even if you are a singer and 10 other girls are singers, your song, your voice and your emotional expression of it is uniquely your own. Your talent, regardless of what it is, is your personal statement about one of the things in life that you can do well, and oftentimes it is something that you are very passionate about. This is the moment where you can show the judges your ability to take something ordinary and make it extraordinary.

One of the purposes of talent is to demonstrate to the judges how well you can connect with others through entertaining them. You do not have to be a Broadway star to do well in the talent portion of a pageant. The judges are not expecting you to be a professional performer, but they do expect you to do your best. You just need to do what you do, to the best of your ability and with all the heart and commitment that you have. It’s your chance to shine and to be totally in your element!

In order to do your best, you need to feel your best, and you cannot be distracted by anything whatsoever, including what you are wearing. Pageant Planet’s latest pageant course covers everything that you need to know about wardrobe in every segment of a pageant competition. This course is all about what to wear for talent, but we’ve got all kinds of helpful articles, such as What to Wear for Fun Fashion. No matter what your next pageant holds, we’ve got you covered!

Photo: National American Miss
Photo: National American Miss

Throughout the entire pageant, you are communicating to others about who you are through how you look, what you do and what you say. Your entire appearance is speaking for you, and your clothing is communicating, too. You want your pageant wardrobe to tell a story about who you are and the kind of queen that you will be, from beginning to the end. Therefore, choosing your wardrobe for the talent competition is no different from selecting your evening gown or swimsuit, other than you have to consider what you will be doing while you are wearing it. (Read: What Are the Best Pageant Evening Gowns for Each Age Division)

It can be a lot of fun to fantasize about fabrics and sequins and designing that dream costume that’s going to blow the judges away when you hit that stage, but while you’re thinking about all the different options for your talent costume, you want to keep in mind some basic rules. Regardless of the type of talent that you are doing, there are two major guidelines that every contestant should follow. These guidelines apply to all girls, of all ages, in all systems.

You are the focus of your performance, not your talent

Let’s go back to this idea that you want your pageant wardrobe to tell a story about who you. You want to stay true to who you are at your core, no matter what you are doing, and then carry it through to your hair, makeup and overall styling. If you are a more introverted, quieter type of girl who is most comfortable in classically styled, conservative clothing, and you are singing a diva-esque style of song, do not feel that you need to don a red, low-cut, slinky gown with a thigh-high slit. You can still be your true self and embody the character and emotion of that piece without putting on something that does not align with your personality.

Your talent wardrobe is not just about your personal style, but it is also about your temperament, too. The judges put so much emphasis on trying to understand the true nature of each contestant, and I think we often get so caught up in looking good, or maybe looking better than everyone else, that we forget to look like ourselves.

The judges don’t care if you are up on all the latest fashion trends, know every major designer and have copies of Vogue and Marie Claire on your coffee table. They also don’t care if you shop thrift store sales and vintage boutiques and don’t know a Jimmy Choo from Keds. But, they do care about seeing who you really are and getting to know the girl behind the costume. Yes, you want to impress. Yes, you want to dazzle. And, yes, you want to demonstrate that you are beautiful, poised and well styled. But, don’t get so caught up in trying to impress that you lose sight of yourself. Find a way to tell your story and be consistent; otherwise, you can end up sending a mixed message and confusing the judges. (Read: Why You Need to Know Yourself Before You Can Win)

Just make sure that in every piece of clothing you wear, including your talent costume, that you don’t let it wear you.

Your costume must support your talent

I would hope that this point goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway because I’ve seen too many examples of contestants trying to wear a costume that interferes with or overshadows their performance. It doesn’t happen as often in older or more experienced contestants, but it does happen. 

Just as you don’t want your costume to overshadow the person that you are, you also don’t want it to overshadow your talent. I think this most often occurs because girls want to make a big statement, or they have always had a picture in their mind of a certain costume they’ve always dreamed of wearing and they figure this is the time to do it. Please remember that your costume does not have to have all the bells and whistles to be a good costume. Sometimes, less really is more!  Again, this is not Broadway. You are not trying to get a job as a singer, or a dancer or an actor. You are trying to get a job as a queen! (Read: What to Wear for Interview)

The first question you must ask yourself is: “Can I perform my talent to perfection in this costume?”

And, then ask yourself: “Do I and my body look good in this outfit? Am I presenting myself well?”

One great idea with regard to all of your pageant wardrobe is to get an objective opinion from some professionals in the pageant field, such as a coach, director or trusted mentor. We do not always see ourselves as clearly as others do, and getting some feedback from people we trust can help immensely.

It is always advisable to photograph and film yourself moving around in your pageant wardrobe, especially the clothing that you plan to wear for the talent competition. I have witnessed some cringe-worthy performances on the stage that I could not believe, not because of the lack of a contestant’s talent, but because of what she was wearing. You might look fabulous in those satin boy shorts as you’re standing on stage, but once you start doing backflips and splits, they just may not be the most flattering article of clothing that you could have chosen. Trust me on this one. Film yourself from every angle, especially if your talent is a physical one, where you move around the stage a lot. (Read: What to Wear for Swimsuit and Fitness)

Singing and vocal performance

Amanda Beagle is an American soprano equally at home in plays musicals, operettas and the concert stage, as well as a former Miss Ohio, who competed for the title of Miss America in 2005 where she was a non-finalist talent award winner. She has also had the distinction of making it into Pageant Planet’s Top 10 Best Talent Coach of 2016 and 2017. (Read: Top 10 Pageant Talent Coaches of 2017)

Needless to say, she knows a lot about singing, performing and competing in pageants, and she echoes the idea that talent costuming is a continuation of telling the story to the judges about who you are.

“Your talent costume can make or break you talent routine,” Beagle said. “The first impression judges have of your talent is your entrance onto the stage. They are already forming opinions about your routine before it has even started. Committing to a clear concept for your routine will help you design costuming that will stand out and complete your overall performance.”

Singing is the most frequently performed type of talent in all pageant competitions, so you know going into it that you are not going to be a minority. But, as I said earlier, it does not matter if there are 10 other girls besides you who have decided to sing. You are the only you there is, and you have your own story to tell.

If you are are an accomplished vocalist, you know that there is so much more to a good vocal performance than just the song itself. You can be a mediocre singer but be a superb entertainer just because of your passion and your delivery. If you can draw the judges and the audience into the story that you are trying to tell with your voice, then you can score very well.

Part of telling that story is what you decide to wear.

“The first impression judges have of your talent is your entrance onto the stage,” Beagle said.

The color you choose and the style of gown or outfit, along with the way that you are carrying yourself, all combine to get our attention, or not. Clothing speaks before you even open your mouth, and if you understand what your song is really saying, you can use the power of wardrobe to support how you want to make us feel.

For example, if you are singing Opera, a Broadway song or a piece of musical theater, then you are talking about drama! You know that you have a storyline already, and you likely have a well-developed character to portray. Take that sense of drama and energy and put it into your costume. Bright, vivacious colors, sensational gowns with overskirts, or a fabulous cape that you can move with or use to make sweeping gestures might be a good choice to express an adventurous storyline. (Read: 5 Miss USA 2016 Gowns That Talent Singers Would Love)

Jazz can be funky and upbeat, intense and moody, or slow and deliberate. If the piece is a jazz standard or classic, why not try an old school Hollywood style charmeuse gown and slink around the stage charming the judges with your seductive smile?

If your song is a modern tune or a pop classic, then use that modern sensibility and select a dress with clean lines, simple details and an uncomplicated structure. You want to come across as a confident, intelligent, independent woman who is a cutting-edge diva.

Just be certain that whatever type of costume you choose, it is still in alignment with who you are and the type of person you have been telling the judges about during the entire pageant.

Keep in mind Beagle’s advice:

“Your talent costume is an important component to building your overall image. Your job as a contestant is to deliver a clear and consistent presentation of who you are. Great talent costuming will enhance any performance and help improve your overall pageant package.”

Miss America 2012, Laura Kaeppeler. Photo: Miss America Organization
Miss America 2012, Laura Kaeppeler. Photo: Miss America Organization

Dance and physical talents

Dance and other talents that require the contestant to be able to move freely around the stage is the most restrictive of talents as far as wardrobe is concerned. Obviously, when you are running, spinning, leaping, twirling and performing complicated and often dangerous movements, it is imperative that your clothing does not impede you in any way.

It’s so important that you plan your dance costume carefully so that you can move in it the way that you need to, and that it also flatters your body from all different angles. Remember, the judges are most often looking at you from below the stage, so their view is going to be a lot different than what you might perceive in your head. This is also another very good reason to film yourself from different positions so that you can observe how your costume is moving with your body as you perform your talent.  Those satin boy shorts that go with your tuxedo jacket, might look fabulous on you when you are standing still on stage, but when you are doing backflips and splits, they may not be the most flattering choice.

Many times, things like accessories and props can present a real problem to dancers and performers if they’re not careful. Some pageants restrict the use of props, but if your pageant allows you to use them, make sure that you know how to use them expertly. If you are nervous and you are dropping your top hat and cane, perhaps you need to find a way to do your dance without them. Most contestants who are at a higher level in pageantry have been through the talent competition so many times that these kinds of things don’t happen to them any longer, but if you’re new to pageantry, and your nerves are getting to you, it’s okay to forego the props. (Read: Should You Perform a Traditional or Nontraditional Talent?)

You also want to use the same costume and props during rehearsals that you plan to use during your performance. Sometimes what has worked well in practice the last 50 times, all of a sudden just isn’t working on stage during pageant week for some reason. Make sure that your costume is fitting you correctly, that it is flattering you, and that you are able to concentrate completely on the piece that you are performing. You want to be so fully immersed in your dance that you are having a ball! That kind of focus and joy is what draws the judges and the audience into the experience with you. When you’re having fun, we’re having fun!

Miss America's Outstanding Teen 2018, Jessica Baeder, won the talent award at the Miss America's Outstanding Teen Pageant with her jazz dance en pointe to Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. Photo Miss Alabama Organization
Miss America’s Outstanding Teen 2018, Jessica Baeder, won the talent award at the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen Pageant with her jazz dance en pointe to Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. Photo Miss Alabama Organization

Practicality is paramount when discussing dance outfits, but there are some other extremely important things to keep in mind when conceiving your next costume.

You have spent years of your life honing your dance skills, and you have experienced your share of blood, sweat and tears along the way. Now, you are about to demonstrate your prowess on the stage, and you want the judges to not only remember you but be enthralled with you. You want them to fall in love with you while you are dancing. In order to do that, you have to make sure that your costume fits you impeccably, and expresses the story that you are telling with your dance.

If you decide to invest in a professionally made, custom costume, you don’t want just any seamstress creating it. You need to find someone you can trust who understands the enormity of what you are doing and also understands who you are, not only as a performer but as a person.

Zhanna Kens is a successful artist and fashion designer who is famous for creating awe-inspiring and elegantly hand-crafted designs for dancers, ice skaters and performers who want to stand out. The jaw-dropping talent costumes that she creates for titleholders at the local, state and international level are masterpieces covered with colorful beads, silk flowers, Swarovski crystals and hand-crafted appliqués that create magic under the stage lights.

She believes that custom-made costumes make all the difference when it comes to excelling in competition and give a competitor that extra edge. When she designs a costume for a contestant, she personally consults with them and finds out what they like, what they will dance to and does an exhausting exploration of all the different ways to complement their unique body structure, skin tone and hair color. Every single detail is considered because that costume is as vital to the dancer’s success as the dance itself.

“The journey to obtaining the treasured title of champion requires unwavering focus, discipline and hard work,” Kens elaborates. “The clothing that a girl wears plays a specific role in the championship process. For example, when a dance dress is married to the body of the performer to complement a performance, the most meticulous of maneuvers can be executed with precision, clarity and confidence. The common competitor prepares for praise, our clients prepare for excellence.”

She continues, saying, “A huge part of performing relies on confidence. And in order to have boldness, you as a performer must feel comfortable in the dress‚ dance gown, or ice dance costume. It is your appearance that will turn your movement into art. That is precisely what my designs will do.”

Kens is so committed to her craft because she understands just how powerful performance wardrobe can be. The perfect costume allows a dancer to lose themselves in a role and enables the audience to suspend their reality for the performance so that they can join the dancer in the world that they are creating on stage.

“Sometimes the reason we call dance-wear costumes is that they allow the spirit to break through the physical body and what is expected,” Kens states. “Great performers operate in their finest realm when anonymous, without recognition. They go home from the weekend of luxury and return to work looking for the next opportunity to free their spirit.”

Miss Texas 2014, Monique Evans performing her winning talent at the Miss Texas Pageant wearing a custum made costume by Zhanna Kens. Photo: The Miss Texas America Organization
Miss Texas 2014, Monique Evans performing her winning talent at the Miss Texas Pageant wearing a custom-made costume by Zhanna Kens. Photo: The Miss Texas America Organization

Playing musical instruments

Pageant contestants who are musicians are a really unique group because they deal with some of the same issues that dancers deal with, and they are also very similar to singers. When you are a musician, the attitude or style of your talent costume is, in part, practical just like a dancer, because you have to be able to play your instrument. Your outfit has to allow you to play your instrument comfortably, so you have to think through all the movements that you go through when you’re on stage. But, it also has to complement the music that you are playing as well, just like a singer. You have to look at your costume very, very carefully. You would do well to pay attention to both the dancers’ and the singers’ sections of this article. (Read: 6 Miss Collegiate America 2016 Dresses for Talent Instrumentalists)

Your clothing is speaking as loud as the instrument you are playing, and you have to understand what it is saying. Is it fun and flirty, flamboyant and ostentatious, or more sedate and refined? You’ll want to ask yourself if your costume reflects the emotional tone of the piece that you are playing, while still making you, the contestant, shine on stage.

Then take into consideration how you look from the audience and the judges’ point of view while you are playing your instrument. Again, filming yourself from different angles while you are practicing your talent may reveal some interesting things to you.

For instance, if you play the piano, you are not facing the audience, typically. You will either have your side to the audience and the judges, or you will have your back to them. An incredible gown with a gorgeous bodice or neckline is going to be completely hidden while you’re playing, so instead think about what you can emphasize.

Your lovely legs will likely be in view, and your arms and your back will be on display. So, pick an outfit that is going to make the most of one of those areas. I love it when a pianist wears a gown with an overskirt or some cool evening pants that have some kind of skirt or long train in the back. And, when they sit down on the piano bench, they flip that overskirt dramatically back, and it puts you on the edge of your seat, waiting to see what is going to happen next.

You also want to think in terms of what you can’t wear, no matter how awesome it might be. If you are a cello player, for instance, I’m sorry, but that long, fitted designer gown is not gonna happen! Better to try a full Mikado ball gown in a sumptuous jewel tone that looks phenomenal behind your instrument. Or, you could also try an outfit that includes evening pants, like silk shantung peg-legged or wide-cut slacks.

Also, keep in mind that your footwear is very important when you are a musician. Do not overlook the hazards of a dark, slippery stage. If you play the fiddle or violin, you probably like to move around a bit, and those six-inch tippy-tops are not ideal for what you need to do, no matter how petite you may be. You want you and your talent to be the star, not your shoes. Opt for a lower heeled number that you can feel comfortable in as you bust out that bow and blow the judges away!

 Miss Mississippi 2001, Taryn Foshee plays the piano during the talent competition during the 2007 Miss America Pageant. Photo: Ethan Miller - Getty Images
Miss Mississippi 2001, Taryn Foshee plays the piano during the talent competition during the 2007 Miss America Pageant. Photo: Ethan Miller – Getty Images

Monologues and other performance pieces

 Monologues and other performance pieces are all about getting the audience to connect with you and what you are saying on an emotional level. They tend to be deeply revealing and often heartfelt pieces that allow the judges and the audience to get an intimate glimpse of your soul, your values and your inner life.

The costume or outfit that you choose to wear for this type of performance must complement what you are talking about on every level. This is an area where you really have to understand what you are trying to communicate and portray to people.

You don’t want to go over the top here, because oftentimes the words you speak will be all you need. At the same time, don’t minimize the effect of your wardrobe. The clothing you chose can have such a powerful impact before you even open your mouth.

For example, do you remember the moment when contestant Kelley Johnson, Miss Colorado 2014, stepped on stage at the Miss America 2016 pageant? If you don’t recall, let me refresh your memory in one word: scrubs.

Do you remember her now? Yes, that’s right. She did a monologue about her life as a nurse. She did not need an evening gown or a sharp, stylish suit. She was honestly authentic, and her monologue not only spoke volumes about her character and her strong sense of self but what she wore created a lasting image in the minds of every American. You may not remember her name, but you remember her because of what she wore. (Read: Top 10 Pageant Talents Of All Time)

Kelley Johnson, Miss Colorado 2014, Monologue performance during the Miss America 2016 pageant. Photo: Pageant Planet
Miss Colorado 2014,  Kelley Johnson’s monologue performance during the Miss America 2016 pageant. Photo: Pageant Planet

Talent wardrobe issues related to age or changes in pageant systems

The majority of guidelines for talent wardrobe apply to every contestant. Dancers need to wear costumes that do not restrict their movements or their safety and musicians must be able to play their instrument without their clothing interfering, and so on. However, when it comes to age and the type of pageant system that you are competing in, there can be some major points that you have to pay attention to. There are huge differences between children and preteens, and there are huge differences between Teen and Miss contestants. (Read: What Princess Contestants Should Wear for Pageant Talent)

Most of these rules are pretty obvious, but the area that girls run into trouble is typically when they are transitioning from one pageant system to another or from one age division to another, so we need to discuss that a little bit.

When you are changing from one age division to another, you may have to unlearn many of the ideas that have learned along the way. This is where a good coach can help you out because they can guide you on this journey that you have not taken before. Try to be teachable and be willing to be open to constructive criticism.

When selecting a costume for a new age division, ask yourself these questions:

Is the costume age appropriate? Do you look like a child, a Preteen, a Teen or a Miss?

Does the costume age you or make you look immature?

When a contestant is transitioning from one pageant system to another, you want to ask yourself questions about the system itself. Pageants can vary greatly in the way that they interpret talent costumes, so it’s crucial to try and actually see the new pageant that you want to enter before you even sign up for it.

When selecting a costume for a for a new pageant, ask yourself these questions:

Is this appropriate for the system that you are competing in?

Does this costume align with the pageant’s brand as you have seen it displayed by other contestants in the same age group?

Miss Supreme Beauty UK Ambassador 2018, Lilly. Photo: Effy Murphy
Miss Supreme Beauty UK Ambassador 2018, Lilly. Photo: Rachel Wright

Effy Murphy is not only a pageant owner and director of two pageants in the UK, Miss Supreme Beauty and World International Royalty, but is also a titleholder herself. She is currently Mrs. Republic Of Ireland Curve 2018 and Former Mrs. Ireland 2017. In fact, her entire family has been involved in pageants, especially glitz systems.

She knows just about everything there is to know about pageants, from the point of view of a contestant to the director’s responsibilities, and also as a pageant parent. She understands how imperative talent costumes are for children to be able to do well as a competitor and to also enjoy themselves and get the most out of the experience.

“A child’s personality will shine on stage IF they’re comfortable and confident with what they are wearing,” Murphy said. “Your talent costume represents you and your personality. You want to show it off and show us the real you. Color is another important factor when choosing a child’s talent costume. Remember to choose a color that suits the child’s skin tone. And, if you are doing a glitz pageant, remember that it is glitz! Add some rhinestones and shine bright like a diamond!”

Murphy has also learned a few key pointers that she wishes every pageant parent would pay attention to.

“You have to make sure what they are wearing is age appropriate,” Murphy said. “Over the years, I have seen many kids in glitz rocking their dance costumes; however, some of these costumes could also be deemed swimwear. So, I always advise parents to please choose carefully and age appropriately! Also, don’t put your child into a talent round and have them ‘try’ to sing a song. Make sure that they have the talent. There is nothing worse than sitting through the pain of songs such as the ‘Theme to the Titanic’ and the contestant simply can’t do it. Bear in mind that if your child isn’t happy, comfortable and confident with their talent, then it’s okay to not do that round!”

Aisling Murphy in her Irish Dance Costume. Photo: Effy Murphy
Aisling Murphy in her Irish Dance Costume. Photo: Effy Murphy

There you have it! A thorough overview of what to wear for talent for just about every type of talent and situation that we could think of. I know this was a long journey, but your wardrobe choices really do define who you are to the judges, so you have to think about their point of view.

A lot of contestants spend countless hours thinking about their interview look and then even more time daydreaming about evening gowns, and then when it comes to their talent costume, they just go out and buy something off the rack that fits. They don’t carefully plan out the details and think through the impact that this one outfit has on their overall score. Your talent wardrobe should not be an afterthought. It has to be as carefully orchestrated as the piece that you are performing. You have spent years, perhaps, learning your talent. You deserve to showcase your creative abilities in the brightest light possible!

Did we cover all that we needed to here?  Do you have input from what you’ve learned as a performer? If you do, please share your expertise.


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