Houston Ballet’s costume shop, in late November, bursts at the seams with costumes for the The Nutcracker. When I visited the week before Thanksgiving, the show’s 1,750 opulent costumes bulged from rolling racks and hanging racks and steel shelves on casters. (For perspective, that’s more than twice the number of costumes for Cinderella, Swan Lake, or any of the company’s other big story ballets.) The whole shebang would soon be wheeled across the street to the Wortham Theater Center and divvied up into specific dressing rooms and quick-change boxes for the first rehearsals. (This year’s 35 shows run through December 27.)

Beyond the cluttered tables of sewing machines, cutting tables piled with bits of fabric and boxes, and all those racks of pink tutus, blue toy soldier uniforms, big-butted bumblebee outfits, hairy rat getups, and glittery finery, I spotted a few white brocade dresses getting final touch-ups. These costumes are worn by Sugar Plum Court characters named Cookie, Cupcake, and Frenchy. The brocade is embellished with tempting splashes of delectably real-looking macarons, peppermint candies, snowflake-shape cookies covered with white icing and sprinkles, sparkly gingerbread men, and colorful bonbons. It looks like it’s been caught in a food fight at the world’s finest pastry shop.

The Nutcracker character masks and costume references at the Wortham Theater Center. Photograph by Chad Wadsworth
Sugar Plum Court costumes ready for wear. Photograph by Chad Wadsworth

One glance can send you into sugar shock, but these costumes have not always been so appetizing up close. When artistic director Stanton Welch’s holiday production debuted in 2016, the sweet embellishments were smaller and made of painted plastic. Sandra Fox, who joined Houston Ballet in 2019 and is now the head of costumes, has had big fun refining such details. “Because some of these costumes, honestly, they just got onstage [in time for the premiere],” she said. Fox loves the thrill of the hunt at Craftex and other west Houston decor wholesalers whose warehouses make Hobby Lobby look like a kiddo’s toy box. “I can go out in the summer and purchase all these almost edible-looking things to put on these costumes to make them just delightful,” she said.

A pleasant Midwesterner, Fox has been known to rock a gingerbread-embellished sweater but keeps her makeup natural-looking and her salt-and-pepper hair in a wash-and-wear cut. She moved to Houston for the ballet job after about two decades with Cirque du Soleil, where, among other things, she helped launch the Beatles-inspired Las Vegas show LOVE. Her Cirque knowledge comes in handy with The Nutcracker, she said, “because it’s a very Cirque production.”

Sandra Fox, head of costumes, at the Wortham Theater Center on November 22, 2023.Photograph by Chad Wadsworth

It’s also a very wiggy production—230 hairpieces and counting. Fox hired an alum of Cirque’s to bring Cirque smarts to all that. “We just don’t do wigs like this,” she said. Because, duh: all that spinning and leaping ballet dancers need to do. But a lot of the Nutcracker characters are more for show, with less action in their choreography.

Head “wiggy” Meghann Mason greeted us as we approached several steel shelf units of styles, sprayed and ready-for-action wigs displayed on Styrofoam head forms. “Welcome to Wigland,” Mason said, full of good cheer. Her own long blond tresses fell in loose, spiraling curls as she picked up an elaborate silver bouffant number with a sculpted “hat” that could make Carmen Miranda swoon. Its dangerously tilted top was a realistic three-layer “truffle cake” on a silver tray “brim,” complete with edible-looking ladyfingers, cherries, strawberries, and swirling whipped cream. Mason pointed out the more important understructure she had refashioned into an adjustable helmet. Now the wig-hat combo is as comfortable and secure as a three-pound contraption on one’s head can be. Another Sugar Court wig didn’t have its hat on yet. “This will be toodled up,” Mason said, fingering the curls. “I built wire cages under here so it’s hollow, and the wig is pinned to the cage.” To compensate for multiple casts and their various head coverings, she and Fox have also introduced “wig preps” to the ballet: slightly creepy-looking forms with traced measurements of each dancer’s hairline filled another rack off in a corner, their job done for the year. “Flowers in particular tend to switch on quick notice, and a lot of the girls have long hair this year,” Mason explained. “We have to make sure the wigs accommodate their buns.”

Backstage at Houston Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’ dress rehearsal on November 22, 2023.Photograph by Chad Wadsworth

Fox and her staff (which swells to more than twenty people leading up to the holidays) have slowly added multiples of costumes to help keep the backstage operation unruffled. Cirque performers don’t share costumes, but ballet dancers almost always do. “When the production debuted, there were just enough costumes to go around,” Fox said. “Between each show, it takes four hours for a team to go in and move costumes around for the new cast. We found there was an awful lot of ‘Elizabeth wears dress number one complete, but you wear bodice number one and skirt number twelve, and this other person wears skirt number three and bodice number five.’ . . . So it was like, why don’t we just try and add to the numbers?”

Even so, she can’t just make her holiday list and check it twice. In her office, there was a thirty-page spreadsheet open on her computer—the daily cast list for the run of the show. She didn’t bother to print it out. “It’s guaranteed to change by Friday,” Fox said. Fifty-eight company dancers, 62 other professionals and HBII (junior company) members, and 221 children rotate through the run. The first tech rehearsals were still a week away—an eternity in the ballet world for performers to be injured or get sick or have family emergencies, or for the artistic staff to change its mind about who should dance what parts on which days.

This year’s cast list includes eight different Sugar Plum Fairies, six Claras, and nine Nutcracker Princes. One night’s Sugar Plum Fairy could be the next night’s Arabian Woman. Ditto for the other lead characters. And the deeper down the list you go, the busier it gets, with dancers performing multiple roles. At a high makeshift table almost hidden among the hanging racks, men’s wardrobe supervisor Freddy Reynaldo was preparing a chart of dancer and costume sizes that he keeps on him at all times backstage. “All the details are here. I even have the measurements for the academy students,” he said. Other supervisors don’t go to that length, but every costume piece is labeled so the dressers, who help the dancers change, can quickly pluck what they need during each show.

The Sugar Plum Doll gets finishing touches to hair and makeup. Photograph by Chad Wadsworth
A backstage hair and makeup station. Photograph by Chad Wadsworth

By the time performances began, Fox had already moved on to other prep jobs. Her staff was finishing costumes for the company’s one-night Jubilee of Dance and was starting to prep for Cinderella, which opens in February. Sewers in the theater’s basement costume shop would handle minor Nutcracker repairs.

Still, some bit of Nutcracker inventory is always in the bigger wardrobe studio for more involved repairs or refurbs. While costumes for the company’s other major story ballets typically appear for just six shows every four to six years, Nutcracker getups get a marathon every year. “So it’s just a lot more wear and tear,” Fox said. Some costumes get more of a workout than others; some are worn by children who can’t resist picking on them (the cavalry costumes, for one: they’re attached to sculpted fabric hobbyhorses—“and the horse has ears, and it’s fun to play with the ears,” Fox said, grinning.)

Behind the scenes of Houston Ballet’s dress rehearsal of ‘The Nutcracker’ on November 22, 2023. Photograph by Chad Wadsworth

The costumes worn for the Act I party scene may be Fox’s favorites. They’re practically couture. But their spectacularly layered silks also tear easily, and those repairs are complicated. “There’s a difference between making clothing and making costumes,” Fox said. “With a costume, you keep your seam allowance where you can get to it and build it a certain way, so if you ever need to add fabric in or put in a stretch panel, you can. These costumes are lined beautifully. You can’t see a single seam. And there’s very little seam allowance in anything, so if you need to let it out, you’re going to have to let out about seven seams in order to get an inch.”

With the Sugar Plum costumes I was ogling, refurbs are just the nature of the beast, she said. “Stuff falls off. You’re trying to move backstage. It’s a tight space. That’s just part of being in theater.” I was at the Wortham on opening night. It was early going, sure, but there was nary a crumb out of place.