Costumes and Fire
Unless you are performing naked, every stitch of clothing you wear on stage or when you practice should be considered a costume.
Costumes are possibly the most neglected aspect of fire performance. Most people simply do not take the time to make sure the clothes they wear on stage or during a fire practice are properly treated or made from fire retardant material. A few basic precautions can save a performer from a potentially hazardous situation.
Fabrics to consider
When constructing costumes, it is advisable to use natural fibers such as:
- Nomex or Nomex blended fabrics
- Treated cotton (ARAMID, fire retardant cotton)
These fabrics tend to have natural fire resistance.
Fabrics to avoid
- PVC and petroleum-based fabrics
- any polymerized plasticky stuff
PVC costumes may look very flashy, but it is not advisable to use costumes based on this or any similar fabric. The reason is that when they ignite (and they ignite rather easily) the petroleum-based fabric tends to melt as they burn. When the fabric melts, it tends to stick to human skin and causes a nasty burn. It is very hard to get the melted fabric off skin and the melted goo traps heat which intensifies a burn. Think of these fabrics as a stable form of napalm. Once it ignites, it is very hard to extinguish.
If you are looking for a flashy costume material, a better fabric recommendation is patent leather.
If you choose to wear such fabrics, you should always have a solid layer of cotton or similar materials below the fabric so that if it catches fire and melts, it adheres to the cotton layer before the skin. You may still end up with the melted fabric sticking to your skin, but it could minimize the burns you receive.
With any costume you wear, it is highly advisable to do a test burn before wearing it during a performance.
Fire retardant sprays
Fabric retardant sprays can help give materials in your costume an additional level of safety by making them flame retardant. It is important to remember that flame retardant does not mean flame-proof, it simply means it has a tendency to be harder to ignite than a non-treated fabric. Materials will still char and burn with enough heat. If you hold a lighter or a torch to a piece of treated cotton, it will ignite, but maybe not as fast as if you tried to ignite a similar piece of non-treated cotton.
Costumes should be treated with a fire retardant on a regular basis. Even a fabric like Nomex can benefit from a re-treating. Especially if the costume gets wet or is washed.
Some fire retardant sprays we can suggest are:
- Rosco Flamex S333 for synthetics
- Rosco Flamex C26 for cottons of varied weaves
- RoscoFlamex W40 for treating wood, corrugated paper and cellulose and acoustical board
- RoscoFlamex P50 for creating fire retardant paint
- FSI fire retardant spray for natural fibers
- Inspecta-Shield by Fire-Shield
Rosco products are available at most local theatrical supply companies. FSI can be contacted at (360) 452-9194. Inspecta-Shield by Fire-Shield can be purchased by calling (800) 513-5134.
A note about fire retardants
With most individuals, fire retardant sprays cause some sort of skin irritation. This can be a minor to moderate skin rash. Rashes occur when the skin comes in contact with a costume that has not fully dried after being treated or when the skin which causes the fire retardant to become moist again. The easiest way to deal with this situation is to wear some sort of undergarment between the skin and the costume. A cotton shirt or cotton pajama pants are generally sufficient.
Written by Wally Glenn
Edited by Neil Carlberg, Maque Da Vis and Daniel Walsh.