Audiences expect to see a flurry of tulle and tiaras when they attend “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.” The costumes are an integral part of this holiday offering, from Clara’s striking red-and-white-striped dress to the delicate flower petals that adorn the corps de ballet in Act II. Keeping those 154 costumes (per show) fresh and performance-ready is a big job, which requires a crackerjack team – and a surprising amount of alcohol. At Pacific Northwest Ballet, one of those team members is Jenn Oaster, the wardrobe department’s assistant and maintenance lead.

Oaster started at PNB as an “overhire,” an extra member the wardrobe team hires to help with larger shows. “They liked me so much they kept hiring me back,” Oaster says, adding playfully, “Thank God, I’ve got a hungry cat at home!” In 2019, Oaster became a maintenance lead and this season will be her first year as the wardrobe assistant. This upcoming “Nutcracker” will be her fifth.

“I make sure that costumes are washed, dried, steamed, mended and altered correctly before, during and after each show,” Oaster says. On a typical day, Oaster gets to McCaw Hall at 9 or 10 in the morning. “My team operates for 12-13 hours each day, with three shifts: morning, afternoon and evening. As the morning maintenance lead I come in and help turn over any loads of laundry left from the night before, after that I check to see if there’s casting changes or, if there’s an afternoon rehearsal, what costumes have been requested to wear.” If there haven’t been any overnight shakeups, Oaster sets out costumes for the next show, which she says “means every pair of tights, earring, headpiece and tutu is checked by myself and my team before it’s set out for the dressers to come and take to the dressing rooms.”

The majority of this work must happen before or after the actual “Nutcracker” performance. “It’s very hard to steam a shirt with someone in it!” Oaster says. “On two-show days my team usually only has two hours to completely clean and reset a show. It’s definitely a hustle sometimes, but we are a very well-oiled machine.”

The corps de ballet scenes, which feature a huge ensemble of dancers in matching costumes, present extra challenges. PNB has 18 total “Waltz of the Snowflakes” costumes, 16 of which must be on stage for any given performance, and 14 “Waltz of the Flowers” costumes, 12 of which are featured each show.

“The cast combination is almost never the same, so who gets what costume needs to be figured out based on that casting. We have documents called Snows and Flowers Matrices that list everyone who can go into those roles, and which costumes they fit into. It looks like the world’s worst Sudoku,” Oaster says. This puzzle can be harder or easier to solve depending on which dancers are featured. “Some shows it’s so hard because everyone fits in the same costumes. It can give myself and my fellow maintenance lead, Carrie, a headache, but it’s so satisfying to finally figure out.”


One element of PNB’s wardrobe work that might surprise the average ballet patron? How much alcohol is used. “I get asked a lot how we clean the costumes, and of course there’s the usual answers of hand wash, machine wash and dry cleaning, but people absolutely love knowing we use vodka and Everclear,” Oaster says. “It’s a great spray disinfectant that dries quickly and doesn’t damage fabric. We use it between tight turnarounds, and for the run of ‘Nutcracker’ we go through about 40 handles of vodka, about a handle a show. If you’re wondering: yes, we make a ton of jokes about hitting the bar, aka the vodka refill spot. The follow up question I get asked a lot is what kind of vodka we use. It should be on the very bottom shelf at the liquor store, and it should be in a plastic bottle. No fancy stuff here.” In addition to the “bar,” the McCaw Hall facilities also include a “dry room,” which Oaster explains is “a side room in our lower wardrobe that can heat up to about 80 to 85 degrees. It speeds up the dry time on our costumes that can’t be machine dried. It’s a real life saver on those two-show days.”

After five years of puzzle solving and vodka spray, Oaster still enjoys watching “The Nutcracker.” “I really love seeing the shows. I’m privileged to have the evenings off, which is a real rarity in wardrobe. Seeing the costumes that I and my coworkers prepared looking amazing onstage is the ultimate job satisfaction.”

Pacific Northwest Ballet will present “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” Nov. 25 – Dec. 27 at McCaw Hall. For more information, visit