A still from the film The Serpentine Dance depicts a dancer with blond hair and a pink dress.

Ria Apostolidis, Costumier

4 Jul 2014
Ria Apostolidis is a Costumier based in Wellington. She’s constantly inspired, surrounded and involved in the creative arts.

Hero image: Still of Annabelle Moore in the 'Serpentine Dance'. (1895)

Being naturally drawn to historical, vintage, and retro fashion, she enjoys the whole process of making costumes, from the undergarments to the outerwear. This, in parallel with the love of learning and teaching herself new skills, has led her to learn embroidery, hand finishing techniques, corsetry, millinery, and lace making in addition to many others. Ria also has a fascination with modern technology, interactive, theatrical costume and unconventional construction. She is excited by projects that offer challenges, and the creation of costumes which offer something to the performer to enhance their work.

On the 13th June 2014, Ria held a performance at the Film Archive in the TV room, attempting to recreate the Serpentine Dance (1895) featuring Annabelle Moore. It was known as a “Skirt Dance”, and was a popular vaudeville attraction. This small piece of American film was Wellington’s first public screening of motion pictures, held at the Exchange Hall, 28 October 1896. Ria played this century old clip on a loop while she performed in front of it with cartoon animations projected on to her costume.

A “Skirt Dance” (a popular vaudeville attraction) performed by Annabelle Moore (1896).

I had the opportunity to interview Ria about her inspirations, future goals, and trying to tap into that “childhood fantasy” inside us.

Have you always had an interest in costumes?

I graduated last year from Toi Whakaari, I studied in the costume construction department for two years, but I’ve been sewing forever, since I was a kid, so it was like “let’s make it official”. I went about it a really long way, I did an IT degree first cause it was like “get a real job” and costume making was a hobby, and after a while it just surfaced, and it was like, this is what I’m doing now full-time.

So you’re making a living from it?

Yeah, I am! It’s the first year out of Toi for me so it’s a bit rough, and it’s hard, but it’s happening, so I’m really grateful for that.

I see that you’ve done costume making for a lot of different people and groups already…

I’m trying everything out and not saying no to anyone until I find what fits (nice pun). Every time I say yes to something it takes me somewhere really unexpected, so that’s why I’ve stopped saying no, and I’m not trying to tailor (nice pun again) it myself. Going with the flow seems like the smartest option right now.

As well as fashion and costume making, what are your other interests –  is it theatre, dancing, or acting?

I’ve always done things like swing dancing and burlesque, and costuming has surfaced through those things because I was sewing and crafting in those areas anyway, so I kind of chipped away at costuming which is where I am now. At the moment I’m creating a show for the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2015 that I want to take to Australia, but I’m not doing the costuming for that, I’m going to be doing the production.

How will the show be delivered?

I’m designing all aspects of the show, and I’ve contacted some people which are extremely capable and that includes costume designers, because I think sometimes you get caught up in your own vision so it’s really good to have other eyes on it. I really want to be an all-rounder who produces shows and art with costume in mind, but not specifically with that title.

What will the show entail? Can you tell us just yet?

It’s a bit of a secret, but it’s sort of extending the costume work, because I really like nostalgia, the feeling of it that’s so extreme and really twisted and warped by your memories. So I want to create Victorian style theatre that’s really intense, because then in your memories it’s an overwhelming experience that you can recall. I won’t be doing the costume design for the Fringe show specifically, but I will be a part of every aspect in some way – I’m letting go of that control to someone else. 

It will be a good experience for you to design other parts of a show rather than just focusing on one element like costume…

Yes definitely, I think the vision will come through eventually and it will still be something I see, but it’ll be richer because I’ve brought in other people.

Like a collaborative project? The bringing together of people’s personalities?

Yes, I think that’s really important, it creates stronger work in general versus trying to be like “this is my thing, me me me”. Whereas when you know other people have these strong voices, you can give them a space for it. 

It can be quite a challenge working with other people in any sense, in whatever kind of industry you’re in, not only working with different personalities, but you’ve all got to be able to get on with each other! And you’re trying to produce this finished product that you hope people will enjoy. Do you find that this is the case with the Fringe project?

Yeah, it is. You really can’t be precious about the thing in a way, you’ve got to try and stay professional and not go to the personal level. It’s really hard because I think art is so personal anyway, but when you’re working towards a greater goal you have to let go.

And perhaps give a little bit of yourself to others? It’s really hard sharing with other people, “this is what I’ve created, here it is, now what are your thoughts?” You’re really opening up a part of yourself would you say?

Everything I make I’ve thought on for awhile in some way or another, and you feel like it’s your thing, but you really can’t do it all yourself! It is pretty scary, because you lose control over it being what you thought it would be at the beginning, but I think that’s just…life?! 

You can only go so far on your own right?

Definitely. DEFINITELY. I’m still the person whose both of those things (independent and collaborative), and you’re always so grateful to be that person called in to give it a go. I enjoy working with people SO much!


I’d like to ask you about the Serpentine Dance (1895) which you chose to respond to in your video. It was the first film to be screened in Wellington, Thomas Edison was involved in the making, and the dancer featured is Annabelle Moore. How did you come to choose that particular clip?

A friend sent it to me actually, it was from your website. I just thought it was so exciting, especially since it was one of the first images, so can you imagine people back then seeing this?! Not even the live performance would have ever happened here, so it was this whole new experience. And I just thought it looked like so much fun (laughs) – dancing around with this big dress! So for me, I wanted to recreate that, but I think we forget about these moments in the world and those experiences that other people would have had, so I thought I could recreate it, but bring it forward with a digital direction in mind.

I find it amazing that Serpentine Dance was made over a century ago, and what would the reaction have been back then to this?

The entire clip is a dance, and it’s very short. It’s a dance that would have been in performed in France, and I think Moore would have patented the dress she’s wearing. The film makers must have been lighting her and capturing that moment in what would have been the latest technology back then. I think film is so “normal” now, seeing movement in light is really real and different, but everything is going digital now! And it’s killing my side of the work. I have memories of watching Sesame St, The Muppets, and The Labyrinth and it was all real special effects, real things, real people. Think of TV shows that you grew up with – Postman Pat for example – it’s digital now! That’s so weird! (Laughs).

What do you think is going to happen to this industry? Does it worry you?

Yeah, it definitely affects me because there’s not much work right now, even though there are films being made but not in a physical sense. 

If The Labyrinth was going to be made now for example, those characters would be digital, right?

They would be, but there’s something so interesting and exciting about them being a puppet. Even as a kid you don’t think of it as someone controlling it, it just felt really different. It would be interesting to see how kids see it now, and when they’re older how they’ll interpret those memories. 

And whether kids who are young now will watch movies like The Labyrinth in 20 years time when they’re adults? Because when we were kids that’s what we knew. Now kids are growing up with everything digital, especially with an example like the Serpentine Dance which is over a century old – you’re showing the audience that we can still look back at century old film and respond to that. I’m also interested in the cartoon animation that was being projected on to your dress as you danced, can you tell me about that?

It was projecting “Adventure Time”, because that’s something that is really colourful. It’s a recent cartoon, the episode that I used was from last year but it’s still contemporary. 

Why did you choose that cartoon for the performance? How was it significant?

I think what’s exciting about any image we see at all is it’s light – light that’s being processed by your mind. Initially I thought I would pick something interactive where people could change the light, but then I figured it’s been hand painted (the original cartoon clip), and that is what cartoons are, animation done frame by frame. That’s something that speaks to my attention span. The cartoon is on a rotating loop every ten minutes, and I could only dance for twenty minutes, so that meant playing the cartoon loop twice – twenty minutes was the total performance time.

It was amazing to see the colours from the cartoon project against your white dress, plus the Serpentine Dance being played behind you. The capturing of light in the dark room seemed to make it all the more spectacular. Visually, there were lots of things happening, but a the same time, it wasn’t an overload.

It was quite simple I think, because the Serpentine Dance clip was too, it wasn’t a whole bunch of tricks as such. And that clip was on a loop too, you can even find gifs (Graphics Interchange Format) of it now, that’s how effective it is. It’s on Tumblr even!

Was simplicity an aspect that you were trying to portray?

No, that was something that just came out of the performance. I didn’t want to go crazy with the dress, and historically the dancers typically wore white dresses as it was the best canvas for light. At the same time, that (Victorian) era was very over the top and very decadent, and I think it’s like that now too, but the simplicity was definitely a result that came out of the performance. I didn’t want to say anything else about it because this is what it is, and that’s a great aspect in itself. It doesn’t have to have such a weight on it because it was so light. It’s something you can just stare at, as the clip is only about a minute long, and Moore is the only person featured. There are other versions of it that are longer in duration and slightly different, as it was a common vaudeville attraction. She looks so happy because she’s fluttering about, and that’s what makes me feel happy because of that lightness; that’s what I’m trying to keep in my representation of it, replicating her movements. 

I guess I imagined it to be longer, but being such an early film, the capacity of the reel would have been very limited?

Yes, it’s so crazy, it would have been like a tiny little cake compared to the consumption that we have now!

It was all about capturing that one prescise moment you could say… Footage used to be on old reels, often there were bits missing, and it could be damaged if it wasn’t preserved.

Yeah, it makes me think of Star Wars, the original film of it is somewhere and it’s destroyed now! I can’t believe that. You can’t really ever lose a digital file, to the point where it’s working against us. 


I was going to ask you about some of your inspirations – you’ve touched a little on you’re childhood that sewing has always been a big part of who you are, what are some of your inspirations up until now?

Anything out of this world, unrealistic, fairytales, myths, the future, daydreaming, and the little tangents you go off on in your mind. I think every day is really interesting because as a costumier I’ve got to be aware of everyday fashions and how people dress up, how they dress themselves day by day, but what really inspires me is not “this world”.

Yeah, and allowing your mind to be “other-worldly” in a way, going back to yourself as a child. If you’re going to do costumes full-time, that is?

Yes, it’s allowing yourself to dream. A lot of things happen when you grow up, and you go through the awkward teenager phase and trying not to stand out, or be weird, and then I think you come out at the other end with all these other weights on you, and it’s like…why? I’m just gonna not do that! (Laughs).

Are you trying to create costumes that are different? That aren’t ordinary?

I think that is a result of it, but I think personally, now that I’m getting older, I feel like I’m reverting in to my 8 year-old self again! Because I’m going into this career choice, I feel like I’m allowed to be as weird as possible in my mind. I’m going to start “LARP-ing” (live action role play) because it’s creating a whole other world that you can enter and you’re fully immersed in this idea that’s not real.

At the same time you’re drawn to that historical/vintage/retro style?

Yes definitely, I still love making historical costumes. You see that style now, and I think it’s growing – particularly in the Game of Thrones series – the in-depth richness of all their costumes, but as a whole picture you don’t even notice it. That’s what I’m really drawn to, you’re doing something that’s historical but putting your own twist on it, it’s a whole other level of…fantasy?

The process of making costumes seems like a very intricate one!

It is, and I’ve been doing it now for two years solidly (because of study), but it’s something I do without thinking; but in a slightly different way because it’s using muscle memory. It’s not hard, but within it there is problem solving and that’s such a part of the process as well. What is difficult however depends on the industry. Sometimes it’s the hours, the pay, the actual work itself is what makes it so hard for people to stick at it. I don’t know where I’ll be in the next few years, it’s too hard to predict, so I’m just rolling with it…and it’s rough! (Laughs). On the other hand, it’s the thing that I feel naturally inclined to do so how do I not do it? And sometimes I feel like I could use my IT degree and get a job but I know eventually after 6 months I’ll be in the same spot again! So I think Wellington’s the perfect place for it – there’s so much happening here, and in Australia too. For now, I’m pretty happy with where I’m at.