The cast of Quixote Nuevo

When it has to be clean, use…vodka?

Stellar Tips For Cleaning From Theater Experts

While the outfits actors and actresses wear on stage may look pristine, a lot can happen before, during, and after a show that makes them anything but. Take those little incidents and odors you deal with at home and amplify them with sweat produced from hot stage lights, stains from various ingredients used to create fake blood, and or even a good ol’ on-stage food fight. Plus, a lot of costumes can’t simply be thrown into the washing machine, so dressers and wardrobe supervisors have a lot of tricks for getting these stains out.

The cast of A Christmas Carol poses for a photo

Peyton Goossen with Brian Vaughn and Latoya Cameron. Photo by Adams Viscom.

Lisa Parsons Wagner, one of the official dressers at the DCPA Theatre Company, has seen it all…and managed to clean it all too! One of her favorite stories from working in the theatre was helping dress a child for A Christmas Carol in 1998. It was a back-to-back performance day, and the cast and crew had just returned from a short break following the matinee. As she assisted a young girl with her skirt before the evening performance, Parsons Wagner realized that the extra inch of fabric she was accustomed to in the waist was filled out. She gingerly asked the child what she had had for supper. The answer? An orange, Dr. Pepper and…Taco Bell.

“Fast forward to the kid’s big scene with three other actors, right down center stage with all eyes on them,” said Parsons Wagner. “It was a beautiful, moving moment and then…I’ll let you do the math.”

That, she said, was the hardest and weirdest moment in her role as dresser. But, Wardrobe Director Brenda Lawson managed to get that costume clean.

Here are some of her top cleaning tips from decades spent getting stains and smells out of an assortment of fabrics. Try them at home on your own kids’ messy clothes, stinky exercise outfits and that favorite cocktail dress after an unfortunate party spill.

The “Must-Have” Cleaning Product

The cast of Quixote Nuevo

The cast of Quixote Nuevo. Photo by Adams VisCom

For many staff members in the costume department a bar of Fels-Naptha laundry soap is always in their toolbox. “You can use it for everything,” said Parsons Wagner. “Fels-Naptha and a soft toothbrush work wonders.”

This American soap has been around since 1893, and usually customers can find it in the laundry section of a grocery store. The original purpose of the bar soap is for the pre-treatment of stains, and you use it by first getting the garment or soap bar damp and rubbing it on the soiled area prior to laundering. Try it on chocolate, sweat marks, and food stains. It’s also touted as a great make-up stain remover, which is perfect for collars tainted with foundation, lipstick marks and body paint that’s come off on clothing during a performance or your local Halloween party. Plus, here are an addition 57 uses for the tried and true soap.

While Fels-Naptha is a must have, Parsons Wagner suggests you don’t knock simple remedies either. “Always try regular soap and water first,” she said. “It’s the wardrobe version of ‘did you unplug it and plug it back in?’”

Blood and Red Wine Stains

Actors hold hands sitting around a dinner table to pray onstage in In the Upper Room.

Chavez Ravine and the cast In the Upper Room. Photo by Adams VisCom.

Bloody noses, scrapes and accidents happen, and when it gets on your clothes, the blood can ruin an outfit. But, said the dresser, saliva gets out blood, and your own saliva works the best on your own blood. So spit on the stain and gently work the saliva into the fabric. Never scrub the fabric hard, just rinse and repeat.

Hydrogen peroxide works to remove blood stains too. To do this, apply a small amount of hydrogen peroxide to the stain, leave on for about five minutes and then gently rub with a clean, damp cloth. Just make sure to test the fabric first, hydrogen peroxide can change some whites to yellow.

Another red substance that stains clothes is red wine. Anyone who has had a glass of Merlot spilled on their summer whites knows the tragedy of this scenario. But lucky for us the key to getting red wine out can be found in another glass of vino, but this time, white wine. Splash some on to dilute the red mark, much like cold water does but better. Then dab at the stain to soak up the color.

Hydrogen peroxide can help here too. Make a mixture of three parts hydrogen peroxide to one part dish soap and let it sit on the stain for around 20 minutes. Then blot with a damp cloth.

Reduce Odors

The three Kates of Rattlesnake Kate. Katherine lays on a bed while Kate and Katie look on.

Leana Rae Concepcion, Andrea Frierson, and Alyse Alan Louis in Rattlesnake Kate. Photo by

No one wants to put on a stinky costume. While washing clothes certainly takes the smell away, some things can’t be washed, or there’s not time to wash between wears. Limit odors by having a spray bottle filled with clear, unflavored vodka (cheap is perfectly fine) and squirt in the armpit, crotch and foot regions. You can also use a spray bottle filled with equal parts white vinegar and water.

If the garment is mildly stinky, drape it on a hanger and let it steam when you take a shower. Or hang outside the closet to air before wearing. A light spritz of lemon juice mixed with water also can refresh clothing. And, if you’re desperate, perfume or air freshener spray can cover up a lot of smells.

Accidental Ink Stains

Taking fevered notes or accidentally leaving a ballpoint pen in your pocket may lead to an ink stain to rival no other. But this can be fixed. Parsons Wagner suggests taking a bit of rubbing alcohol to it and, presto, the stain will dissipate faster than a magician’s disappearing ink.

Nail polish remover, hairspray and alcohol-based hand sanitizer also work. And when you’re done, simply hand-wash the garment in cold water. Once the ink is all the way gone you can resume regular machine washing and drying if the garment allows for it.

Despite decades of experience, Parsons Wagner cautions, “I’m not saying that anyone must do any of these things. Hitting up your local dry cleaner is always an option.”