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The Costume Design Process

The costume design process. A costume designer designs (and sometimes makes) costumes for a film, stage, or television production.


      A costume designer designs (and sometimes makes) costumes for a film, stage, or television production. Costume design is always collaborative work, because a designer needs to work with the director and other members of the production team. Depending on the size of the production, a costume designer may work with hairstylists, makeup artists, and wig masters to give a character the desired effect. 

     A costume designer needs to know a great deal about color scheme; how to sketch, design, and sew costumes; textiles; historical clothing; and the film or theater industry that she works in. Knowledge of computer programs like photoshop and graphic design abilities are becoming increasingly important as well. It is not an easy job, but it can be a very rewarding one. 

     A costumer is a person who makes the costumes. In smaller productions, the costume designer is sometimes a costumer as well: not only does she design the looks, but she makes them, too. A costumer works as a seamstress and/or pattern maker, but depending on the specific costume, other skills may be needed, such as knitting, welding, chainmail weaving, etc. 

     Once a costume designer has finished her sketches, she may give them to the costumers to make, rent costumes that fit her design ideas from other theater companies or costume houses, or purchase clothing from thrift shops, high end stores, etc.--so long as the price fits the budget of the production. 

     Actors will need to be measured to ensure that the costumes are made or purchased in the right size. Common measurements taken to determine correct sizes are: chest, waist, hip, inner leg, neck, and shoulder-to-wrist. Later, costume designers conduct fittings with actors to ensure the costumes fit and the actor can properly move.

     A costume designer first has to read the script, and then consider a lot of things about the production and characters when first sketching her ideas. Here is a list of some considerations a costume designer makes: 

  • Is this story set in a historical or futurist time period? If so, will I make the costumes historically accurate to that period, or reframe the story by costuming characters in contemporary clothing or clothing from another era? Examples: Shakespeareís plays are often revamped to fit a modern setting, like in Baz Luhrmanís 1996 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. In 1995 Richard III (played by Sir Ian McKellan) was staged in the style of a fascist England setting with costumes influenced by 1930s and 1940s military clothing. 
  • What location is this story set in? How do people dress in that part of the world, during that time? Costumes for the The King and I, which takes place in Thailand in the 1860s, would look very different from a play set in Thailand today. 
  • How will I represent my characterís socio-economic class? Are all the characters from relatively the same station in life, like in How To Succeed in a Business Without Really Trying? Or is the play a large and sweeping epic about social issues, like Les Miserables
  • How will the costumes reflect the characterís personality? Mussetta in the opera La Boheme is a flirtatious, extravagant character, and her costumes often are brighter, richer, more detailed, and more revealing than the poor seamstress Mimiís costumes. 
  • What season is the story set in? In what scenes are the characters indoors or outdoors? How will this effect their costumes for those particular scenes? 
  • What is my budget, and how much time do I have to make every costume before the play/filming begins? How much detail and care is realistic? A costumer for a local theaterís production of Hello Dolly! may make chorus cast members simple high-waisted broom skirts and have them wear oxford shirts with billowy sleeves, while a costumer for a major film company might put thirty hours of labor or more into a finely detailed costume for a lead character. 
  • How much and what kind of movement will the actor perform? A character playing Peter Pan, who will be flying around the stage by use of wires, will need a costume that allows for more mobility. The designer might choose a costume made from stretch fabric.  
  • What props, sets, and light design schemes will be used for this production? Will my costumes compliment those things? A Victorian, flowery costume aesthetic might not make sense in a modern, minimalist set with few props.  





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