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Costumes 101 • Designing Costumes for the Stage

Updated on September 1, 2014
Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in "Saving Mr Banks"
Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in "Saving Mr Banks"

The role of the costumer designer for theatre, film or television is to design and oversee the creation of the clothes characters will wear.

The costume designer also contributes to the overall look and feel of the production through the use of colour and texture.

He or she belongs to the creative team, and works closely with the set designer, lighting designer and director.

The Costume Design Process

The process of costume design begins from the first reading of the script through to closing night.

Did You Know?

The following items are the responsibility of the costume designer:

• hats
• helmets
• caps
• tiaras
• flowers
• hair styles
• wigs
• facial hair
• glasses
• jewelry
• bags
• umbrellas
• walking sticks
• footwear

1. Read the Script (Multiple Times)

The script provides the entry point for the entire creative team.

The costume designer pays particular attention to the number and ages of the characters, the setting, and time period, making notes as they go.

2. Research

The research phase of the design process focuses on the following elements:

  1. the time period
  2. character traits
  3. clothing styles
  4. colour palettes
  5. current events
  6. hairstyles and makeup
  7. shoes and accessoried

3. Budget

The costume designer has to work within the constraints of the production budget. He or she is required to keep a close eye on costs at all times and is responsible for reconciling expenditure back to the original allocation of funds.

4. Rendering the Characters

The costumer designer draws each character wearing a particular outfit. Costume drawings range from the highly intricate to the impressionistic.

The rendering of designs reveals the costume designer's drawing style.
The rendering of designs reveals the costume designer's drawing style.

5. Costume Construction

The costume designer has three options for creating costumes:

Build - this requires making/buying a pattern, making/buying the fabric, making/buying trims and then constructing the costume.

Rent - some costumes, particularly period pieces, can be rented at a lower rate than it would to build them.

Buy - particularly contemporary items may be purchased to be worn as is, or used to form the foundation of another costume.

6. Fittings

The costume designer is present when his or her creations are fitted on the actor. Particular attention is given to the comfort and fit of the garment.

Emma Thomson as PL Travers in "Saving Mr Banks"
Emma Thomson as PL Travers in "Saving Mr Banks"

7. Dress Rehearsal

Dress rehearsals are another chance for the costume designer to ensure the comfort and fit of the costumes across the entire performance in real time.

At this point the costumer designer also checks how the costumes integrate with the set and the stage floor paying attention to the degree of contrast between the actor and his surroundings.

8. Adjustments, Laundry & Maintenance

During the run of a show, costumes need cleaning and repairing.

For shows with long seasons, there is often a change of cast requiring a new costume to be made.

The costume designer's responsibility is to ensure that opening night quality continues through until the end of the run.

Costumes for the Lion King on Broadway


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