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The Costumer's Manifesto - A Guide for Designers

Updated on October 6, 2012

What Every Costume Designer Should Know

Designing costumes for performances is an exciting, creative endeavour, yet it requires some special understanding of the purpose and function of the garment itself and of the role of the Costumer within the Design and Production team.

Performing Arts is a collaborative enterprise.

I will outline a few of the things all aspiring costume designers should know using excerpts from The Costumer’s Manifesto – A Statement of Purpose and Ethics for Costumers, a brilliant document written by Tara Maginnis, Ph.D of The University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2002. You can find it on the website.

I. When I costume, I am not a fashion designer nor a clothing manufacturer, but a builder of character, concept and physical movement.

This is an excellent first rule. It gets you into the right mindset. My university textiles design lecturer would get so annoyed when students wanted to make ‘ball gown costumes’, remember that although you are creating with your own unique style and aesthetic, you are designing for others, not yourself.

II. I, above all, work with Actors: I build their character from without, even as they build it from within.

This isn’t like designing garments for yourself. You are helping to bring a character to life. Many actors will attest to the power of the costume in helping them get into character.

Physicality and movement of the costume are also very important factors. The actor needs to be able to move, breathe and perform comfortably in it. Sometimes costumes require the actor to undergo some minor discomfort; however the performer still needs to be able to work with it. It is important to work with the actor throughout the whole design and construction process. I have seen shows where costume pieces are shed show by show because they are interfering with the actor’s performance and it is not possible to alter or remake them before the next show. Time and budget constraints will be ever present.

Measurement Guide.
Measurement Guide.

You will need to become adept at accurately measuring other people, don’t be shy with actors, they are usually ok with physical barriers (it’s part of the training). Always be polite and respectful and, above all professional. DO NOT make negative comments about the actor’s body or be too gushy with the compliments.

III. I work under the guidance of Directors.

The Director is the creative boss. You are working to fulfil his/her creative vision. Your costumes will reflect his/her conceptual ideas. Your initial concepts and character interpretations will come from reading the script, which you will have done at least twice by now. The director and you will work on the interpretation of the script from a design viewpoint.

IV. I am inspired by the words of Playwrights and Scriptwriters: I try to bring alive the script by transforming the words…into visual metaphors.

That pretty much says it all, although there’s a little bit more. It’s always good to do some research into the text and the Author. Get a feel for the writer’s style, influences, the social and political background of the times it was written, as well as the time in which it is set (if these differ) and the themes of the script.

V. I collaborate with the other Designers.

These are most likely to include Set Designers, Props/Properties Designers, Lighting Designers, Sound Designers, Set Dressers, Scenic Designers and Artists. Sometimes Designers take on multiple roles; such as set and costume, or lighting and sound.

The Costumer must be mindful, even predictive, of the needs of these other design elements. That shiny, peach satin may look gorgeous in the shop , but how will it, look under soft amber, green or blue light? Or against the set/backdrop? What are the lighting and set colour schemes anyway? Will it be right with the Actor’s skin tone? Will it catch on things or not fit through/around set elements? Some fabrics are noisy, which is a problem with lapel/body mics (used mostly in film/TV).

The Costumer must consider all these things.

Gel Swatch Book.
Gel Swatch Book. | Source

TIP: Get a Sample or Swatch Booklet of Lighting Gels and small LED torch and you can shine the light through any colour gel to get a bit of an idea how the colour combinations will look. They work better if you take out the pin and put them on a big ring.

VI. …Designers…need to communicate the show’s design to all other customers

involved…as clearly as possible, so that when design decisions are made

at any level…they reflect the needs of the show or [production] as a whole.

VII. I assist the Audience in understanding the story and characters.

In the controlled (hopefully) chaos that that comes with preparing for a show, the most important people are sometime overlooked. Your Audience is the purpose of the whole endeavour. They will all have different expectations, ideals and levels of knowledge.

Your costumes should never distract or detract, unless this is a purposeful intent. There is no room for personal vanity; the design must fit the mood and concept.

VIII. I study the history of fashion and dress.

It is good to be able to recognise and understand and, ultimately, replicate different periods of dress style.

The next part of the quote warns:

…avoid mindlessly copying old fashion plates, but instead keep in mind the elements of character and concept…

The next one makes me smile –

IX …I will not winge and whine if another designer is, in turn, inspired

to reuse elements, even a majority of those elements, from

one of my designs in their work. I will accept this as flattery…

The last one reminds us to have fun and be nice, lawful and civilised to all (one would think this would apply to work in general, but Theatre studies isn’t called “drama” for nothing!). and finally, my favourite bit -

...nor should a student, worker or volunteer be treated

as slave labour…

Sometimes costume is the focus... sometimes not so much

 Austin Miller in Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Costume Design by Rafael Castanera.
Austin Miller in Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Costume Design by Rafael Castanera. | Source


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