Copyright © 2000 Robert C. Huber
Whatever an actor is wearing in performance is, by definition, a costume. Costumes can be as costly and time-consuming to produce as scenery. For example, some of the more elaborate women's costumes in the recent musical Ragtime cost more than $5,000 each and took up to 300 hours to make. To the actor, costumes are the most important element of all. The costume, more than any other element, assists the actor in becoming the character. The restrictive fit of a period costume forces the actor to stand and move differently. Unlike the other design arts, there is really no important difference between costumes for the stage and screen. Costumes, whether elaborate period pieces or contemporary clothing seen on a soap opera have to be designed, acquired, and managed. The world of costumes often includes the related art of make up.
Costume designers, or costumers, are artists who are most similar to fashion designers. Their subject is the clothing and personal adornments that people employ today, throughout history, and around the world. They must create complete outfits for the characters in dramatic works that reflect both the time and place of the story, and the personality and social status of the character. They must have a working knowledge of all the various materials that are used, including fabrics, furs, leathers, and metals. Their responsibilities include undergarments, outerwear, hats, gloves, shoes, stockings, jewelry, armor, glasses, weapons, and other costume accessories.
As with set designers, the costume designer must sometimes create clothing that is wholly imaginary rather than modeled after actual historical, cultural, or fashion examples. Examples of these can be seen in science fiction and space movies. At the other extreme is the costume equivalent of the location set: off-the-rack costumes. But most of the time the designer is using a combination of sources and strategies to create new garments. The first question that a costume designer might ask is: "Is this a contemporary or period show?" To the costumer contemporary means today, modern means within the last twenty years, and period means anything earlier. If it is contemporary the costumer has the advantage of being able to buy ready-made garments. If it is modern, pieces can usually be found at second-hand clothing stores. These options are less time-consuming and usually cheaper. If it is a period piece the choices are more limited.
One of the first documents that a designer prepares is a costume list. This list accounts for each costume and accessory in the show. It is an important tool for ensuring that the costumes can be obtained within the limits of the amount of money allotted for that purpose in the production budget. One method of controlling costs is to judiciously assign each costume or costume part to one of the five standard sources listed below. Each has specific advantages and disadvantages. Designers usually spend more on featured costumes, and less on background ones.
Build: Costumes that are made are said to be built or constructed, not sewn. The main advantage of building a costume from scratch is that you get exactly what you want both in design and fit. A secondary advantage is that costumes built for theatre companies are kept and can be reused at no cost in the future. This is usually the most expensive option.
Rent: Costumes that are built for films are not kept, but are sold after use. Unusual clothes such as period garments or uniforms are usually sold to costume rental businesses. These costumes are then rented to theatres and movie production companies. The advantage of renting is that while not cheap, rental is usually cheaper than building, especially for period costumes and uniforms. The disadvantages are that you are not always able to get exactly what you need and must make artistic compromises, you are liable for damage, and when the show is over you have nothing to "show" for it.
Buy: Purchasing costumes is usually only possible for contemporary plays. The designer has the advantage of selecting for both fit and style. Other advantages are that bought costumes can be modified if necessary, and they may be kept for future use. The only real disadvantages are cost and the availability of what you want.
Pull: A pulled costume is one that is taken out of a theatre company's stock from past productions. The primary advantages are that there is no cost and the costume can be modified if required. There really are no disadvantages except that being limited to stock costumes may require some artistic compromises.
Borrow: This is often the choice of last resort. Most professional costumers consider borrowing both unprofessional and unnecessary. The advantage is obviously that there is no cost, but the risk of damage and replacement expense can undo that. Actors will sometimes request that they be allowed to wear their own clothes. In practice this is usually only done at the highest and lowest levels of production--stars who always get their way, and poor amateur theatres that have no other choice. Costumers hate it when stars insist on dressing themselves.
During the research phase of the design process, costumers undertake the same sort of collecting of visual materials that set designers do. Since clothing is the only subject, their search is more narrow. Most costume designers have accumulated their own personal libraries of source books on historic costumes and patterns. These source pictures are usually brought to early meetings with the director to help determine the look that is required. In the case of a contemporary show, current magazines are the preferred source. Next the costumer prepares pencil sketches of the costumes for each character for the director's comment and approval. The final step is to convert the rough pencil sketches into color renderings which are sometimes called costume plates. These are usually done on illustration board using the same color media as set design renderings. They are very similar to the kind of fashion illustrations that can be seen in magazines. Each rendering also has representative swatches of fabric attached from which the costume will be built, and explanatory notes as necessary. After this point in the process there is considerable difference between venues. At the highest levels of the profession, such as a Broadway show or major motion picture, the renderings are sent out by the producer to various costume construction studios for bid. After the bid is awarded the costumer need only check the progress of construction on a periodic basis to ensure fidelity to the design. In a regional or academic theatre the costumer is often part of a permanent staff. In such cases the costumes are built "in-house" and the costume designer is expected to take a more active role in the process.
Among the many professional specialists with unique skills who are required to produce the highest quality costumes are the following. There are shoppers who seek out and purchase the raw materials and accessories needed to assemble costumes. Dyers change the color of fabrics. Cutters specialize in patterning and cutting the pieces of fabric needed to assemble a costume. Stitchers are those who do the actual sewing. Fitters and tailors make adjustments to ensure the proper hang and fit of a costume. Milliners and cobblers specialize in the creation of hats and footwear. Finally, there are costume crafts specialists who produce accessories such as jewelry, armor, medals, parasols, fans, lace, and belts, and do detail work such as beading and the aging or distressing of finished costumes. A large and sophisticated operation like the Metropolitan Opera in New York may have all of these specialists on staff. A smaller regional theatre may have only a few personnel who must do all of these jobs themselves.
The list of jobs above recapitulates the normal process of costume production. Careful and complete measurements are taken of each actor. The costume list is divided according to source and work commences. Shopping begins for fabric, notions, and other raw materials as well as costume accessories. Shoppers may also be employed to purchase off-the-rack pieces and to reserve rental costumes, however designers often prefer to do this themselves. Costumes that are in stock are pulled from storage.
When all the elements are assembled, construction begins. Raw fabrics may need to be dyed, overdyed, bleached, or sprayed to achieve the proper color, tone, or patina of age. Some costumes are made from paper patterns. These patterns may be purchased commercially, taken from existing files, or made from historic pattern books. Other costumes are made by "draping" fabric onto dummies that have been padded out to the exact measurements of an actor. Old trim and details can be removed and replaced on pulled costumes to modify them to meet the needs of the new production.
There are two important differences between costumes and regular clothes. First, costumes take a lot more abuse and so are sometimes lined with canvas to give seams extra strength and to absorb sweat. Second, since costumes are intended to be recycled, seam allowances are made wider to allow for future alterations. When costumes are partially completed, actors are called in for the first of several fittings. Meanwhile, work is underway on the various costume accessories. When final fittings are complete, each actor's costumes are labeled, gathered together, and placed on a rolling rack. Small costume accessories such as cuff-links and watches are placed in a cloth bag which is hung on a hanger.
At this point the costumes are delivered to the backstage dressing area and become the responsibility of the production company. The costumes are managed in production by a costume master or mistress who may be assisted by a crew. They are required to wash, clean, press, and repair costumes as needed. Dressers may also be employed to assist individual actors or groups of actors in making quick-changes of costume backstage.
Salaries for stage costume designers reflect those of set designers in Southern California. They may range from around $1,000 up to as much as $4,300 in theatres with more than 1000 seats.