Costumes don’t just make your actors look good—they can have a big impact on how the audience understands the production as a whole. These tips will help you design and create stellar costumes.

The 10 Commandments of Costuming a Show

1. Thou shalt read the script A costumer’s biggest mistake is not being familiar with the source material. A script has both direct and indirect information about costumes, and the costume team needs to read for both early in the production process. Even little details can help the audience understand a character’s development. Professional costume designer Shirlee Idzakovich shares some specific clues to look for in this interview with EdTA.

Read between the lines for clues that characters give about their appearances. For example, Vivienne in Legally Blonde cannot wear heels, since another character observes that “both her hair and shoes are flat.”

better together neon sign2. Thou shalt not costume alone Costumes need to be a cohesive part of the production, so consult with other members of the team. Attend production meetings and listen for any decisions that might change the design of the show: notes about setting (especially time period and place), styles of music, hair and make-up design, and even set color. Your costume design needs to work well with all the show’s details, and reinforce the show’s key themes.

Also think about how the actors will move. Does choreography affect what the actor can (or can’t!) wear? Will the actor be using props that might affect their movement, or need to hide a prop in their costume?

3. Thou shalt anticipate costume changes Your script study should include notes about if and when actors will change from one costume to another. Observe how long they have to do so. If they have plenty of time, their costumes can be a bit more elaborate. But if they don’t (i.e., the actor has a “quick-change”), you’ll need to design a costume that’s simple and easy to change.

You might also consider using common items or layers that can be used for multiple scenes. For example, maybe the actor can wear the same pair of pants in both scenes, and just change his shirt. That will limit the number of items you and the actor are responsible for and make costume changes smoother.

For quick-change inspiration, check out Elsa’s on-stage dress reveal during “Let It Go” in Frozen.  

Woman dressed in clinging gold dress4. Thou shalt do research Hit the internet! Research what people wore in the time and place the show is set in. Look at contemporary photos and publications (such as catalogs, newspapers, magazines or even advertisements), and try to find recorded productions of shows that are set in a similar era.

5. Thou shalt sketch it out Regardless of your drawing skills, make a visual representation of what the costumes look like in your mind’s eye. Use magazine clippings, online photos, even dolls or action figures—whatever you can to help the actors, production team, and “seamsters” to understand your goal.

Visualizing the costume will also force you to consider what pieces need to be sewn from scratch, purchased, or repurposed from what you have in storage.

6. That shalt consider the details Costuming a show is so much more than fabric, sewing, and hemming. (Though it definitely involves all of those things!) You also need to consider accessories: hats, jewelry, shoes, purses, and more. Work with your props team to determine when and how items like umbrellas and purses will be used, as well as which department will have custody of them.

7. Thou shalt have costume fittings You should always have actors try on their costumes ahead of tech week—and you should be there to witness how they fit. Ask the actor if they can move how they need to (especially for any dance numbers or action sequences), and watch how the costume (or wig, if applicable) looks with their skin tone or hair color.

Also note the actor’s reaction. An actor should never question a costumer’s design, but their opinion of the piece can affect their portrayal. Evaluate if they seem comfortable in the costume and how it portrays their body. If the actor has a specific concern (and you have the time to listen), listen attentively and help them understand your point of view if there’s a conflict.

8. Thou shalt consider practice pieces Some shows feature pieces of a costume in scenes—almost like characters! For example, the titular “coat of many colors” in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is usually the center of choreography in the song “Joseph’s Coat.”

Instead of waiting until final costumes are ready to fully rehearse those scenes, create practice pieces for the cast. These double as prototypes for your costume crew.

9. Thou shalt watch the final product on stage Stay tuned in during the entire rehearsal process. At least once per week, watch a full run-through of the show and take notes, both for the actors and yourself. You can provide insight on how to manage a costume during a tricky dance, or notice a costume piece that looks good in isolation but doesn’t work onstage with the rest of the cast.

10. Thou shalt enjoy the show Choose  a date during the final production to enjoy the work you’ve done. There’s nothing quite like listening to the audience at intermission discussing how nice Shelby’s costume looked in the first scene of Steel Magnolias, or hearing their gasp when Belle enters the stage in her yellow ball gown as “Beauty and the Beast” begins to play. You’ve earned it!

BONUS TIP: If you can’t wash your costumes, at least air them out between shows! The audience won’t be able to smell the actors, but anyone on (or behind) stage will!  ♦

Andrew Koch is writer and editor from Cincinnati. He is proud to have worn his wife’s “dreamcoat” design in a 2018 production of Joseph.

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