One of the best things about the web for those in the performing arts is the way it preserves and spotlights the research, information, and creative successes of people and productions across the world, and then delivers it easily right to your desktop. The web confers its own brand of immortality, ensuring that the creative genius of past designers will not be forgotten, and that it is in fact almost instantly accessible, across the decades and even centuries. This wealth of information can be a superb teaching tool, as well as a powerful source of inspiration, and nowhere is that more true than for costume designers.
Those interested in the art and science of costume design must walk an interesting tightrope in their creations, which typically have to fit a number of strict parameters that include character, gender, age, body size, time and place, style, and more. But within those requirements, and armed with the specific knowledge they need to clothe their characters, they can do whatever they want. This means that costume design by its very nature involves a huge amount of study and research, and I’ve found a few websites recently that will provide costume design students, pros, and aficionados with plenty of inspiration when you need it most.
Costumes through the Ages with 'La Couturiere Parisienne'
Named for a French/German fashion magazine from the late 19th century, this site from Alexa Bender is one that costumers and costume students alike will swoon over.
’La Couturiere Parisienne’ is an addictive and incredibly useful site (offered in both German and English throughout much of its content) that offers a wealth of information and reference material on period costumes, ranging from the Middle Ages through the early 20th Century. The site is simply organized by period, style and century, with separate sections on Medieval & Renaissance, Cross-Era accessories and costume pieces, Ethnic costumes, as well as exhaustive information by century on the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s. Visitors wishing to get a sense of a particular period need only to click on a particular century to be greeted with hundreds of paintings and drawings that immediately capture the clothing of the era in a way no description ever could.
With its slightly imperious, academic air, Bender’s site is like having tea with a fascinating and only slightly intimidating schoolmistress. There are over 4000 costume images in total in the site's database, as well as articles and even some authentic period patterns. It's a great site to get lost in. (But don't say I didn't warn you when three hours have mysteriously passed since you clicked over. It's fascinating stuff.)
“What fascinates me most about costumes and costume design is the multitude of techniques used in creating a look,” says Bender, “most of which have almost died out in this age of mass production. Most people nowadays would think that modern machines were better at producing intricate fabrics, lace, or similar, while in fact period artisans -- especially of the 18th century -- could outclass modern technology hands down.”
When asked about her favorite film costumes, Bender prefers those that blend rather than stand out: “I don't have an all-time favorite film costume because most of them are flawed from an authenticity point of view. The ones in Dangerous Liaisons are quite good, by and large, and the BBC has produced some miniseries like Aristocrats with good costuming, in that none of them stands out from the rest. Not standing out to be noticed is part of period authenticity: The good ones go unnoticed because they blend with the scene so well. It's the bad ones that I notice as being out of place.”