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Dressing the Character: The Role of the Costume Designer

A look at the role of the costume designer in bringing characters to life

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Dressing the Character: The Role of the Costume Designer

Who can forget the gorgeous gold costumes worn by the performers at the end of A Chorus Line ? They wouldn't exist without the talents of costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge.

Photo © Paul Kolnik

For this key designer in the production process, it's all about fabric. Movement. Texture. Color.

The costume designer is the individual who designs the costumes for all performers in a production. The costume designer may also oversee the Costume Supervisor, Costume Shop, or a team responsible for actual costume construction.

Working Relationships

The Costume Designer also typically works closely with the Set and Lighting Designers so that the colors, fabrics, textures, and other costume elements work harmoniously within the final production. Costume designers must bring to their work an understanding of fashion (past and present), textiles, sewing and construction, draping, and of how clothing works with and hangs upon the body. They must also typically possess strong drawing, drafting and illustration skills, along with a lively knowledge of fabrics and textiles, and their advantages and disadvantages for performers and scenarios.

Costume Design and Character

Just as the set designer helps to evoke the Director’s underlying theme or emphasis in a visual sense, so too does the costume designer bring the “big picture” of each character to realization onstage.

The best costume designers are therefore not simply designing clothing, but are instead clothing characters, and in many cases helping the actors to bring those characters even more richly and fully to life. Perhaps one character is a vain busybody, for instance – the costume designer can illustrate this subtly with the appearance of the too-tight dresses of someone who refuses to have her clothing let out even when it becomes obvious she is straining at the seams. The costume designer’s color choices can also subtly reflect personality, mood or state of mind, and can either flatter the performer or emphasize his or her most villainous or unflattering physical features in service to the character. The progression of a character’s costumes throughout a show can also help to visibly emphasize the character’s journey from beginning to end within the play itself.

From History to Imagination

Like the set designer, the successful costume designer must bring to his or her work a real love of history, time, and place. The best costume designers can then translate those eras effortlessly into fashion, through style, fabric, texture, and color. One production may require an affectionate return to the retro cool of the 1960s made so famous on the television show “Mad Men,” while others may require the costume designer to create a striking and specific look for characters from Anne Boleyn to a disco Judas, or from a beleaguered gentleman caller to a not-so-Wicked Witch.

But it’s not just about history, of course, but ultimately about imagination. Costume designs can be satisfyingly functional and accurately historical, for instance, but they can also be creations of pure fantasy and imagination. Costume designers for dance, meanwhile, must also incorporate the movement of the dancers into their concepts or designs, as well as making allowances in advance for the potential wear and tear of the performance itself upon the fabrics and costumes themselves.

Design Process

The typical design process for the costume designer typically involves analysis of the script and characters, followed by an initial sketching period, and then a series of more finished drawings, renderings or paintings from which the actual costumes or patterns will be generated (accompanied in many cases by swatches of material to illustrate fabric or texture). Costume designers may create actual patterns themselves, or work with the costume shop, costume supervisor, or any other designated individuals in order to finalize and create the costumes for the performers in plenty of time for fittings, refittings, dress rehearsal, and performance.

Notable Costume Designers

Some of the most notable costume designers in the performing arts to date include such famed individuals as the marvelous Theoni V. Aldredge (who can forget Annie’s red dress, or those gold high-kicking costumes at the close of A Chorus Line?), Bob Mackie, Cecil Beaton, Irene Sharaff, Miles White, Toni-Leslie James, William Ivey Long, Jane Greenwood, Raoul Pene Du Bois (also a talented Scenic Designer), Lucinda Ballard, Patricia Zipprodt, famed illustrator Edward Gorey (who won a Tony for Dracula back in 1978), Nancy Potts, Timothy O'Brien, William Ivey Long, Florence Klotz, Erin Quigley, Ann Hould-Ward, Martin Pakledinaz, director and designer Julie Taymor, Catherine Zuber (who has won multiple Tony Awards now for her gorgeous yet always wholly distinctive period looks), Anthony Ward, and many talented others.

Learn more about the insights of a talented costume designer firsthand in this interview with costume designer Holly Poe Durbin.

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