How to elevate your production with costume design

As the closing credits rolled for the last blockbuster film you saw, maybe you noticed a nod to the costume designer. In fact, this role is so important that it’s often seen in the opening credits as well. There may have even been entire costume design teams or companies dedicating their efforts to creative perfection. 

Costume design is crucial to pre-production

Especially when working with a limited budget, it’s easy to find costumes falling to the bottom of your priorities. If you’re creating a piece with a modern timeframe and an urban setting, it might be even easier to overlook. However, if you want to give your production a truly cinematic finish, costume design should be a key element.

Before you finish checking off the long list of pre-production details with solid scripts and strong storyboards, budget planning and gear acquisitions — perhaps because you read our article about the importance of pre-production — set up some meetings to discuss costume design. Ideally, hire an expert dedicated to costumes on your production. That’s not always possible but you can definitely learn a few great tips from the experts. Erin Benach, for example, was the costume designer for Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). She offers insights that can help lift your project to the next level.

Costume design is good character development 

Benach notes that costumes are pivotal for informing the audience about the characters without taking anything from the story. Harley’s DIY streak is always evident in her wardrobe. Sometimes, she wears clothes made from strips of crime-scene caution tape. Sometimes, her outfits demand that she’s recognized on her own badass merits (Harley F*cking Quinn). Her fans totally get it. It inspires the fandom.

With intentional elements in costuming, you can also reinforce the story. Trenchcoats have been used to represent mystery for decades. Placing Edward Scissorhands in black vinyl with metal rivets and machinery next to his prim pastel co-stars reminds us of just how different and awkward he is. In more urban settings, what kind of suit everyone in a conference room wears can be telling. It’s clear who makes more money. The contrast of another character wearing the same crumpled shirt from last night helps to tell a story. 

Collaboration is the best way to get it right

Regardless of hiring an expert to handle costume design or not, we recommend a good brainstorming session. Start with a list of the character’s background and key personality attributes. Expand to include anything quirky about them that might not be easily perceived in the story. Add details that are an homage to character-building side stories.

Once you’ve confirmed the character’s identity, find creative ways to show what they are going through without the script. After Harley Quinn’s breakup with Joker, you’ll see her in a pink onesie covered with crying hearts. Bonnie and Clyde are always portrayed in incredibly stylish threads even though criminals-on-the-run are often stereotyped into dusty casual clothes. It tells their story in a way words just can’t. For a bit of inspiration, refer to the classics.

No one knows the characters as well as the actors. They can make a huge difference in authenticity and save you from indecisiveness. Margot Robbie played Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, so when it came to costume decisions she slipped into character. “It was very helpful to have her react to the clothing and reply, ‘Oh this is so Harley,’ as the character would just grab whatever she wanted.” That was a lightbulb moment for Benach, she told Hollywood Reporter in an interview. 

Find the right shops for your needs

Brick-and-mortar specialty costume shops can be a pricey option but you’ll have the bonus of experienced guidance from the staff. It’s easy to find huge costume shops in large metropolitan areas. They usually have options to rent or buy and have tailors available to ensure everything fits perfectly. If you’re not near one of these, they often have websites and phone consultations. Be sure to do this far in advance to allow shipping and have a contingency plan. 

Small, independent costume shops are hidden gems and can be full of surprises. Usually operated by eccentric theater or seamstress types, they will help ensure your pieces are just as you imagine. Plus, as an independent filmmaker, you already know how valuable it is to support local talent and small businesses. With a bit of searching, you’ll find these creative little shops in nearly every city. By-appointment-only schedules are common here. Personalized customizations and thoughtful details are worth every minute.

Thrift and consignment shops are found in all cities, large or small. If you have the patience for it, they are bursting with great low-price options. If you don’t frequent thrift shops, there are a few things to know. Some shops are better at curating than others. Be sure to examine everything for stains, rips, missing buttons and broken zippers. You’ll be more successful if you go in with inspiration and a bit of flexibility, not a specific requirement. Revisit several times because they are putting new items into the mix continuously. Know that the perfect item which is also exactly the right size can be a small miracle — buy that!  

Personal touches sell the story

For any items that you’ve purchased, regardless of the source, you can alter them to suit your vision. A shirt might be more authentic with a lace collar or a uniform might need new badges. You can accomplish this even if you have little experience with costumes. If you’re still unsure, YouTube has a tutorial ready for you.

Traditional sewing is a good option to ensure everything fits properly. Fabric glue or carefully placed safety pins can suffice for many fixes. When making these small alterations, be sure to consider how much action the garment will see. If some clothes might be stretched or pulled during a scene, skip the pins. Opt for glue or sewing. Your actors will thank you.

Let the results speak for themselves

We’ve all seen movies with distractingly bad costumes. Unless your intention is comical, we recommend a bit of research for correct period pieces. If your project has cultural elements, be aware of appropriation boundaries. Even a beautifully creative wardrobe can become a costume fail listable if you’re not careful.

The efforts and budget invested in costume design are worthwhile no matter what sources you use for wardrobing your production. Your project will have a professional, finished touch. Your characters will feel more authentic in well-contrived costumes that match their scene. Plus, it allows the audience to be fully immersed in your story.

Tiffany Harness
Tiffany Harness
Tiffany is a professional writer and B2B relations specialist. She has a background in procurement, sales, marketing and management.

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