What is Costume Design?

Every garment worn in a theatrical production is a costume. Before an actor speaks, his wardrobe has already spoken for him. From the most obvious and flamboyant show clothing, to contemporary clothes using subtle design language, costume design plays an integral part in every television and film production. It is an ancient theatrical craft and the process today is identical to when Euripedes was writing long ago. Costume design is a vital tool for storytelling.

When a costume designer receives a script, the process of developing the visual shorthand for each character begins. Costume sketches, fashion research and actual garments are used to help costume designers, directors, and actors develop a common language for the development of each character. Sometimes a glamorous entrance may be inappropriate and destructive to a scene. The costume designer must first serve the story and the director. The more specific and articulate a costume is, the more effective it will be with an audience. Minute details loved by actors often enhance their performances in imperceptible ways. Many actors credit their costume as a guide to the discovery of their characters. Actors sometimes need sensitive costume design for imperfect bodies. Flattering figures, camouflaging flaws, and enhancing inadequacies are part of the job description.

Costumes are defined and refined, and the process can be angst-ridden. Each frame of film is a canvas and has its own proscenium. Nothing within it is left to chance. Each choice of color, texture, pattern, and form is deliberate. Like the popular myth of actors improvising their dialogue: contemporary costumes are often taken for granted and sometimes seem to magically "appear." Every actor appearing in front of the camera is scrutinized like a child on their first day of school. Even the most sophisticated audience commonly overlooks some of the finest and most effective contemporary costume design in film and television.

Film is the great collaborative art. The design triumvirate -- the director of cinematography, the production designer, and the costume designer -- struggle to create an invented world to help the director tell his story. A film is one gigantic jigsaw puzzle. A movie is an enormous architectural endeavor of sets and lighting and costumes for one time and one purpose. This minutely crafted kingdom must sit lightly on the shoulders of the narrative.

Costumes have always had enormous influence on world fashion. When a star captures the public's imagination, a film or television role has catapulted him or her there. A style cycle begins as this role is recreated in retail fashion to the delight and demand of fans. The exposure this celebrity brings to a costume generates millions of dollars for the fashion business. When a film engages the public's psyche, it is a powerful selling tool for a clothing manufacturer. Costume designers receive tremendous pride from seeing their efforts reproduced on a global scale, but little recognition and no renumeration for setting worldwide trends.

Often the most successful screen imagery spontaneously becomes iconography. New "classics" feel like they have always been part of the culture. Yet, costumes never spring from the public "collective unconscious." Behind every costume there is a costume designer.

Costume designers are passionate storytellers, historians, social commentators, humorists, psychologists, trendsetters and magicians who can conjure glamour and codify icons. Costume designers are project managers who have to juggle ever-decreasing wardrobe budgets and battle the economic realities of film production.

Costume designers are artists with pen and paper, form, fabric and the human figure.

[Source: Costume Designers Guild]

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