Costumes

THEY’RE NOT JUST CLOTHES

Costuming is one of the most crucial elements of cinema. However, costumes are often an afterthought for the amateur filmmaker. Understanding how to costume your characters is one of the most powerful tools in filmmaking.

Costumes communicate the details of a character’s personality to the audience and help actors transform into new and believable people on screen. Costuming is an important device in furthering the authenticity of your characters; the audience should believe every person in the story has a life before the movie begins.

There are many things to consider when making creative costuming decisions. Here are a few key questions to help guide you:

  1. What time period does your story take place in?

    Whether it be set in the 1800s or the 1990s, making sure your costumes are accurate to the era can be the difference between a believable and non-believable film. Your job as a filmmaker is to immerse the audience into the world of your story. Study the era your film takes place in and find out who was wearing what at that point. Be as ACCURATE as possible. 

  2. Does the texture match the character?

    Most people don’t wear brand new clothes every day; is your character the exception? Whether you’re going to rent, buy, or borrow the costume, make sure it looks and feels like items of clothing that your character truly owns. Is it worn out and soft? Is it stiff and well-kept? Is it obvious they wear this often? Where does your character shop and what can your character afford? Wardrobe is an integral part to your film’s visual language, so consider what your costuming says about your character.

  3. What is the color scheme of your film and how can your costuming enhance that? 

    1. Color can inform your character’s relationship with self. Color can reflect your character’s mood, outlook on life, inner turmoil, and self-perception. Equally so, color can also contrast these ideas. Does your character want to present themselves in a way that opposes how they truly feel? For example: Say your character is in mourning. If they’re trying to conceal their grief, they might choose to wear something bright and colorful to support an illusion of happiness. 
    2. Color can also inform your character’s relationship with the outside world. Is your character in sync with the people and environment around them? Or is your character on a different page from everything around them? If your world is filled with blues, is your character in red? 
    3. Color can also be useful to differentiate between good and evil, Protagonist vs. Antagonist, real vs. fake, natural vs. commercial. What subtext can colors create in your film? 

Pre-Production

  • What is my costume budget?
  • Do I want/need a dedicated costumer for my film? Do I personally have the time to give my costumes full attention?
  • Do I need my actors’ measurements? If yes, don’t trust them to know their own measurements. Measure them.
  • Do I need to do closet pulls? (A “closet pull” is when you use the actor’s own clothing, more information on this is detailed below.) If yes, will my closet pulls be in person or over Zoom?
  • Does my set need a changing area for my actors? (If your actor is changing, the answer to this question is “yes.”) 
  • Do I need a costumer’s staging area? If yes, does it need costume racks and power for ironing/steaming?
  • Do I need laundry and dry cleaning between production days?
  • Am I doing any blood, dirt, or aging FX on costumes? If yes, do I need duplicates of any costume piece? 
  • Save all your receipts. You’ll need them for calculating your budget and returning items after production.
  • Know the return policies for your purchases. You may be able to return items for a refund after you wrap production. Make notes about what came from where.
  • Take photos of everything.

Production

  • Never let your actors eat lunch or smoke in costume.
  • Never let your actors wear their costumes home. They will forget to bring them back to set. Bet on it.
  • If your actor has a costume concern, listen to them. Often, inexperienced actors feel vulnerable wearing clothes that are not their own. This is normal. Take them aside and convince them that they look fabulous on the monitor.
  • If your actor says they have difficulty moving, breathing, or otherwise getting into character while in costume, stop the take or rehearsal. Address their concerns and find a solution.
  • Take photos of your actors in costume. They’re fun to have and can be useful when you build a costume portfolio.

Post Production

  • Before you return rented costumes, check for spots or grime. A little spot cleaning can save you a hefty cleaning fee.
  • Is there any costume worth keeping? Should you start building a costume closet for future use?
  • Keep your receipts so you can return items that didn’t fit, you didn’t use, or just want a refund on.
  • Store credit can come in handy for your next show!

Closet Pulls

If you do not have the budget to rent or buy costumes, you can do what is called a “closet pull.” This simply means your actors pull items from their personal wardrobe and then you create a costume from what they already own. This is useful because the items already fit your actor and are free to use, though you are limited to what they own.

A closet pull can take place in person or remotely over video, but generally follows the same format, creating looks from items already on hand. However you do your closet pull, make sure to see your actors actually wearing the look before you make decisions, don’t trust a garment on a hanger. Take photos or screen grabs. Be creative and don’t forget to use accessories. Make it work!

Costume Rentals and Resources

The Goodwill at Manchester and 77th Street.
Western Costume
Sony Pictures Costume Rentals
Warner Bros. Costume Rentals
Universal Studios Costume Rentals
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