Costume Design FAQ

  1. You, the costume designer, have just been signed onto a show. Where do you start?
  2. How do you manage your time when working on a play?
  3. How do you prepare for meetings? What do you bring to the meetings?
  4. What is your role when your play is applying for theatre space?
  5. How do you make your budget? What should you consider when making your budget? How do you buy or order things?
  6. Where do you do most of your work? Where do you store your materials? Do you have to share space with anyone?
  7. Where do you get your fabrics and other costuming materials? Are there any store that are very helpful? Or places to get deals?
  8. What is a really durable basic fabric? What is an especially frustrating type of fabric to use (and avoid)
  9. Are there any particular colors that have particular effects onstage?
  10. Do you use patterns? Where do you get them?
  11. Do you use any of the ART costumes? How to you get access to these? What are the rules about using these? Can you alter them?
  12. What are all the steps that go into making a single costume? Do you have any advice for making large amounts of costumes in a limited amount of time?
  13. When do you get actors' measurements? How do you arrange to get these? What are the measurements you take?
  14. Do you use a sewing machine for most of your work? What specialized tools do you end up using to do your job?
  15. How do you suit costumes to fit the physical activity or specific type of movement that they'll be used for?
  16. How does costuming for dance differ from theatre?
  17. Do you test out ideas? How? Do you recommend watching rehearsals?
  18. Do you fireproof costumes? How?
  19. Do you have any advice for making it easier to quick-change?
  20. How do you deal with the wear/tear when the play is up?
  21. Where do you clean the costumes? How do you arrange it?
  22. What are some particularly difficult challenges you have encountered and how have you dealt with them?
  23. In your experience, what is something you wish you had known earlier?

You, the costume designer, have just been signed onto a show. Where do you start?

Read the play a few times. Hear what the director has to say – they generally have at least a general aesthetic. If you have no ideas, ask for movies to watch, pictures to look at, etc. Sometimes going to past productions can be useful, sometimes not. If you’re doing a historical piece, www.costumes.org is invaluable.
Firstly, go through and write down all the character names. As you read the show, look for Articles of clothing that are in the script and look for adjectives other characters use to describe each other. Try to get a sense of color for the show and a sense of size or scope.
If you are going to need historical research, the Harvard libraries are very helpful (the Fine Arts library may have things that Widener and Lamont lack, and there’s also a theatre collection at Harvard).

How do you manage your time when working on a play?

Making calendars is great, but it is hard to know how long things are going to take from the get go. A lot of it depends on what you’re pulling/buying and what you’re making. Whether building or sourcing the aim is always to have costumes pretty much set and ready by tech week. A week prior to that you should probably know what everyone will be wearing, where you're getting it from or the time frame for manufacture in order that everything can be fitted in, with some wiggle room for alterations and changes (which will invariably be necessary.) Aim to have everything done by the Monday before opening as that gives you a few days for alterations and gives the actors time to rehearse in costume, which can definitely change how they move.
Making sketches as soon as possible – before the first full production meeting – is great as it means you’re coming in with something which can be okayed or vetoed and you know what needs work still.
Next comes measurements – at the first read-through, if possible. Then you start looking for materials. Go to costume stock as soon as possible to reserve what they have that you can use, then figure out what you want to buy and what you want to make. If you are using Loeb costumes, this will involve contacting Suzy Kadiff (or whoever is in charge of A.R.T. props and costumes at the time). A lot of scheduling depends on the timeframe of the show. Take into account how many different characters you are going to have to costume.

How do you prepare for meetings? What do you bring to the meetings?

Bring your sketches, with those that have changed on the top. Bring a record of what you have spent, where you are planning spending, and what you have left to spend. Bring color swatches if you have fabric, or photos of finished pieces. Possibly also notes on any historical or textual materials, and a list of any concerns, either clothes-related or logistical. As much as you can to give other designers an idea of what you’re doing. Also, people like to see pretty pictures. Be prepared to ask questions of the other designers to find out what they are planning. Sometimes it’s hard to pin people down, so this is a good opportunity to get some vital matters cleared up.
It’s ideal to be on time with your budget, as it helps the producers coordinate the money, and materials may take a long time to arrive after they’re ordered.
Besides the regular production meetings, you or another designer should schedule at least one colors meeting early on with the set designer, light designer, master painter, makeup designer, and anyone else designing the set (also unlike the production meetings, whether or not you want to have the director and/or producers there is up to you). Depending on the aesthetic of the show, you’ll want to make sure that your colors either work or don’t with the colors of the set and the lighting designer will want to know what colors the actors will be in order to correctly highlight them.

What is your role when your play is applying for theatre space?

You do not need sketches, but you need to have read the play, thought of an aesthetic and set yourself goals like: things you are planning on getting out of the production, what you are bringing from past productions, and where you see the play going. Talk to the director beforehand, think about colors, time period, etc. In general, nothing has to be definite and finished at this early stage, but the more materials you can show the board to give them an idea of what the play will be like and how prepared you are, the better. Ideally a costuming presentation in an interview is going to be quick, focused, relevant to the broader show-idea and clearly achievable with the resources at hand.

How do you make your budget? What are things you should consider when making your budget? How do you buy things or order things?

Costuming budgets are often small, and it's absolutely necessary to be creative with materials. The things that always get forgotten in budgeting are dry cleaning, extra stockings, extra make up (sometimes your responsibility), and shoes. Remember these things. Your budgeting will be easier once you have visited stock and know what you will not have to buy. Find out what types of materials you will need to buy, then you will need to calculate how much of each material you should order. You might need to call places and ask for prices, or check them out some other way.
Sometimes, as in very contemporary shows for example, costume expenditure may be quite small. If full historical dress is necessary then obviously a budget will need to be larger – I would seek advice from costumers who've worked on previous similar projects, particularly if sourcing fabrics and esoteric items.
High cost items tend to be purchased with a "P-Card" or purchasing card from the A.R.T.. In general most costumers tend to purchase smaller items themselves (simply because it's easier and involved less organization) and then be reimbursed thereafter. All receipts are submitted to producers for filing and approval.
It’s still possible to use Loeb stock even if your show is opening somewhere else besides the Loeb. Also, get ahold of the tax exempt form that allows you to buy goods without paying tax. Information on how to get this is in the Do’s and Don’ts section. You will do most of your own shopping around Boston; producers are often willing to come with you if you don’t have the money to spend, some organizations have a debit card you can use instead. If you’re ordering something online or a large amount of fabric/accessories/whatever from far away, talk to Michael Griggs or your producer about charging it to a card.
Most big challenges are budget-related - it's important to be pretty frugal and sometimes very creative - being able to borrow costumes from other schools instead of purchasing is, I think, and under-used resource, particularly places like MIT, where rental is very cheap.

Where do you do most of your work? Where do you store your materials? Do you have to share space with anyone?

Most of your work, regardless of where the show is going up, will be in the Loeb costume shop. Before you work there, get to know Jeannette, the woman in charge of the costume shop, and ask her to show you around the shop. You are required to do an orientation with Jeannette Hawley (ext.8857) before you get to use the costume shop in the Loeb. We have a cabinet there where we can store things, and if you’re nice and leave notes, you can hang things on the A.R.T. costume racks on the wall. Just make sure you don’t get mixed up with their things and that they aren’t going to be using all the space. Label your things. The A.R.T. costumers are there til 6pm; if you’re nice sometimes they will let you work a little earlier in the evening, but ask first. It is their space – okay everything with them and always talk to Jeannette or whoever is working before you sit down at a machine/start cutting. Once load in happens, you should have a dressing room to store things in.
The HRDC cabinet is located opposite the middle table. If it doesn't fit in there, and there's no way it can go in the HRDC office, please label it and tuck it out of the way (say, under the millinery table). If the A.R.T. doesn't know what something is, they're liable to move it around (and therefore lose it), or worse, assume that it's trash and dispose of it.
One thing to be aware of is that drawer we use to store things is not locked and consequently things can “disappear” out of it. Just make sure to label everything that’s yours and not to put something too irreplaceable in there. One costumer had 30 yards of black fabric “vanish” on her from the HRDC cabinet, which is pretty rare because most people will respect your stuff, but can potentially happen. Another way to safeguard your stuff is to store things in the board office (if you ask very very nicely – perhaps).
You may need to move your costumes around with you if space gets filled up in the Loeb costume shop – storage space there is limited.

Where do you get fabric and other costuming materials? Are there any stores that are very helpful? Or places to get deals?

Sew Low is your best first bet. Take the 69 bus and get off at 6th st – it’s right across the street. They have a lot of fabric, most of it at good prices. Winmil, which you can get to from the downtown crossing T stop, has nicer fabrics, but they’re more expensive. If you need to buy a lot of fabric and have time and energy, go to New York. Boston Costume in Chinatown. It has a lot of wigs, hats, make up, and silly accessories that you might need. I love Oona’s Vintage in Harvard Square – they have saved me multiple times. There’s also The Garment District – a short walk from the MIT T stop is another great store. Online, eBay and Oriental Trading Company are my best friends.
Again, you can also use stock costumes from the Loeb, or, if applicable, the actors’ own clothes. For ready-made costumes, either A.R.T. or other schools' stock - esp. MIT and Emerson. The A.R.T. usually has a costume sale in the fall, there’s a Goodwill store on Mass Ave. near Central Square, an Army Navy Surplus Store in Boston, several sex/bondage clothes type stores in Boston and Cambridge (like Hubba Hubba in Central Square), and a number of Japanese-clothes/accessories stores in the Porter Square Mall.
More resources will be listed later on in the manual --- but you will need to do a bit of shopping around on your own.

What is a very durable basic fabric? What is an especially frustrating type of fabric to use (and avoid)?

Fabric really depends on the effect you’re trying to get, and how it is going to be used. Shiny satins may look nice in the store, but look very very costumey under the lights. Silk dupioni is a wonder – it looks very expensive without costing you an arm and a leg. Lycras are horrible to work with but sometimes necessary. Basic cottons can be great and take light very nicely.

Are there any particular colors that have particular effects onstage?

Work with the lighting designer. Distinctions between dark colors can disappear with lighting, but they can make sure that doesn’t happen. Shinier fabrics will reflect more of their color onto the actor (obviously), and matt fabrics are better at absorbing light.

Do you use patterns? Where do you get them?
There are some patterns available in the A.R.T. costume shop, otherwise many costumers make patterns. Some people have also bought them in the past. Also see the question below.

Do you use any of the A.R.T. costumes? How do you get access to these? What are the rules about using these? Can you alter them?

Even if you’re not costuming a play in the Loeb, if you’re doing an on-campus show, you can borrow props and costumes from Loeb stock. Suzy Kadiff in the A.R.T. costume stock is your liaison – try to keep her happy. I don’t know her hours this year, but they should be posted on her door. She doesn’t use email, so make sure you find her number – which is also on her door. She will explain the whole process to you. Alternations depend on the costume – talk to her. Everything must be checked out and in after dry cleaning, with her there. Don’t go in when she’s not there and make a mess. You can start labeling and tying up your stock costumes with Suzy whenever you want – even during the semester before your show. Check costumes out around load-in (go through the costumes with Suzy and record what you’re taking, and give her a deposit for them).
In order to get anything out of stock from Suzy, you MUST give her a $100 deposit check the day that you do so. Otherwise, nothing can leave (this will go for props too). Talk to your producers about this. Suzy manages both the costume stock and small props, so she is often all over the building. If you can't find her, first check to see that she is in fact working today. Next, look in Costume Storage, which is in the basement of the Loeb Drama Center, to your right as you come down the east stairs. Next, try Small Props storage, which is also in the basement: turn left as you come down the east stairs, and follow the hallway to your left. There is a message board on the Small Props door if you want to leave her a note. Check the upstairs hallway by the Craft Room with the black cabinets to see if she is restocking or assisting in a rental. Finally, if she is at none of these locations, ask to have her paged at the reception desk. If you call her and arrange a meeting in advance, this can be made easier.

What are all the steps that go into making a single costume? Do you have any advice for making mass amounts of costumes in a limited amount of time?

A sketch is the first step. Get it okayed with the director, show it to the actor to make sure they don’t see any difficulties, and get their measurements. Finding a pattern that resembles your vision is easier for beginners than making a pattern. At the same time, patterns can be expensive. Sometimes you can find pattern pieces for free online – see costumes.org – or ask around and see if anyone has anything you can use. Put the garment together (and before you do any finishing bits – zippers, etc – fit it on the actor).
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, things fail miserably. Using the dummies in the shop can be helpful, but they’re ideals, not real people. If you’re making more than one of the same garment – for a chorus, etc – find a basic pattern to do that, something that assistants can help you with. Differentiate them by color or with decorations, but keep the basic garment simple. This is really dependent upon the costumer - people have different methods. Generally the method is: design - measure actor - make pattern - purchase fabric - make item - alter/change if necessary.

When do you get the actors' measurements? How do you arrange to get these? What are the measurements you take?

Get measurements as soon as possible – read through (always a good bet) or first rehearsals. Ask the director when is best, and talk to the stage manager if you’re having trouble pinning down people. He/she should have that person’s contact information. Hopefully you’ll have an idea of the costume before hand and won’t have to take all these measurements. Sometimes others are necessary, depending on the garment.
I take: shoe, shirt, dress, bra, pants, head, neck, shoulders, back (base of the neck to waist), shoulder to wrist, shoulder to elbow, bust, under bust, waist (high and low if necessary), hips, butt, armpit to waist, armpit to hip, inseam (crotch to ground), outseam (waist or hip depending on fit to ground), hip/waist to knee, and sometimes more.

Do you use a sewing machine for most of your work? What specialized tools do you end up using to do your job?

Most things you need are in the Costume Shop. Contact Jeannette Hawley (jeannette_hawley@harvard.edu) to arrange training so that you know how to use the machines and the rules of the shop (irons, storage, what we can and can’t touch, etc).
Bring your own scissors and don’t leave them there. They will disappear. There are plenty of tape measures, thread, needles, buttons, etc, but things like zippers, hook and eye tape, etc. you’ll generally have to buy. If you’re not sure if you can use a particular material or have to buy it, please ask.
Just go exploring a bit to see what’s available. They have plenty of muslin we can use, and butcher paper for pattern making. When I’m costuming a show, I always carry my scissors, a measuring tape, needle and thread, and plenty of safety pins around with me.

How do you suit costumes to fit the physical activity or specific type of movement that they'll be used for?

Talk to the actors about what will make their job easier. If fake blood is being used, try to convince the props people to use something other than food coloring for it, as it does not come out. Make seams extra strong, make things in dark colors that won’t show stains, make sure material can be bleached if the stain effect is desired. Find ways to cover people if they are going to be spilled on. The director will generally want to help you protect your costumes, so just do lots of talking and experimenting. Make sure if the clothes are going to be in contact with painted surfaces that the painter either seals these surfaces or otherwise ensures that the paint won’t rub off on the clothes.

If you have costumed both theatre and dance productions, how does costuming for these different types of performances differ?

Dancers are very, very particular. Talk to them a lot and get a prototype of their costume done early so they can try it on. It's usually a case of finding a suitable durable fabric or allowing sufficient extra room in a costume for movement.

Do you test out ideas? How? How often? Would you recommend watching rehearsals?

Watching rehearsals – at least one complete rehearsal – is invaluable. You need to know if there are pieces that are expected of you that someone forgot to tell you about, if an actor is going to be moving in a way that you think might break the costume, etc. Tech week is the time for trying costumes out, which means things sometimes have to change last minute. Be ready for this.

Do you fireproof costumes? How?

You only have to fireproof large pieces of fabric that will be more set-like than costume-like. Talk to Griggs, or the equivalent head of the Agassiz. If you’re doing anything with the muslin from the Agassiz Cage, that muslin already has fire-resistant chemicals in it.

Do you have any advice for making it easier to do quick-changes?

Velcro and zippers are better than hook and eyes. Elastic can be even nicer. Having other actors help, or stage-hands backstage if available is usually the best way - also having the costume just offstage instead of in the dressing room. In this eventuality it's important to instruct the actor to check that the costume is complete and in its correct place prior to every show.

How do you deal with wear/tear that occurs while the play is up?

Be prepared ahead of time. Tights/stockings get runs very quickly. Unless you want this, buy extras. Find out if someone in the cast can do quick fixes with a needle and thread so that you don’t have to come back in. Be around though, just in case disaster strikes and just hope that the tearing of the dress off the body doesn’t happen til closing night. Generally it's the costumer's responsibility, or that of assistant costumers to mend wear and tear of this kind, and the actor's responsibility to notify the costumer ASAP.

Where do you clean the costumes? How do you arrange it?
Hillside Cleaners bulk rate is the best. Just down the street from the Loeb, they will deliver. If it’s an HRDC show, have them charge the A.R.T. with the name of the show written on the receipt. If it’s another organization, have someone with the debit card come with you to charge it then. Remember, it can be expensive.

What are some particularly difficult challenges you have encountered and how have you dealt with them?

  • It is always amazing to have a co or assistant costumer, someone to catch the mistakes you’re making and give you a break when dealing with a particularly difficult cast member.
  • Dancers are very, very particular, as I said before.
  • Though it may seem like it’s going to be easy, do a prototype early.
  • Sometimes costumes break. Be ready to find a replacement.
  • Sometimes people are shaped strangely – you can find a garment for them. Just know that a solution is out there and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

In your experience, what is something that you wished you had known earlier?

  • Satin looks cheap under lights. Very cheap.
  • Going shopping for fabric in New York is completely overwhelming and absolutely incredible. Making patterns isn’t as hard as it seems.
  • Big expenditures can be covered by the P-card. Dry-cleaning can be billed to the A.R.T., and that it's easy to use the A.R.T. costume shop with a compulsory brief introduction by Jeannette Hawley, who is in charge of the space.
  • Actors are generally rehearsing pretty close to the costume shop and there is nothing like fitting a garment to help you realize that it’s not going to work the way you thought.
  • Actors love clothing and love knowing what they’re wearing. Working with actors (and dancers at times) can be very difficult. Some are very picky about what they will and won’t wear and you need to make sure to take that into account. They can also provide a great deal of insight into their own characters and what they should be wearing and can be a wonderful resource in terms of inspiration and, at times, loans of clothing
  • Our job can be one of the most satisfying, because seeing the difference between an actor acting without a costume and an actor acting in a costume can be breathtaking. And seeing your months/weeks/days of work out on stage is fabulous.
  • You’ll always see the mistakes, but know that most other people won’t.-]