Costume design is more than just clothes, and its also a department where women flourish


In a film industry where the flicks are usually lathered in a coat of green-screen, the role of costume designer is more important than ever. As a budding costumier myself, about to head into the final year of my costume design degree, I prefer to think of us as ‘world-builders’, helped along by the entire art department, rather than a solitary room full of people just looking at clothes as many would like to think.

Costumiers and other art department members often seem to be pushed to the back and disregarded when discussing the film industry as a whole. Its even more important to mention them when discussing women’s access to roles in the industry; as rooted in patriarchal domestic values as it sounds, costuming is actually the department with the highest rate of women workers, particularly on successful films. Out of the IMDB Top 250, 173 of 261 costume designer roles were filled by women, an astronomical advance from the mere 3/278 directors roles women occupied.*

The most successful working costume designers in the world are  women: Colleen Atwood (most Tim Burton films), Sandy Powell (Carol), Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Milena Canonero (The Grand Budapest Hotel) to name a few. It seems almost silly to set aside a creative department as ‘just fancy dresses’ when its an area in which women are flourishing, and offering their own take on femininity, masculinity, gender roles, and both period and contemporary costume.

For an aspiring costume designer, nothing is more irritating than your craft being whittled down to ‘its just sewing’ and big ballgown dresses, I speak with slight acidity from my own experience but also echo the thoughts of many seamstresses and designers, particularly my own group of friends at university, made up of about 80% costumiers and production designers. The costuming process is rarely something that is divulged but also a process that takes considerable time, effort and an attention to detail that most film-watchers won’t even notice, it’s a lot more than just whipping up an outfit.

For costume designers, research is key and it is vast. On period pieces historical accuracy is completely essential, there can be no mix up in hemline lengths, fabric colour, pattern, the underwear giving a costume structure, the sleeves, the necklines, fastenings, you name it, it has to be considered and is probably a giveaway to the year the film is set. Metal eyelets on outerwear before the 20th century? Ludicrous. Asymmetric dresses in early 19th century Russia? (*cough* War and Peace *cough*) An outrage. Tudor-set shows showing men not wearing a cod-piece? Unthinkable.

The intricacies of historical costume are scrutinised and a dead-giveaway for a films budget and attention to detail. This pressure of balancing time management with accuracy, a budget and working in the directors vision is all part of the costuming process. A director’s vision is a particularly difficult aspect to manage, ideas can be too vast for the budget or they simply don’t deem the costumes to be important. This was my experience on a short film, pushed to the back as if I didn’t really know what was going on with the technical aspects of the film, and not much consideration to what the proposed costumes were going to say about the characters. I’d considered symbolism and colour symbolism, colour matching, time, age, the real background of the characters who weren’t particularly fleshed out. Costumiers often come up with intricate backstories for minor characters; what their interests are, why they are wearing that outfit on that day, their financial situation, their job. All of this planning for a fleeting shot. Costumiers can spend hours, even days, on a costume or piece of embellishment for it to not be used at all or not seen in the shot. Visionary directors lend a hand to each department, bouncing ideas off each other and considering the effects of each team, particularly someone like Guillermo Del Toro, who routinely makes use of the vast worlds his costume and production designers have created (Crimson Peak was snubbed at the Oscars!!).

World building is becoming excessively important, just recently I seen Alice Through the Looking Glass, an eye-popping overload of CGI with only actors in costumes as a foundation. Mia Wasikowska’s purple Mandarin outfit worn throughout the majority of the film is a glistening and bright visual feast, it’s technicolor hues and embroideries not just nice to look at, but a helping hand for actors to really get into character. Costumes lend a hand to the way a character walks, talks and their general mannerisms, a regency era dress will pull back the shoulders and allude to the romantic sensibilities of the time, a corset straightens the back and makes an actress carefully consider how she will sit down. They put an actor in a time, a place and a mindset, without this, and in an era obsessed with the imaginary, we would be left with flat and undeveloped performances.


To give you some more context about the world and character building aspects of costume, here’s some nice bits of trivia…

In The Theory of Everything, as the film progresses, Eddie Redmayne’s costumes become bigger and more oversized to show how his disease is taking over his life and body.


In The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Peeta’s collars frequently become sharp, with arrows pointing to his chin and suffocating his neck and eventually, his collars become twisted round the side of his neck, this build up each time we see Peeta visually depicts the increasing control the Capitol has over him.



In Crimson Peak, Lucile’s red ballroom dress is built in the back to resemble her skeleton, with knots down the back to look like a spine, and the train as a pool of blood, giving clues as to the history of Allerdale Hall.


In The Revenant, Leonardo Dicaprio’s bearskins weighed over 100 pounds and was routinely lathered in bear fat as they would have been in the early 1800’s, this insulated the costume and to further this it was also lined with thermal wires to cope in the sub-zero temperatures.


In 2015’s Cinderella, the iconic blue dress worn by Lily James was made with over 270 yards of fabric, by a team of 18 people. Oh, and they had to make 8 versions of it.


In Game Of Thrones, embroiderer Michele Carragher intricately fashions house sigils onto many characters costumes to tell a story. On Sansa’s wedding dress the embroidery charts Sansa’s life. It starts in the bottom of the band with the Tully sigil of a fish representing her mothers roots, swimming up the bands that cross her chest, then the Stark Direwolf sigil is introduced, where it begins to battle a lion sigil of house Lannister, as they take control over Sansa’s future, in the back we see a huge lion head, showing that Sansa is Lannister property now.


But costume design isn’t all period pieces, even more contemporary films have to be well thought out. For a film set in 2016, a costume designer will have to consider if the fashions at the time of filming will be the same at the time of release, how the use of colour could communicate a characters traits. For a film set in the 1980’s such as This Is England, you have to source authentic vintage that isn’t damaged for wear, it has to look fresh from that era. In any film set from the 1940s-1970s, a trouser cuff roll up or the amount of buttons on a jacket (and how they are done up) signifies huge points of the story and setting-even more nerve-wracking to create because there are still people alive to criticise a flaw!

If you’re a film student working on a project, consider the costumier, build a world and develop your vision, costume design is not ‘just clothes’, it’s character, time and place. So next time you sit down to watch a film or series, period piece or not, take a closer look at the costumes, revel in the colours, cuts and embellishment on show, you might learn more hints about the characters’ journeys than the screenplay offers.

*stats taken from my report ‘Changing roles for women in the film industry: Directors, Producers, Writers, Costumiers’. To request a PDF copy of the report please email Information correct as of 20/4/2016.

By Chloe Leeson

CHLOEChloe Leeson is the founder of Screenqueens. She is 20 and from the north of England (the proper north). She believes Harmony Korine is the future and is pretty sure she coined the term ‘selfie central’. She doesn’t like Pina Coladas or getting caught in the rain but she does like Ezra Miller a whole lot. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, The Beach and Lords of Dogtown. But DON’T talk to her about Paranormal Activity. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff.

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