Costume designers specialise in costume design for the performing arts, motion pictures, and television productions. The work of costume designers is similar to that of other fashion designers. Costume designers have to perform extensive research into the styles worn during the periods of which the performances take place. They work closely with directors to select appropriate attire for the performances. They create sketches of designs, select the required fabric, as well as other materials, and generally oversee the production of the costumes. They also need to ensure that they stay within the costume budget for each production. Other duties can include altering the costumes to fit the actors; the cleaning and repairing of the costumes; working with the directors to ensure that the costumes look as they should from one scene to the next; and ensuring that the costumes look right under the stage lighting.
Sarah Roberts leads a bit of a double life. While she does have a full time job at Wits University lecturing production design, she lives her dream by designing costumes for live theatre all around South Africa. She believes that the costume design that she has so much passionate for, is a calling rather than a job.
“In some ways being the costume designer for a theatre production doesn’t seem like a job, but rather a privileged space in which to play, to enjoy myself, to do what I do well amongst people whose company I enjoy. Or most of the time it is like that – there are the odd productions that can make me very nervous – when the management approaches me too late, or the script is not yet written and its huge and time is running out.
“I am not sure that it is a deeply meaningful job, but it is very gratifying – and we are not all of the temperament or capacity to commit to a life time of social responsibility. Within theatre I like the balance of teaching and the design side of production, sets and costumes.”
A costume designer is someone who designs costumes for theatre, television, movie, advertising or other mediums to help ensure that a theme is established. In South Africa there are no full-time costume designing courses, which do exist in the UK, Europe and USA but this would fall under Production design. A costume designer is sometimes also referred to as a set designer, production designer, or art director, depending on the theme and mode of work involved. In terms of salary there is no set standard as designs fees are calculated per production and negotiated with the producer. These do depend on the experience and status/recognition of the individual involved, i.e. a young designer would not be able to request the same fees.
The costume designer is responsible for making the decisions about everything the actor/actress wears during the show, including hairstyling and make-up. This doesn’t mean that they are there simply to provide whatever the performer is wanting, (although in the case of a persona like Evita, the character created by Pieter Dirk Uys – he has a clearer sense of what kind of image the character is projecting, and so obviously guides the process).
What the job entails precisely is dependent on the medium (theatre/television) the genre (musical theatre, contemporary drama, period drama – each of which requires a different way of working) and the context in which you are working. The costume designer usually takes a brief from the director (who will describe why they have chosen the production, and how they want it to come across to the audience of today) and also from the producer (who will provide an indication of what budget there is to work with, and what the time line for delivery is). The costume designer will read the script and begin interpreting the requirements that the production will make in terms of wardrobe. This means working out how many characters, how many costumes per scene – and whether there is time for the actor to change between one scene and another (this is critical in a live production, but obviously does not matter in a film/television situation of a shoot where the action will be broken up over a period of days or weeks). A more important response to the script is beginning to respond in imagining the identities of the characters, who really are nothing more than names and words on a page, at this point. Understanding who the characters are, in their own right, and in relation to other characters is crucial, and involves a careful reading of the play to determine – age, gender, class, occupational identity – the social markers that operate in the real world, by which we start to know who people are before they say anything. The setting of the play – the historical circumstances of life, and in which part of the world the story is set, also shapes how the character will be constructed. Then there is a more subtle level of coming to an understanding of who the character is – what viewpoint do they hold, (are they conservative traditionalists or young radicals), and what can be worked out from the way in which they engage and behave (are they introverted or bold and outgoing). This is all part of beginning to imagine the character as a real person who would have a way of dressing that expresses who they are and conceiving of a range of choices for that character for different situations, moments or moods.
Pros and cons
“The thing I enjoy most is the space to imagine different identities and the opportunity to spend time creating ways of dressing that are completely different from who I am and how I live. I also enjoy collaborating in a team – although at times there are so many people’s opinions that have to be taken into account. “I enjoy the opportunity to work with fabrics, colours and textures.”
Required studies or experience
A visual literacy and flair needs to be complemented by some training in how to analyze scripts, work to briefs, collaborate in a team, and work to a budget and time line. A theoretical or school approach needs to be complemented by on the job work experience somewhere else in the costume chain before tackling the role of costume designer. Working as a wardrobe mistress or dresser, is probably the ideal job – getting to know how theatre or film functions. The other route would be through training as a cutter and seamstress and approaching the career from that angle. Fashion is very different from production design, but the competencies in fashion training provide a suitable departure point for the more collaborative project of production design. Other than that you need an interest in all aspects of visual culture, other productions in a range of media. You do need to be mobile – quite literally able to get around and shop in diverse places.
“You need to be able to work as part of a team – and enjoy taking on responsibility, even if you are not always in control of the final decisions. If you enjoy working with very different types of individual temperaments, from those who are egotistical and demanding, to those who are nervous and need patience, then working with performers will not be a source of tension and anxiety for you as a costume designer. The pressure can get intense as the moment of performance draws near. It is probably also important to come to terms with the fact that this is not the glamour position in the team, the performers and to some extent, the director will be in the public eye, but the costume designer tends increasingly in South Africa to be on the margins of public interest.”
An average day
“There is no average day – after 30 years I can say that each production brings new and fresh challenges – it is a constant question of extending and applying the skills and techniques that have served in the past to the new challenges presented by each production and its style.”
The best thing about the job
“Being introduced to the cast at the beginning of rehearsals, and seeing the people who are the bodies I must shape and style. Particularly when individuals among them are really happy to see me and quickly create a sense among other cast members that they can trust the decisions I will be making. Sitting in the auditorium on opening night, or any other night, and knowing the show is about to start – being proud of a moment on stage for my own reasons, regardless of whether the audience has applauded an entrance in a spectacular costume or not.”
The worst thing about the job
“Working with a performer who really wants to see his/herself looking back at them from the mirror, regardless of whether this is appropriate for the character they are playing or not – they will usually resist all attempts to modify their appearance. Fitting sessions when there are too many people in the room and performers are all talking and admiring themselves in the mirror, moving around all the time, so that you can’t get a costume fitted properly.”
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