Have you ever seen a show live and been completely transfixed by a character’s costume? Maybe it was something dramatic like an onstage costume change that caught your eye, or maybe you wondered how an actor was able to dance and move around in a period-accurate floor-length gown without passing out from heatstroke. Whatever it might have been, I assure you it was intentional. The art of costume design is one of the most creative, thoughtful, and important parts of a show’s production, not by chance but because it has to be. Costume design is one of the most important parts of production design because of its ability to immediately convey a setting, enhance a performer’s stage presence, and express themes and moods throughout the show.
When it comes to theater, it’s important to understand the world that the characters are living in. This is what we call the setting, and it includes everything from where the characters are in the world to when exactly their story takes place. Often, productions will use a set, such as backdrops, special lights, and other props, to create a world that the cast of characters will interact. But another way that a setting can be conveyed, and perhaps more quickly, is through wardrobe choices. What a character wears can tell audiences a lot, not only about the characters themselves and whatever their roles in their made-up worlds are but about the setting itself. Viewers can decipher almost immediately when a particular show takes place based on costumes alone, thanks to fashion trends that are constantly evolving with time’s progression. Take the show Stranger Things, for example; even if the show never outright explicitly stated what year each season took place in, viewers would still instantly know when it took place just by looking at the cast’s wardrobes. Everything from the character’s costume’s color schemes to the fit of their jeans to their perms and mullets informs audiences that the show is set during the 1980s. Even if the whole show took place in a void with no setting or props, their outfits would be enough visual information to convey the setting or, at the very least, the time period. This is great news for theater companies that don’t have large budgets for detailed sets and prop productions; all they really need are good actors and creative costumes.
Another way in which costume design can elevate a show’s production is by enhancing the stage presence of the actors. In the world of theater, we typically think bigger is better- at least when it comes to the acting style- as it helps to demonstrate what is going on on stage to those in the audience seated farther away. So, you could imagine then how frustrating it would be to pay to go see a show and not be able to make out anything the actors are doing or even be able to decipher one character from the other. Well-designed costumes eliminate these issues by helping the actors not only better embody their characters but by helping to give each character a distinct look that helps them stand out from one another. In a lot of animated shows, particularly those targeted at children, the main characters often possess distinct and different color schemes and personal fashions. These help the young viewers to differentiate themselves from one another and to more quickly access which character might be considered a “good guy,” a “bad guy,” or even to help them pick their favorite character. The same technique can be used in theater through costume designs. One of the best examples of this is Clue (a musical based on the famous board game). Everybody knows that the game itself associates specific colors with each murder suspect’s persona. A character like Miss Scarlet, who appears completely adorned in red hues, can easily be distinguished from a character like Mrs. Peacock, who is typically styled in shades of blue. These conscious design choices enable audiences to make important distinctions between characters.
Of course, costume design isn’t just about the way something looks. Costumes also have to be functional for whatever is required of the actors that wear them. So in musicals, the costumes worn by the actors need to be able to move through intense dance numbers. From the perspective of a costume designer, this might mean choosing lighter fabrics so that the actor isn’t weighed down by their petticoats, or it might mean choosing fabrics that are more breathable so that actors aren’t overheating halfway through a show. Another instance where the design of a costume must be functional is in the case of quick changes. A quick change is something that often occurs on stage or just off stage when an actor must very quickly change from one costume to another. In shows like Heathers or Cinderella, quick changes may even happen on stage in front of audiences as part of the show. It is something that can add a lot of drama and wow factor to production when done right, so it is important for costumes in these scenarios to be able to quickly and easily either come off entirely or be easily transformed from one look to another. Costume design is an incredibly valuable art form. It enables a wide range of possibilities for product designers. Costume designers are responsible for communicating visual elements to audiences, such as the setting, character moods, and personas, as well as delivering fully functional pieces to a cast that will enhance the show rather than drag it down. The next time you’re watching a production, take a minute to appreciate the wardrobe because regardless of how simple it may seem, it is the product of a technical and aesthetic thought process.