Costume Design and Story

Designer Brianne Gillen (disclosure – Brianne is my daughter) talks about her costuming work. Most recently she costumed a stage performance of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses.

Costume Supports the Story

I wanted to know: whether in recorded media or live performance, how does costume design move the story forward?

Costumer Brianne Gillen
Costume designer Brianne Gillen

“Costume design is hugely important for the story,” says Gillen. “Often, what a character is wearing tells the audience a lot about them before they even say a word of dialogue. You can tell a character’s socioeconomic status, sometimes their profession, the time of year, the city they live in – all by what they have on.

“The costume offers a glimpse into the character’s personality, and often it’s on a subliminal level. Because we all have an idea of what clothes convey, we immediately, and without even realizing, make a judgment about who a person is when we see them. A good costume designer helps the audience do this with a character.

“I really do think,” she says, “that, unless the story specifically dictates otherwise, the costumes a character wears should look like their own. The costumes shouldn’t pull focus unless it’s called for. That’s why it’s sometimes unfortunate that contemporary pieces don’t get nominated for a lot of awards. Don’t get me wrong, the elaborate fantasy and period pieces require an enormous amount of time, work, and talent and should be applauded.

“But I think it’s too easy to forget sometimes that the modern pieces, when done right, require just as much thought and planning. A designer might be shopping more than making from scratch, but he or she still has to carefully weigh what would be right for each character and their place in the story.”

Getting Into Character

A well-designed costume helps an actor get into character.

“I’ve had so many actors tell me,” says Gillen, “that they love getting their costumes because it really helps them complete their process and feel like their characters. This is especially true of period pieces, since the silhouettes are often so different from what we wear today.

 

The costume helps them get their ego out of the way and then they start to discover new things about their character.

 

“An actor will often move quite differently in their costume, which helps them feel less like themselves. It’s always fun for me when an actor has been doubtful about wanting to wear something because it’s so different or they’re afraid they won’t look ‘pretty’ enough, and then they start acting in the costume and find that they love it.

“The costume helps them get their ego out of the way and then they start to discover new things about their character. And then on the flip side of that, sometimes an actor will have insecurities about pulling off a look, and then their costume gives them a new confidence.”

Costume Budgets

Many filmmakers have little or no budget for costume. When a director or filmmaker tells actors to pull from their own closets, what key costume guidelines should be followed?

Gillen says, “I think that depends on the project. It is important, though, that the actors do have a somewhat specific set of guidelines, that way there will be a more cohesive look to the film or play. Make sure the actors know their characters well enough, and even some of the other characters, in case they have something they can share. It’s always good to have the actors bring several choices, so that the director or costume supervisor can have final approval, and not get locked into something that might not work as well because it was the only option.

“Be sure to let the actors know the overall color scheme of the piece as well, and whether there are any they should avoid because they’d clash with the set or another actor. And of course if it’s a film, be careful of patterns that are too crazy or might do strange things in HD. That’s another reason it’s good to have backups, in case you look in the monitor and a piece of clothing starts flaring or just not looking right on screen.”

Collaboration Between Designers

What kind of collaboration needs to occur between the costume designer and the lighting director and set decorator?

Costumes for Meh-tropolis Dance Theater
Costumes for Meh-tropolis Dance Theater

“It’s important,” Gillen says, “for the costume designer to talk with the other designers. You don’t want to have spent huge amounts of time creating this beautiful, one-of-a-kind green dress, only to find in dress rehearsals that the set is the exact same shade of green and so the actor ends up looking like a floating head! Then one or both designers will have to scramble to change their design.

“It’s always a good idea to know what the other designers are thinking, and vice versa, so that everyone can work together to create the best look possible. That collaboration can be really fun, too. I recently worked on a musical comedy that featured a number where the women wore crinoline dresses. It made the number even funnier when their skirts wouldn’t fit through the doorways on stage. For several years, I worked with a great lighting designer on some dance pieces, and I always loved collaborating with her and seeing what her lighting and color choices did to my costumes.”

What to Avoid When Costuming for the Camera

“As I mentioned before, be careful with patterns, especially when working with HD. It’s always a good idea to test something by looking at a monitor. It sometimes is so hit-or-miss, but some patterns you think won’t work will be fine and others turn into a wavy, flaring mess. I’m a stickler for continuity, too. It happens to everyone that there are occasions when you just don’t catch something, but it’s usually preventable if you pay a little extra attention to detail. Be careful when using clothing with logos, especially sports teams. Often there are licensing rules associated with these, and unless the production team has cleared them (or is willing/able to do so in post-production) there could be legal issues down the line. I find it’s better to just avoid them in the first place, or find a subtle way to cover them up for filming.”

See Brianne Gillens blog GownsBy… And she is a contributor to the London-based Guise magazine.

This interview also appears in The Filmmaker Lifestyle.