How to Costume Design

by Marisa Kaugars ‘15

First things first: Be excited! Its super cool to costume design a show and it’s definitely great to see your work go all the way from vague dining hall discussions with a director to being fully fledged out on the stage. The feeling you’ll have on opening night is indescribable— it’s totally worth the effort!

The Process:

  • Talk to your director and other designers as soon as possible. Figure out what the director is thinking before you start actually designing the show—show them source images and ask them to find pictures of what they like. Then, share your images with other designers and talk through things that seem interesting to all of you—the coolest shows always have a ton of inter-departmental collaboration.
  • Talk to your director and other designers as soon as possible. Figure out what the director is thinking before you start actually designing the show—show them source images and ask them to find pictures of what they like. Then, share your images with other designers and talk through things that seem interesting to all of you—the coolest shows always have a ton of inter-departmental collaboration.
  • Decide on what kind of design you want to do. Sketches are great, even rough ones that vaguely communicate your ideas. Directors are usually visual people—they need to see things. If you talk about your designs abstractly, they usually won’t be fully convinced that your idea is a good one. If you draw, or find a picture, they have a tendency to better understand to your designs. If you are worried that you can’t draw, make costume collages instead—just collect pictures for each character.
  • Don’t overdesign. Even though its super exciting to be designing a show, please remember that your health, sanity, and schoolwork should come first. Be realistic about what you can accomplish.
  • Present your designs to the director and producer and the rest of the design team. You’ve been staring at these pictures for a while and a fresh eye can pick up on things. Expect that your original design will get changed. However, don’t let a director steamroll you. If you believe strongly in something, stand up for it. However, learn to compromise, especially on the little things.
  • Start as early as you can. Get measurements as soon as actors are cast. Buy things you can buy without measurements before the show is cast (trim, zippers, etc). If you have time over various breaks and already have measurements, try to order online stuff or start construction: you will be much happier later on.
  • Try to keep your crew happy. If someone can’t sew, have them find shoes in the closet or track down that last button-down. Give them stuff to iron, paint or hot glue. Most non-sewing crew members are happiest when they are embellishing things—ie, adding accents. The most important thing is to make sure everyone feels needed.
  • Tell your producer about things that aren’t going well. They are there for you and will help you figure out the best way to tackle problems. Don’t wait until the last minute and hope that problems will sort themselves out—they generally won’t.

Where and How:

  • Paying for things: Generally Creative and Performing Arts Award shows work on a reimbursement policy. You pay for everything upfront and get paid back towards the end of the process.
  • Undergraduates can rent from the Yale School of Drama Costume Collection for a fee. You need to schedule an appointment to meet with Linda, the manager of the collection. Make sure you do this at least a week in advance—the best bet is to schedule pulls and returns for the entire process and then cancel them as needed. Please do remember to cancel appointments in a timely manner.
  • In addition to rental fees, you need to dry clean everything that you pull from YSD. Make sure you account for this from your budget and do a dry-cleaning estimate as soon as you have your first pull.
  • You cannot permanently alter anything from YSD, so be very careful when making alterations.
  • The Yale Dramat also has its own costume stock and they allow CPA shows borrow from it. Use it as much as possible; it will save you time, money and stress. Check it out before pulling anything from YSD. Contact the Dramat to ask for access.
  • Make sure you receive rehearsal reports with information about things that need to go into pockets or specific pieces that characters might need.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no. You are a student and you have other responsibilities.

Deadlines:

  • You should have the following deadlines: Preliminary designs due, final designs due, measurements done, first round of fittings done, load-in. It’s also good to invite the director to stop by the shop so you can show them some of the stuff that you’ve pulled so that you don’t surprise them at Q2Q. Talk to your producer about these deadlines.
  • Be prepared to sew snaps and fix minor things during tech. Actors are humans and things happen. Don’t blame them, don’t stress about it. A lot of the Yale School of Drama pieces aren’t in the best of shape so it’s often up to the designer to make them workable.
  • After final designs are due, you shouldn’t have to change things. The director or stage manager should have told you everything you need to know (ie, is someone changing onstage, what are the quick-changes, is someone pregnant). That said, be flexible. Inevitably, things will come up and designs may need to be altered.
  • Make sure you know if the director is planning to do a marketing photoshoot or to use costumes in projections. Ask them about this in the first few weeks as it may move your deadlines up and thus affect how intricately you can design the show.

Materials: