Monday Prescriptions – 3 Things You Need to Know About Costume Design

Hello Film Doctor friends.

Other than the Cannes buzz, the Film Doctor team are getting very excited about an interview we are soon to share – a talented creative, Oscar-nominee and all around lovely lady…but we won’t reveal here name just yet. Stay tuned for a new “In Conversation” post later this week.

Having said that, the new Monday Prescription is linked to her area of expertise – film costume design. In fact, this whole week will be dedicated to the wardrobe department of filmmaking – just head over to our Facebook and/or Twitter page for daily quotes and articles on film costume design(ers).

Today, we’re picking on common costume oversights – both from aspiring Costume Designers and Directors alike – when tackling this particular side of film production.


Film Doctor Paco Delgado designs for Les Miserables


1. It really depends on the actors

As the late Edith Head (“Vertigo”, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kide”, “Roman Holiday”) once said, “You can lead a horse to water and you can even make it drink, but you can’t make actresses wear what they don’t want to wear.”

Good Costume Designers know that the clothes are extension of the actors, thus the latter have a lot to say on how they feel about each piece. The one person who often forgets this is the Director – on the genuine assumption that costumes are as much a part of his/her overall vision for the film, as anything else. Yes, the vision is yours, and it has hopefully been brought to life successfully by the costume designer, but the lead actress has the final say – even just in terms of whether she’s physically comfortable in the provided costume or not. Great dialogue & collaboration with your cast on the subject of clothes for their characters is not just for avoiding conflicts or ‘star ego boosting’ – it is paramount for purely practical reasons. For example, the visions you’ve shared with the costume designer are likely to have been without a human factor involved, i.e. designing for hangers not people, which means not accounting for the way a certain dress/suit looks, when worn by a certain actor. This is what the big films do and what you should be doing.

Work with your cast – you are more likely to achieve the ideas you originally set out to express, if you collaborate/communicate rather than impose.  In fact, not all actors ‘meddle’ in the costume department anyway. Less experienced actors might just be happy to go along with the overall costume vision/suggestions, while the more experienced actors are actually quite helpful and can improve your costume ideas – after all, they of all people know what makes them look at their best or what can communicate their character to the audience.


“…If clothes make the man, then certainly the costume designer makes the actor! The costume designer is
not only essential (but) is vital, for it is they who create the look of the character without which no
performance can succeed. Theirs is a monumental job, for they must be not only artists, but technicians,
researchers and historians! I am happy to honor these tireless, talented men and women who I have
always been inspired by and have so much depended on!”

– Audrey Hepburn honours the Costume Designers at the Oscar Awards Ceremony 1968.


Film Doctor Costume Design Saving Mr Banks sketch to still


2. This is also storytelling

Film costume design is not just about picking matching blouses and trousers – it is about telling the characters’ stories visually. A great Costume Designer works with the Director to really understand each character, “get under their skin” and serve the audience a truly believable persona. Film costumes need to be organic to the personality. They can enhance moods; reveal character background, tell myriads of stories. From the first second that character is on screen and through their evolution. If you think about it, most of us tell stories with clothes every day – the way we dress, the certain stylistic choices we make, paint a certain picture of us to the ‘outside world’.  Film Costume Design is no different, only a more heightened, conscious version of building characters through clothes.

A lot of research goes into successful costume designing. It is not only that the dresses and the accessories must match the time period in which the story takes place, but every single piece of garment worn by the actors needs to be true to the character. For example, a high-flying executive will have different shoes or tie to the accountant in his/her company; a rogue bartender might have a distinctive denim vest or a certain kind of T-shirt; a PR girl needs to have the latest high-end, chic bag, etc. The costumes and accessories build and complete the on screen persona.


 “Designing costumes is story telling in the same way that a writer or a director tells a story. The right set
may help the actor to create the character, but costume designers do so in a physical, intimate way. Our
work goes directly to bringing forth the personality that is written on the page. As costume designers we
get under a character’s skin the way an actor does.” 

– Jeffrey Kurland, Costume Designer for 18 Woody Allen films & “Erin Brokovitch”


Costume Designer


3. It is not cheap

As with all visual film elements – and the costume part of your film is pretty visual – the quality of materials used really shows the level of production.  Thus said, costumes and props – and production design, as a whole – are two areas you really cannot afford to cut corners: lower the quality of your visual assets and you reduce the value of your production (unless, of course, it’s designed with a certain “indie” or documentary look in mind).

Costumes for period-specific projects are especially budget consuming – and it doesn’t have to be a big Victorian or Medieval era costume drama to eat into your money. Even if you’re making a film set in the early 1990s, your characters need to wear certain kinds of trainers, jumpers and dresses – ones that were actually worn in the 1990s. Which requires a certain amount of vintage shops & studio wardrobes’ scouting. Which involves money.

Of course, as with every other expense on a film budget, there are tricks for getting bargains with costume design, too. And a good Costume Designer is resourceful and creative enough to fit the ideas within any given budget, threading the fine line between horrible DIY skirts and awesome charity shop finds.


‘Monday Prescription’ No. 105 – Whether you’re in charge of the costumes yourself or directing the people who are, remember some of the pillars of this department: 1. collaboration (with cast, as well as production team), 2. character research and storytelling, 3. astonishing costumes are not cheap, so you need to be creative and resourceful.

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Have a great week!
The Film Doctor Team
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