Costume for Actors | What To Wear on Stage and Screen

Costume for Actors

Written by on | Acting Industry

You can tell a lot about a character from the clothes they wear. A crown on a head can signify royalty, just as a patch on the knee of a pair of jeans might allude to poverty. A medal pinned to a chest might signal bravery—or the desperate need to seem that way. And a radioactive lizard suit might hint at a miniature city soon under attack. As audience members, we understand the signs and symbols of costume and how they relate to he story being told. And so as actors, we can use this understanding to craft better and more considered characters. Let’s talk about costume for actors.

Depending on the level of production, actors have varying degrees of control over their choice of costume, and what it might say about their character. Costume can denote time period, class, occupation and even personality of your character. In productions where costumes can be chosen by the actor, considerations must be made that accentuate the character without feeling too obvious to the audience. 

In this article, we’ll cover a few basic facts around costume, and examine the differences between costume for stage and screen. Finally, we’ll speak to some more expansive ideas about how to find your character within the way they dress. It’s one of those areas that all too often goes unconsidered by actors, which is a shame: it’s a great place to explore a character and bring them to life!

What is Costume?

Costume is the clothing worn by a performer for a performance. Most people tend to think of it in terms of acting, but it can extend to the choice of clothing selected by, say, a musician for a performance on stage. Costume has been a part of drama as long as all the other aspects of the form: you can trace a clear line through history from the helmets of the Star Wars stormtroopers to the masks of actors in Ancient Greece.

The word itself can be traced back to the Latin word consuetudo, meaning “custom” or “usage”. Its more contemporary roots in 17th century Italian and French liken it to the English word “custom”—meaning that a costume is of the style, the fashion. To some degree, this usage carries through today: a costume is the correct clothing for a particular time or place. For an actor, the costume is what their character wears on stage or screen. For a mourner at a funeral, the costume is formal and black. And for a police officer, the costume is a uniform.

Costume in Professional Productions

Costume is a vitally important part of any contemporary production—be it stage or screen. As costumes adorn the actors who take up most of our attentions when watching a narrative unfold, they are extremely visible part’s of a production’s design. For this reason, they require highly skilled designers, fabricators and stylists to ensure they look authentic and correct.

Costume on Screen

Costumes for screen are typically referred to as “wardrobe”, as is the department in charge of their procurement and upkeep. A feature film employing extras could have over five hundred costumes for one crowd scene alone, and multiple costumes will be required for every major character as well.

In film and television, continuity is a significant challenge with costume, as the same piece of clothing will need to be kept in the same condition for months on end. In certain situations, wardrobe may produce several versions of the same item of clothing in case one is damaged beyond repair.

Costume on Stage

Costume in the theatre taken extremely seriously, as the scrutiny by a live audience is arguably higher than that of a person watching a film in their home. Every item of clothing has to feel ‘real’, as it is literally existing in the same space as the viewer.

Similarly to screen, stage costumes are designed to accentuate the characters or setting; however, their role may also be symbolic. Placing Hamlet in a dark suit might not be the traditional choice that Shakespeare envisioned, but still speaks to his status and mood. Modern costumes, or costumes that don’t fit a traditional understanding of a play are a terrific way to shake up the interpretation and breathe new life into a well-trod story.

Can I Choose my Own Costume?

The answer to this question depends on a few different factors. On a professional shoot like a film or a Netflix series, you’re unlikely to have too much of a say as to how your character dresses. Costume is handled by the wardrobe department (or designer on a stage show) and will be determined by the larger aesthetic of the production design. You’ll have the chance to give them your measurements and not much else.

However, if you’re in a starring role, you may find you have some sway as to how your character dresses—especially if you consult with your director. It all comes down to your influence and industry clout: if you’re Leonardo DiCaprio, they’ll probably let you film the movie in sweat-pants.

On lower-budget, independent or student productions, you are actually more likely to provide your own costume. Costume buying or hiring is expensive, and it’s a smart way for the producer to cut costs. The director or designer will likely ask you to “bring in some options” chosen from your own wardrobe. This has its advantages: such as you have a greater choice over how you look on stage or screen (see below)! But it can also put your own clothing items in jeopardy of being damaged or lost.

How to Choose what your Character Wears

Let’s say you’re gearing up for an indie theatre show, and the director has asked you to “bring in some options” for your character to wear. How do you choose what your character wears?

#1 Read the Script

First thing’s first. Do some script analysis. Look for any indication within the text that might give you an understanding of how your character might present themselves to the world. Are they tough? Do they like to stand out? Is fashion important to them? Do they wear a particular tie-pin that was given to them by a now-dead relative? Some writers will give you a complete description of how a character is meant to appear (thanks, Sam Beckett!) While others might skimp on details, that’s not to say there won’t be clues you can discover.

#2 Consider the Production Design

Next, think about the design of the production itself. Time period, location, genre, style, colour scheme… all of these things can be determining factors in the costume you pick for your character. If there is a designer, why not ask them for their opinion; if anything, it’ll help you find an outsider’s perspective on how your character might be viewed.

#3 Be Comfy

As you start to narrow down your own wardrobe, take a step away from character and imagination to consider the practical. Don’t choose a costume that is uncomfortable. Depending on the run, you may be wearing this costume over and over, night after night, and on a hard floor beneath some very hot lights. At least consider this when picking options. Is it hurting you? Can you move around in it? Will it constrict what you have to do in the performance?

Note: It’s also worth choosing something that is easy to wash and dry. You don’t want your share of the profits to be eaten away by constant dry-cleaning bills.

#4 Dress Up and Play

Once you find yourself with a shortlist of costume options, wear your choices and ‘play’ as your character. You can try moving as they do, finding the physicality and stance. Speak through some lines, perhaps a monologue if you have one. All the while, check in with yourself and ask how it feels in this particular outfit: does it resonate with the performance you’re giving?

If you complete this step early enough in the production, you can actually try wearing some options to rehearsals to feel and see them in action!

#5 Trust Your Director

Throughout this process, your director is going to be an invaluable resource. With the exception, perhaps, of the writer, your director will know your character better than anybody else on the production. Use them as a resource, as a sounding board, for how your character might dress. Are you in agreement? Or will a difference of opinion open you up to something not yet considered?

Ultimately, the call on what your character wears will be made by the director. When all is said and done, they are the one in charge of unifying the various threads that make up the production. So the more you can work with them to find your character’s look, the more you will be aligned with their overall vision, and how you fit into that.

Finding Your Character in Costume

When considering the importance of costume, I often think about this short promo clip for Netflix’s Mindhunter. Cameron Britton speaks about how the character of serial killer Ed Kemper emerges from a single act of costume preparation. If costume for actors is something you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about, it’s definitely worth your time. Because the character is often there, in the clothes and shoes and glasses, waiting for you to discover them.

Putting on your costume is the cornerstone of any pre-show or pre-shoot ritual. It’s a time where you step out of your everyday clothes and into those of the person you are going to become on stage or screen. You are no longer yourself in a costume—because these clothes belong to somebody else.

So the next time you’re putting on your costume, or picking out some options to show an up-and-coming filmmaker, take the time to think “How can I find the character in this costume?” Often, as Britton tells us, they can simply appear…

Good luck!

About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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