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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Costume Design

The cast of Les Miserables, costumes by Paco Delgado
The Masquerader, Leonardo
da Vinci (after 1500).
There was a time during the century or so directly before and after the Renaissance, when if you came to be called an artist, you were probably either a painter or a sculptor. All other art-related endeavors were considered little more than tradesmen--architects, goldsmiths, etc. In fact during the Medieval period that was pretty much the case with all artists. Often they didn't even bother to sign their work, and their wages were, at best, trifling. More than any other artist, Leonardo da Vinci changed all that. In the person of a single individual, the man could paint, sculpt, designed war machines, and mechanical lions. He even designed pageants, floats, and parades, for King Francis I of France while also dabbling in architecture, though mostly from an engineering standpoint. He was no Michelangelo, but at times he tried to be. His worst fault, in all this was that he spread himself too thin, remembered mostly as a painter and only secondarily for his inherent curiosity, many other talents, and his inventive mind.
From homespun to elegant, women's costumes steal the Halloween show.

Assassin's Creed even makes it possible
 for you to party dressed as Leonardo.
Among other things, Leonardo might well be considered the first costume designer. I mean, you can't have a festival, pageants, floats and parades without costumes to set the participants apart from the crowd. I suppose costumes, in one form or another, are as old as theater itself, dating back at least as far as Greek theater with their masks delineating the type of character the actor was portraying. However, the designers of such costumes are unknown to us today. Leonardo isn't. For all of Leonardo's many talents, this one only occurred to me recently as the Halloween season approaches and costumes and their artist-designers come to the fore.

In the theater and motion pictures, the costume designs tend to evolve, often having input and approval from several different departments and creative minds.
I, myself, have never designed for a theater production but I've created a few outfits for my wife and myself over the years. Actually, it's a surprisingly easy, simple, and fun thing to do. When I taught school, one of the kids' favorite design activities involved a simple, darkly printed outline of the front and back of a male and a female figures which the students could trace onto a blank sheet of paper then design their costume or fashion ensembles using colored pencils over that--in a sense, two-dimensionally draping a manikin. I've included two examples (below) in case you wish to download them, print them out, and try becoming a costume designer yourself (just in time for Halloween).

Trace the figure lightly, in pencil,
there will be erasing.
This came out a little light, you might
need to darken it once it's printed.
A costume being designed for a theater production first requires a bit of research (read the damned play). Any possible design must allow the freedom of movement demanded of the character involved. Then, if needed, the designer should do some historical research into the era and the type of garments worn at the time. After that, the paperwork begins. Very often there is a lot lost from the design table to the cutting table as technical limitations and considerations raise their ugly heads. One of the most important of these is the sewing skills of those rendering your designs. I wouldn't recommend Scarlett O'Hara's green velvet winter ensemble, for instance (with or without the drapery rod). The other factor is cost. Most amateur theater productions have limited budgets. Shakespearean drama is great, but yards upon yards of silk brocade might be going a bit too far.

The design work of Eiko Ishoika for the movie, Mirror-Mirror, starring Julia Roberts as Sleeping Beauty's nemesis, provides an interesting example of what happens as the design becomes reality.
Professional costume designers love what's often call the "costume drama" (above and at top) allowing them to pull out all the stops and create drop-dead gorgeous outfits which, if their historic personage were to see, might make them drop dead in shock, envy, horror, or dismay. On the other hand, one of the greatest challenge as designer can face is creating for a theater production that has become a classic, such as seen in the designs of Ken Powell for a production of Peter Pan (below). It's hard not to be influenced by designs from the past (indeed, that's usually what the audience expects) while striving to inject innovation, creativity, and novelty into one's renderings.

Dressing Peter Pan for the part--designs by Ken Powell.
Yet, even more confining for the costume designer is when there comes a need to update the costumes of longstanding fictional figures. That's the dilemma Michael Wilkinson faced as costume designer for the new film Batman vs. Superman (below). Moreover, to make matters worse, both characters literally brought with them baggage--a historic evolution of their costumes stretching back some eighty years (Superman first donned his iconic cape in 1933). Since then, TV and movie incarnations have seen Superman's duds endure nearly a half-dozen updates over the years, some of them not well-received by fans. Double that onus by adding Batman, and you have the costume designer's worst nightmare.

Do they believe in evolution on the planet Krypton?
Perhaps the most enjoyable work a costume designer can do, whether amateur or professional, is in designing for children (usually Halloween apparel). Yet there is, even here, quite a number of challenges and limitations. First comes scaling, reducing the adult character to children's proportions. Second the outfit must be, in a word, "cheap." Unless it's handed down to younger siblings, it's likely the costume will not be worn more than once or twice. Sticker shock is a no-no. Third, it must be safe, allowing children to see danger approaching (in whatever form), then the freedom of movement to avoid it. Finally, and this may be the greatest challenge for the professional designer, the costume must appeal to children's fickle tastes--their sense of humor, adventure, fantasy, rebellion, and self-image. The days of a white bed sheet over the head are long gone.

From aliens to zombies, kids wear the darndest things.


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