Thursday, February 2, 2012


COSTUME DESIGN: My Theater Production Notes and Stories and Projects and Tests
for the interested teacher, curious former student, or masochist in my circle of readers

And in we go:

A FEW NOTES: 1) I write in the present tense to give the curriculum life, though I do not teach anymore; 2) I edited the last blog post to put it in a better order, and I also added a few photos, should you care to revisit; 3) These lecture notes and projects are based on all the amazing things I learned from Felice, my professor, as well as experience, other workshops, and texts. I think the process is fascinating, and can be translated to ways of teaching any kind of subject, should you wish to view it that way.      

ANOTHER NOTE: Makeup and hair could be given their own chapter, and maybe I’ll do that, so while those are very much part of costumes, they will be discussed in a later unit (maybe).

Day 1: See previous post.  You couldn’t tell all the stories in it—those were for your edification and possible entertainment. But the idea was to ease the kids into it.

Day 2
By way of review for today’s lecture, here’s a sample lesson. I am using eras here that may or may not be familiar to your students. You know your kids. Create something that the majority can connect to. You are trying to build a mindset, shift their way of seeing the world, this time in terms of fashion. Every kind of class is a chance to train a very particular lens onto the world. I always found it a relief to see the world only historically, for example, or only in French.

Review: Say (for example): I’m doing a show set in 1965. Which of the following is more right for the show? Display pictures of a style resembling the Beatles (1960s); hippies (1970s), Flashdance workout clothes (early 1980s) and MC Hammer outfit (late 1980s). Ask: What would happen if one of the characters entered dressed in leg warmers?  (This character would stand out, and unless she is time-traveling, this would look like a mistake.) On the other hand, what would it signify if a character entered this 1965 play wearing a dress from the early 1950s? (In that situation, a character might appropriately looked trapped in the past, or not have money for up-to-date clothes, if that is what the play calls for.)

HOMEWORK YOU ASSIGNED THE PREVIOUS DAY: Over the next 24 hours, make notes of what makes the style of your own era specific to this era. Come in prepared to talk about that.

Practice: After the review, have student partners share their notes on the “look of today” and how it is achieved. (Pairing always gives slackers a chance to play catch up, by the way, and that’s fine by me. Sometimes.) Then have student partners turn to another pair and compare notes.
On a transparency (or Power Point, Interactive Whiteboard, etc.), put up the following play title:
                  My American High School Life, a play by This TP Class.
Say:  Take out one sheet of paper and put your four names on it, the date, and the title of this play. Write a brief dialogue among four distinct characters in the cafeteria or hallway. Then list the four characters and describe what they are wearing and why. Have student groups of four/five stand up, read the scene, and give us a costume breakdown. Ask students afterward to help you list the common elements that everyone noticed. Then have them turn in their presentation sheet for a daily grade. This activity will take the whole period. If you have time, review the previous day’s notes and relate those design concepts with their approach to their own High School Play.

Day 3
LECTURE: The Period “Look” and How to Achieve It

Show students a series of pictures that show eras. For example, political marches of the 1910s (suffragettes) and the 1970s (women’s lib) are quite specific. What makes the clothes in each scene different? Break down the elements. Here is a simplified set of notes. Most of these are for you, the teacher/director. Share what you feel you want and need to with the class:

A.     Line:

            1. Vertical
            2. Horizontal
            3. Diagonal
            4. Curved
            5. Straight
            6. Tailored v. Unstructured

Here is an oversimplification that is usually easy to grasp: Horizonal is comical; vertical is dramatic. Think of wide-hipped clown costumes, giant farthingales, and other exaggerations that imply girth. By contrast, verticals, with exaggerated heights, can imply menace and threat. Curved lines are playful. Straight lines are serious. Don’t make me say it: Okay, I’ll say it: These are generalizations. Duh.

This is a farthingale, used to exaggerate a woman's hips. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare has a character joke, "That would be like saying 'What compass is your farthingale?' so that an actor would have to more or less mime the structured object for today's audience to get the joke.

TIP FOR YOU: Pictures always help. Research these. The Internet and PowerPoint and IWBs make it all so easy now! And remember, once you create your own stash of photos, placed in an electronic file or notebook, you won’t have to do it again, though you can always add to and hone it.

B. Weight: a perceived feeling from fabrics

            1. “Heavy”: dark colors, velvets, brocades; depth, layers
            2. “Light”: pastel colors, net and tulle, feathers; fluffy, airy

Generally speaking, again, heavy weight is drama and tragedies, light weight is comedy and musicals, but I have seen a few dramas done in vibrant color. I have also seen “heavy” dramatic musicals. Again, find photo examples. Keep them. Use them. Repeat. I like old stuff, though of course there is so much more out there that is current, too—but this is an educational opportunity to turn kids onto the classics. They had faces then. Look at Orson Welles’s Macbeth, for example. Or look at Garbo in Anna Christie vs. Ninochka (where “line” has nothing to do with it, but accessories are do). One good example of transformation is how the costumes of the brothers change during the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. At their entrance, the brothers look filthy, ragged, and appear in browns. By the barn-raising, they are clean, and in crisp, bold colors. If these examples seem to reach too far back (sigh), well, I am sad. For ALL of us.
C. Color: The Easiest Visual “Tool”

             Some people don’t see color. They really don’t notice the difference between seafoam green and emerald green in terms of effect; or why soft pink flannel and eyelet trim will most likely look ooky next to crimson satin and black lace. There is a difference. If you don’t see this, I don’t know how to help you. You will have to take a class. Probably more than one. Followed by therapy: What’s wrong with you?

            A quick analysis of palettes:

            1. Shades: pastels, jewel tones, muted earth tones, electric tones
            2. Neutrals: white v. cream, grey v. brown, black v. brown
            3. Tones: cool v. warm, vibrant v. muted, pink v. yellow

Those lists offer a few, you guessed it, general examples of forming a basic color palette. Browns may be earthy and rural; blacks may be elegant and urban. Generally. Jewel tones show wealth and opulence (those dyes are expensive); muted earth tones show poverty or humility, perhaps. Pastels are frothy.
            On tones: You don’t have to know a lot about color, but I really hope you can see the difference between yellow and pink, because this is a helpful little key to making sure your colors “match.” Colors that are called “warm” have a yellow undertone; colors that are “cool” have a pink undertone. Yellow tones are little tricky because they can look “sickly” under light, and under any blue light can tend to go a little green. When in doubt, go “pink”.
            WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR NOW: Again, there are classes for this, but in the mean time, walk around a fabric store and find a yellow bolt and a pink bolt of fabric. Hold them up against other colors, and start to train yourself to see tones. Next, create color palettes of three colors, and then five colors or so, just to see what samples you can find that look good together. Take it a step further, and sew yourself a little quilt square for every palette, including a “neutral” in the colors. Then as you do your summer script reading, match plays that you can see with these colors. This is how we learn.

D. Drape: How a fabric moves or hangs

EXAMPLES: Expensive silk brocades are rich, pretty, very stiff. Expensive silks, by contrast, move like water. And stain like mad.
And did you know that very cheap polyesters can also move like water and that they often don’t stain? The lesson: Expensive What You May Need. It truly depends on what you want the fabric to do, what your budget is, and how important the costume is. Again, a trip to the fabric store and a study of a selection of various bolts will bear this out. A sturdy, cheap polyester may be just perfect for curtains that flap gorgeously in the wind machine, whereas more expensive cotton brocade won’t budge. Play with it. Over time and with practice, you will have a good idea of what works and how to find it.

E. Accessories: Some quick and dirty rules

1. If a character refers to his watch, give him one. If a strand of pearls will show a character’s wealth, give her some nice, plastic pearls. If someone refers to a handkerchief, someone had better have it. Coats in winter, umbrellas in rain, fans in summer. Hats are extremely helpful in period plays. (I hope you don’t think I’m talking like an asshole: Look at the obvious. It’s amazing how many people miss that in all the line learning.)
2. The more you can do with the actual clothes, such as sewing on buttons and bows and frou-frou that stays put, the better, by which I mean “safer”. Jewelry gets lost, or necklaces break and people slide on the pearls. Never good.
3. Avoid shiny things. They can blind audiences and distract other actors.
4. Use [whatever it is] sparingly. “Use sparingly” really means “use meaningfully.” What one piece can make the statement you need? A carnation in a buttonhole? a necktie with a good pattern? a hat shape? the right shoes? a feather boa? This is useful in any design but really important when you are on a tight budget and want maximum impact.
5. Most accessories are too small to see, so if you use them, go BIG. Stand in the last row of your House and have someone hold up any accessory and you will see what I mean. To solve this, try gluing three brooches together, or triple the bracelets, double the pearls. Hats? Make the feathers count.
6. And as always, cheap, cheap, cheap, and plastic can really work well.

[Note: At this point in the lecture process: ASSIGN THE FABRIC STORE PROJECT (see evaluation sheet and explanation below). MAKE IT DUE ON A MONDAY OR TUESDAY, TO GIVE KIDS A FEW DAYS PLUS A WEEKEND TO DO IT]

Close: Ask students to return to their ideas of what makes today’s “look” what it is, now using the vocabulary of the day to discuss it.

On the FABRIC STORE PROJECT and Assessment:

            The purpose of this project is to get kids inside a fabric store. That’s it.
            I used to take class surveys, and by a show of hands, usually fewer than five students in any given class had actually been inside a fabric store or even knew where one was. Here’s the point: Your drama club will need things. Someday, they, too--your students--may need things from just such a store. If they go to a fabric store with a group of classmates (self-selected is fine), it’s usually less intimidating, and the exploration is generally way fun for them. On the due date, I gave them 10 minutes to discuss how they wanted to present their research. These were drama kids, and we just sat back and had a good time. Afterward, we discussed the useful stuff as per how to shop at a fabric store for our purposes, and then back to business.

DUE DATE: _____________(Worth 2 Grades)
You will be asked to improvise a presentation for class based on your findings. Look for freebie visuals to include, have fun, explore, remember your stories.

GROUP MEMBERS: _____________________________________

FABRIC STORE VISITED: __________________________________

STORE DESCRIPTION: Include here layout, general items sold, and service. (40 pts)
Include evidence of a thorough tour of the entire store. (Add paper as needed.)

STORE SUPRISES: Discuss the things you found there you did not expect. (20 pts)

STORE DISAPPOINTMENTS:  Discuss what you expected but did not find. (10 pts)

Presentation (Enthusiasm, interest: 30 pts.) GROUP GRADE : _______/100 (x 1)

Day 4: Lecture
You can certainly share the following lecture notes with students—I shared some of it, mostly about numbers 1 and 2, and a little about 3—but if you sense your group wearying of lectures, cut to the fabric store project.

CONSIDERATIONS When Making Costume Decisions: Below, numbers 1 and 2 are obvious, and these constraints will lead to number 3; numbers 4 and 5 are odd items in the list, so I’ll explain 3 - 5 in detail below.

1. Budget
2. Time
3. Borrowing v. Rental v. Building
4. Size of theater/stage/distances
5. Actor training in how to wear period clothes (movement, uses of accessories)

On Numbers 1 and 2:
a.  Start a “costume drive” through the school paper, a newsletter, or mass mail, and ask for the following specific items, large and small, and at the risk of sounding unimaginative, stuck in the past, married to an old theater canon, or sexist:

MEN: Suits, vests, dress pants--black, grey, brown, and navy blue; dress shoes, boots, neckties, bow ties, trench coats, dress coats, hats (fedoras, bowlers, top hats), brief cases
WOMEN: Long or tea-length dresses, long or tea-length skirts, formal and wedding dresses, plain blouses, high heels, dress suits, hats, dress coats, fur pieces, aprons, beads/pearls/jewelry, purses.

ASK, sweetly, to avoid ugly prom dresses, contemporary clothes like tee shirts and tank tops, underwear and socks, and “junk”. You know what I mean. Immediately toss any item you know you cannot use. If you aren’t sure, think about how it could be taken apart or used for scrap.

b. Ask your shop guys at school, or a willing parent, to build you a costume storage cabinet to leave in a dressing room or other place (we used an area behind the gymnasium weight room). Put on a lock and keep at least two sets of keys in smart places. Cull and clean after each show. This is a good TP class task after exams.

c. If you have home ec or equivalent classes in your school, propose as a project the creation of some basic pieces I found we often needed--make them LARGE, and do a dozen, at least, of each, and you supply the fabric and patterns: Peasant blouses for men and women in basic muslin; vests to go with these; knee breeches in black and brown, go large; full long skirts in brown, grey, and black, that go to the floor--go long, you can always hem, and re-hem, depending on the show, and aprons. For what shows? Any “period” show: The Crucible, Fiddler on the Roof, anything by Shakespeare, and Commedia dell’ Arte plays all come quickly to mind. If you can have these costumes at the ready, you will not be as afraid to do period shows.

On Number 3:
            If you have very little budget and you are in a pinch, you may find yourself looking beyond your drama club’s evolving costume storage closet to asking kids or faculty members or a local stage company what they have to lend. This is borrowing. If you have time but little money, get some help and both borrow and build the clothes (see 1 and 2 above). If time is a consideration but you have some ready cash, rental of a few key pieces may be better than building. See below.

NOTES FOR THE DRAMA COACH (on Numbers 3, 4, and 5):

An important tip on renting costumes: If you must rent: Rental companies in my experience really don’t use the measurements they ask for--they use sizes and weights. And kids lie: Oh, worthless rentals, thy name is Vanity. SO: Add 10 to 40 lbs. to what kids tell you they weigh; measure their heights and other body areas either yourself or be a witness. And also size up. If a girl says she wears a size 4, use your judgment. If she looks more like an 8 or 10, tell the rental company that. If a boy says he weighs 180 pounds, and you know that YOU weigh 170, then say 220. You can always do a little tuck. Too small is too small.
            Also, if you know you have been accurate in your numbers and the clothes that arrive don’t work because of size, don’t pay for it. (We rented a size 10 “Dolly” dress for the big number, and the size 8 actress playing Dolly couldn’t get her thigh into it.) Rental companies have been, in my experience, very nice about it, provided you ship back the clothes prior to the production dates you indicated.
            Think, too, about the most important pieces. If you are doing a period show, do research and use the elements of design to help you choose the most important pieces: Think LINE. Long skirts with bustles? Gentlemen’s stiff collars? (Can you cheat with pulling up collars on a regular shirt, ironing down the little corners, and tying a tie? Try it.) Think CUE pieces--pieces that give the audience the quick illusion of when this play takes place: Fluffy pantaloons? Suspenders? Hats? Vests? Collars? Breeches? Boots? When you look in the books as you research, what items grab your eye and cry, “This says 1870”? (Think, too, of what pieces break this illusion--like jeans, sneakers, or hair scrunchies.)
Resources: There are many theater catalogues (see Resources at the back of the book I may someday turn this into) that sell spats, collars, bowler hats, and the like, at cheap prices. Often these pieces are only good for one show, sometimes two or three with a good storage system and vigilance. But budget for one.
On Building: If you know people who sew, if kids have moms or dads who sew, use them, use them, use them. There are people who just love to do this stuff. Budget for the thread, the fabric, the patterns, and a $50 bookstore gift card of “thanks”. Cookies are always nice, too.

On Sightlines in Your Theater: Decide how to spend your time when building costumes (as well as decorating the set): Think about how exaggerated you need to be for everyone to see, and whether tiny details will only “get lost.” To reinforce: When pressed, go for the strong effect rather than the small details. Finally: “If you’re going to be tacky, be tacky in red,” as my goddess costume designer Felice Proctor wisely advised, and “When in doubt, make it pretty.”
On Actors and Period Clothes: Keep in mind that you need to prepare young actors for wearing the kinds of things that have not yet arrived or been made. Nag them to bring rehearsal shoes, shirts and ties, skirts, and the like; provide skirts, or corsets, etc., to help them adjust to their characters’ movements in the costumes to come. Stress this a lot. It changes everything in performance.

Day 5
Lecture: What a Real Designer Needs to Know That We Don’t Use Much BUT It’s Just Interesting for Your Life


A. Fabrics (with a few basic examples)
            1. Natural (can be dyed and bleached): cotton, wool, silk, linen
            2. Synthetic (cannot be dyed or bleached): polyester, acetate, acrylic, nylon
B. Weaves: Any fabric can technically be woven like this (bring visuals):
            1. Satin (often silk or acetate)
            2. Denim (usually cotton)
            3. Brocade (often silk or cotton)
            4. Waffle (often cotton)
            5. Taffeta (often cotton, known as Moiré taffeta)
            6. Chintz (usually cotton)
            7. Knit (usually polyester or cotton or a blend)
IMPORTANT TIP: I’ll say it again: Just because a fabric is expensive doesn’t mean it’s your best choice.
ANOTHER TIP: If you have to match black fabrics, this is really hard, as is matching white. You don’t realize how many variations there are of these extreme neutrals until you see them under light.
EXPERIMENT TO DO WITH THE CLASS: Find a medium to light blue gel large enough to cover an overhead p rojector surface. Pull down a projection screen if you have one, and have four or five students dressed in black (this is high school, and an arts class in a high school: you will have ten, but just in case, have five large swatches of assorted black fabrics, and five of whites). Have students stand in the transparency light, next to one another. Immediately you will see that some blacks look “red” and some “green,” for example. Black, while it is the absence of color, is made with all of them. The dye mix determines the tint. Just on a physics level I think this is interesting. Next, do the same with white, this time showing each person individually first, with white light and no gel. Then have them stand next to each other. Some whites will look “beige,” others “pink,” others “cream.” I promise you. And this is a life lesson for their years of clothes-buying, to say nothing of paint chip-collecting, ahead.
            Again, if you are uncomfortable with improvisation, have some fabrics or clothes pieces that bear this out available for kids to hold up in the light. Another way to start this is to have five students hold the pieces, or wearing their own, stand in five parts of the room. Ask the other students, Do they match? Then do the experiment.
            The point is, a designer needs to know this kind of thing, especially if matching is important.


C. Costume Crafts: Things that enhance the clothes--and there are JOBS in this kind of work--
            1. Masks (“A mask tells us much more than a face.” Oscar Wilde)
            2. Jewelry and Ornament
            3. Shoes
            4. Hats and Headpieces
            5. Wigs and Facial Hair
            6. Leather items (purses, belts)
            7. Fantasy Elements (animal costumes, living trees, aliens)

D. Costume Skills: Beading, knitting, embroidery, crocheting, needlepoint, metal working (for weaponry), and leatherwork are examples of skills to make accessories.

            You can bring in examples of C and D, especially ones that offer examples of hand-made craft work (except maybe the weaponry), but the list alone helps kids start seeing the world differently. What I think is important is the idea of “craft”--that things they take for granted, such as shoes, are in fact MADE by a human; and before machines, things like shoes were always made by hand. Beading is still done by hand because it’s the only way it can be done. So every beaded (not to say sequined) dress they see on a red carpet was HAND-BEADED. Every Broadway gown that glimmers has a master beader connected to it. Every Broadway costume piece, from shoes to hat, was very likely hand-built to a designer’s specifications for that character, to that actor’s body. For my friend Ryan’s first Broadway show, he was astounded to learn they were building his shoes. And a custom pair for his understudy.
            If you have time (you won’t) or want to offer extra credit, you might also create an assignment to research, demonstrate, and make one of the items listed above.

E. Tools of the Sewing and Crafts Trade: aside from the usual needle and thread and scissors...

            1. hot glue gun
            2. fabrics, felt, fur, net, etc.
            3. heavy duty needles
            4. mini or hand-held sewing machines
            5. metal shears
            6. fishing line

Shows require unexpected things at times, both in terms of costumes and props. The point to emphasize in these units is CREATIVITY with whatever you have that you can afford. Innovate. Experiment. Papier maché, hooray!



Day 6
Lecture: Costumes and the Actor

A costume is not designed in isolation. The designer needs to consult with the director and the other designers so that the visual elements compliment each other and are conceptually on the same page. Often, especially before summer repertory seasons, costumes are designed before the actors are cast. The costume designer creates designs and even creates watercolor renderings, or paintings, of these costumes. Designers also select the fabrics, and staple these fabric fragments, or swatches, to their pictures. (See illustration.) [If you Google "costume renderings" and go to Images, you can see samples. Here is one I found there: ]

The renderings are then mailed off to the director for approval. It’s all done, right?

            Kids, this is live theater. Here are three scenarios for those design ideas:

            1. Suppose the director conceived a rather undefined character in a play as young and mysterious and dressed in slinky garb. Suppose this same director then, during the casting, is swept away by the audition of an older, more womanly actress whose interpretation of this character is not “slinky,” but instead, “clumsy.” That happens. How would this affect the costume design?
            2. Suppose, in another example, that a designer’s idea for a costume makes it impossible for an actor to do the cartwheel he has improvised to great effect in a rehearsal. What should a designer do?
            3. Suppose another actor just cannot stand the outfit the designer has made for him, not from a whimsical desire (such as “I look best in blue” or “I hate mini skirts”) but because it really does not suit his interpretation of the character: His “Bill” has more humor than the designer had thought, and might need a brighter look to his costume. How does the designer address this?

            These are problems that all the parties--director, designer, and actor--have to solve together. The designs are not written in stone; actors do not just have to “suck it up” and eschew their own creativity for the sake of a designer’s vision...well, not all the time, anyway. It’s about flexibility, budget, and time. Always. Change can be good, but is not always possible; sometimes change is not always good. I have known directors who changed their “concepts” in midstream, causing the set and the costumes not to match, and I’m not talking about color now, but concept: A “1970s” Romeo and Juliet shifted, for the director and the set designer (only as rehearsals began and after the costumes were under construction) to a “futuristic” vision, but they didn’t tell the costume designer. As a result, the actors got mixed messages, but once they had their costumes, couldn’t help acting like “swingers” rather than like “aliens,” or whatever. (I saw this show. There was an obvious lack of cohesion, and the director had made the whole design team simply look sort of insane. But it was the costumes that looked the most out of place, since the set made a bolder statement if only out of pure size.)

Costume Research: A Basic Process that Starts with a Play


1. Read the Play Several Times. Notes to take include
            a. Style/genre (drama? tragedy? farce? melodrama? mystery? or, if Shakespeare, all of the above?)
            b. Period and Place (as described v. director’s concept)
                        i. Lines, colors, trends of the times (Quick TIP: The shape and length of ladies’ skirts is KEY. See Illustration on “Hemlines Over Time.”) (Oh, wait, you can't. Okay, looking into a scanner.)
                        ii. Available dyes of the time (natural v. chemically enhanced)
                        iii. Available materials of the time (hooks v. zippers v. Velcro®)
                        iv. Social class distinctions (TIP: Servants look much the same over centuries, and that’s so useful to know)
            c. Character interpretations (designers must understand acting, character development, physical activity required, safety on the set)
2. Know Your Resources for Research
            a. Library: Books, old store catalogues from previous decades, theater history books, history texts, etchings, lithographs, art books
            b. Costume exhibitions, museums, pattern books, other art work
            c. Films: Remember that a director may have used a concept here, too, so a film may be unreliable. [Compare, for example, in the 1941 film of Pride and Prejudice starring Greer Garson, and the 1996 version from the BBC starring Jennifer Ehle. You will notice that in the Garson film, the costumes draw not from Austen’s England of ca. 1809, but rather from the styles of 50 years later. (Personally, aside from the obvious fact that Ms. Garson is too old for the role of Elizabeth and makes her sort of silly, the costumes make the earlier film unwatchable for me, full as it is of far too much fabric and too many flounces; what with all those women at dances, the clothes overwhelm the human comedy of the characters. But that’s me. My mom thinks that movie is darling.)]



            The “characters” for this project from which the students are choosing are from my head. You will notice that the characters are period examples from three different eras, in Western locations, and that all the characters are white. This is because
a. most plays performed in drama clubs have characters like this, for good or ill;
b. there isn’t time to ask the students to read a full-length play and choose their own characters;
c. creating characters myself means I can pull just the right resources for a limited time of research;
d. there were tons of books and places to research these eras and people easily;
e. all of the above.

I hope you chose “e”. The primary difficulty has to do with resource materials for research. This is a damn shame. If you can locate the resources, by all means enhance the variety of my meager list! This project is obviously only one example. Adapt it for whatever would be best for your group, always keeping in mind that the main purposes of the project are research, analysis, and creative (though not necessarily beautiful) rendering.

            Please note that each example gives the students a BIG CLUE to the year without telling them the year. (In example A, Queen Victoria’s jubilee was in 1898; in example B, the Civil War began in April of 1860; and in C, the Stock Market Crash would be in October of 1929.) This is part of their research.

DUE DATES ____________________

OBJECTIVE: To produce, through analysis of character descriptions and the process of research, costume renderings of one male and one female character from a specific period of history.

MATERIALS: pencils; a good eraser; several sheets of plain 8 1/2” x 11” paper; coloring tools (watercolors, colored pencils, crayons); four sheets of 11” x 14” sketch paper; fabric swatches

RESEARCH: Luxe High School Media Center, the Internet, another library, films, art

I. CHARACTERS Choose ONE (1) of the following pairs of characters to research and render. Read the descriptions carefully for clues to the period, personality of the characters, and the style of the play. The costumes should be historically accurate.

___A. Sir Woodstock and Lady Constance “Kix” Winston-Pentipott, III
            As a wealthy man of affairs, Sir Woodstock, steady and stalwart, if dim, has been indispensible to Parliament and Queen Victoria on the eve of the new century for the British Empire. Lady Constance, known as “Kix” and quite the woman-about-town, spends Sir Woodstock’s money wildly, flitting from party to party. As the parents of three daughters eager to make their names in European society during the autumn season, Sir Woodstock and Lady Constance dress for yet another London ball, at their wits’ end to find suitable husbands and avoid scandal! Hijinx ensue.

___B. Miss Annabelle Witt and Mr. Beauregard Lawson Riggs
            Ready to partake of a family summer picnic party on the vast green lawns of her father’s plantation home near Charleston, Miss Annabelle prepares to announce her engagement to the handsome entrepreneur, Mr. Riggs. Annabelle, dressed in her finest summer gown, is full of the youth and bloom of her 19 years. Beauregard, closer to 30, well-to-do and energetic, is very much concerned with the affairs of what seems to be impending war with the North. Tears flow.

___C. Caroline Vanderhoffen and Steve Callahan
            Always found wherever their artist friends are having a party, flapper Caroline and dashing Steve want to set their New York world on fire! Though not wealthy, they dare to find fun where they can. Caroline goes in for the wildly dramatic, mad for fancy things, though she has to scrounge for them. Steve is known for taking his enthusiasms and rages a little to excess. At this winter party, Caroline and Steve are about to ring in the last New Year’s Eve before the great Stock Market Crash! Drama abounds.

II. REQUIREMENTS Use manuscript form for all written components.
___A. A full bibiography of at least three (3) sources consulted for the renderings.
___B. Research report: In one paragraph, describe the general geography, the weather conditions, the season, and brief history of the period in which these characters live. In a second paragraph, describe the female character, your ideas for her costume, and how you came up with this idea. Finally, in a third paragraph, describe the male character and your ideas for his costume.

___C. Practice sketches: On clean, unlined paper, include general “thumbnail” (small but detailed) sketches of items for each character’s costume, including shoes, hats, and other accessories. Be sure to note the sources for the ideas (so you can find them again) and include any photocopies you make. Use the space to experiment, make cross-outs, and try colors.

WORTH 2 GRADES, DUE _____________

___D. Draft Sketches: A full-length pencil sketch of each of the figures in costume on 11” x 14” paper, one sketch per page. WORTH 1 GRADE, DUE __________

___E. Final Renderings: These must each be on 11” x 14” sketch paper, in color, and in proportion according to the scale used in the model in this class. Attach fabric swatches and label each rendering as modeled below.
NOTE ON SWATCHES: Some designers base their renderings on fabric they have found, and work backward. A swatch means a 2” or 3” long sliver of representative fabric. For this project, include only a swatch for each major piece, including one swatch for trim. If you ask very nicely at the fabric store, they will usually trim off a slim uneven piece from a bolt edge at no charge.
DUE _______________

SAMPLE RENDERING LAYOUT [illustration not available, but will this do?]:  

[end project]

 [see evaluation form near the end of post; you would also give them a copy of it].

Return to class . . .
Let them think about their character choices. You will be taking them to the library as you can schedule it. At my school, I would venture to the library a week before the kids and to pull all the useful books and had them kept “on reserve” on a cart. In fact, I created the project characters based on the research materials available to us there. I also routinely gave the librarian a wish-list of books and other materials from theater catalogues each year, and I often got my wishes. Because I asked. Librarians love excuses to buy more books, and would especially keep an eye out in the catalogues FOR me. I also hunted for websites that were kid-friendly and asked the librarian to check them out for an “all clear”. They also found websites for me. Loved those gals. Shout-outs to the late and beloved Velma, as well as Lisa and Becky and Dawn.  

Day 7: Lecture
[This lecture on drawing can come before or after you go to the library to begin research, but it’s nice to do before, so they don’t get so scared of the drawing part. It also works after, so they focus on the research rather than on how they will render it. You make the call.]

Costume Rendering
A. How to draw a body: See the illustration when I get a scanner. Before class, cut strips of 8 1/2” x 11” paper--four (4) strips per sheet, length wise. Pass these out for students, and have them fold it in half width-wise. Then in half again. Then again. They should have 8 equal-size portions.
B. Project Illustration X (which I can’t show because I don’t have a scanner and I will work on that) and have students follow the block-by-block instructions for drawing a body. What this basically teaches is human proportion, and is from Figure Drawing 101. Notice the other example showing a face with the same kind of information. When I taught this, I also did the drawing on the board, to show them that even I can do it.
C. Next, have students use the model to draw an actual figure on a sheet of paper. Have them draw “clothes” on the figure and examine the proportions.
D. They are to keep this strip in their notebooks, either in a pocket of taped to a sheet of paper. This will be the size of their figures when they do renderings for their projects. [If you wish, you can give a daily participation grade for this.]


Day 8: LECTURE: Costume Construction: A Way of Life

This is a quick-and-snappy breakdown for the purposes of a high school drama class.

PLACE: Costume Shop, with sewing machines, cutting tables, irons, hat blocks, a sink, a washer and dryer, fabric in labeled boxes, thread, just everything you can imagine
CHARACTERS: Costume Designer, First Assistant, Costume Shop Manager, Assorted Sewing Extras with Exceptional Skills
SCENE: Life in the Shop
Act I: Designer does research, makes sketches, does the renderings.
Act II: Bring in the actors, by appointment, and do their measurements. (There is a great “measurements” list in Basic Drama Projects.)
Act III: Buy patterns, fabric (dye as needed), and accessories.
Act IV: Scene 1: Cut pieces, merrow pieces, sew pieces. Scene 2: Bring actors back for fittings and adjustments.
Act V: Final alterations for performance.

That was a quick breakdown of the process. There are glitches, changes, time factors, mistakes, all kinds of madness. But that gives kids the basic workings of a professional shop. If you have never done this work or seen it done, I recommend volunteering in a local community college shop sometime to help put on a show.


1. Actors may need rehearsal clothes, such as corsets, boots, high heels, skirts, holsters, and the like, because these will very much affect how the actors move on stage. No kidding: If the clothes are wearing the actors, the audience gives up. (I saw this in a revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuse. One of the actresses, fresh out of a prestigious grad school, was helpless with her farthingale; even the lead looked a tad foolish and quite uncomfortable in her gorgeous wigs and ensembles.; in fact I would say the clothes wore her. I felt cheated, especially as this was a high-end production and an expensive ticket.)
2. For expensive costumes, designers often do a mock-up of the full outfit in inexpensive muslin, because it’s cheaper (though time-consuming) to make all the mistakes on the muslin and not on the irreplaceable silk brocade.
3. During a long run, actors will have understudies and, later in a long run, replacements who have a different build. They all need their own sets of the same costumes. This may seem obvious, but it’s something your students may never have thought of. Actors also cannot gain or lose weight during a run. Let the kids chew on that (before spitting it out—calories!).

IMPORTANT INFORMATION FOR PERFORMANCES, for any drama club as well as for the pros:

The Run of the Show: Costume Running Crew and What They Do

1. Maintain the costumes: cleaning, repairing, doing pre-show/post-show inventory
2. Order replacements as needed
3. Dress actors, assisting with costume changes: This is the most fun part of being on the costume running crew. I LOVE IT. I was a good dresser, though I always had something to learn.

We interrupt this lesson for STORIES!

            I have great stories from doing this in college, not all positive.

§  As a costume assistant to the MFA designer on a production of Getting Out, I was not a success. For example, I counted a navy blue skirt twice on the rack, though each character was supposed to have her own, obviously. The designer quite rightly chewed me out, as we only discovered my error minutes before an entrance during dress rehearsal. What I was better with was dressing actors, being ready backstage with shoes ready and outfit set; a pre-lit cigarette in my mouth to give an actor before a quick-change entrance; a spray bottle to make “sweat.”

§  2. On I Do, I Do!, my acting teacher was playing the lead, and she asked me personally to be her dresser because being an actor myself, I knew that what an actor needs is a quiet, calm problem-solver with no ego, and she had a lot to do to prepare her part in a short rehearsal time. Quick changes are fun and also fraught. I Do, I Do! had a fabulous quick change, but it took a while to get it. Agnes, the wife, has just learned of her husband’s infidelity. She is in her nightgown ready for bed, her husband tells her about his affair, and this destroys her. However, she rallies, exits, dresses, and returns to the stage, suitcase in hand. So in rehearsal, this is all that the other dresser, Leslie, and I know. The band was “vamping.”  Agnes came through the door curtain, we tried to dress her, and the director kept screaming, “faster.” Finally, I stopped the rehearsal. I went out onto the stage and asked, “What effect are you going for?” What she wanted was for Agnes to go off and reappear right back through the curtained doorway. “Oh! MAGIC!” I said. “Got it. Give us five minutes.” Backstage, Leslie and I plotted out the quick change: As Agnes stepped into the closet, Leslie would lift off her nightgown as I guided the actress into her shoes. Pooled around the shoes would be her evening gown. Leslie tossed the nightie and we both pulled up the evening gown; as Agnes turned to face out, I zipped and Leslie handed her the suitcase. And OUT through the curtain, which Leslie pulled back. Everyone cheered. (To get a sense of the sequence, think of the entrance and count 12 beats: one, two, three, four, two, two three four, three two three four, four two three four: and OUT (on the third beat of the last set). Ten seconds. It was thrilling. We lived to do that costume change, and the band (on stage beside us where we were hidden behind scenery) used to watch it and nod approval every night. The audience went wild with applause every night. It's these details, these small "effects" that simply make theater what it is, offer what no other art form can. Ah.

§  PROBLEM: Another helpful example of the need for effective design and crew performance is from a show I was acting in, Fen, when during dress rehearsal I just couldn’t get ready in time for the next entrance. I had to go from being a little girl to being her grandmother in about 20 seconds (count out twenty seconds: it’s longer than you think, and an eternity to a waiting audience, unless the set is changing, which it was). I kept the same shift dress, dropped off the pinafore, put on a sweater, changed shoes, pulled out my ponytails, and added a wig. I couldn’t get the crew to understand that I needed a thick hair band or cap to help me get on the wig, so I was forever stuffing in loose hair. And the sweater was way too small in the arms for me, but the designer liked the look of the sweater. Anyway, I could never get dressed on time, and at the last technical rehearsal the director was yelling. At me. You know who stepped in? The brilliant lighting and set professor, who was supervising an MFA student’s set design. He came up on stage and called to the director, “Hold it. Let’s solve this.” He turned to me and said tenderly, “Lisa, what do you need?”

§  SOLUTION: This is an important lesson for teaching problem-solving: Identify the problem. For example, it is not the fault of an actor if she cannot make a costume change. This is a question of costume design, the order of clothing/accessory removals and additions, types of closures, general fit, and how the crew approaches it. The crew had very little experience and weren’t by nature problem-finders, let alone solvers. This professor was. “Let me see this,” he said. He watched what we did. “First of all, Lisa needs something to pull her hair back.” Yes I did. Someone went running to find “something”—only because a man who was 6’5” tall and a professor told them to. “And the arms of the sweater are too tight. They are too tight for a 10-year-old.” He turned to the designer, another MFA kid. “Does she have to have this sweater? Can’t you find her one that fits?” He was firm, and exasperated with the young designer and the crew for not addressing the obvious. (He understood that actors who complain about costumes sound like divas, and, as he was an utterly “disinterested party,” his observations had the ring of objectivity.) “And why can’t she have elastic shoe laces in the sneakers? It would make them easier to remove.” I loved him. “Lisa, is there anything else?” I wanted to cry with gratitude. The crew fixed these things. We did the change in plenty of time, with even a second or two left to recall my next line as a new character.

I think it’s fun to solve these problems. If you don’t think so, don’t be a member of a costume running crew. Or an actor. Or alive.

Back to the job of the costume running crew . . .

4. Pre-set costume pieces on stage and off stage as needed. Find places as set-up areas and make sure they are LABLED as such. Nothing is more terrifying than a “helpful” extra who “cleans up” the area of the wings, and, say, takes Golde’s nightdress from a chair and throws it into a corner seconds before Golde’s quick change to do the dream sequence in Fiddler on the Roof. Not that I know from experience.
5. Assemble tools of this trade: Safety pins, needle and thread, bobby pins, and duct tape (for fixing tears in an emergency), all kept on the crew person as “brooches” (the safety pins), in hair (bobby pins), in pockets (quick sewing kit), or (with the tape) in a safe spot in the wings for quick and easy access!

Whew! That's the guerilla approach to the whole Costume thing. And you have assigned projects to do and need to grade the last big one. When you do actual shows, you will be relying on kids in your class to be SHOW what they KNOW. This is another reason I love the ARTS in school.


            Please also notice the evaluation sheet that follows would normally come in two versions—one version for the students (one page long) and one version for you (over two pages, leaving room for comments and to separate the assignments). I include four areas to evaluate. Please review the FINAL RENDERINGS evaluation. It is, essentially, an effort grade. There is no real evaluation on “beauty” of renderings. That would defeat the purpose of them trying something new. The presentation alone takes courage. After they present, I’d display the renderings around the room and have students walk around and review them, as at a gallery. After looking at all the class efforts, have them write a self-evaluation, as well as a project evaluation, if you like, depending on your group. It’s cathartic. A self-evaluation can also help you when you don’t know what to make of some projects. I’ve read some interesting stories . . . students who just couldn’t, “couldn’t, Miss O’Hara!” bring themselves to render a full-size figure, so scared were they of the final result. The point is, you build a connection to your students’ processes and learn for next time.

            These projects, all four portions, are not at all hard to grade, especially if you’ve been grading incrementally in class. You look at the research, and you can tell if they did work. The point breakdown, once again, is to keep you from getting angry and giving a kid a zero because there is no bibliography or she really just cannot draw and has no color sense, GOD!

            I would also show examples of what makes an unsuccessful project and a successful one (if I had a scanner). Basically, an unsuccessful project has little to no research, is a rush job in terms of rendering (too small, too large, not colored), and has no preliminary sketches or real analysis. It “sucks,” and this will be patently obvious. No guilt for you giving a low grade, because, all things being equal and bar a personal home life catastrophe, the student did not try. Successful projects, by contrast, just make you cry, they’re so cute, and you can see the blush of self-deprecation or embarrassment, as in “Obviously Rembrandt didn’t paint this!” or “I think I’m Rembrandt!” on the little faces of the kids as they present. They care. You see the caring, even, or especially, in the ones who try to act as if they don’t.

            Have students keep a copy of the overall Evaluation Sheet in their notebooks.  This way, students see how they are being evaluated and where they stand. (After you grade each component, you will return their work with your version of the sheet attached.) If students with low grades make reparations to their research (already graded), for example, or do late draft sketches to turn in with the final, you can consider adding points. It’s up to you.

            OBJECTIVE TEST: Once the whole unit was complete, I gave an objective test because a) principals and parents like them; b) the kids are stunned and amazed at how easy it is because they know so much; c) kids are stunned and amazed how little they remember; d) this will be on the exam and they need practice; e) all of the above. (It’s “e”.)

            Objective tests are only valuable if you are truly assessing things that students could stand to know. Think about the whole unit. What did you want them to know about? How could you prove they really know it? In lieu of a real Practicum, usually not possible in a general high school, use a test.



NAME: _____________________________  DUE DATE: ____________
CHARACTERS: _____________________________________________


____/20 Bibliography: proper format (5 pts.), including three sources (5 pts. ea.)
____/20 Description, general paragraph (points by details)
____/20 Description, female character (points by details)
____/20 Description, male character (points by details)
____/20 ”Thumbnail” sketches, with notes on items, characters, sources

____/100 GRADE: ____ (x 2)

PART 2: PRELIMINARY SKETCHES             DUE DATE: ____________           

FEMALE                                                                      MALE
____/25 To scale, based on model                ____/25 To scale, based on model
____/25 Evidence of research,                      ____/25 Evidence of research,
            use of thumbnails                                         use of thumbnails

____/50 + ____/50 = ____/100 GRADE: ____ ( x 1)

PART 3: FINAL RENDERINGS                                   DUE DATE: ____________

FEMALE                                                                      MALE
____/10 To scale, based on model                ____/10 To scale, based on model
____/10 Full color, detailed                            __ __/10 Full color, detailed
____/10 Analysis, research evidence            ____/10 Analysis, research evidence
____/10 Fabric swatches                                ____/10 Fabric swatches
____/10 Neatness, labeling                            ____/10 Neatness, labeling

____/50 + ____/50 = ____/100 GRADE ____ (x 3)

____/25 Display of renderings (used clearly as a visual aide)
____/50 Discussion of choices, including character, fabrics, colors, lines, accessories
____/25 Energy and enthusiasm
____/ 100 GRADE ____ (x 1)



Because people like a little something with right and wrong answers.

Number from 1 to 20. Read the directions for each section. (Worth 3 Grades)

A. Matching (3 pts. ea.) Match the term on the right to the definition on the left.
[I cannot get this to format on the blog: sorry, so imagine the letters in a line to the right of the numbered descriptions. NOTE: Matching tests are almost always written the other way around, and that is stupid, because it's the description that leads to the word. DUH.]
1. the perceived “heaviness” or “lightness” of fabric                               a. line
2. denim, satin, and waffle are examples of this                                       b. drape
3. cotton, wool, linen, for example; can be dyed or bleached                   c. weight
4. may be curved or straight, vertical or horizontal, e.g.               d. synthetics
5. describes movement, flow, or shape of fabric when hanging              e. natural fibers
6. polyester, acetate, or acrylic for example; cannot be dyed                  f. weave

B. Fill in the blank. (4 pts. ea.) Write the word or words that best complete each statement below to describe the costume designer’s job.

7. - 8. The two design areas of theater, while not directly about costumes, about which the costume designer needs good knowledge are _____ and _____ design. (any order)
9. - 10. Two non-designers with whom the costume designer must collaborate are the ____, who creates the show’s concept, and the ____, who will use the costume.
11. The most obvious tool or device that a designer uses to show relationships between characters or within families, to indicate connection in a visual way is ____.
12. The people who maintain costumes and dress actors are known as the ____.
13. - 15. Three areas of costume crafts include ____, ____, and ____. (any three, any order)
16. The paintings made of the characters’ costumes are called ____.

C. True or False. (3 pts. ea.) Label the statements below “True” or “False.”

17. The trend that started costume design in earnest was a desire for “historical accuracy.”
18. The more expensive the fabric, the better it will look on stage.
19. Costumes do not have to be as well-made as regular clothes, because costumes will not have as much “wear and tear.”
20. Before constructing an expensive costume, designers may create a cheaper muslin version first.

D. Discussion. (5 pts. ea.) Answer each question in a few detailed sentences.

a. Discuss the research process involved in creating a costume.
b. Discuss how costumes are handled during the run of a show.
c. Discuss the role of the actor in the costume design process.

E. Essay. (15 pts.) In at least three detailed paragraphs, using specific examples, explore your understanding of the costume design process, from the reading of the play to the run of the show. Personal discoveries are most valuable.


[#1 -6, 3 pts. ea.]
1. c
2. f
3. e
4. a
5. b
6. d
[#7 - 16, 4 pts. ea.]
7. lighting*
8. set or scenic* [*7-8 any order]
9. director
10. actor
11. color
12. costume running crew [-1 if missing “running”]
*ANY THREE FOR 13 - 15:
*13. beading              wigs    leather crafts
*14. masks     shoes  hats
*15. Embroidery   jewelry    [misc.--use judgment]
16. renderings
[# 17 - 20, 3 pts. ea.]
17. True
18. False
19. False
20. True

DISCUSSION: [5 points each: roughly 1 point per item; -1 point for incomplete sentences/grammar]
a. read play; research period, people, history, dyes, fabrics; sketch
b. costume crew: dressing, inventory, laundering, repair
c. actors create characters; get measured for costumes; use the costumes; may ask for alterations more in keeping with their characterizations

ESSAY: [15 points (approximate breakdown below)]
___/5 Three paragraphs, grammatical
___/3 Specific examples from class notes, fact-based examples
___/3 Specific examples from research project
___/4 Specific examples from personal observation, analysis

FIN, for the Costume Unit! 
[Image credits: Lillie Langtry by Edward Poynter, 1878; Flashdance Doll, ca. 1983; "Went With the Wind" scene starring Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman, ca. 1977; A fabric store ad on Google; "Leaving the Studio" by Edward Paxton; Yvette by Toulouse Lautrec; Costume Store Promo]

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