Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thrifty Costume Design Part I: The Research Process

As I've mentioned before in my other life away from this blog I am a freelance Costume Designer. I thought I would share a bit of my design process in the coming months because it is really the foundation of my thrifty vintage existence. You see, the major challenge of being a costume designer is that you frequently have to produce a large quantity of amazing period garments with little or no money or resources. 

Step One: Read the play and discuss a design concept with the Director. 
This year we are presenting Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare (This link will take you to the SparkNotes page.) The Director's initial idea was to set this world in a stylized comic book world a la Frank Miller's Sin City. I thought about it for a few weeks and then, keeping in the comic book vein,  bounced him the idea of Steam Punk a la Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I gravitated to the idea of Duke Angelo trying to impart his repressed Victorian notions on a vibrantly sexual Steam Punk world. I also felt it would be a better fit  for our audience who are mostly families. Steam Punk is still sexy without being vulgar.  I sent The Director a few Google images via email, he enthusiastically jumped on board, and we were on our way. 

Step Two: Research.
The fantastic part of designing a Steam Punk show, is that most of your research can be found on the Internet. Though the alarming trend of viruses embedded in Google Image Search images is making that difficult. (Even for us Mac folks!) Regardless, I was able to find the majority of my research on the Internet and have taken to storing it on Pinterest. Pinterest, for those who don't know, is a virtual pin board! Instead of copying, filing and printing every image I want to use, I "pin it" to a specific pin board within my Pinterest account which I can access anywhere I have internet access. As a designer, it has become a very useful tool, I can't praise it enough. Here is a screen grab of part of my Measure for Measure Board:

After I felt I had a good number of Steam Punk images to draw from I dove into looking at the Victorian foundation Steam Punk is based on. Fortunately, I have a fair amount of research books on Victorian clothing and art. (I'm defining Victorian for my purposes as anything between 1860-1900.)  I looked at my books, flagged the relevant images with post-its, and dragged everything to the scanner and started creating .pdf files. 

Then it was back to the interwebs! More and more museums are putting their collections online. Which is brilliant. Now, some quality time with a museum's internal search engine yields fantastic research results. And where do we clip the images? Pinterest! Here is more from my Measure for Measure board: 

Now that all my research was centrally located, either on my Pinterest pin board or in a .pdf file, it was time to start dividing the research up by character. I opened a MS Word blank document for each character in the play and started combing through images, copying, and pasting pictures into the word files. I know the choice of Word seems weird, but I find I can alter the orientation and scale of the images faster and easier since I don't know Adobe that well. Also, I can usually fit a couple small images onto one 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper. (I like to save paper when I can.) After I felt I had all my research images assigned, I printed out the Word documents and started to cut and paste for real. 

Step 3: Creating Research Plates
This is a little trick I started utilizing in Grad School. I take the images I've printed and arrange them on a 9 x 12 piece of black paper. I cut and trim the copies as necessary and glue them to the black background. (Like scrap booking.) This creates one single sheet for each character with which I can reference all my design choices back to. It is one piece of paper I can hand to The Director and say "I'm thinking of this." He can look at it and know exactly where I'm headed without being confused by a pile of books and paper. (Or getting distracted by an irrelevant image. Wink, wink.)  It is one piece of paper which I can look at while I draw my sketch so I'm not digging through a pile of paper and pictures. "Where is that damn striped corset? I know it's here somewhere!" This one piece of paper focuses my thoughts.

As you can see, the black background makes the images pop. I keep the images in black and white because it's important to think about the shapes and details of the clothes right now, color will come later.
(You are seing a photograph of the research plate with a superimposed watermark. I can't have anyone stealing my work and trying to pass it off as their homework, now can I?) The plates include a mash up of Steam Punk, Victorian, and modern fashion which will guide me to my final sketches. Next week I will show you how this research becomes a costume design and sketch.


  1. This is absolutely fascinating! I love your process and your inspiration is amazing! I can't wait to see more.

  2. I'm really curious about Pinterest... but it seems that I can't sign up for it. :(

    Would you happen to know how long it takes to get an account as I'm currently on waiting list? Thanks! :)

  3. unpaid_intern: I think it took me a couple tries of signing up on their site before I finally got an invite. I would just keep requesting and try different email addresses if you have them.