Costuming on a Budget

A new movie. A new script. A whole cast of characters clamouring to be costumed. For me, this is the funnest part of design work. I can suspend the trivial details of time and available cash and make an idea come to life on paper. Ah, the bliss of it all! Then reality sets in and I have to either change the designs, compromise, or both.

Have you ever been slammed that way? The perfect costume design has to be thrown out because it would cost too much to make. The detailed beadwork that you absolutely loved goes away or becomes fabric paint. The ornate helmet has to be scratched and replaced with a hat. A felt one. With a bright red feather. Situations like this are depressing, annoying, and even downright ugly.

Here are a few things you can do to help bring your ideas to reality.

First: You can design with your budget in mind. I know it’s not fun, unless you enjoy the challenge, but I’m not talking about having a dollar amount looming over you all the time. A basic concept of cost will do. If you only have a little money to work with, don’t plan on using thirty yards of velvet! Look to see what you might already have that you could work with. Anything look promising? If you changed one color, would it save you twenty dollars? Or how about swapping kinds of fabric. Remember the thirty yards of velvet? Swap it out for an old bedsheet or curtain. Be flexible. You don’t have to throw out a good idea; just try to make it better.

Second: Time is money. If you have one week until filming starts, and a hundred costumes to make, don’t plan on hand-embroidering trim on all of the pieces. Find a trim at the craft store that has the same look you want. If price becomes an issue, keep in mind these little questions: “How much time will this save me?” “Is there something else that will work just as well?” and, more importantly, “Will I get in trouble with the other producers if I spend the money?” If the answer to the last question is “Yes,” walk away now. Budget is somthing to be respected by all members of the cast and crew.

Third: If you are lucky enough to actually have money to put through the budget, save the big bucks for a few costumes. The knock-your-socks-off ones. Although, keep in mind that you don’t want to end up with two fabulous costumes and ton of slapped together, bathrobe and towel costumes. Unless you have a really good bathrobe, that is. Which brings us to . . .

Fourth: Modify clothing. You might find an old dress in a garage sale or thrift store that, which a few alterations, would make a good cloak and hood. Or a shirt that can become a jacket. All this approach takes is a little imagination! (And some scissors, of course.) We did this for the Norse, and I hope we can do more of it for the next movie. We’ve received lots of old clothing donations in the last couple years.

Fifth: Don’t be afraid to reuse things! Particularly on extras and sub-characters. This is a really quick way to come up with a costume. The work is already done. Lydia’s costume is Somindeo’s robe from the first movie. All we did was add a rope belt and a scarf. If you have something laying around, use it. Put last movie’s hero’s puffy shirt under a coat for the herald. Make a cloak into a skirt. If you want to modify them a bit so they won’t be as recognizable, remove distinctive trims, or change colors. Just keep an eye on the fine line between minimal work and not disguising the piece enough. If the audience catches on, your realism is toast.

So get out there with your designer sketches! Scrounge, sew, tape, glue, modify, and substitute your way into a great bunch of costumes. Let the idea become reality.

A good friend of mine (another movie-maker, and she’s made some really great stuff) recommended these books to me, and I want to share them with you. They’re great for learning the basics on modifying clothing into costumes.

Costuming Made Easy by Barb Rogers

Instant Period Costumes by Barb Rogers

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