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The Purpose and Focus of Research for Costumes

Linda Pisano • Costuming/Makeup • September 1, 2010

Linda Pisano’s costume for the Duke of Vanholt (played by Lea CoCo) in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus at the Utah Shakespearean Fest. The costume was informed by primary research of the jerkin.

Separating factual research from the evocative, and the uses of both

One of the greatest challenges for any practitioner in the performing arts is to create a believable and completely honest “world of the play,” no matter how abstract or obscure it might be to the modern eye. A costumer’s overarching objective is essentially to create forms of clothing that are appropriate to any and every type of character, taking into account not only the obvious variables of nationality, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age, gender, sexual orientation and creed, but also those of geography, climate, occupation, familial and/or marital status, physiology, personality, psychological state, ideology, historical milieu and so forth.

 Theoretically a costumer should be able to factor all of these variables together to determine the vestimentary and cosmetic codes for any performing arts production, no matter the genre, concept or historical setting. The challenge is to make such clothing, whatever form it takes, appear convincingly real and natural in its environment. This requires a broad background in and a holistic understanding of socio-cultural history—to say nothing of the history, theory, criticism and practice of theatre and the visual arts—and the ability to correctly apply that understanding within the microcosmic frame of reference that pertains to each production, or the “world of the play.”

When a designer prepares to design a script, they will soon recognize that although most of their choices will be well researched, ultimately there will be many value judgments that are made through instinct and experience. Yet these choices can radically alter the audience perception of the characters and their actions.
The script is the cornerstone for all theatrical design; it holds the keys to successful and meaningful artistic choices. A costume designer must search the script with a fine-toothed comb for any overt, implied or symbolic textual reference not only to simple issues such as season, climate, socioeconomic status, etc., but also for any indication of character and character relationships. Understanding the intentions and motivations of a character helps to further understand the psychology of his or her dress. As we are all very aware of our clothing each day, so must a character be aware, but a designer must be mindful of the overall ensemble in forming an aesthetic or stage composition.

Research for a costume designer consists of many things, but its basic components are evocative research and primary and secondary factual research. Secondary factual research is often more appropriate for a costume designer, as usually he does not recreate an exact time period or a culture for the stage; rather, he interprets it in order to serve the world of the play, whatever that world may be.

An example of Primary Factual Research, this is a buff leather coat (jerkin) with silver catches in front and silver braid on the sleeves, circa 1620-1630.

Primary Colors
Primary factual research is vital in the scholarship and appreciation not only of the overall silhouettes of a historico-cultural milieu but of many and varied intricacies and nuances that lend personality to those who inhabited it and shed light on how they might have worn and lived in the clothing. It is this information that can give costumers an almost dramaturgical role in the development of a production. Working with the actors in fittings, the director, movement coach and even a choreographer, a costumer can offer important insight in developing the movement and business of a group of characters within a script, score or dance. Primary factual research is most readily available in museum archives, private collections, university-based collections, period journals, diaries, wills, inventories, public records and from organizations that specialize in the scholarship of historic dress such as the Costume Society of America and the Costume Society of Great Britain. Both of these societies provide their members with numerous resources, distribution lists and annual publications that can expand the knowledge and professional development of the theatrical costumer.

If actual garments from a particular period, vintage fabrics, patterns, and photographic archival information are resources that constitute primary factual research, then one may assume that anything that in any way interprets the costume of a period constitutes secondary factual research.

A rendering of a costume inspired by the flowers for Indiana Repertory Theatre’s 2010 production of Romeo and Juliet

Interpreting the Cloth
Perhaps more commonly utilized by costumers is secondary factual research, which includes paintings, sculpture, photography, catalogs, magazines, advertisements, historical novels describing dress and fashion, pottery, mosaics and other visual media. One might wonder why a catalog or magazine from the particular year or season being researched is considered secondary and not primary research. The rationale is that it has been interpreted; advertising is arguably an art form in and of itself in that it persuades the viewer to focus on a particular look. Although this gives us much information into how the period viewed itself, it is still the perspective of one person. This category of research is perhaps the most interesting to the costumer, inasmuch as the theatre practitioner is interested in bringing emotion, life and interaction into three-dimensional form. Working with art, literature, or designs from a given period provides the costumer with a viewpoint in which to understand the society in which the clothing lived.

Images of secondary research can serve both to demonstrate the silhouettes of period costumes as worn on the human form and to convey a spirit or mood that communicates the designer’s aesthetic concept for the production. From time to time secondary and conceptual images are placed side by side to gauge the degree of stylization that might be utilized in a production.

A picture of spring flowers from a London garden used as a swatch of inspiration for Pisano’s costumes for Romeo and Juliet.

Evocative research, the most liberating form of research for a costumer, is found all around us. This form of research, includes the visual arts but expands to encompass highly abstract art, music, nature, fantasy, film, language, demography and sociopolitical perspectives. Used by directors, actors and designers alike, it creates a basic vocabulary of concept and style upon which to begin discussions of production design. For example, one of the first discussions regarding a play or opera might be the director bringing to the table a piece of music or a painting that to them conveys the mood and spirit they are looking to evoke in the production. For example, a painting by Gustav Klimt might have a specific palette and a detailed use of texture and pattern that evoke key emotions from the director and serve as an excellent springboard for a stylized concept. A director could even bring in a list of adjectives that describes his or her response to the play, and a production team would be expected to visually interpret these words. It is the combination of evocative and factual research that brings focus, cohesiveness and consistency to a production design. Finding fundamental themes or through-lines upon which to base the clothing of the characters therefore allows the designer to create a more controlled environment and a more unified aesthetic.  

Linda Pisano is an Associate Professor of Costume Design at Indiana University Theatre & Drama. A member of USA Local 829 she has designed throughout the United States and several of her designs continue to tour in the U.S. and abroad.

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