29 July 2020
Costume Neglect In Performance Design
Image Credit: Extract from ‘LOOK NOT WITH EYES’ .PETRIe Magazine 2015, Photography by Nhu Xuan Hua, Art Direction by Benjamin Thapa, Styling by Zadrian Smith, Set Design by Thomas Bird.
Costume Neglect In Performance Design - Why is costume so often seen as the poor relation to set design?
My first professional experience ‘behind the stage’ was assisting on a community show at Sheffield Theatres. Working closely with costume, I was immediately struck by the kind, welcoming and overwhelmingly positive atmosphere of the wardrobe room. There was always a cup of tea and a piece of homemade cake to be had, and little giggles were a reliable staple. As the production progressed and the workload increased (I believe the team were working on three other shows simultaneously at the time), this ‘safe place’ never became any less of a pleasure to be in. This culture of patience, respect, and wholesome positivity is one I’ve found to be shared in many of the costume teams I’ve had the fortune to work with.
I’m about to graduate from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, as an MA Performance Designer – one of the ‘Covid-Kids’ as we’ve jokingly dubbed ourselves. I come from a background in graphic design, training at Liverpool John Moores before working in art direction and creative production in fashion for 5 years. When I was younger I loved drawing comics and imagining characters in fantasy worlds. Fairytale and period drama was a guilty pleasure, since being a ‘straight’ boy growing up I was often teased for my interests in ‘effeminate’ or ‘girly’ subjects. I even made myself a pretty cool denim maxi skirt during my goth days for which I received quite the psychological backlash at school!
Fashion became an interest towards the end of my university days as a subject where I felt I could express and explore my love for costume, the beauty of the human body and the way in which what we wear works to define us as characters in society. I found it exciting to investigate ways of creating images with clothes that evoked emotion, and doing so through collaborating with others (I’ve never been very ‘fashionable’ myself) was liberating. The fashion industry has a plethora of systemic and institutionalised issues that I need not go into, but there are small moments of incredible poignancy that I believe offer value, no less impactful to our shared culture than any play, opera or ballet (See Alexander McQueen’s 2001 ‘Voss’ catwalk if you don’t believe me!).
When I became interested in theatre I had no idea what a theatre designer actually did, and I was surprised to find that many of the processes overlapped with my previous responsibilities as an art director. I was more comfortable with the costume side, but the idea of doing set design was daunting. Since doing both disciplines seemed to be mandatory in the UK (at least that’s what I was told). I plucked up the courage to apply to BOVTS, and was thrilled to be accepted. I’ve since found great pleasure in working with the idea of creating ‘worlds’, and the set designs I’ve produced during my training have often leant towards bold minimal statements that work to frame and emphasise characters and costumes, often relying heavily on light and sound to create shifts and moods.
As I’ve gained more experience in the performance world, I’ve made a point of asking about costume practices with the many professionals my fellow designers and I have met during our training. We’ve had the fortune of discussing these subjects with production designers at The National Theatre, costume supervisors from the West End and costume / set designers from the full spectrum of live performance as well as for film and TV. Through these conversations and my own limited experience working and collaborating in theatre, I’ve become aware of what I believe to be a significant lack of recognition for the importance of costume design and the processes involved in making, sourcing, facilitating and supervising design.
I’ve been in wardrobe forums where venting can easily be found regarding the increased rarity of costume drawings from designers. This seems to cause additional stress for wardrobe teams, who are having to do more guess work in order to produce solutions based on Pinterest boards and references seemingly thrown together at the last minute. In an industry where the traditions of model making is revered as an absolute necessity (despite 3D modelling often being a more cost and time efficient tool), I find it strange that a culture has evolved to assume that costume drawings are supplementary. Personally I find it to be a frustrating attitude and am further disheartened to hear about the practice of ‘delegating’ costume design to supervisors who have quite enough on their plate already, and aren’t receiving the design fee to match the additional work this entails.
I understand that designers might not be afforded adequate time or budget to invest in drawings or equal focus on costume, and for some time I have tried to accept this as a necessary fact of life. It’s set design first and costume design second. But beyond the restriction of budget and time, I’ve also found that there are perhaps some cultural issues that may be adding to this uneven hierarchy. I’ve felt that there is a feeling from some directors and other departments that costume is ‘just clothes’ and that the incredible hard work that goes into engineering and supporting character communication is not recognised for what it is. What a strange view to have, when it could be argued that the characters on stage are what we spend most of our time focusing on. I would also propose that for the average audience member (if there is such a thing) costume is one of the first things to be commented on and appreciated.
I’ve a friend who wrote her thesis on the idea of gender discrimination playing a part in this, since wardrobe and costume are for the most part predominantly female departments (at this time). I’ve also come into contact with a muted disdain for my fashion background (perhaps a reflection of capitalist ‘frivolity’ unwelcome in the liberal middle-class echo chamber). Whilst I can’t argue that clothes and fashion are promoting ideas of consumerism and often toxic body image, it doesn’t negate the fact that from the dawn of human culture, what we wear and the way we communicate our values, status and aspiration though clothes is as much a part of our shared humanity as the act of creating theatre.
If we can work through some of the bias that seems to be part of the traditional theatre production pipeline, perhaps we can find ways to emphasise this valuable element of the stage. There are positive outcomes I believe that could be achieved through such an endeavour. Sustainability in design has been on the table for some time, but when budgets sometimes afford less than the cost of a meal per cast member, we’re not giving much wiggle room for the avoidance of last minute budget buys from outlets with sceptical ethical backgrounds.
In this time of unprecedented pressure on our industry, we’re seeing movements emerging that look to promote positive change in our practices and making culture. Whilst I stand in solidarity with these changes, I humbly request that we also ask ourselves whether there is something we can do to afford costume design and all those involved in the communication of character through ‘clothes’, more time, budget and respect to match their outstanding contribution to performance.