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HomeCraftsCostume DesignCostume Design: Helping the Actor Find the Character

Costume Design: Helping the Actor Find the Character


Costume Designer, Jenny Beavan, can appreciate a beautiful piece of fabric in the same way she would appreciate a beautiful painting or a beautiful flower, but “it’s not what she lives and breathes.” As a costume designer she does not even have a particular interest in clothing, fabric or accessories.

Costume designer, Jenny Beavan
Costume designer, Jenny Beavan

“But when it comes to telling the story,” shares Beavan, “I get very passionate about clothing. I’m completely story-driven. When I read a script I start to see things in my head, but I’m also aware of whatever the director’s take will be on it. Because I tend to do more of the realistic pieces, rather than fanciful, I try to make it so you just don’t notice the costumes. They’re just supporting the actor.”

The costume designer for this year’s highly anticipated Sherlock Holmes, Beavan has received seven Academy Award nominations and garnered an Oscar for A Room with a View.

Mark Bridges reviewed the films and costume designers that he had voted for over the last 10 years, as well as the films that had been nominated, so he could articulate what he thinks constitutes award-worthy costume design. When making his determinations, he says, “I look for costumes that are memorable and original, costume design that moved me while I was watching the film.” Bridges is known for designing There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights. He received Costume Designers Guild Award nominations for his work on the television series Six Feet Under and the film Blow. Halloween used to be his favorite holiday as a child, which might have influenced his choice to pursue costume design as a career. Nowadays, he just advises others and hides on the ghoulish night.

Beavan believes that costume design should be seamless. “Obviously, if you are doing Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, it would be a bit sad if the costumes weren’t noticed, so I’m really referring to the kind of work I seem to be asked to do.” She agrees that the flamboyance of the costumes in a film like Priscilla or Sex in the City, where much of the fun is in the clothes and shoes, and the design is an integral part of the story, which is consistent with her primary premise that costume design should be about the story.

“I get very passionate about clothing. I’m completely story-driven. When I read a script I start to see things in my head, but I’m also aware of whatever the director’s take will be on it.” – Jenny Beavan

Another criteria for Bridges is whether the costumes “are sort of beautiful to look at.” In some cases, Bridges will even respond to a design because “it is just so beautiful.” But by beautiful, Bridges doesn’t necessarily mean beauty in the normal sense of the word. A costume could be beautiful ugly or beautiful gritty. “Sometimes you say, beautifully bad,” explains Bridges. “Sometimes it’s just making a beautiful composition.” Like Beavan, Bridges also looks to see if the costume design is correct for the film and the story. “Do the costumes visually reinforce the drama or the comedy and help the story in some way?” asks Bridges. “Is the design something that is absolutely right for the piece?”

In Beavan’s eyes, award-winning costume design is also, “When it’s absolutely right. Whether it’s a modern, space-action or period piece, when it’s right, you just know. It’s seamless.” She cites the Piero Tosi designed film The Leopard, which was made in the ’60s, as an example of costume design that was “extraordinarily, brilliantly right. It is still seamless now, 50 years later.”

Of all the below-the-line crafts, costume design is probably the one which most helps the actor embody the character. So a costume that informs the audience about character is paramount to good design. For Beavan, “the whole fun of it is the fitting.” The fitting is when both the designer and actor find the character. “On more than one occasion an actress has said, ‘Now I know who I am.’ And that of course is the most wonderful experience, because you know you’ve hit it right. It’s a gut thing,” explains Beavan. “You can draw. You can dress up model stands. You can do what you like to prep for the fitting, but when the real actor puts on the clothes and it’s right, you just know.”

Beavan is not sure what might place a film into the Oscar-winning category because so much personal taste is involved. “It’s obviously good if it’s original design, but these days budgets are far too small to allow designers to make every single garment for the screen,” reveals Beavan. “It’s a great trick to combine fabricated costumes and found costumes.”

Defiance, which I did with Ed Zwick, was quite extraordinary because there was so much history,” comments Beavan. “We used to make up stories for the extras about why they had what they had. I don’t know if you really see it, but we spent a great deal of time doing each personal story. Then it’s easy. You know exactly what they’d wear.”

It all relates to knowing how a character in the story, (even an extra), would be dressed.

As a designer, Beavan believes, “Everything is a costume drama. It doesn’t matter if it is Jane Austin or modern. Once an actor comes in for a fitting, you can bet your life that the costume is something other than what they walked in off the street wearing. So everything is a costume drama.”

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