In my previous article, “Costuming: From Script to Screen” I took you through the beginning processes of how we in the film and video wardrobe field breakdown a script and formulate our plans to costume a project. I mentioned that it was the Costume Designers job to discuss with the director what it is that they want the project to look like.
From their input we in the costume department would then take that vision, build it and execute it. I mentioned script days, the breakdown of cast members and their changes and the need for multiple outfits for certain changes. Finding out who wears what and when. That is all Step 1 in our process of costuming a film or video.
Can anyone guess what Step 2 is? Our next step in the process of costuming a project is to get the clothes. But from where you may ask. And that answer is simple. From anywhere and everywhere we can. The main factor that dictates where you get the clothes is usually the budget. A large budgeted film could provide upwards of $1Million toward the costume budget, giving a designer many options for finding clothes. Whereas a small independent film or even an art house project will go so far as to ask its actors to wear the clothes on their back for their scenes. It is literally the feast or famine end of the business that all depends on the almighty dollar and usually wardrobe is one of the first departments to face the monetary axe when producers try to trim a budget. After all, most people can bring in a change or two of clothes, but how many have a 35mm camera in their closet to bring in to work?
In film the three basic ways we acquire the clothing and costumes are purchases, rentals and made-to-order clothes. Purchases are exactly what it says. Our shoppers and designers will buy clothes from department stores, mall shops, Target’s and K-Mart’s to outfit the cast. Usually the bigger name actors or the lead role players will get the majority of their costumes from purchases. If the project we’re doing is a contemporary piece you can be pretty sure the lead actors are wearing brand name department store suits.
Earlier I mentioned that it was the job of the designer and the director to decide the look of the film they are after. What I failed to mention is that when stars are involved many of them have an opinion or two of what they feel they want their character to look like, as well. For lead actors or the stars, the designer will shop several different looks of the same thing to try to corner the look of the character. For men this may mean buying several different suits of different colors and fabrics to try on. A lot can depend on the color and complexion of the man. Some people look great in brown suits while others should throw out any they own. Not all men can carry a tweed suit as well as they can fine Italian wool. Others look right at home in the tweeds.
Once the designer and the actor find the look they are both striving for it now becomes a task to find multiples of the clothes. Remember, one is none and that can include thousand dollar suits. During the fitting the designer might like the character more in striped powerful shirts as opposed to solid colors. Therefore, the shoppers will buy three different stripe shirt styles in double or triplicate. When we buy these suits, dresses, shirts or even jeans for the actors we must always keep in mind whether or not we will need multiples of these outfits for stunt doubles and/or long continuity sequences. Most designers have a favorite department store or two to shop in. And their shoppers know that if one store doesn’t have the quantity they need their sister store may have five of the exact same item on their racks. The shopper will put a hold on several and run over and scoop up what he or she needs to fill our need. We buy all sorts of items as dictated by our needs. This includes accessories ranging from undershirts and sox to belts and shoes.
The next place – and probably the most valuable to us – that we gather clothes from are the costume rental houses. There are many around the world, but the majority of US based productions uses the plethora of rental houses out in Hollywood, CA. In Los Angeles there are also costume rental departments set up with Warner Bros Studios and Universal Studios Hollywood, which come in handy because they also have office and set up space where you can base your entire department out of for the course of the project. Separate from the warehouse full of clothes, but being next door (about thirty feet) makes it easy when you need to go run for three suits or dresses real quickly for a fitting that’s showing up unexpectedly in 30 minutes.
The majority of the major costume houses have tens of thousands of costumes from which to pick from. Some specialize in uniforms while others in period costumes that can outfit three remakes of Gone With the Wind at the same time. There are rows and rows of contemporary costumes lining the rooms, as well. The rental houses costumes hang three racks high full of clothes.
The rental shops that specialize in military uniforms will have rows of police uniforms from many major cities followed by lines of security outfits that you can build your own police force out of. The US (and foreign) military is another big item in the rental shops. There will be rows upon rows of green fatigues that can be used only for the Vietnam War era followed by rows upon rows of the Desert Storm and woodland camouflage battle dress uniforms that came after. The costume houses keep up to date and today you can find the new digital camouflage worn by today’s men and women of the armed forces. The Class A dress uniforms of the branches of service also take up many rows. The reason for the mass amounts of military clothing is that over the years the look and regulations have changed yet every year many projects call for large amounts of each style. And who doesn’t know someone who’s a stickler for authenticity – a blooper finder, if you will – who wouldn’t point out that the general in the movie was in the wrong era uniform if, in fact, he was? I know I would if I saw it!
Fortunately one of the services that the costume houses provide is an expert in each category of clothing they rent. Military experts and fashion experts are on hand to help. The military experts can tell you how and where to pin the medals and on which uniform. There are fashion experts who can tell you which way the pleats on Rhett Butler era pants should fold. Or, for that matter, whether Rhett Butler wore pants with pleats at all. You can get lost in the costume houses and just spend hours in amazement staring at all the history and time passage that has taken place with clothes. They carry with them almost a museum atmosphere about them.
The third type of clothing we employ in the outfitting of our actors is made-to-order (m/o) clothing that is exactly as its name states. It is clothing that we build from bolts of fabric. A tailor will measure the actor and build a shell. Several fittings will take place during the process of the build. The tailor wants to assure that the seams are right, that the shoulders fit and that all the lengths are correct. The suit or dress will be finished and a final fitting will take place to tweak and fine tune any last issue.
Usually these clothes are suits and dresses for a period project. For instance, the lapels of a suit have changed many times over the years and you just can’t shop the look at your corner department store. You certainly won’t find a suit that is suitable for a project your filming set in 1930 at a K-Mart. On Seabiscuit, Jeff Bridges’ character was a man of means and wore clothes that were tailored to his taste. A way to get that feel across on film was to actually build his suits. We could have found similar suits in a costume house, but few would’ve appeared to be built just for his character Charles Howard. The suits in the rental houses were 60 years old, after all. They weren’t new. Another m/o on that show were all the jockey silks seen in the motion picture. Again, they needed to be new and appropriate to the stables depicted in the 1930’s when the film was set and not totally worn out garments. Do note that the majority of the day players and the entire cast of extras were wearing costume rental house clothes.
I guess you’re getting the feel for the fantasy world of Hollywood right about now. It is the world of make believe that’s for sure and it can be quite daunting seeing the many aspects. I’ve told you about a precious few of the ways we gather the clothes for shoots and I must tell you that the jobs are few and far between that utilize all three. All of us in the business have done our share of films and videos where there isn’t a tenth of the money involved as there is in a big Hollywood production. There are plenty more experiences where we ask the actor to wear their own clothes than there are of jobs where we build them suits and gowns. I know that the beginners in the field may wonder what it would take to mount a picture, but do realize that from a wardrobe standpoint, you use your resources. If you have the budget great, if you don’t you improvise! Look in your closet. Ask the people you will be filming to look in theirs. Nothing can stop you if you just use a bit of imagination! You learn to beg, borrow and steal (NOT literally) what you need to shoot your scenes!
Every actor I know has been, at one time or another, in the position where they needed to pitch in and make a project work. Included in that parameter has been the need to wear their own clothes in the projects they were working on. Hey, I’m not only the writer, but I’ve worn my own clothes on camera before! Remember -- whatever it takes! And always have a safety pin on you!
See you in the movies!