What’s the difference between clothes and costumes? It’s a good question to ask around Halloween (one of the more socially acceptable times to wear costumes around town). The distinction isn’t between normal and fantastical, because some costumes look like normal clothes and some clothes can look other-worldy or bizarre or fantastically beautiful. In a performance, costumes are designed to tell stories. So is the distinction between clothes that tell stories and clothes that don’t? I’d argue no.
All clothes tell stories, but the difference comes with the story. Your clothes tell your story. Costumes tell somebody else’s story.
A helpful experiment is to switch your point of view and pretend to be a costume designer. This is a happy game for me. Ever since I was little, costume designer has been at the top of my list of Jobs I Want When I Grow Up. This is the same list as the glamorous jazz singer… and the Indiana-Jones-but-a-girl museum archivist….and the unflappable secret agent (or all of those in some kind of combination). But clothes came first. I’ve been obsessed with fashion and costumes for as long as I remember. Around age 12, I started checking out design history books from the library and studying costume design, focusing on Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1960s and all the famous costumers (Adrian, Orry-Kelly, Cecil Beaton, Edith Head, the list goes on). Weird hobby, I know.
Once you look from a costumer’s point of view, it’s hard to stop. I didn’t realize how much I did, until last year, when I went to a local production of Romeo and Juliet and spent most of the play mentally redesigning all the costumes. Permission to geek out a little bit?
In my dream production of Romeo and Juliet, the set, lighting, and costume design would be centered around two lines. There’s that one line that everybody knows from the balcony scene, when Romeo asks, “What light from yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” The second comes from Friar Lawrence in Act II, “These violent delights have violent ends/ And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,/ Which as they kiss consume…” Juliet is the rising sun. Juliet is a consuming fire. Costume design will help illustrate the arc of Juliet, from the first quiet sunbeams to the scorching destruction of her zenith.
The very beginning of the play would be in shades of gray, because Juliet (the sun) hasn’t appeared yet. There wouldn’t be color until the moment Romeo sees Juliet at the party. That moment is dawn. After that, nothing can stop the sun’s rising. As soon as Romeo and Juliet meet, it’s the equivalent of a ticking time bomb – that’s what the friar means when he says they are fire and gunpowder. Juliet would enter in sunshine yellow – a color that connotes youth, innocence, energy, friendliness. Romeo plays the moon, the counterpart to Juliet as the sun – he would wear shades of gray when he is by himself, because the moon produces no light by itself, it only borrows light from the sun. When he is with Juliet, his costumes start showing hints of white, because he reflects her light. By their wedding day, Juliet’s color would deepen to a bright gold and Romeo’s colors would lighten to gray and white – it is their mid-morning. Then the seeds of violence from the beginning of the play start to sprout and the death counts start escalating. Romeo is exiled and separated from his light source – he returns to his gray clothes. During his exile, Juliet grows in resolve and passion – her clothes start showing tinges of red, like flame edges. At the beginning of the play, she’s the first cool rays of dawn, but by the time Romeo returns from exile, she’s the scorching heat of summer. She’d burn down the whole world to be with him. The sun has terrifying power – it’s 93 million miles away and that still seems too close when it beats down at midday. The play ends at high noon- the height of her beautiful, but destructive power. She ends in flame red, he ends in black. Their ending is the explosion that Friar Lawrence anticipated from the beginning – when fire and gunpowder kiss, they are both consumed.
That came from two lines of text and it’s just an example of how much thought goes into designing a world. A costume designer has to know their characters. The more detailed the character analysis, the more the costume can tell us. What do the characters love? What do they want? What scares them? Where do they come from? How much money do they have? What colors speak to them? What secrets are they hiding? When we’re watching a movie or a play, we agree to play along. Without our imagination filling in the gaps, it doesn’t work. The first time we see the main character, we subconsciously fill in their backstory before they say their first line. That has everything to do with costume storytelling. We invest in those characters for two and a half hours and figure them out by every decision they make – what they decide to say, what they decide to do, what they put on in the morning.
We are used to this judgement process in a movie setting, because that is part of the game. But how does it work in real life? We usually try to fight against that impulse. We are told we shouldn’t form opinions based on appearances – don’t judge a book by its cover. Why not? When I meet somebody new, they are a puzzle to me. If I care about them at all, I will invest some thought into finding out who they are. Unlike the movie character, they didn’t spring into existence when I walked into the room. They have a real backstory, not one that I assume or make up. You can never ask all the right questions to get to know somebody, but you can know a lot about somebody by their reactions and their choices. Be observant and pay attention to people. Be interested in the real stories around you. That girl who is taking your order leads a parallel life to you. Unlike Juliet, she exists all the time. Juliet exists (very dramatically) for three hours at a time. So pay her the compliment of wondering about her and her story. Try to figure out a little bit about who she is.
When we say “don’t judge on appearances”, I think we mainly just don’t want other people judging us. I know that’s the case for me. This blog post has worked me over, because I took a step back and asked, “If there was a character who dressed like me in a movie, what would I think about them?” I didn’t like it. I cried. But as long as it teaches you something, don’t avoid it just because it’s hard.
Two big questions to start with: what does this person love? What does she fear? Based on Ashley’s clothes, I’d say that she loves colors and interesting prints and textures and is enthusiastic about her interests. She loves other people, but she doesn’t get too entangled in other people’s stories. She doesn’t dress to attract guys, but she’s not dressing to repel them either. In the movie, she’s the observer, the romantically neutral character – the protagonist’s best friend or an eccentric coworker. Her main fear is being overlooked and ignored. Being invisible. Her bright colors are to avoid fading into the background. She wants to be noticed on her own terms – as an interesting person with a sense of humor and things to say. She’s just scared that nobody cares enough to ask.
So judge by appearances. Don’t rely on people telling you everything. Be willing to invest in the lifetime pursuit of learning about people. Make guesses. Be genuinely interested. Figure out what they love. Figure out what they fear. Just be willing to figure yourself out at the same time.