Costume Design 101

Costume Design

Back in the days when I ran a touring theater company, one of my closest friends was my costume designer, Richard Arlen Crane. Dick and I had met in the early 70’s when we were cast in a musical production called Young Abe Lincoln. “If you ever start your own troupe,” he told me, “I’ll make all the costumes for you for free.” His only proviso was that I write fun roles for him and that none would ever require him to reprise the part for which he was physically the best suited: the 16th President. (Not only did I honor this promise but in Exit Grand Balcony, I let him play John Wilkes Booth.)

Dick was obsessive about historic accuracy in his costume designs, though some of his modern improvisations to create a particular effect were often enough to raise eyebrows. “You might want to be careful bending at the waist,” he once warned about a breathtaking Louis XIV gown he’d made for me. “I used hacksaw blades in the bodice…” Whether or not this was true, I was smart enough not to ask. Costume designers – like piano players – are the people you least want to offend in live theater because of the subtle tricks they can play on you like leaving straight pins in awkward places or transposing all your songs to a different key.

It was also assumed that I wrote the plays and then gave Dick instructions on how to dress the cast. Quite often, however, Dick would call to tell me he had just purchased several bolts of brocade, satin and chiffon. “You should write the next play about a sultan and his harem,” he’d tell me. And so I did. I share all of this in preface to my recent interview with Richard La Motte, a costume designer whose career has spanned four decades and yielded an incredible collection of “been there/done that” material for his book, Costume Design 101. As I immersed myself in La Motte’s remembrances of iconic stars, popular movies and budget challenges, there was a common thread that made me smile and think, “Dick would really have loved this book.” Even after a first read-through, this text would likely have a plethora of yellow highlights, dog-eared pages and copious margin notes.

And that, as we move into my conversation with La Motte, is quite possibly the highest praise I can give a behind-the-scenes book about what it really takes to “dress the part.”

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: So what attracted an art major and former Marine to a career in costume design?

A: When I got out of the Marines, my mother told me about a Producers Apprenticeship Program. I went and interviewed with the thought of getting into construction and becoming a Production Designer. Instead, they assigned me to work in the Men’s Wardrobe Department at Fox Studios. All of my mentors were male costumers, men who had been costumers since the 30’s and had worked on many of the older films which I loved like Grapes of Wrath.  They worked in a time in the industry when costume designers were not a regular part of the crew, and were only usually called to do dresses for the female stars. Because of that, most films’ costumes were presided over by a Key Wardrobe Man and a Key Wardrobe Woman who supervised the wardrobe department and did much of what we would call ‘Costume Design’ today.

Q: Over the course of 40 years, you must have had the chance to see the work of countless costume designers. Who did you most admire for their style, innovation and creativity in the early years and who do you most admire now?

A: Actually I never had the chance to work with a lot of costume designers. The one I remember the best, though, was Dorothy Jeakins. (Interviewer note: Jeakins, born in 1914, was a studio freelancer who won recognition for her design work in The Music Man, The Sound of Music, Samson and Delilah and Young Frankenstein.) I also can’t really pick one designer over another – they all have different budget and time constraints to work with. But like everyone else, I think Edith Head was brilliant.

Q: Life is a series of choices in which we gather information and assess risks in order to either stay within our comfort zone or push the envelope and try something bold. How would you compare this to the choices that costume designers make in outfitting the characters in a film or television show?

A: As designers, we have to try and illustrate the drama using our medium, clothing. We also have to use historical research, human psychology and artistic principles in fashioning the overall look of the show as well as helping to delineate screen characters. The other big concern is ‘what kind of a film will the producers/director want to see and fund. We never work in a vacuum, so part of the ‘risk’ is in the presentation of our ideas and their cost.

Q: What would you say was the most challenging production you ever worked on?

A: Gods and Generals. I took over the show two weeks before shooting. The production lasted about half a year. We dressed between 500 and 1200 people a day, six days a week. We shot two, sometimes three units, sometimes 24 hours  a day (first unit nights, second unit days), sometimes in two different states at the same time. The sheer volume of clothes going in and out of the department, for repair, cleaning, reissue, new characters and bits, including the day-in, day-out manufacture of uniforms and cast clothing was enormous! My day started at 4:30, 5 a.m. and lasted until 9-10 p.m. almost every day (excluding Sundays when I only worked eight hours a day). It was more than a month into shooting before I felt like we had enough costumes to make our daily requirements. The anxiety was bad enough but added to the raw daily physical requirements – well, the experience made me very tired.

Q: What original design of yours still makes you say, “Wow! If I’m to be remembered for only one costume, this would be the one.”

A: It’s hard to pick one. As a show, I think The Wind and the Lion is still my favorite. I like the way both Sean Connery and Candice Bergen turned out. I have had women tell me that the riding skirt on Candice was a favorite of theirs – but the overall ‘look’ of the film still stands up pretty well. I’ve had people ask me if we shot in Morocco – but no, we shot it all in Spain and all the ‘Arab’ background was in costume.

Q: Do costume designers take their lead from what the director tells them to do or do directors defer to the designers’ knowledge of history, culture, fabrics, etc.?

A:  It’s different on different shows. Sometimes you have to prove yourself in the beginning with research and sketches, but after they start seeing a good looking show in dailies they tend to trust you – and everybody is so busy anyway they just let you go.

Q: What fabrics work better on screen and under hot lights than most people think they would? Conversely, what fabrics look nice in off-camera situations but are a nightmare for costume designers to work with?

A:  Since almost every film I’ve worked on has been period, I’ve always worked with fabric appropriate to the period. Usually naturals like wool, including wool crepe and cotton are the best, followed by linen (looks great, loses its shape). Shiny fabrics are more difficult. Silk can become too hot and the sound department hates the ‘rustling’ sound it makes, although raw silk is a great fabric. Satins can be hard to work with and cameras hate highly reflective fabrics as well as whites because of the ‘bounce’.

Q: How do you unleash your own creative process? 

A: I try to digest the script and think about what it’s trying to say – what it’s about – who are the characters and what’s their story function. I research the period and try to imagine what it looked like – maybe do some scribble sketches – perhaps look at other films done about the same period. I try to picture things like an overall color flow – then relax and try to think of ways to make this costume presentation my own – things usually become clear. 

Q: Knowing what you do about what people wore in earlier centuries, what period would most appeal to you if you could time-travel?

A: There are several contenders – American Revolutionary/Colonial period for the men, French Empire for the women, the streets of ancient Egypt or Rome – the Aztecs. I can’t decide!

 Q: How do you make ‘good’ art – symbols that connect – and engage a broad audience for pleasure and profit?  Do you feel the artist reflects or leads the general culture?

A: What unites us is our common cyclical life experience – it’s the essence of all drama. We are a person, a personality – we’re adjusted to ourselves at our age group. We ‘grow out of ourselves’ when we encounter a life situation that exceeds our ability to successfully solve based on our experience/ knowledge/ personal mythology. This leads to emotional turmoil – angst – then we have a cathartic moment perhaps a revelation – a ‘new answer’, and  the ‘old person’ dies and a ‘new person’ is born – and we enter the next or our ages. This is the three-act play of ‘introduction’- ‘confrontation’- ‘resolution’. We are all in some stage of this process. The successful artist finds meaningful symbols to concretize and communicate awareness of this process (think coming-of-age stories or mid-life crisis stories). The artist might use old forms like historical drama, or dress the ancient knowledge in new forms like Science Fiction; in this sense the artist-filmmaker might both reflect age-old concerns while leading the general culture into new forms.

Q: What is something about the Hollywood costume world that most people would be surprised to learn?

A: It’s a lot harder than it looks! I have heard people say things like, “Oh, a Costume Designer! That sounds like fun”. I have enjoyed satisfaction from my job but I never found the work to be fun.

Q: Tell us about your new book, Costume Design 101. What was your inspiration to write it and what was your selection process for determining the content?

A: I had worked on a film in Winston-Salam. We used the film school as a crew base. The Dean of the school, Mr. Sam Grog, asked me once my opinion on why his theatre costume department always had a hard time interfacing with commercial projects. We spoke quite a while on the difference between the requirements of the Costume Department in Theatre and Film. A few years later Mr. Grog became the head of AFI. The publishers of my book called him for a referral for someone to write a book on how theatre costume students could translate their knowledge to film work; he was kind enough to remember our conversations and my name.

Q: Who is your book’s target readership and what do you believe will be the takeaway value for them in reading it?

A:  I wrote the book to help anyone interested in the job of costume design on any film or television production, be they a student or someone already working in the industry. The ‘takeaway’, hopefully, is a realistic, unvarnished step-by-step guide to being able to function in a responsible, professional and successful manner as a costume designer – from job-interview through assessing department requirements, budgeting and scheduling, running a department, interfacing with production, and so forth.

Q: It’s interesting to see that your “retirement career” is real estate. How did 40 years of designing costumes prepare you for helping clients find a house that’s not only the right fit but suits their personality?

A: Actually it’s more about real estate investing. When I retired, I went back to school for two years and studied Interior Design which was a nice complement to my years as a non-union Production Designer where I designed and built sets for low-budget film, commercials and music videos. I intended to use the new knowledge to assist me in rehabbing interiors or creating thematic interiors.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: Right now I’m doing some painting. I always have drawn and painted and enjoyed it; now I can spend a little more time at it!

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Everything in life happens by either Design or Default. I think it behooves everybody to learn a little about basic design principles. In its most simplified explanation – Good Design = the best use of demanded elements, whatever they may be – and the words of Leonardo De Vinci, “Simplicity is elegance.”

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Costume Design 101: The Business and Art of Creating Costumes for Film and Television is available at Amazon.com. To learn more about La Motte, visit his website at www.richardlamotte.com.