Costume Designers Tips

Costume Design TipsHello readers!

Today is the LAST day I’m working on the costumes for The Seagull, the 1890’s play I have been making costumes for. Tonight is the photo shoot so I will have photos to post next week. I thought I would share some of the things I have learned over the last couple of years of creating costumes for community theater plays. Hopefully, If you are getting into or working on your own plays , these tips can save you some time and money.

It’s very different work from my early work on motion pictures in my early twenties, where budgets were pretty much unlimited, and the sky was the limit when it came to finding, renting, and creating costumes.  I left that job when I became pregnant with my oldest child, and I became busy with life. So I was thrilled a few years ago when I was approached to design costumes for my local community theater. I had always regretted leaving that world of costume design behind, so I’m happy to be doing this stimulating work, even if I never do get an Oscar or a Tony.

Costuming for community theater is a lot harder than the movie job was because I don’t have any help, and I have to operate on an extremely tight budget. But I am in charge, have creative control, and get to work closely with the director on character analysis for costumes, etc. On movies, I was just a lowly assistant, one of a small army of helpers, and the main costume designer was a large and intimidating presence to me. But everyone needs to start somewhere…. and  I was very fortunate to have had family connections to even get my foot in the door. How clueless I was!

But back to community theater costuming.  On this play my budget for materials was four hundred dollars. And we had very little to choose from in the costume closet. There are twelve characters, four acts, and a few of the characters have multiple changes. There is no doubt that it is a ton of work and truly a labor of love. But I really love this work. So much so, that I almost eat, drink, and sleep costume design when I ‘m working on a play. That’s why I don’t do it full time. I would be a terrible mother if I did. So here’s what I have created with the four hundred dollar budget using my tips above. And I still have seventy dollars left.

  • Altered four pairs of modern men’s pants to look like they are from the 1890’s .
  • Sewed three women’s jackets.
  • Sewed two men’s vests
  • Sewed five women’s skirts.
  • Sewed one pair men’s trousers.
  • Altered several vests to look vintage.
  • Dyed several pieces of clothing.
  • Borrowed pieces from a neighboring theater.
  • Bought some pieces from a costume shop having a clearance.

To buy period specific patterns, I wait for the pattern sales at JO Ann fabrics. Simplicity, and Butterick have some good ones and unlike most of their modern style patterns, the fit on these historical pieces is actually really good. I’ve had to do little alterations on my actors on the ones I’ve used. I trace them with Freezer paper so I can save the originals for future use. Many of the period costume patterns go out of print and then end up selling for lots of money on EBay. I can resell the patterns someday but most likely, I will need them!

I buy most of my fabrics at the thrift shops. All of my pieces were made from old sheets and curtains. I bought some muslin using a 40 percent off coupon from JoAnn. I use plain cotton curtain fabric for underlings. An outfit can also be totally transformed with clothing dye. You can dilute brown dye and an item can be made to look time worn, or you can take two items that don’t quite match and dye them to become a coordinated outfit.

I studied the men’s suits on my 1890’s Pinterest Board and then chose a bunch of men’s things from the costume closet and cut them apart and put them back together. Taking in cutting away, etc. If I made a mistake, it was OK because the clothes cost nothing. Men’s sewing and tailoring is a lot more time consuming than dressmaking so I prefer to alter existing items if I can.

I also collect little things when I’m at thrift shops or estate sales. Interesting buttons and small pieces of jewelry. In order to be reimbursed for these items, receipts need to be saved for everything. I try to put them away, which isn’t so easy since I am a bit scatter brained!




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  1. Shelly Rhodes says

    I find this topic so fascinating! I too, have found that simplicity and mccall’s historical costumes to be made extremely well, and they are so well patterned that they aren’t really costumey, but more like period replica pieces! I can’t wait to see the photos of your work! Good Job on working with such a limited budget. I sewed my sister’s entire wedding party (2 brides maids, 4 flower girls, and one bride) and used curtain lining (dyed) for the underlining for the brides maids and flower girl dresses to save costs (the dresses were our gift to the couple).

  2. Judy says

    How wonderful.. Such a challenging /fun project.. I can’t wait to see the photos, I know
    you did a wonderful job..