– The Secret Life of Costumes

The Costume Designer’s Role

Canadian designer Judith Bowden talks about the role of the costume designer and how she approaches her work. Judith’s work is part of the National Arts Centre’s costume collection; read her biography.
image:Natalya Stepanovna from The “Vaudevilles” of Chekhov / The Proposal (2003), designed by Judith Bowden
Natalya Stepanovna from The “Vaudevilles” of Chekhov / The Proposal (2003)
© Judith Bowden

The main job of costume design in a production is to provide physical and emotional support to every actor through the clothing he or she will wear to enhance characterization. The costume must work onstage. This means it must provide comfort, flexibility and durability. At the same time the design must provide strong visual support of the story, concept and context of the play as a whole. It is my role to ensure that the costumes reflect the visual style of the production and help actors portray their characters on their journey through the play’s action.

I take my cues from the characters and their surroundings as written in the play, as well as from the stylistic choices of the production. In the same way that an actor builds upon the framework of traits and actions of his or her character in the story, I read what the character does and says for clues about what they might wear. I also need to think about how best to reflect a character’s evolution through the development of the story. Sometimes the character is best served by creating contrast between how a character behaves and what he or she looks like.

The Practicalities of the Job

Practically speaking, my job is to execute the design of each garment by:

  • providing a costume sketch and research material
  • providing a working drawing and/or discussing details of cut and fit with a cutter
  • choosing the fabrics, trims, etc. for the garments
  • participating in rehearsals to understand how the garment will be used and to ensure that stylistic choices made in initial discussions will still work as the production develops
  • adjusting the design if required, to best suit the physique of the actor and the particulars of the character being portrayed
  • keeping in mind the overall look and balance of each scene while making all choices and being aware of how colour schemes and silhouettes are developing the story of the play from scene to scene
  • participating in fittings
  • attending tech rehearsals, tech dress and dress rehearsals
  • ensuring that the planning is translating onto the stage; adjusting and refining when necessary.


I work in collaboration with a number of people, but first with the director. I assist in the collaborative process by presenting the director with visual references, sketches, collages etc., in order to make sure that the images and ideas that I describe are on par with what the director envisions as we continue to meet and discuss. I also work closely with the other designers (sets and lights), wardrobe staff and actors. Theatre is an intensely collaborative art form, and it’s essential to learn how to work as a team. Good collaboration can happen when there is a solid, clearly articulated framework for the production. When each artist on the creative team team understands the production’s style and approach, everyone can work toward the same goal while maintaining enough flexibility to refine their ideas throughout the process.

In order to be a good collaborator, I need to prepare in the following ways for early discussions with the director:

image:Natalya Stepanovna from The “Vaudevilles” of Chekhov / The Proposal (2003), designed by: Judith Bowden
Christine Brubaker as Natalya Stepanovna from The “Vaudevilles” of Chekhov / The Proposal (2003), designed by Judith Bowden
© National Arts Centre
  • I read the script carefully and do a script and character analysis
  • I look at the themes that I think warrant visual support
  • I think generally about the style of the piece and collect images (pictures, poems, quotes) that seem to speak to the nature of the play as a whole.

Before the second meeting I explore in detail the style that we have decided on for the production. I look at the way in which it will translate into clothing choices and how it will support the relationships and journeys of the characters. Usually I bring in lots of references at this point as well as rough preliminaries. We also look at ideas that have been presented for the set design (if I’m not also designing the set) to ensure that the costumes work with the visuals of the whole production. It’s important for me to be familiar with the technical practicalities of the set. For example, I’ll need to find out if the dress that I have designed for one character will fit through all the doors on the set. Ideally at this point, the other designers (of set and lights) would be at a meeting to iron out any mutual concerns.

Before I bring in final designs, the preliminary drawings go to the head of wardrobe for costing. My final designs would typically go back again to the head of wardrobe and another meeting follows. We recap before the first day of rehearsal to touch base, show fabric swatches, and any garments in the process of creation.

Designing involves a lot of discussion. As a designer I must make certain that I have a clear idea of how the director wants to interpret the script. I also need to make sure that I’m in agreement with the vision since both the director and I are working toward the same goal: to support the major themes of the play and to tell the story.

On Setting the Play in Place and Time

Sometimes a particular production of a play is set in a different place or time from that of the playwright’s original conception. This may be done to look at contemporary life from another angle, or to reinterpret events from the past. Whether or not this is the case, I always look at the playwright’s specified time and place to get a sense of social climate, historical context and existing styles in art. I feel that if we are going to move a play into a different style, time or place it is important to make choices that will continue to support and enhance the play’s original story and character relationships even when the new choice sheds another light on the play or gives an alternative perspective on the story.

On Inspiration

My inspiration can come from all over and really depends on the play. The play itself is inspiration, as is work of artists from other fields, as well as fabrics, fibre, artists, photographs, illustrations, paintings of all sorts, textures in the world at large. Inspiration can come from anything.

On the Effects of Technology in:

image:Cook from The “Vaudevilles” of Chekhov / The Bear (2003), designed by Judith Bowden
Cook from The “Vaudevilles” of Chekhov / The Bear (2003)
© Judith Bowden
  • Research: In the design process I think the most obvious change as a result of technology is the ability to research on the Internet. I can access museum sites with photographs of actual historical garments and vast collections. I can also go to websites of second-hand bookstores that sell primary research materials like old magazines and cutting and tailoring books.
  • Assembling and communicating sketches: Although there are computer-assisted design programs available I still do all my drawing by hand. It is great, however, to digitally scan all of my sketches and print out scene groupings to take a look at colour schemes and silhouettes. I also use the scanner to create a mini bible of the show (a 5- by 7-inch bound book of all the sketches) to use when shopping for materials. This eliminates the need to carry around stacks of large sketches. The small book eventually ends up with samples of all the chosen fabrics included next to each costume sketch. The book is a useful and quick reference.
  • Special Effects: Technology for lighting, and radio-controlled dimmers has influenced some specialized costumes I have worked on. Like the Lumière costume I designed for Beauty and the Beast at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario. Lumière has candelabras for hands, so the lights – LED lights embedded in plastic flame jewels – were designed into his gloves. These lights had a flicker effect that mimicked candle flames. He had the same thing in his headdress. The actor similarly controlled the lights with a small button in his palm.
  • Fabrics: It seems to me that fabrics available on the market are greatly influenced by new technology with things like computer cutting of fabric, felting and embroidery work. In some cases the technology has allowed us to use elaborately embroidered fabrics that in the past would have been too expensive. I have also found all the shredded and layered, or fused, fabrics that are now available to be really useful and inspiring when designing shows with heavily textured elements. In the past we would have to do this shredding and layering as part of the build; now the fabric gives us a head start.