– The Secret Life of Costumes

The Costuming Process

This article was adapted by Janet Irwin and Judith Bowden from the original entitled “From Page to Stage – The Costuming Process in the Theatre” by Jennifer Smith-Windsor, appearing in Fiberarts Magazine, March/April, 1996. Permission for adaptation was granted by Fiberarts Magazine, 2007.
Different theatres follow slightly different procedures, depending upon size of operation, and staff availability. This article reflects large theatres.
image:Papageno from The Magic Flute (1975), designed by Peter Rice
Papageno from The Magic Flute (1975)
© Peter Rice

“The smell of the grease paint and the roar of the crowd” is a timeworn adage used to describe the theatre. But what of the smell of shoe spray and the roar of sewing machines? Such are the smells and sounds in the theatre wardrobe. “Wardrobe” is part of the production department and is responsible not only for the garment an actor wears, but also for his or her footwear, hat, accessories, and even underwear!

The main role of the wardrobe department is to bring the costume designer’s vision to the stage. This process includes the following important steps, which are outlined in this article:

  • Planning
  • Designing
  • Budgeting
  • Buying
  • Treating fabric
  • Cutting and Sewing
  • Fittings
  • Dress rehearsals
  • Breakdown

Specialized skills are required to develop costumes for the stage, therefore wardrobes are divided into departments for buying, dyeing, cutting/tailoring, millinery, boots and shoes, and accessories departments. Depending on the theatre, the wardrobe may include some or all of these departments.