Life in the wardrobe department can be a whirlwind experience. Dressing major stars, tracking down the perfect piece of jewelry, and making alterations on the fly can be an exhilarating, if not downright scary, experience. But it doesn’t matter if you’re the wardrobe supervisor, key costumer, or assistant costume designer, your job is all the same: making the people on-screen look fabulous.
In Some Like It Hot, Orry George Kelly won an Oscar for costume design for dressing up Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as women. He also got to dress Marilyn Monroe, so it wasn’t all hard work. While that comedy was pure camp, advancements in wardrobe design has grown by leaps in bounds over the last 50 years.
From the futuristic battle gear in Black Panther to the dusty leather in Mad Max: Fury Road to the period pieces of Anna Karenina and Titanic, what the actors wear helps establish the time, place, and setting of a movie. When it comes to wardrobe, even deciding what fabrics work best in black and white, like in The Artist, must be considered.
In many cases, especially for background actors, the costume and wardrobe department has a wide variety of costumes to choose from off the rack. Tracking down a hat, suspenders, and knickers for a 1920s’ paperboy or crisp whites for a Naval officer is much easier than designing or creating new costumes for every movie.
Unless the costume will be worn by the stars of the film. Then it’s time to pull out a needle and thread to make sure the costume fits just right. Or taking designs and creating something that’s never been seen before, such as the iconic Darth Vader mask in George Lucas’s Star Wars.
Whether it’s a twill jacket, corduroy pants, or a shiny black helmet, working in the wardrobe department demands an eye for detail and the ability to work by the seat of one’s well-tailored pants. Did a button pop off a corset? You’ll need to figure out how to fix it without holding up the production.
Speaking of corsets, wardrobe personnel work closely with the talent on a very up close and personal level. In Moulin Rouge, Nicole Kidman re-broke a rib getting into a corset. We don’t advise injuring the talent while getting them dressed on a regular basis, however.
It is important to show the actors in their best light, making sure to hide any imperfections while also accentuating their best assets. This requires taking measurements, several fittings, and sometimes, even sewing stars into the costumes. Having a calm, non-threatening demeanor is vital since the professionals who work in the wardrobe department can spend a lot of time in the dressing room with a Hollywood star in various stages of undress.
Even on smaller, independent films, it’s essential to be a professional at all times. Now is not the time to confirm rumors or talk about what you’ve read in the trade magazines. Of course, if you’ve worked with the actor before and you’ve developed a good relationship, feel free to talk about their kids or what they did over the weekend.
Just make sure you’re concentrating on getting that corset clasp back in place.
Building strong relationships also counts outside of the studio. The costume coordinator is responsible for buying, renting, and altering costumes for a movie. This includes accessories, such as shoes, necklaces, hats, and so on. Depending on the film, they may need to call multiple companies to track down all of the necessary pieces.
Where the relationship comes into play is how you treat those rented clothes. Are they cleaned and pressed when returned? Or just jammed into a garbage bag? If you want to keep working with a costume company, take care of the merchandise or you’ll find yourself with nowhere to turn during an emergency.
Of course, anything made specifically for the movie will stay with the costume department, and what do you do with all of those costumes? That’s where the set costumer comes into play. Making sure each article of clothing is identified, labeled, and stored away for future use or safekeeping.
Or for viewing at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, such as Dorothy’s ruby red slippers or even Bruce Willis’ bloody tank top from Die Hard. Sometimes that’s all it takes to make a wardrobe choice memorable. It’s not always about having the frilliest, tightest, or sharpest looking costume to make an impression.
But working in the wardrobe department will give you the chance to work closely with the actors and make them look regal, run-down, or something altogether new. While CGI may be all the rage, you’ll still need to know your way around a needle and thread.