Essay about Report: Costume Designer

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Costumes form a unique sign system of especial complexity since they are decoded by the audience on a number of simultaneous levels: they are put into action by the performers who impose gestures and movement on them, while at the same time they are three-dimensional aspects of art and must be read in the wider context of space, set, and lighting. The contextualization of all the aspects of design can radically alter how a costume is used and read. When a white costume is lit by a red light, for example, then it becomes red; when a black robe is worn against a black background, the wearer all but disappears.
Besides these complexities, costume designers have an additional responsibility because costumes do not simply form part of the overall visual system, but they also have to reflect the status and individuality of different characters. The costume designer and the director must conceptualize not just the look of each individual costume, but also take special notice of how the collective costumes work as visual signifiers in each changing moment of the performance. In Living Theatre Productions’ Andromache, for example, the predominant colours for the costumes were shades of red, orange, brown and gold. The colours gave a unity to the chorus and to several of the main protagonists. The costumes for the characters of Andromache and Hermione, however, were allowed to stand apart: the Spartan Hermione was dressed in several layers of brightly coloured purple, blue and green silks to emphasize her wealth and vanity, while the Trojan Andromache, played by a black actress, was dressed in a simple black sleeveless gown (see figure 3). Not only did the blackness of her costume provide a sharp simplicity to Hermione’s ostentatious Orientalist costume, but it also marked her out as a loner who was alien to her red-orange-gold-brown surroundings. Andromache’s black skin and black costume emphasized her foreignness.
To begin the costuming process, the director has to determine the importance of costumes in the hierarchy of visual systems within a given production: how much weight and significance will the costumes carry? The director might decide to dress all the characters in basic black costumes if the desire is to let the script’s words and the actors’ physicality carry forward the characterizations and the plot; alternatively, a director can rely heavily on costumes to provide a layered series of signifiers. When Brook wanted to emphasize the poetry and language of his production of Seneca’s Oedipus at the Old Vic, he dressed his cast in black jumpers and trousers and simple black dresses (DB ref. no. 190). At the other end of the scale is Mnouchkine’s Les Atrides in which the detailed costumes added something very special to the production’s visualization. The integral importance of costume in a production is very much at the root of Le Théâtre du Soleil’s design and production theory, as Mnouchkine propounds to her actors:
Finish your costumes well. They can be your friends. They are your enemies if they are badly made, if they don’t hold together.
It is generally noted that Mnouchkine has a special taste for costumes. She likes them to be lively, rich, exact, finished.
The director and costume designer must determine which of the following kinds of information they want to communicate to the audience through the costumes (many concerns, it can be demonstrated, are shared by the set designer too.
Like the set, costume can locate the historical period in which the director has opted to place the play. Interestingly, directors and costume designers seem increasingly disinclined to place their productions in the ancient Greek world; commenting on the production process of Les Atrides, Monouchkine maintains that,
I didn’t want to consult documents on ancient Greece because I was afraid of slipping into the old clichés of the Greek vases, the togas (sic), the draping.
Jocelyn Herbert recollects that for the National…