The purpose of costume design

Costume is an important aspect of a production, as it helps to:

  • establish a character
  • convey the context of the play
  • support the style of the production

Establishing a character

As well as helping the audience to understand information about the character and the performance as a whole, performers can find it easier to ‘become’ their character once they try their costume on. Costumes can:

  • provide the audience with basic information about a character, such as their age, gender, occupation and economic and social background
  • reveal lots of information about a character’s personality, eg a vain character might wear a flamboyant outfit to draw attention to themselves, while a shy character might wear plain clothes in dull colours
  • reveal information about a character’s circumstances within the play, helping to tell their story, eg a character might begin the play wearing smart clothes but by the end of the play their costume might look creased and untidy to help communicate their journey and what they have experienced
Jean Valjean, from Les Miserables, stands on the left in a field wearing a pristine suit and sits on the right in an open manhole cover with his suit, hair and make-up dirty and worn.
The different costumes of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, CBS

Conveying the context of the play

Costumes can also convey the context of the play, including the time period and geographical setting, following fashions and styles that evolve from one decade to the next. Performers wearing dinner jackets, bow ties and top hats could suggest the historical setting of the piece before any dialogue is spoken. Through local cultural dress or references to the climate, costume design can also help to convey the geographical setting of a play.

A man and woman stand back to back, laughing whilst holding a drink each. They are wearing elaborate period costumes and wigs.

Costume can represent a specific time period, following fashion trends of that era, as in School For Scandal, The Barbican Theatre

Supporting the style

Costumes support the overall style of a production, along with the other design elements. If a production is naturalistic in style, then costumes should be realistic and recreate everyday life. However, a pantomime, which is far more theatrical, would feature grand and colourful costumes to support the overall style of the show.

Naturalistic costumes in a production

Three men stand on stage, wearing suits in the naturalistic style of the 1940s during a performance of An Inspector Calls, The Novella Theatre