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Costume Design Process: Bullets Over Broadway

A Facebook friend from my college days at Brigham Young University  is the associate producer of a new Broadway musical opening in March called “Bullets Over Broadway.”  He shared this clip of Bullets’ costume designer William Ivey Long who designed costumes for more than 60 Broadway shows over the last 30+ years including The Producers, Hairspray, Nine, Crazy for You, Guys and Dolls, Cinderella, and Young Frankenstein.

Mr. Long shares a glimpse of the theater costume design process in under 3 minutes:

Here’s a summary of his words and some basic steps for the costume designer:

1. Get a copy of the script

2. Meet with the director and ask lots of questions:

-What is the approach? What is the concept?

-Who are these people?

-What time of day is it? What is the season?

-What’s the arc of their character development?

3. Gather potential images of the characters via historical research (online, books, photographs, magazines)

4. The director indicates which images he/she likes better than others and those images which identify specific characters

5. Those images then become the designer’s sketches.  The designer adds the color palette then works with the tailors who make the suits, the dressmakers that make the dresses, the milliners who make the hats, and the wigmakers and shoemakers.

6. A very important role of the costume designer: TO MAKE A LIST OF OBSTACLES.

-How many seconds do I have for this change? Quick change=under a minute. A REALLY quick change= 4 seconds.

Costumes are designed based on the costume change time–what can be over- dressed (worn over a costume) or under-dressed (worn under a costume), or placed on the back of a piece of scenery to be put on as the actor is moving, such as a hat or coat, to be a different costume.

He states, “Everything’s challenging because you know, nothing works until it….WORKS.”

Ain’t that the truth! Stressful tech week and dress rehearsals sound familiar to anyone? Surely I am not the only one who has seen a costume redesigned in the days leading up to opening night, simply because it didn’t work once the costume or accessory was on the actor, on the stage.

“It’s still very low-tech, what we do. I make clothes. For people. Who wear them. 8 shows a week.”

I love going behind the scenes.  It is fascinating to see the start-to-finish process. If you are an amateur costume designer,  I hope these steps give you helpful things to think about as you begin to design costumes for your upcoming show.

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