Every garment worn in a movie is considered a costume. Costumes are a storytelling tool, communicating subtle details of each character’s personality and history quickly and economically to the audience. They help actors leave their own personalities behind and become new and believable people on screen.
Although people often confuse costume design with fashion design, the two are very different. Fashion designers sell clothes; costume designers help characters come alive. Costume designers can make beautiful gowns and extravagant clothes when the script requires a glamorous entrance, but they also must design everyday clothes when those are needed for a scene. Costumes are created to be worn by one specific actor, as one specific character, in one specific scene.
The costume design process begins with a careful study of the screenplay. Scripts describe the action (what happens in the scene), time period (when the action takes place), the location (where the action takes place), and the number and identity of the characters in each scene. After reading the script, the costume designer meets with the director to discuss the overall vision for the film and to consider the personal histories of each character, possible casting choices, the overall colour palette, and the mood of the film.
The costume designer then starts the research portion of the design process. As part of that process, designers visit libraries, look at paintings, and study newspapers, catalogues and magazines from the present or the past, visit similar places depending on when the movie is set.
If that high school scene takes place in the 1950s, as in the period film Pleasantville (1998, with costumes by Judianna Makovsky), the designer might use vintage high school yearbooks, personal photographs of friends and family, home movies, and magazines to research the film.
If the school is in a fantasy film, such as Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), the designer might research contemporary and traditional English private school uniforms and depend upon imagination for the rest. Although Harry Potter and his friends Ron and Hermione exist in an imaginary world, they must still be characters that the audience can relate to.
Costumes do not have to exactly duplicate the film’s period, but they need to look right to the audience. Designers may exaggerate colour, style, and silhouette for dramatic effect.