Once Upon a Time

ONCE UPON A TIME...

“Once upon a time there was a dear little girl who was loved by everyone who looked at her, but most of all by her grandmother, and there was nothing that she would not have given to the child. Once she gave her a little cap of red velvet, which suited her so well that she would never wear anything else; so she was always called 'Little Red-Cap.”

From The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. London: Constable & Company Ltd, 1909. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

From The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. London: Constable & Company Ltd, 1909. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

Clothing has been used throughout the ages to communicate a story about the wearer. In fairytales it often gives us a striking visual that we can carry along with the character through their journey. Red Riding Hood's cape, Cinderella's glass slipper, the coveted witch's shoes in the Wizard of Oz. But it is not only the iconic elements that sweep us up into the story. Every piece of a character's costume design places them in their world in a different way. Time, Location, Passage of Time, Status, History, Personality...

Costume is the story each character takes with them, giving us clues about their personality, status, and grounding us in their world. 

The rolled sleeves, untucked shirt,  disheveled skirt, socks and untied shoes all enhance the contrast of this rebellious student within her environment. Notice how the lay of the plaid also breaks up the orderly geometry of the props and staff costumes. Image:  The Young Lady With the Shiner (1953, Oil on Canvas, 34″ x 30″) Saturday Evening Post,  May 23, 1953.  Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Gift of Kenneth Stuart.

The rolled sleeves, untucked shirt,  disheveled skirt, socks and untied shoes all enhance the contrast of this rebellious student within her environment. Notice how the lay of the plaid also breaks up the orderly geometry of the props and staff costumes. Image:  The Young Lady With the Shiner (1953, Oil on Canvas, 34″ x 30″) Saturday Evening Post,  May 23, 1953.  Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Gift of Kenneth Stuart.

Take a look at the images in this blog post, how are the costume elements working together to tell us about the character and their story?

I like to think of costume as a unique connection between environment, prop and character. It is the most personal piece of design a character interacts with and it stays and evolves with them throughout the course of a story.

Devoid of background, a costume is still able to give the audience a sense of the world they live in, the time, their role, and a design venue through which to externalize their inner conflict.

With just these two characters actions combined with their costumes, what can we assume about their story? J. C. Leyendecker - The Saturday Evening Post Magazine cover (May 19, 1917) "Woman Kissing Soldier Goodbye"

With just these two characters actions combined with their costumes, what can we assume about their story? J. C. Leyendecker - The Saturday Evening Post Magazine cover (May 19, 1917) "Woman Kissing Soldier Goodbye"

A good character design is timeless and can be put in many costumes so this is your chance to build the world and the narrative context for the audience. 

With a fleshed out environment, you can use the costume to push them back into the scenery. Making them appear passive, worthless or mischievous. Pull them out of it, and you can showcase their dominance or make them feel out of place.

That backless dress! This fiery dame's elegant clean white silk dress,  accented with a blood red flower stands out from the crowd. Notice how the low back that features feminine form also allows us to see her tensed muscles, creating a fantastic balance of power and beauty. Image: Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Strictly a Sharpshooter, 1941. Story illustration for American Magazine, June 1941. Oil on canvas, 30” x 71”. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. © Norman Rockwell Family Agency

That backless dress! This fiery dame's elegant clean white silk dress,  accented with a blood red flower stands out from the crowd. Notice how the low back that features feminine form also allows us to see her tensed muscles, creating a fantastic balance of power and beauty. Image: Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Strictly a Sharpshooter, 1941. Story illustration for American Magazine, June 1941. Oil on canvas, 30” x 71”. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. © Norman Rockwell Family Agency

Costume is a powerful tool. If you respect it’s role than it will work for you, if not…you can kill even an amazing character design. 

Costume can be deeply personal or forced upon a character...and each of those thematic choices is going to have an impact on how they feel when they wear it...and how they act as a result. How do you hold yourself when you wear a nice suit to work? Why? How does it make you feel about yourself and your potential? Check out this great Buzzfeed Experiment where they tried just that.

How do you like to use costume? Do you have a favorite costume from an animation, game, illustration or live action production? We'd love to hear about it! Feel free to share your thoughts, insights and favorites in the comments!

Header Image: Evans, C. S. Cinderella. Arthur Rackham, illustrator. Philadelphia: Lippincott; London: Heinemann, 1919.

The Story We Wear

The Story We Wear