Three types of research

The emphasis on research has grown exponentially in the last 20 years of our profession.  At one time it was acceptable to just “go with your gut” or use second or third hand information.  While instinctual design is still an important practice, it is now the exception rather than the rule for many American spoken word performances.   We now live in the information age, and your collaborators may be very savvy about this period.

Period research — Garments, hairstyles, cosmetics, social practices affecting costume for the era and geographic location of this project

Inspiration Research–Artistic approach, color palette and color relationships, textures, art and music of the era, insights gleaned from the script

Character Research–Find real or likely characters that could inhabit this world.  What kind of body types, facial features express this character?  How would such a character wear clothing– messy, neat, rolled up, unmatched, overly tight?  What kind of accessories do these character types use that could express nervousness, confidence, cluelessness?

Sorting your research

For many designers, the research phase is the most fun.  Learning discipline yet keeping the serendipity of a chance find is an important skill to master.   Eventually you must sort your research into useful categories.  Assign each piece of research to a specific character or a moment in the script. All other research goes into a general file for future reference- perhaps in the back of your costume design bible.  Carrying too much information confuses yourself and others working with you.  You will fool yourself into thinking you have what you need, when in reality you will have 30 images of fab 50’s sweaters and none of the appropriate men’s trousers.

Showing Your Research

You must find several ways to communicate your research.  At first you may want to bring piles of books to your initial concept meetings.

Second,  you must find an interesting, portable way to show focused research during the Faculty Mentors Meeting. It is not practical in a more formal settings to flip through piles of books- you will look scattered and disorganized.  Create a collage or post color copies of research in meaningful groupings.  Organizing your research by character or specific moments in the play- as opposed to a large, impressionistic collage- will focus your attention.

The final form of communication will be for pulling rentals and building garments.  Store pertinent research by character in the bible so others can see what you intended.

In some cases, a research collage showing specific styles and colors for each character may be suitable means to present your initial design ideas, especially for contemporary dress.  In this case, make sure your research is in a legible, easy to comprehend format such as a collage or photographs. It is important that a research presentation of this kind still communicate any stylistic interpretation you wish to make, and present a professional impression of yourself as an artist.

A sample research collage is included on the Forms page.

Colors, Textures, Fabrics

Some designers begin with colors or fabrics first to stimulate thinking.  Your preliminary color ideas may be contained in a painting or photograph, or may come from a series of fabric swatches or textures you liked.

Be able to tease out of this inspiration the color relationships and textural effects you see for the show.  To communicate your artistic intent with others, you must learn to discuss ideas using generally accepted art terms, such as cool colors, a contrast of cool and warm colors, a monochromatic color scheme, imposing geometric shapes softened with overall patterns, an emphasis on negative space, etc.

Sometimes it is a helpful inspiration technique to create a “swatch world” for you show– attach all the swatches to a board to illustrate the overall look of the show.  You can assign fabrics to individual costumes from this collection at a later date. This method is very handy for judging whether rentals or purchases will fit into your overall scheme, and will give assistants an indication of your preferences.

Leave Room for Inspiration

By now you never want to hear the “R” word again.  Aren’t you supposed to be an artist?  In spite of all the research,  figure out your dramatic or artistic response to this project.  Refer back to your notes when reading the script.  Look carefully at your inspiration images.  Verbally describe what you see in those images.

What aspect of this design would you like to pursue—take a point of view.  Should everyone in the script look pinched and pale, as if strangled by their society?  Should the color reflect the main character’s unreal look at life?

Now you are ready to think with your hands, not your head.  Proceed to the Thumbnails and Rough Sketches page,

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