Each person has their own aesthetic and preferences based on certain ideas of beauty.  Oddly, the aesthetic shifts enough from one generation to the next to create filters we subconsciously use to judge other eras.  We each think of our personal aesthetic as Classic and everyone else’s as Peculiar.   One example is the effect of spandex and overt sexuality in contemporary fashion.  We are used to seeing garments that look painted on, and this forms an aesthetic we judge other fashions with.

Use Solutions Based Language.  Most fitting problems can be successfully negotiated by stepping back from how a problem occurred, and focusing on what to do next.   This kind of discussion assumes everyone will do their best.  We want A, we have B, how do we get back to A?

Defuse the blame game. Everyone on the project wants to be recognized for excellent work.  If something isn’t going well, it’s easy to wound feelings or put people on the defensive.  Always acknowledge that some things just happen, no matter what.  Phrases such as “You did what I wanted, but now I can see that is a problem” will go a very long way toward winning cooperation.   Put as much humor into the situation as you can, but don’t soft pedal so much you leave the impression nothing has to change.

Recognize human patterns in what we do. Each and Every Show has a performer who –no matter what you put on them- looks like a bag of laundry.   Every show has a performer too concerned about their waistline. hair, package–whatever.  Every show has a performer that cannot handle accessories-everything they touch breaks.  Every show has a performer who gained/ lost 15 pounds or can never find anything even though it is right in front of them.     Acknowledge this is Just Life, and recognize the shop staff are your co-conspirators to save these actors’ careers.

FAQ– why don’t the costumes look like the correct period?

You can avoid some fitting problems by careful planning. In an ideal world, we would plan everything ahead!  But any of these solutions can be discussed once fittings begin.

You must articulate any of these concerns early- if you wait, it may be too late to undo a great amount of work.

Have a tactical discussion with the shop.  At the beginning of a project, clearly discuss specific attributes of the period you find important, such as the should seam must droop or be very  high,  the vests must all button just under the chin.  State any fears you may have with a period so the shop will know what look is not acceptable to your project —for instance, modern slender women will look like flat sticks in 19th corsets.   Brainstorm solutions as part of the entire picture.  Schedule a guinea pig fitting on someone to establish the “show look” before plunging into the workload.  There is no substitute for samples or visual aids!

Develop a story world standard to judge each character.  Are there a couple of parameters you’d like to emphasize in all the characters that will create unity?    Some examples include- all shirt collars will be high and stiff, all trousers will be fit closely to the leg, all ladies waists will be just under the bust, all the tailcoats will fall to the knee in back, etc.

Don’t wait for the fitting. Look at every costume on the form first before a fitting.  You can catch any miscommunications or problems as they evolve.  We all learn by doing in this business, and the only way to try something is to dive in!

FAQ–I don’t know how to articulate what I want yet. What do I say?

If you can’t yet speak in specific garment terms, it’s never wrong to use art terms like proportion, scale, texture, silhouette, cool color, etc.  Use your rendering, silhouette guide and research as a tool to compare with what you see on the actor.

In general there are three major categories many problems will fall into: Fit, Proportion or Scale.

Fit:  To judge fitting problems, be prepared to state exactly what you see.  Don’t ASSUME any one else sees the way you do!  The more specific you can be, the more success you will have.  For instance “She looks like my worst nightmare” is a general observation and can put others on the defensive unless you are speaking of your own work.   Instead, point out “Her shirt won’t stay tucked in, her vest gaps in the front like it’s too tight, and her trousers are baggy in the seat” is very exact.  You don’t have to know any technical terms—merely describe what you see.

Be very aware of too-tight fitting for the stage.  Unless you incorporate spandex, knits or gussets for movement you will often run afoul of movement requirements.   One exception is arm pits and crotch depth.  A tighter fit in those areas allow more freedom of movement.  Discuss these needs very specifically.

Proportion: this is the trickiest part of translating a drawing to a person.  Your actor may be taller, shorter or wider than the drawing or research.  We are often surprised by areas of the body that are shorter or longer than we anticipated, or actors with tiny features easily overwhelmed by large details.   This step is part of individualizing the design, and can be frought with painful discoveries.  It may also mean a draper has to tear something apart to completely repattern when they didn’t anticipate that time commitment.  Whenever possible, use photos of actors in your initial discussion with the shop.

In the fitting, compare the costume on the actress to the rendering, research or working drawing.  Be as specific as possible- no one can help you with vague statements.  “Why is the actors waist up here when the research appears to be down there?  What can we do about that?

Scale: The overall silhouette is one of the most important aspects of our stage picture.  Be very aware of your goals, and don’t scrimp.  This is an important aspect of period design.  This is a place inexperienced designers don’t show enough confidence, and we end up with wishy washy period shows that could be set here, there or nowhere.

What is the largest thing on each garment?  Does it compete with the actor’s face?  Do you want some characters to have large volume, and others to take up less space?

Be consistent with rules you create. Determine ahead of time how wide are the petticoats in your story world?  Don’t let random rentals decide your design for you.   Team A has long capes, Team B has knee capes, Team C has elbow capes.   If you articulate these rules, then its easy for everyone to work with them.

FAQ: Crisis—nothing fits my actor.  Now what!?

Fitting Disasters make everyone in the room feel like a failure.   The actor is convinced they are ugly, lumpy, malformed because you tried dozens of things and none worked.  The fitter is exasperated because we all just spent an hour without productive results and they need work to parcel out to the stitchers.  The designer thinks its time to change their name and move to Arkansas.

An ounce of prevention . Do everything you can ahead of time to make sure you present viable options in a fitting.  If you pulled lots of options from rental houses before this role was cast, use a dress form in the correct size to pre-screen your items.   One of the skills designers develop is the ability to judge garments when on the hangar– if you’re choices are outrageously incorrect, you have not done your job well.    You will lose authority in front of your actor, the stage managers who must schedule many repeat fittings and the shop.  Measure the garments ahead of time, mark sizes on all of them for later reference.

Use Information Gathering. After careful preparation you will still have big surprises. This happens all the time.    Judge whether this actor is an unusual size, or if the measurements were taken months ago.  Do everything you can to adjust your information so you can pull correctly in the future.  Figure out if you should be measuring the actors calf to judge riding boot fit.  Adjust your information and persevere.

Make a New Plan. Gather the team to discuss if this item to assess all the possibilities.  Is there another option at a rental house?  Must the item be made- to -order after all?  Don’t wait!   The problem will not solve itself, but you will definitely run out of time if you delay.  Ask for help.

FAQ– I’m a visual person. I can’t choose items until I see them all together.  How do I do fittings?

If  collaging or collecting is is your creative method, you will find yourself in extremely distinguished company. Some designers must gather things– like magpies– from all corners of the world before they can assign costumes to actors.   Some designers are famous for reaching into their magic bag to pull out just the right vintage bit or thrift store find they’ve been hoarding for years!   The notion of slicing in and out of the rental house with surgical precision baffles them completely.

Self Knowledge is 30% of any endeavor! In this case, separate your creative process from the fitting process. Give yourself extra time to collect items.  Try the items on dress forms, long suffering life partners or your eye-rolling assistant.    Take digital photos of your decisions.   Once you’ve designed your show this way, step back to figure out how to create that look in the proper size for your actor.  You will be able to articulate very specific needs:  you need a teal sweater just like this one, but 2 sizes larger, or you must find a black bustier with  shiny texture, or you want a green sweater like this one but with a more heathery texture.

Now you can comb the world to gather the correct items for fittings!   As you fit actors, use your digital photos as reminders of your intent.  Not only does this method work very well, but it may get you a reputation as a genius.  In your spare time start composing that humble Oscar speech!

Holly’s Top Three Showbiz Rules:


No One Will Love your Show as Much as You Do. Fittings are also your time to work with the actor.  Set yourself up for success!

Never Assume Anything. If you ASSUME= you will make an ASS of U and ME.

Cry in the car on the way home. That is what the car is for!



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