Theatre Etiquette: Concerning Costumes

australian ballet costume warehouse

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“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”  
~ Mark Twain

One of the most fun things about working on a show is trying on your costume for the first time.  You’ve rehearsed your blocking and practiced your lines and sung your songs, but once you step into your character’s clothes… it just makes everything seem a bit more real!

As an actor, your costume is so important.  It tells the audience the story of your character.  It adds to the mood of the piece.  It contributes to the overall look of the show.  As such, there are some important rules that you must respect when it comes to your costume.

1.  Once your measurements are taken, you need to stay the same size.

There’s nothing worse for a costume designer than to spend hours sewing a costume, and then come back to rehearsal and discover that the costume doesn’t fit.  If, for example, you are planning on losing a lot of weight or getting pregnant over the rehearsal period (believe me, it happens!) you need to let your costume designer know in advance so they are aware of that.

2.  You need to let your costume designer know in advance if you do anything in the show that might require certain costume adjustments.

Including (but not limited to) physical feats such as high kicks, tumbling or stage combat or a quick-change (from costume to costume or even for changing into a different character).  A good costume designer will have read the script in advance and anticipated these concerns, but it’s always good to remind them, especially if they’re working on a large number of costumes.

3.  Inform your costume designer in advance if you cannot wear a certain fabric for whatever reason.

Some people cannot wear wool because they are allergic to it.  I had a young actress in a show who could not wear any scarves or high-necked dresses because she had eczema on her neck and very sensitive skin.  As well, I’ve known actors who will not wear leather or fur because they are vegetarian or vegan, and wearing animal products is immoral to them.  A good costume designer will take these notes into account and work around them.  But…

4.  Once you are given your costume, you put it on and wear it, no matter what.

You cannot reject a costume because you think it’s ugly or stupid or you just don’t like it.  The director and costume designer have a specific vision for the show, and your costume is one aspect of it.  You also must wear the costume the way the costume designer tells you to.  You might think it looks dumb to tie a sash around your shoulder and want to tie it around your waist.  You can certainly ask the costume designer if you can change the look (and you better have a good reason to back up your request!) but be prepared to receive a “NO” as your answer!  (You also don’t get to change the item once previews are over, either.)

5.  Wear appropriate undergarments.

There is nothing worse than seeing huge panty lines, brightly coloured boxer shorts sticking out of pant tops, or a neon bra glaring out from underneath a white blouse.  Stage lights emphasize these even more than you think.  Ladies, invest in skin-coloured skivvies and bras; men, get some neutral coloured briefs or boxer-briefs and an undershirt that don’t bunch up under tighter-fitting clothing.  And even if your costume IS underwear (think The Rocky Horror Show, for example) you still need to wear your own undergarments underneath!  You don’t know who else has worn that costume before you!

In addition: wear appropriate deodorant and shower before coming to the show and putting on your costume!  Nobody needs to smell your stank.  However, you should avoid wearing perfume or cologne in your costume, as the chemicals can damage or stain the fabric.

6.  Don’t eat while wearing your costume.

You don’t want to risk spilling anything or staining your costume, and facing the wrath of the costume designer.  If you must eat, either remove your costume or cover it up with a large coat or smock.  Same thing goes for smoking; don’t smoke in your costume.  Not only should you not be going outside in your costume (totally breaks the illusion of your show!) you don’t want to risk burning your costume.  As well, cigarette smoke is notorious for sticking to clothing.  Your scene partner will not be impressed to be getting a big whiff of that during your scene together!

7.  If something happens to your costume, tell the costume team immediately.

Things happen.  Zippers break, hems fall, buttons come off.  Tell your costume team right away (ideally during intermission or right after the show) so they’re able to fix it in time for the next show.  Don’t wait until the last minute to say something; you are not likely to get much sympathy five minutes before the curtain rises!  As well, keep your costume pieces together and always make sure everything is accounted for before you leave each day, from your ballgown right down to your sparkly shoes.  You don’t want to come in before the show and wonder, “Where the heck are my pants?!”

Do you have any rules your company follows regarding costumes?
Have you ever had a costume nightmare?  Share them in the comments!

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34 thoughts on “Theatre Etiquette: Concerning Costumes

  1. Awesome piece Kerry. Can I add, take care of the costume pieces. Don’t bunch suit jackets up in a ball when you take them off. You should always have the hanger (or whatever you were given your costume on) handy when you take off the pieces and return it to that hanger till it’s needed again. This especially goes for wigs. They should be returned to manequin heads when you take them off. Kay Rogers, Murder For Hire

    • That’s an excellent point, Kay. When I’m directing, I always make sure to tell my kids not to leave their costume pieces on the floor where they’ll get wrinkled and stepped on and filthy.

      If I find their stuff on the floor, I either hide it, or make them pay me a dollar to get it back! The dollar threat works wonders. 🙂

      • i always have my staff collect any costume pieces left anywhere other then their hanger, and turn them in to me (the costume designer, and costume shop manager). they have to come to ME to retrieve it for the next performance. then they pay me $5 to get it. that money pays for extra costume shop essentials.

    • I find I often have to teach my cast how to hang up clothing correctly! Even when stuff gets placed on hangers, they’re often folded in a lump, or the shoulders aren’t hung evenly, etc. I don’t even understand how few people know how to hang up clothes!

  2. Let your costume designer know about quick changes, these aren’t always apparent from the script and sometimes a busy director forgets to mention one

    • Actually, a costume team watches run thrus to determine quick changes. It is not the job of the actor. It is your job. The people posting on this board sound very provincial. Not how it works.

      • Many of the commenters here work in community theatre or are teachers who work with students. Oftentimes the costume team are volunteers. I do think it’s important that actors are aware of quick changes and should be able to assist. Obviously in professional theatre, the costume team knows where quick changes are and plans ahead accordingly.

        I definitely invite sharing of thoughts and opinions, but rude comments and name-calling will not be tolerated.

  3. Hi Kerry,
    It’s good to see your, and others, advice about costumes. Thanks!
    Here is what I wrote when I was the Costume Design Consultant for Original Kids. A copy was given to each actor, parent and posted in several places backstage.

    About Costumes and Backstage

    No food or drinks except water while in costume and backstage.

    Please do not touch another actor’s costume, accessories or props.

    Costumes may be rented, from storage, borrowed, made “just for you”, etc. so must be treated with respect and care.

    Same goes if it is your own costume because it is part of the show.

    Please hang up your costumes before leaving backstage.

    Have a sturdy, recognizable, tote-like bag for accessories and/or for your street clothes (while in costume) that will fit over your hanger.

    Report damages or problems with costumes a.s.a.p. and if possible before the next show.

    When you arrive, check to make sure your costume is there and complete.

    If you need help with costumes or quick changes backstage feel free to ask the costume team member or parent.

    During the shows and intermissions you may not leave backstage. Please do not hog the washroom.

    No personal jewelry. Please leave it all at home.

    No writing anywhere with anything.

    If parents want to provide a bulk treat for everyone (donuts, etc.) remember that you must wait until you are out of costume, it’s hung up and you leave backstage. That’s after the show.

    There will be many people backstage so bring as little as possible. No valuables.

    During the show, you must be quiet backstage. What do you mean “impossible”?

    Have a great show! Crystal

  4. Really good notes. I would add; parents, don’t interfere with costumes; director, don’t undermine the costumer. One problem I have had is women/girls wanting to wear their costumes at their hip not their waist. Actors should know about “period appropriate”.

    • I agree on both your statements! I have had that problem as well about hips vs. waist as well — both for girls AND boys! People don’t seem to know where their natural waists are!

    • We do the same thing, labelling items with masking tape, but you are right, it does fall off! I wonder if green or blue painter’s tape would stick better?

      Do you have a costume rack for your group? What we often do is take a paper plate with each kid’s name, cut a hole in the middle of it, and use it on the rack as dividers, to keep everyone’s stuff separate. You also might want to assign every kid a labelled bag that they can hang over a hanger and keep their “costume bits” in — like socks/tights/undershirts/bow ties/etc.

      Hope this helps! 🙂

      • Oh dear! Oh dear! Do not label with masking tape, painter’s tape or any kind of sticky tape. The adhesive will destroy your fabric and/or get permanently sticky if washed. I understand most of this reader base may be doing community or educational theater but in most professional theaters, costumes are laundered after every performance and no one wants a sticky collar during a performance. Most professional costumers will label the costumes using a piece of bias tape or ribbon with the actor’s name and character written in permanent ink, which is stitched by hand onto the innermost layer of the garment.

      • Thanks so much for the advice, Olivia. What would you recommend for a company that is unable to sew a label onto each garment?

        Our company does not sew labels into garments simply because of the turnaround; we produce over 20 shows a year and the costumes are used so frequently that it is impractical to stitch and un-stitch for each production.

    • Hi thea,

      I am a costumer for a children’s and youth theater. We label our costumes with small labels cut out of black out lining for drapes. We then write the actor’s name on it and pin it into the back of the costume with small gold safety pins. The labels stay put for the entire run of our show. Hope this helps!

      • At the college I attended we used a similar method but fastened the name tags written on muslin with sharpie to the inside of the costume, we would always use a like colored thread so the stitching didn’t stay on the outside and after each show the name tags were supposed to be removed.

        The no food rule also existed at our theatre with the exception of gummy bears due to the glycerin in them being able to relax a soar throat

    • Instead of masking tape, you can write their names on woven 1/2″ twill tape with indelible marker, fold the ends under to prevent unraveling and safety pin them in. Whip stitching the labels in is best, but with large casts/ many pieces small safety pins are good in a pinch.

  5. So often with community theater groups costumes come on flimsy wire hangers. I bring several heavy plastic hangers with clips on them and with my name on them to hang my costume pieces on. A hanging travel accessory bag also holds my little “stuff”, mending materials, extra hose, etc. I stake my claim to a particular hanging spot and dare anyone to move it. 🙂

    • Wire hangers are the worst, aren’t they? Useless when it comes to keeping anything on the rack! I like staking my claim to a spot too… it’s just nice to have your own spot when there’s so much going on around you!

      • i assign hanging spots for actors and label them, so that i…the costumer..and my staff know exactly where things are (or should be) when we go in to clean between shows. shoes go on the floor beneath the spot. jewelry/small extras go in a small bag on the hanger with the corresponding costume.
        i, too HATE wire hangers. i use heavy plastic ones that have sturdy clips.

        and NO GLITTER!!!
        as a college theatre dept. designer….those girls love their glitter. and it shows up on stage in the strangest places…and is blinding from the back row when the lights hit it.

  6. I will often tie a brightly colored ribbon to the hangers of my costumes and props when doing a role. It makes it easy to find my “stuff” on the racks and dares anyone to take my hangers for their pieces! lol

  7. And why do actors have to turn everything inside out when removing it? Gets makeup all over the outside of it. 4 & 5. My favorites. I direct as well as costume, and people who make mean comments about or refuse to wear what they are given do not get cast by me. Additionally about #5: With all the really great shapewear out there, why do women refuse to obtain and wear it? Don’t they want to look as good onstage as they can?

  8. It was the worst. This past fall I was head male costumer. Being a female that’s always fun… The boys would leave their street clothes thrown all over the dressing room. PLEASE PUT YOUR STREET CLOTHES UP! AND YOUR SHOES COUNT! It’s funny seeing them running around looking for their pants and shoes. Also please don’t put us in the position of dealing with ringing phone during a performance….

  9. This is awesome! In addition to not wearing costumes the way they are designed, i’ve also had actors alter costumes back stage by cutting aspects of the costume off themselves. They heard that the designer was cutting a decorative element and decided to do it themselves without asking for permission or assistance from dressers. They literally grabbed the scissors from the crash box and lopped it off.

  10. Spike tape works well for marking costumes Sticks better than masking tape and is less gunky over the long-haul.

    Blank retail size dividers are great for marking space in dressing rooms

    Love the idea of charging money for mishandled costumes!! (We make them do push-ups!)

    Axe is banned from the theatre.

    Axe + Stank = THEWORSTSTANKEVER!!!

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