How to Costume Your Show

How To Costume Your Show
Our Brave Girls, wearing costume pieces from the OKTC wardrobe stores.

How wonderful would it be if you had a lineup of famous designers lined up and an unlimited budget to costume your upcoming theatrical production?  That’s the dream, isn’t it?  Unfortunately, it’s not the case with most youth, community, or school productions.  But don’t despair… just get creative!  Here are some tips for costuming your next show!

1.  Make a plan.

Read through the script, making notes about costumes whenever they are mentioned.  Then, make a list of every actor in your show (I like to go in alphabetical order by last name, to ensure nobody is missed!).  Next to their name, list every role they play in the show, with a little character description if necessary, such as Wendy Darling, 12 years old, or Pirate/Indian Brave.

Below that, list the items that their character needs, including accessories and footwear.  You can also include hair and makeup notes, as they could affect what items the actor wears (for example, you definitely want to ensure anyone with face paint or stage blood wears items that are easy to launder!).

Make sure to note any pertinent details that are vital to the script, that could affect your actors’ performance, or that might need special attention.  One common note is if an actor has to do any vigorous dancing or stage combat — you don’t want any wardrobe malfunctions happening when the actor performs a split or a high kick!

How To Costume Your Show
A snug-fitting headband won’t fall off during choreography!

2.  Assemble a team.

You can’t do everything yourself, so save your sanity and find yourself a team.  In youth theatre, this is often in the form of family volunteers — tireless moms, dads, grandparents and older siblings ready, willing, and able to make your actors look fantastic.  It is helpful to get one or two parents to act as costume heads or liaisons, that you can send communications to and ensure that they’ll double check to make sure nothing is missing.

For shows with very young actors (like 10 and younger), it’s also useful to have backstage volunteers available during the run of the show to assist with quick changes and tidying up after the show!  Be sure to teach them proper costume etiquette!

3.  Start searching!

Many theatre productions work from a shoestring to zero budget.  But remember: costumes can come from anywhere!  If you are working with a theatre company that has their own wardrobe supply (such as Original Kids Theatre Company!), that is the best place to start.  But there are lots of other places to get costume pieces for little to no money:

  • Friends’ and family’s basements and closets can be a treasure trove of costume bits and vintage pieces (in OKTC’s production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid Jr. last year, Ariel wore a lavender tank top from my own wardrobe!)
  • Local charity shops can be a gold mine (think Goodwill, Value Village, Talize…)
  • Local costume businesses are always great (in London, try The Costume Shoppe or McCulloch’s)
  • Schools often have costume supplies that can be loaned (especially if they’ve done the same show recently)
  • Other theatre companies are often willing to loan pieces too
  • Sometimes clothing businesses may be willing to rent or sponsor a production in exchange for programme advertisements or setting up a sponsor display in the theatre lobby (for example, formal wear companies)
  • The dollar store is a theatre person’s best friend!
  • Becoming best friends with a talented seamstress or tailor, who could whip up costume pieces on their sewing machines
  • Repurpose costume pieces you already have — for example, orphan rags can be easily turned into pirate garb with the addition of boots, a sash or belt and a hat!  But make sure any alterations can be returned to their original state!
How To Costume Your Show
John Darling’s pajamas came from a local secondhand shop.

4.  Schedule a “costume parade.”

Assign a rehearsal day where costumes can be tried on the actors and approved by the artistic staff.  This way the team can look at the costumes and see how they fit the actors and how they look onstage under the lights.  Make sure it’s a rehearsal when there’s still time before the production opens; otherwise you might be stuck with costumes you aren’t entirely happy with!

5.  Be flexible.

Sometimes the costume you envision in your head for a character won’t work in reality — the actor’s body type doesn’t work with the costume; the type of fabric isn’t available or is too expensive, or the elaborate mermaid tail skirts don’t allow the mersisters to do the fun dance tricks assigned by the choreographer (the last one really happened!).  So be flexible, and allow your team to be creative in their solutions.  More often than not, your team will come up with some fantastic alternative that you never even thought of!  Let them work their magic so you can focus on everything else!

How To Costume Your Show
Fairy bells…? Guess you’ll just have to come see Peter Pan Jr. to find out what these are for!
Photo Credit: Ceris Thomas

Do you have any tips for creatively costuming a show?  Share them in the comments!

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