An Introduction to Indie Costume Design: How to Pull Off Spot-on Costuming Without Breaking the Bank

You want your film to look like it was dressed by Edith Head or Colleen Atwood, with eye-popping yet believable clothing that tells a story as much as it delights viewers.

But you won’t have the budget for beautiful, bespoke pieces, even if your leading lady were Grace Kelly.

Welcome to the world of low-budget costuming, where resourcefulness, street smarts and a knack for efficient management will take a film further than you’d imagine. We asked a range of costume designers from talent agency Dattner Dispoto and Associates to spill the secrets for good dressing at any budget, whether you’re working with a design team, or doing it yourself.

Initial Prep

Script Breakdown and Budgeting

Nadine Haders (Into the Badlands, Raising Hope, Deadwood): “Any job starts with the written word. Read and break down the script, dividing it up by all the characters and within that, all possible costume changes. This is where your overall vision for the production begins.”

Kameron Lennox (Shovel Buddies, Frank & Lola): “Software systems like Sync OnSet and CPlotPro can facilitate your script breakdown. There is always the good ol’ handwritten method, too. Just get it done.”

Meghan Kasperlik (Geezer, Little Accidents, 99 Homes): “I share my research boards with the production designer and I discuss color palette and locations. If the wallpaper in a location is green, I know not to dress the actors in green for that scene. I also try to add special details to characters to make them realistic. Where would this character shop in real life? What would be in her purse? If a character is right-handed, is there wear and tear on his right sleeve from rubbing it against a desk? Where does he put his wallet and how old are his jeans? Adding a distressed outline of the wallet on his back pocket gives that personal touch.”

NH: “Are any changes that might need to be multiplied for photo doubles, stunt doubles, or any other kind of action that would warrant extra garments? It’s only after you’ve done this that you can begin to put a budget together. Consider not only the costumes, but additional supplies, extra labor, cleaning and expendables.”

KL: “A character may wear the same costume in more than one script day, so note if multiples are necessary. The $500 initially allotted for a main cast member may become $2,500 based on multiples that were not taken into account before your breakdown. For example, Shovel Buddies takes place within 24 hours. Initially, because the cast wears the same costumes during the entire film, my job seemed easy. But because we were shooting for four weeks, not in script order, each scene needed to melt into the next as if no time had passed. That meant numerous multiples of the same wardrobe for all five main cast members, in varying stages of distress.”

Sourcing for Costumes

Smart Shopping (and Returns)

MK: “I do everything from thrifting, couponing, loaning and renting clothing, uniforms and accessories. There are always coupons and discounts offered online. By taking 10 minutes to look for these discounts, I save thousands of dollars. If I am working out of town, I check out all the local stores, secondhand shops, and specialty stores within a one-hour radius as soon as I get there. Knowing what is locally available saves time, once you have sizes for the actors.”

Alana Morshead (Equals, One & Two): “Know what is actually going to be seen on camera and what isn’t. If you’re shooting a car scene and it’s only waist-up, you don’t need to worry about what shoes the character is wearing. Every character in Equals wears the exact same thing in the film, but to be cost-effective, we chose different fabrics for the principles versus the background cast, since you can’t tell the difference on camera. For One & Two, we had to return absolutely everything that had not been seen on camera. Every sock, every button, every insole—you name it, we returned it, to keep the budget in check.”

For Drake Doremus’ Equals, designer Alana Morshead chose cheaper fabrics to costume the extras, and costlier ones for leads Nicolas Hoult and Kristen Stewart

For Drake Doremus’ Equals, designer Alana Morshead, in a team led by head designer Abby O’Sullivan, chose cheaper fabrics to costume the extras, and costlier ones for leads Nicolas Hoult and Kristen Stewart. Photograph by Jessica Forde

Thrifting and Repurposing

MK: “Thrifting is the best way to find one-of-a-kind pieces, though there are a few things to take into consideration: You cannot return at most thrift places. Also, look at the condition of the piece. Are there holes, stains, or is it stretched out? Is it possible to let down the pant hem or sleeve if need be? If so, will there be dirt stains or a hard crease that will not come out? I never want to spend my budget on garments that will not make it to camera because of oversights when shopping.”

AM: “With One & Two, half of the film consisted of four main characters in period pieces, whereas everyone else, including the day players and background cast, were contemporary. Being in the small town of Winston-Salem in North Carolina, I had to source Goodwill in a 30-mile radius because there were no costume houses. When you are scanning racks, look beyond what is actually hanging on the rack. If something catches my eye, many questions run through my head: ‘What if I dyed it? What if I shortened it? What if I replaced the buttons?’ An example is a $4 Goodwill dress Kiernan Shipka, the lead, wears for the majority of the film. It was a long, bright blue dress with flowers on it—not at all the look we were going for in the film, but I loved the construction of the top of the dress, so I bought it. The director strongly disliked it, but I said, ‘Just give me until tomorrow and see it on Kiernan!’ I bleached it, which turned it into a very light blue/off-white with faint flower prints, shortened it to the knee, and it became the main dress of the film!

One & Two 1

Kiernan Shipka in Andrew Droz Palermo’s One & Two. Courtesy of IFC Midnight

If I found something with a color I liked, but needed a worn, used look, I gave it a salt bath. This wears down the fabric to make it look authentically lived in. Every designer’s kit should contain Schmere Sticks, also called ‘movie dirt.’ These help you apply sweat stains, dirt, grass stains and even blood, yet everything is washable.”

Personal Clothing 

Cris Araujo (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo): “Indies will frequently resort to using actors’ personal clothing, accessories and shoes. Sometimes the actor’s style represents the character’s, as well. However, one of the biggest mistakes is to assume that you can build a character only with the actor’s personal clothing. It’s not impossible, but most of the time, actors don’t have everything you need to put together their characters’ closets.

Talk to the actors about what their characters should look like. Generally, they already have ideas. Then ask them to bring a suitcase of possible options to the wardrobe fitting. At the fitting, try to incorporate the best pieces they own with what you have pulled for them. Their older, worn-in clothing and some costume house pieces make the perfect combination. Most people repeat their wardrobe in real life and don’t wear new clothing very often. So putting actors in worn-in, used items gives texture to their look and a sense of reality. Make sure the actors dig in their closets for the items they’ve had for years and no longer wear in public. Sometimes those old, beat-up T-shirts they only sleep in look amazing on screen.”

Rooney Mara stars in Columbia Pictures' "THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO," also starring Daniel Craig.

Cris Araujo, key costumer on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, says, “Rooney Mara transformed into Lisbeth Salander as she put on her combat boots—her body language was different even in the way she walked.” Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

NH: “When I contribute something of my own to an actor’s costume, it helps me connect with the character, too, like when I put my own grandmother’s jewelry on Cloris Leachman for Raising Hope.”

Product Placement

MK: “Product placement is not as easy as it used to be, but it is still possible. I work a lot with Jessica Cohen at The Product Agent, and she helps find exceptional brands that will give product placement and or loans. Anything from kids clothing, to undergarments, to amazing jewelry. With these unique products, I can still give the characters a personalized feel that doesn’t seem generic.”

Everywhere Else

CA: “Sometimes you need to be extra resourceful. That could mean buying an old man’s aged-in hat off the street, or borrowing pieces of clothing from a friend. The bizarre thing about the job is going to extensive lengths for items that might only be on screen for five seconds.”

KL: “Research, research, research. Sometimes days of it. Comb through websites, look for deals, haggle with wholesale dealers, pound the pavement. There is no one-stop shop.”

MK:Little Accidents was about a coal-mining town and we needed to depict the lives of coal miners, with a lived-in feel for their clothing. I didn’t have the budget to bring an ager or dyer. So we set up a “swap meet,” so to speak, and traded brand new clothing and work wear in exchange for the miners’ used clothing, boots, uniforms, etc. The swap was a huge success and saved me a lot of time on distressing.

On the film Geezer, Billie Joe Armstrong and Fred Armisen play aging musicians in New York City. There are a couple of music venue scenes and I wanted the audiences to look realistic with rock T-shirts and pinbacks from real-life bands. Getting clearance from rock bands is not easy, especially on a short time frame, so I asked local bands, friend’s bands, local coffee shops, NYC restaurants and stores for shirts, tote bags and pinbacks. I was surprised how many people gave us clearance and free goods to use in the film. Many crew members commented on how great it was to see real bands and actual NYC places instead of generic T-shirts.”

Costumes from director Terry Sanders’ ’60s California-set Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey, costumed by Kate DeBlasio

Costumes from director Terry Sanders’ ’60s California-set Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey, costumed by Kate DeBlasio. Courtesy of Kate DeBlasio

Organization On Set

Fittings

Kate DeBlasio (Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey, MF, Goats): “If important members of the team—like the director—can’t make a fitting, I use iPhoto photo streams to keep everyone in the loop in real time. Even if the fitting happens on set, I still use a photo stream so the director can see everything from his or her phone or iPad without having to leave camera.

It isn’t uncommon for an actor to be replaced at the last minute. What might fit or look good on one person may not work on whoever is finally cast, so you always need to be ready to change and adjust the fit and design of a costume. On a film I worked on there was a scheduling conflict and one week before filming, the leading lady was replaced by another actor who had a completely different body type and vibe from what we had spent the entire prep designing. We had to make some very severe and risky decisions. We fit our leading lady on set while filming our second shoot day and had 14 looks to get right. Luckily, it turned out better than we could have imagined.

Remember, the actor is going to base their initial feeling about the shoot on the experience of the fitting. If an actor leaves that fitting feeling taken care of and understood, he or she will go into the first shoot day feeling confident in the production. In addition to creating a successful costume, that good feeling is precisely what you want to achieve at a fitting.”

Costume Care

AM: “You will most likely have a very small team, so step back for a minute and get organized. Ask yourself: What items can be returned because you aren’t going to use them? Can your assistant start taping receipts on them? Can you box up a look you know you won’t see again to make your work space cleaner and more manageable? When I do these things, I don’t feel overwhelmed and can focus on the fun, creative work.”

Dorotka Sapinska (The Signal, Spy): “It is so easy to lose pieces when you are in a rush, but if you take a little extra time to get organized, you won’t find yourself scrambling on set. No one wants to wait while you find those shoes! Here are some tips:

  1. Bag all your costumes by character. Include shoes in hang bags and accessories in a hanging pouch or pinned to clothes hangers, so everything can be seen.
  2. After costumes are transported to set, take them out of the bags and hang them on racks in an orderly fashion, as most often actors will be dressing themselves.
  3. Keep a photo of each character’s ‘look’ beside the costume, so everyone remembers how the pieces are to be arranged.
  4. Make a list of every article of clothing borrowed. Include photographs and notes about the label, brand and size. If something goes missing, you can make your own efforts to replace it or research the L&D (loss and damage), a document delivered to producers as part of wrap. This will avoid conversations like, ‘Hey, you know that leather jacket you borrowed? Well, it’s gone missing… Where did you get it? Who made it?’

All worn pieces must be washed or refreshed overnight. Your actors must be comfortable and feel like you are taking care of them. For good hygiene, never let an actor wear clothing that has been worn by another actor. Always wash pre-owned items before fittings, even if they don’t look like they need it. Any repairs should be done that night. You will not have time to do this on set unless a disaster happens – so make sure you always carry a repair kit!”

Continuity

KL: “The continuity book—a binder with a breakdown of every scene by character, accompanied by notes from the director, ADs and script supervisor—is the designer’s bible. Each script day must have its own page. Every fitting photo, every scene already shot, is documented in this book. It is imperative to photograph every detail: front and back, all accessories, every rolled sleeve, every stained shirt. This isn’t always easy: Sometimes it’s dark, or an actor gets whisked away before you get a chance to check them. Someone from the costume department should be on set for ‘last looks’ to double-check that everything is accurate. Consult the continuity book if you are not 110 percent certain. Nothing takes me out of a story more than if the continuity is off.” MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2016. Featured image from Geezer, costumed by Meghan Kasperlik.

1 Comment

  1. Alexandria Martinez

    September 25, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    For a project, my cousin is looking for the help of a film costume designer. I think it would benefit him to know that to make clothes look worn you can put the clothes in a salt bath. This and some of these other tricks will definitely help him.

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