There are a couple of basic questions that it will be helpful to answer:
Who is this character?
- What do they do? Whether you’re costuming for a ren faire or a con, what a character does is probably a defining characteristic.
- What are they like? Are you portraying a tomboy, a sharp dressed man, a banana who has somehow gained sentience (I could not find a trope listing for this)? All these sentient beings are going to dress differently.
- What is pleasing to them? What do they like? What do they hate? Do they have good taste, bad taste, no taste? Are they trying to emulate someone or something? These preferences may or may not overlap with your; we’ll discuss this later.
- What is available to them? What materials, dyes, colors, cutting techniques, exist in their world? What can they afford? What can they reasonably be expected to get their hands on, given the constraints of geography, travel, trade, etc? (You also need to ask these questions about yourself, but we’ll talk about that next week).
And this leads us straight into…
How do they dress?
Things to consider here include: time period, regional/national dress, and established/canon outfits.
- Time period is pretty obvious. People dressed differently in 1534 than they do today. Hell, people dressed differently in 1534 than in 1554. People will dress differently 20 years from now. Whatever your time period, it will have a huge effect on what your character is wearing. There may be laws about what kinds of clothing people can wear. Even if there aren’t, there are fashions of the time and historical availability of fabrics and dyes, not to mention construction techniques (protip: princess seams are not period to the English Renaissance) to consider.
Please note: I don’t think you have to sew everything by hand if you’re making a costume from a time before sewing machines were invented. Some people do think that, and I think those people are crazy (if you want to do that, of course, don’t let me stop you, but I think you are crazy). That being said, you really ought to make an effort with the historical accuracy if this is going to be any sort of public thing. Don’t be The Tudors.
- Regional/National dress – this is slightly less true nowadays, what with television and the Information Superhighway(TM), but you’re still going to find variation. Back in Ye Olden Days, when travel was difficult and took a very long time, and we also didn’t have Google, this variation was more pronounced. You can use this to your advantage if you’re playing a world-travelling character and mix-and-match different styles for a fun hodge podge, but if you’re dressing a character who has never left their small English village, they should dress like an English person.
- Established and/or canon outfits – if you’re dressing an established character, like Frankenstein’s Monster, or a character based on a real person, like Robert Dudley, you have an added resource in deciding how you’re going to clothe them: how they actually dress(ed)! This can be super helpful, super limiting, or super both. There may be any number of sources for this: portraits, movies, text descriptions, half a dozen other things. In any case, it’s important and should not be ignored.
And finally…How much leeway have you got?
Your venue is going to have a lot to do with this. If you’re on a cast or otherwise Employed Somewhere, there will probably be rules related to what you can and can’t wear (feel free to try and get around these, but come prepared with research, be ready to hear “no,” and don’t tell the people in charge I told you to challenge their rules).
Ultimately, you’re looking for The Line. Every character, every time period, every venue has certain visual cues that clearly state “this is XYZ character/time period/venue,”, and when you’re designing, you’ve got to know those and include them. You can tell people you’re Spiderman all day long, but if you’re missing the Spiderman logo, no one is going to believe you and You Will Have Failed. Likewise, you can insist over and over that you’re Ye Olde Renaissance Goatheard, but if your bodice zips up the front…well.
That’s about it for the basics. Next week* we’ll talk briefly about my least favorite costuming topic: Your Resources (Subtitled: Paying For This Shit).
*I am aware that I said “next week” after my last Dressing the Character entry, which was more than a week ago. Would you believe I was abducted by aliens, causing the delay? No? Well to hell with you, I do what I want.