A Costume Designer's Prospective

Article by Trevor Bowen

Trevor Bowen is a relative newcomer to town, but you’d never know it. A powerhouse of a costume designer and critical thinker, Trevor’s designs have thundered onto the scene and he quickly became a fixture of Twin Cities theatre. However, for me, what’s really fascinating is his mind. More than anyone else, talking to Trevor has transformed the way I think about costumes - not just for the stage, but the way humans costume themselves for their very lives. We are all richer for having him here. -Wu Chen

My name is Trevor Bowen and I'm a Twin City area based costume designer. I have been working in town for about three years. I just wanted to share with everyone a brief, very personalized view of costuming and costume design. This by no means encompasses everything that costume design encompasses, from the ways in which designers choose to tell stories and methodologies, practices, theories, or whatever. This is based on the way that I've learned how to work and how I have adjusted what I do when going into a project. A somewhat formalized definition of costume design goes as such: costume design is about creating clothing for the world of the play that helps delineate time, place, season, socioeconomic status, nationality, emotional state of the character. Telling stories through clothing. I do whatever I can to simply create garments that further action, define action, and place characters in the defined reality.

There are two parts to costume design. First is the art part:  analysis, conversations amongst the director and team, research, sketching, and then eventually putting it all together. Second is the craft part: taking two-dimensional fabric, sometimes three-dimensional materials and then sculpting them on the body. Sculpture, which is often not thought of as a part of costume design, is a term most often associated with the art world or something that is in the world of the scenic designer. However I think we costume designers do so many things to augment the body, to enhance the body, to obstruct the body in some sort of way, and it is through these sculptural augmentations that we really served to create a character, create a version of life.

With that being said, I will lay out a few tips and rules of the road as you go out into the world of costume design. Below are a few things that I have found as I have been working and learning in the field:

“If there is anything else you can do as a profession, do it.” This translates literally.

Costume design is not a gentleman’s profession…unless you are a gentleman. What we do for a production is not for big money, unless you get that big moment, or if you enter into this with big money.  Love what you do, because you enjoy storytelling and being part of a team.

Take ownership of your work. You were hired because you have a unique visual language that serves to contribute to the whole story.  

Listen, listen, listen.

Ask questions. Ann Roth said in an interview that the first thing she does is ask questions, lots of them. Never shy away from this.  Of yourself, the director, the design team. It will only make you a stronger, clearer designer.

Read everything in your design contract…then ask more questions.

Costume design is still seen as “less than” other technical areas. You may be contractually obligated to do much more labor than other technical areas, without adequate consideration. Stand up for yourself, and request needed resources for the job at hand.

No crying in costumes. That is to the designer, not the actor….

Learn and keep learning. Become a costume design assistant for a few gigs. Learn how to sew. Know how to use metaphor in clothing.

Be curious. If you have a favorite TV show or movie for the costumes…seek to understand why you attracted to them. Ditto for celebrities, historical figures, and fashion houses.

Just because the color of a garment changes during tech, does not make it any less your design. Remember a big portion of what we do is provide clarity.

Respect the team of artisans helping to fulfill your design.  

We help create a moving composition on the stage…revel in that. And now a few words from those who say it better:

It’s taking noses out of these (bleep) fashion magazines and getting to the roots of it, finding the key to inspiration. It’s the library and its treasures.
— John Galliano
…The joy of dressing is an art.
— John Galliano
We have learned that beneath the surface of an ordinary everyday normal casual conscious existence there lies a vast dynamic world of impulse and dream, a hinterland of energy which has an independent existence of its own and laws of its own: laws which motivate all our thoughts and our actions.
— Robert Edmund Jones
The theater is a school we shall never have done with studying and learning.
— Robert Edmund Jones