Costume Design Tips to Bring Your Characters to Life

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

The art of costume design reaches far beyond simply selecting an outfit. While costumes do refer to the way a character dresses, they are also responsible for relaying the story of that person's joys, struggles and triumphs and present a look into the life they lead. It's in the details. Their hairstyles, the colors they wear, their shoes, their jewelry: everything works together to paint a deeper picture of who they are and why they're that way. We talked with four professional costume designers to hear their biggest inspirations and secret weapons. 

Cristina Araújo, Key Costumer from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, shares how she develops character-enhancing costumes that capture the audience and pull them into a fantasy world.

Q&A With Cristina Araújo

ProductionHUB: As a costume designer, what is your BEST character trait that you think is needed in the industry and why?

CA: Being attentive and patient. The prep for a movie or a commercial moves very quickly. We don’t have much time to get everything done and we always have to be very mindful of the budget, yet things are in constant flux. We have to be resourceful in order to make everything happen in the small time frame and budget. We need to make sure no details are overlooked and be patient with the process, following every step, even though sometimes it can be frustrating.

PH: How does a costume influence a character and show?

CA: Costumes transform the actors into their characters. Our goal is to tell part of the story through the costumes the actors wear. Wardrobe can be a huge part in making the audience believe the fantasy world that was created. It can be from a simple t-shirt and jeans that show signs of wear and tear according to what the character went through, to an elaborate custom-made gown that transports the audience from reality to fantasy.

PH: What is your process for coming up with a costume?

CA: First we start with a mood board that contains ideas, color palettes, textures and the looks that inspire us. Then we have a sketch artist bring the look to reality. After that, we have the costumers who specialize in fabrics search for options that would work with the costume. Once we have fabric and sketch in hand, we work with our cutter/fitter, who focuses on the perfect pattern and construction to bring the costume to reality.

PH: Describe how you create costumes that resonate with your audience. Biggest secret weapon?

CA: Research. We usually do a lot of research and come up with mood boards. This helps not only in inspiring and getting the wardrobe team on the same page, but it also lets us open our minds to what’s out there, what is going to help people identify or understand the character through their wardrobe.

PH: What are the key elements to any great costume?

CA: The key element is to blend seamlessly with all other production values of the scene, to be part of the story so the viewer is not focused on only the costume or one detail of it, but on the experience as a whole.

PH: What upcoming projects are you working on?

CA: After working on films, I decided to focus mostly on commercials. I’ve worked under amazing costume designers and finally got a chance to start working as the head of the department on commercials. I loved working on movies; it’s very gratifying to see the finished product after so much hard work we put in. But on the other hand, commercials are great because they are shorter in length of time and you get to work with a lot of different creative people.

9 Short Questions With 3 Big Names

Mary Claire Hannan, Nancea Ceo and Susanna Puisto answer our questions about their experience designing for some of the biggest stars in the industry. 

1. For inspiration, I go to...

"What’s happening on the street with real life and real people. Life itself can be very profound and poetic and visually stunning. We need to just look at it from an artist’s eye." - Mary Claire Hannan

"Museums, art then nature." - Nancea Ceo

"My imagination; fashion shows in real life or online, past or present; paintings and photography; Pinterest; random people on the streets; my travels, inspiration is everywhere." - Susanna Puisto

2. The hardest thing about being a costume designer is...

"Dealing with the politics. Situations are not always achieved fairly, but with a little maturity and a well-seasoned attitude, one can accept an outcome with a good sense of humor. It is Hollywood after all!" - Hannan

"Working under the time frames from idea to set." - Ceo

"That it's freelance. Times spent not working are the hardest. But working is fun, even when it’s hard. It comes with the territory." - Puisto

3. My favorite film I have worked on...

"Pulp Fiction. I just laughed and had a great time making that movie. My favorite film I have made is Into the Wild. It is very beautiful and peaceful to watch." - Hannan

"Crazy Heart." - Ceo

"That's a tough one. They all had some amazing things about them. One always learns something new and gains wonderful experiences. Hostel: Part 2 was pretty cool. I got to work in the Czech Republic for three months. I saw a lot of the country and had a lot of fun designing the costumes: the victims, the killers and the big, creepy festival. It was very challenging and rewarding – and scary!" - Puisto

4. My favorite Actor/Actress I have worked with...

"I love all actors. I have a huge respect in what they do. I really appreciated working with Annette Bening and Robert De Niro." - Hannan

"Jason Robards Jr. I was very young and he seemed so big in presence." - Ceo

"Dana Delany hands down. And Michael Douglas was a real class act. That's a tie with the ever so charming Gabriel Byrne. Lucky me!" - Puisto

5. Best styling tip...

"Don’t wear something that doesn’t look good on you just because it’s in style right now. Stay with what suits your coloring and silhouette." - Hannan

"Spend for quality and style. I’ve always believed in creating your own unique personality that is you with what you wear but always spend for quality." - Ceo

"Keep an open mind. Think outside the box. To be a trailblazer, to be able to create unique looks, one must take risks. You might fail, but you might also create something very special, something iconic." - Puisto

6. The most difficult costume I have designed...

"Putting a monkey in a suit. It was also a lot of fun!" - Hannan

"Challenges occur every day in costumes. To date, probably a wedding dress I made for Hayley on The Originals. The fabric was hand-stitched together with two fabrics. And the simplicity of the design made it hard to look effortless." - Ceo

"Probably Lily’s (Alyson Hannigan) parrot costume in How I Met Your Mother’s “Slutty Pumpkin” episode in the first season. I had to come up with the idea on the spot and have it designed and made in only a couple of days. The pace in sitcoms is fast and furious. It turned out great!" - Puisto

7. For Halloween this year, I am dressing up as...

"A witch…a good witch." - Hannan

"[A] costume designer. Eclectic style." - Ceo

"I'm the worst. I always leave it until the last minute. Probably something sexy and bloody..." - Puisto

8.  My favorite kind of costume to design is...

"One in which you can see the complexity of the character in the elements of costume." - Hannan

"Period clothing. On 'The Originals' we often go to flashbacks. Most recently, 12th century." - Ceo

"I love them all. Fantasy costumes are always fun. I did some futuristic ones back in my music video days. And I love the 60's and 70's eras." - Puisto

 9. The moment I felt the most successful as a costume designer, was when...

"A director told me she took my advice and changed the ending of her script. I spoke to her about the resolve of some of the characters and she went with it. This picture was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Screen Play. When you are a designated creative on a picture the collaboration is vital. Sometimes a director can ask for your advice on other elements of the picture outside of your job description. To achieve excellence in costume design it is important to be aware and conscious of the total picture." - Hannan

 "I look through the set monitor behind the director. And magic happens." - Ceo

"I worked with Michael Douglas. I really felt like I had made it. Me, the little girl from Finland, dressing a Hollywood icon! WOW!" - Puisto

Mary Claire Hannan

Costume designer Mary Claire Hannan is an auteur director’s darling, with the ability to translate filmmakers’ perspectives into stylish, daring, trendy or dramatic wardrobes. She began her career working for Quentin Tarantino and has gone on to design for filmmakers with singular visions, including Sean Penn, Michael Cuesta and Lisa Cholodenko. Her most recent costume designs can be seen in Paper Towns, the adaptation of the best-selling novel by John Green, starring Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne, The Fault in Our Stars, based off of another best-selling novel by Green for director Josh Boone, starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, and Nicholas Sparks’ adaptation The Longest Ride starring Britt Robertson and Scott Eastwood.

Nancea Ceo

Nancea Ceo is a costume designer whose work ethic, research skills, life experience and superior comprehension of the screenwriter's vision informs all her designs. Her recent design credits include the dark high school series for ABC Family Twisted from creator Adam Milch, Some Girl(s) directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer from a script by Neil LaBute, “The Proposition,” a segment for Movie 43 starring Anna Faris, and the 2010 CDG Award winner Crazy Heart starring Jeff Bridges, where she provided assistant costume design. Currently, Ceo is dressing the cast of The Originals, a spin-off from The CW’s hit show The Vampire Diaries.

Susanna Puisto

Susanna designed costumes for director Chris Eyre’s Hide Away, Renny Harlin’s Cleaner, Peter Hyams’ Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and Greg Araki’s Splendor. Her credits also include MacGruberDumb and Dumber: When Harry Met Lloyd, and more recently From the Rough with Taraji P. Henson and Tom Felton.  In television, her credits include RecklessBody of ProofHow I Met Your Mother and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She just wrapped the series Hand of God for Amazon where she designed costumes for Dana Delaney.

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