3 Tips to Create Realistic Costumes

Costuming mistakes are often one of the most obvious deficiencies in film. A small error can ruin an otherwise beautiful scene or even an entire project. Yet these are some of the most easily remedied issues.

In my opinion, there are three major areas that can go wrong in costuming: material, color and wear.

While I deal mainly with medieval and fantasy worlds, these are good guidelines to follow in all periods, from space bounty hunters to the streets of Victorian London.

1. Materials

Choosing materials is key to any costume, especially when going for a more rustic look. Natural materials are a must. Linen, cotton, wool and leather are good places to start.

Make sure you get materials with a visible and rough texture. Upholstery fabric is a good place to look along with rough weave linen. These are often much more coarse and are visibly more archaic. If you use a cloth with a fine weave, even if made of natural materials, it will stand out like a sore thumb.

Remember, the camera is often going to see even less detail than the human eye so don’t be afraid to be bold in your texture. It is also important to choose your weather wisely. Many modern leathers are treated to a brilliant shine that comes off as fake or cheap on film.Zan Costume Desgin Blog_1

2. Color

Zan Costume Desgin Blog_1
(Note the rough canvas for the trousers and boot covers along with the garnet rather than red tunic. There is also a deal of weathering on the vambraces and gloves as well as on the belt. The white gambeson is almost entirely obscured.)

Color is our next key to good costuming. I always err on the side of muted colors. Maroons over reds, olives over bright greens and navy blues over royal blues. Especially if you are filming a lot out of doors, often your background is natural greens and browns.

Colors that are too bright are going to add an odd contrast. Furthermore, all of these colors look very modern and industrial.

Bright colors in large part are only to be found in the last fifty years of clothing save for some examples of royal courts and among the rich. I also avoid anything in the white range if you do not want it to stand out.

We entirely remove white and cream colors from our rangers, vikings and all middle earth characters. Even if you look in Lord of the Rings, you will find whites only on lady’s dresses and the unwarlike hobbits.

If you do use whites, for example on our templar tunics or gamesons, make sure you make them really dirty. Which brings us to our last point, weathering.

3. Weathering

Weathering is key in all contexts. From small sweat stains to massive amounts of mud and battle damage, characters rarely look like they just walked out of the dry cleaners. This applies not only to clothes, but to arms and armor as well.

Zan Costume Desgin Blog_2
(See the battle damage, grime and blood on these shields. )

No one will take your viking shield wall seriously if the shields are not liberally covered with battle damage and dried blood. Sometimes the easiest way is to tell the actors to just roll about on the ground. Other times you have to be a bit more scientific.

I love acrylic paint, charcoal and WD-40 for weathering. Splatters of different hues of paint (maybe mixed with sand) mae great mud stains on clothes and armor. Charcoal makes nice dark weathering on leather and is good to mix with WD-40 for grime and sweat stains.

Now context is always key, and don’t put dirt where it should not go, but anyone who works or lives out of doors or anyone but a king who lived prior to 1900 probably has some degree of wear and grime on them.  This also applies to metal.

I love to use gun bluing solution to take the gleam off of shiny metal. You can also give shiner metals a salt water bath to give them a bit of rust. Also, don’t be afraid of rips and tears! You can always capitalize on these by leaving them or by making the repairs rough and obvious. This will add another dimension to your character.Zan Costume Desgin Blog_2

These suggestions are just a start. There are a hundred other little ways to add that nice bit of detail to a costume. But if you cover these three bases, you can make a rugged tunic and viking trousers look better than a full archer’s outfit that just came off the press and made with polyester. Good luck and get out there and get those costumes dirty!

About The Author

Zan Campbell Zan Campbell is the founder of FellAndFair where he has designed costumes for notable individuals like YouTuber, Devan Supertramp. If you want to see cinematic costume design in action, checkout his Instagram (@fellandfair).

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  • JoAnn in VA

    Overall, a good article with many important points. I have been a historical costumer since 1980, and have a few additional ideas I’d like to add to this.
    Advanced, bright dyes were discovered in the mid 1800’s. The colors of royalty were bright red from the rad and hard to get cochineal from the new world (1500 on), Tyranian purple from a mollusk and royal blue. The harder to get and to keep bright, the more they were used for royalty and the rich.
    White was easy- linen and cotton are naturally white, as are many breeds of sheep. Plain white was often a poor persons color, though it could get dingy with wear and washings. Black was made from black wool or by dying in a pot filled with all the left over dyes used by a dyer. Those and brown are the three colors most likely to be worn by monks and nuns in early period, as well as by the poor, though even they would try using dyes made from local plants, like woad and onion skins and non-edible berries.
    Dying fabrics in tea helps to age them and make them look faintly brown.
    Old coffee grounds and dried tea leaves work well as dirt, So do those old spices you haven’t used in the past ten years. For some reason, the scent of my dirt makes people hungry on set. I also use a spray bottle of cocoa powder and water, though since I got a professionally made spray on liquid grime I tend to use that more.
    Hats were worn by everyone, all the time, often times indoors as well as out until around 1960. A hat can make or break a really authentic look- pray be covered, good sir!

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