Designer Etiquette Tips : Working with Actors

© "Wooly Head" by Louise Walker

© "Wooly Head" by Louise Walker

Sunday evening, I'm scrolling down on my facebook feed instead of reading a novel and honoring my no-screen time policy after midnight.

I read a post on "Costume Networking Group" written by a stressed costume designer expressing her problem about an actress who refuses to wear jeans and the fact that her budget was too low to afford any other type of pants. We have all been in this kind of situation when you can't find a solution to your issue so you start blaming everybody until you get proper rest and everything gets clear.

That's ok, it happens to the best of us. 

However the comments were so not ok... People (professional designers) were furious about the actress and wrote stuffs like "she doesn't get to decide", "she is an actress, she is paid to wear whatever you want her to wear", "this thing that an actress needs to be comfortable is bullshit" or "slap said actress in her face" !!

I have always though that being in good term and working closely with talents were the easiest way for me to produce good work. I don't know if it's a French thing (French actors tend to be divas...) but one of the first thing I have learned as an assistant was to treat actors with respect and consideration. I even had to fold underwear, lace shoes and took good care of personal items.

The only costume designer I've worked with who was treating the lead actress like s*** was a stylist and she never worked on a film ever again.

I believe the most difficult part of our job is to be subtle, understand people and show empathy even when our work is not very well respected. So here a little list of etiquette and tips I try to follow in every circumstances because our work would not exist without actors anyway :

1 - Introduce yourself

Nobody has to know who you are. Maybe this doesn't apply to a 70 years old designer who won Oscars and fancy prices but until then you should always introduce yourself. It's just common politeness.

2 - Propose a drink

Most of the time our first meeting with an actor is at a fitting. Maybe they had to cross the city or they just had a stressful audition. Before making them undress in front of strangers who will scan their bodies, ask them if they want a drink or if they need a minute to go to the bathroom. Our schedule is tight but a confident actor will always be a time saver.

3 - Learn notions of body language

Some actors are modest, some actors will want your help to dress. Observe quietly before doing anything.

4 - Get the good underwear

Not every actors are comfortable with their bodies. We all have our flaws and it can be very painful to be exposed, especially if the director is attending the fittings. If you want an actress to try a pencil skirt or a tight dress, leave shaping underwear and proper tights in the dressing room. She will be thankful for this.

5 - Don't talk about sizes

I try to avoid having judgement like "this is too tight" or "this is too small". Some people can be hung up. Something like "this is not the right fit" is a little less harmful. I also avoid to tell them what sizes they are wearing because ready-to-wear sizes are not the same from one brand to another so someone may think they are a 8 whereas they are a 12 in another brand (that's also why i always measure everything).

6 - Always ask about comfort

I have worked with an editorial stylist once and I was totally shocked to see her asking a model to wear a pair of shoes that was 2 sizes below her size. I don't think an actor should feel self-conscious about what they are wearing in a scene because they are not feeling comfortable in their costume (unless it's decided on purpose because it goes with the character). Ask them how they feel, it is as simple as that.

7 - Ask them their opinion about the character

I believe they have as much insight as I have about the character we are both working on. Their point of view matters a lot and can only help the costume to be more truthful.

8 - Listen to their doubts and fears

Sometimes we don't like some part of our body. Show some empathy, talk about it if they want to but don't pressure them. It's their body after all and your right to dress them should never be alienating.

9 - Build trust

My best work happened when I had successfully gained trust from actresses who had strong personalities or were hard to please. Once the relationship was established, we were able to really discuss deeply about the character and they would let me surprise them with costumes they would not have accepted to wear earlier.

10 - Remember your place

At the end of the day they are the one with their names on the poster. Actors don't get fired over a costume disagreement, designers do.