Costume Design: Definition, History & Process

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  • 0:04 What Is Costume Design?
  • 0:39 History
  • 2:19 Process
  • 3:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever watched a movie and marveled at the costumes? Do you wonder who dreams up what the characters will look like? In this lesson, explore the history of costume design and learn how it's done.

What Is Costume Design?

Costume design is the process of creating a cohesive style and appearance for characters in productions like television shows, movies, operas, Broadway musicals, ballets, and other kinds of theatrical performances.

Costume designers work with people like directors and scene designers to dream up and bring to life the worlds we see on stage and screen. These worlds might be set in time periods from the past, or they might be completely new and imaginary universes. Yes, costume designers played a huge role in Star Wars, because someone had to dream up how to make Chewbacca look the way he does!


Costume design has a very long history. The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, who lived in the 5th century B.C., created specific costumes for actors to wear when performing his tragedies. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, scenery and costumes became increasingly important elements of stage plays. They helped capture a mood, create an exciting colorful event, and entertain audiences. But there wasn't one cohesive idea of what costume had to be. In Shakespeare's time, people performed in contemporary dress. In his own company, Shakespeare's performers provided their own costumes.

In the 16th century, some traveling theatrical troupes performed a style of theater called commedia dell'arte. It had costumes that represented stock characters, such as the serving girl, the doctor, and the harlequin. Everyone in the audience understood what these characters stood for by looking at their costumes.

From the 1770s through the 1870s, a desire for greater accuracy in costume design began to take hold due to an increase in stage performances and traveling theatrical troupes, and because more people had become familiar with the costumes of cultures around the world. Into the 19th century, costume design became an increasingly specialized art, and two main ideas filtered into it. One was historical accuracy, or capturing the sense of a time period. The other was concept-driven, in which costumes captured a vision that might not have connections to a known historical time and place. Think about movies and television today and you can probably name several productions that fall into either category.

However, even when capturing a time period, costume designers don't have to do detailed reproductions. The idea is to create costumes that reflect the spirit of an age, and they often make subtle changes to historical styles.

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