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Costuming is like making clothes for imaginary people. And just as there are no limits to your imagination, the possibilities of costuming are endless.

In the same way as playwrights and screenwriters create characters and let actors bring them to life, costumers stitch their own bridges between imagination and reality.

Costume professionals and hobbyists design and make costumes for stage plays, one-person shows, fancy dress parties, historical recreations and science fiction role-playing.

Costuming uses a wide range of materials, jewelry and other accessories to create eye-popping combinations that stand out in a crowd.

Thousands of people across North America enjoy the costuming craft. Some just do it for fun. Others do serious work as costume makers and suppliers to the public market, as well as stage, television and film productions.

Costumer Ronda Grim has run Dragonfly Design Studio since 1992. Her Salem, Oregon, business makes and sells "a little bit of everything," from Mardi Gras masks and Halloween get-ups to historical recreations of centuries long in the past.

To stay on top of the demand for one-of-a-kind costumes, she says resourcefulness is as important as creativity.

"I get materials from a really wide range of sources," says Grim. "Besides the traditional wholesale suppliers, I salvage things like old buttons and lace from flea markets and garage sales. I also keep an eye on Web auction sites like eBay for vintage fabrics, like 100-year-old silk ribbon."

Cathleen Myers loves to escape into fantasy and history. She's the artistic director of Period Events and Entertainments Recreation Society (PEERS). It's a nonprofit group of voluntary hobbyists.

PEERS recreates historical balls every month in the San Francisco Bay area. Bringing the past to life requires a lot of painstaking costume making. But the results are lavish shows of festive, role-playing fun.

"Costuming allows you to express a different side of your character," says Myers.

"A lot of our group members have rather mundane day jobs. So this gives, for example, a woman who's a computer programmer by day a chance to become a Scarlett O'Hara-style southern belle or an armor-clad warrior woman by night. It's like Fantasy Island come to life for a lot of us."

Grim and Myers cater to public hunger for recreational costuming. Meanwhile, those who dress the TV and film industries keep busy behind the scenes.

Melany Peel is the rentals manager at a costume outlet. The store is packed full of police and military uniforms, period clothes and other specialty outfits for the 35 to 40 local productions it supplies on a regular basis.

"We just did inventory and it was a lot of counting," says Peel. "One box alone had 250 pairs of hospital scrub booties. That gives you some idea of how much we have here."

Besides doing some remakes, alterations and repairs, Peel's company doesn't make its own costumes. Most of them are bought from films that have wrapped and no longer need them. So if you've been watching a lot of TV, you've probably seen the same gear on a few different New York cop shows.

Getting Started

Getting started in costume design is as simple as deciding what you want to make. Perhaps you have a character in mind from the 18th century. Maybe you can picture what a person will wear 200 years in the future.Or maybe there's a famous present-day someone into whose shoes you would like to step.

You'll need some basic tools. A sewing machine saves time and ensures quality. But it isn't as necessary as good sewing skills, a book on how to draft patterns and an ability to be creative when it comes to finding and using materials.

Just about anyone can deck themselves out if it strikes their fancy. Many begin by making things to wear to parties. From those humble beginnings, many go on to grace stages and movie sets with skill and imagination.


International Costumers' Guild


Historic Clothing
See stylish clothing and accessories from past eras

The Costume Site
Lots of links available here
Tutorials, techniques and costume design tips

Renaissance Magazine
A great resource for researching period costumes

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