Theatre Green Book PRODUCTIONS Toolkit – Designing and Making

Costumes

With thanks to Rose Connelly, Jessica Curtis, Urs Dierker and Tracy Dunk

This section covers the whole process of costume for a production. If you want to jump to a section click here:

Ideas| Realisation | Sourcing | Making and Materials | Use and Maintenance | End of Use | Evaluation | Suppliers

Ideas

Sustainability in costume focuses, in conjunction with other endeavours within the entertainment industry, on restoring the balance between humans and the planet. Sustainable transformation in costume involves widening our current approaches to costume work and performance to include life-cycle thinking. Life-cycle thinking explores the loops in a costume’s life, from concept to disposal. Sustainability requires that we question our work conditions, and the materials used to create and maintain  costumes, and the effects our actions have on humans and the Earth’s ecosystems.

Life cycle thinking includes:

  • the concept phase of a production, in which the parameters of a costume production are defined, 
  • the design phase, in which the costume designer develops and visualises ideas about costume look and materials
  • the production phase, in which costumes are made with the visible materials chosen by the designer and the mostly hidden materials (lining, fusing) the costume workshops need to construct the garments
  • the use phase, in which costumes are actively used and reused, including maintenance (repair) 
  • the disposal phase, in which costumes are reviewed for recycling or disposal.

Life cycle thinking in costume is giving equal priority to all phases of costume making through conscious decisions about materials and processes.

 

Fig 01

The life cycle of a costume in a production spans from concept to disposal, potentially influencing new costume designs ©Urs Dierker

Concept

The early days of a design process are vital to sustainability. It is said that 80% of the environmental impact of products is determined in the design phase, from concept to production. During the concept phase, the costume designer collaborates with the costume departments and workshops, as well as the artistic team. Working sustainably requires defining what life cycle thinking and sustainability means for you, your workshops and productions, to create clear boundaries and achievable goals. 

Change making involves identifying your individual and collaborative entry points into sustainable work. Everyone should take ownership of their responsibilities, and collaborate with peers and others in your networks.

What is already happening

    • The reuse of costumes and materials is a well-established practice in costume productions 
    • A digital database of new and reused costumes and materials is created by most costume productions in theatre and film
    • Many theatres and films digitalising their costume and materials storage
    • Standards to allow easy exchange between institutions and productions have been created
    • Private and government-funded material and costume exchange hubs are available (Angels Costumes London) or planned (Kulturstiftung des Bundes Germany)
    • Many people are doing research or creating their own databases. A highly recommended read is Sinead Kideo’s well researched directory that can help to connect people to sustainable suppliers. 

Embed sustainability into the design process from the start

Sustainability should be embedded in the design process from the start, fostering collaboration among makers, suppliers, directors, and designers. Ultimately, achieving sustainability depends on the collective commitment of the entire team. Anyone at any stage of the costume process has influence, and the ability to reduce the negative impact of costumes on a production. Please see the Detailed Guidance for Productions in the Theatre Green Book for more details.

Design:

  • Who are your makers?  Who is your designer? Who is your audience? How can you bring them along with you on the journey of working differently?
  • Propose a more collaborative design process involving makers, suppliers, directors, and designers.
  • Listen to different sources of expertise. Take into account ideas from all stakeholders about how to engage in sustainable practices throughout the costume life cycle and how this might change workflows and resource requirements.
  • Reinforce that achieving sustainability depends on the commitment of the director, designer, and entire team to collectively rise to the challenge.
  • Think about the performance context and what positive impact it might have on your costume design. Can costume play a larger role in conveying positive narratives about change and sustainability in your productions?

Time (Schedule):

  • Prioritise time for sustainability discussions and research, especially during the concept stage.
  • Advocate for spending time at the concept stage to refine thinking and avoid late changes.
  • Allow designers and costume workshops space to explore sustainable solutions through ongoing conversations and reflections on lessons learned.

Budgets:

  • Provide resources to enhance knowledge sharing among designers and makers, encouraging discussions and solutions for sustainability. This effort should include researching and testing new materials and processes, forming new partnerships, and exploring alternative costume life cycles.

Things to consider before beginning:

  • Take a look at some of the guidance for designers (but which can apply for makers as well).
  • If you are working for an organisation or producer, ask if they provide Carbon Literacy Training.
  • Make sure you know what resources might already be available to you. Can you use recyclable or sustainable materials as a design catalyst?
  • Can you make or speak with some of the other roles in the process before you begin your work, to share knowledge?
  • Consider who else you will be working with across other departments, and where you can begin conversations early. Which parts of the planning process are relevant to you?
  • If you are a designer or maker at the beginning of the journey to make your work sustainable, a place to start might be: Costume Decision Tree by Maisie Bidwell.

Realisation

Design

  • Network and think in costume life-cycles. 
  • Spend time identifying the strengths and assets of your performance space (venue and local community) and celebrate them in your designs: what local suppliers are there? What making skills are represented in your team or wider theatre personnel? Are there craftspeople, local student or community groups who might contribute to your thinking and making process? The company you are working with may already have a database of local suppliers that produce waste, for example, local second hand stores or recycling schemes. Can you use local recycling and waste centres to find useful supplies (for example onion skins to dye your fabrics)?
  • Who is in the theatre before and after you?  Embrace life-cycle thinking. Where are there opportunities to share, inherit or pass on materials or assets from your design?
  • Think about  constructing costumes in a modular way so that it is easier to deconstruct them into useful elements.
  • Although we share a joint responsibility for sustainable production, it is worth recognising the unique way that freelance designers, in collaboration with their many colleagues, can contribute to the conversation. Designers act as pollinators as they move from project to project, bringing new ideas and approaches. Their suggestions and feedback can be a catalyst for venues looking for ways to become more eco-friendly and their concepts can model how they can be applied.
  • Consider concepts familiar to productions where multi-roling (when an actor plays multiple characters onstage) often prompt ways of transforming a base costume in new contexts. Adding elements to a base to convey character as opposed to full costume changes is one way of creatively cutting back on the number of garments produced for a show. 
  • When prototyping and experimenting, are there digital tools such as Photoshop or Pro-create that will help you iterate your ideas without using a lot of materials before you are ready to commit?
  • Are there digital tools that can help to make your work or process more efficient? Perhaps printing fabric digitally can help cut down wastage: tailors in the 18th century laid their waistcoat pattern pieces out to maximise their time and fabrics. Can you combine digital and analogue skills to create a finish
  • Think about maintenance of a costume piece as well as the spectacular. How long will it need to be worn? How will it be washed? Will it be comfortable? Maybe speak to running wardrobe or movement directors. Making these factors work sustainably can guide the construction and realisation process. 

 

Digital Tools

Are there digital tools that can help to make your work or process more efficient? 

In each step of a costume life-cycle, digital technology finds its ways in, from creating costume concepts in 3D modelling software or as digital illustrations, to 3D printing costume details or creating digital costume lists. Some of these platforms and tools are common to most practice, like the way we communicate via chat or email, while others, such as rendering digital costume patterns, require specialised knowledge. 

These tools raise questions, particularly regarding sustainability. Do they help us use materials more efficiently, or do they contribute to environmental damage due to the growing number of data centres heating the planet’s atmosphere? 

Although most of these questions lack definitive answers, they are crucial to consider. It’s clear that we are only at the beginning of digital development in costume design. It’s also up to us to determine when and how digital tools benefit or hinder sustainable transformation in costume design. Below is a non-inclusive list of digital tools and their impact on costume design:

Concept and Research

  • Webbrowser and image search (Google, Firefox, Safari, Pinterest  etc.), 
  • Digitised costume and clothing collections (V&A, etc.), archives and theatre stores 
  • AI platforms (OpenAI, Craiyon, Midjourney etc.) 
  • Image sharing spaces and remote presentation tools (Mural, Miro, Canva)

are the common digital research tools used to create costume concepts and mood boards. Prototyping and testing in the initial stages could potentially happen in VR saving some material costs.

Design

  • 3D clothing modelling software (CLO 3D, Marvelousdesigner, Browzwear, etc.) and 
  • Programs such as Illustrator, Photoshop and Procreate

are important tools to create individual costume designs. There are plenty of digital hardware tools for digital illustrations (Apple Ipad, Wacom, etc.). Finding the right materials is an important task during the design phase. Digital material platforms (Materiom, etc.) can help to get ideas on sustainable materials.

Production & Making

There are plenty of digital tools from 3D printing to laser cutting to pattern drafting software available for costume production. Hybrid costume designs that cross over between analog and digital worlds are becoming more common in film, video and game productions, just as much as in immersive Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) experiences during a performance. When time or labour is in short supply, adding a digital element to your workflow can help streamline a process. Theatre design often involves the transformation of materials, skillfully made to look like something altogether different. Techniques such as digital printing can be part of that tradition of artifice.

Re-Use

Digital tools are commonly used in the costume use phase to keep track of costumes, whether during a performance or in costume stock. Employing digital technology to create online access to costume collections and networks is essential for promoting the reuse of costumes and materials.

Sourcing

Reuse of costumes is an important sustainability practice. Theatre costume stores, hire companies and second-hand retailers should be the first ports of call for finding costumes if appropriate for the design.

  • Theatres with costume stores should consider sharing or hiring stock to other local theatres to increase usage and sustain value of the stored costumes.
  • It should be noted that second hand shopping is not as readily refundable or exchangeable as high street shopping and that the items that are unused after fitting will need to be stored/returned to the second hand market or donated to make this sustainable. Extra time is needed for this.
  • Where it is not possible to use pre-used clothing, consider retailers’ environmental policies and the fabric that the garment is made from.
  • There are several trading standard certifications that may indicate sustainable standards: GOTS, GRS, OEKO-TEX, Fairtraid, B Corp certification (see the costume directory for an extensive list). Deadstock fabric, which refers to leftover or unused material from previous productions, offers a unique opportunity for costume design. By repurposing these fabrics, designers can create distinctive costumes while promoting sustainability and reducing waste. Utilizing deadstock fabric not only gives new life to otherwise discarded materials but also allows for creative and resourceful design solutions that align with environmentally friendly practices.

Budget

Budgeting for the appropriate amount and type of work is one way to create more sustainable productions. This can allow for more time to find the right materials, to purchase natural and green solutions, and to save money by reusing materials.

Budgets are typically allocated in the concept phase for the costume production. The design phase presents a reality check for the budget, as this is when it comes time to use the funds to find the right materials and processes to create greener costumes. Be transparent about alternative solutions and flag any possible solutions that will require extra funds.

Time 

Change takes time. Change is about learning new ways of life-cycle thinking and expanding your network of collaborators to succeed in your tasks. In the design phase, you use the time allocated in the concept phase to carry out the production’s sustainability goals. 

Effective time management involves communication. Be clear in regard to your aims and share  progress and discoveries with other stakeholders in your direct and extended line of work.

Making

Materials

Reuse is a well-established practice in costume productions, but they also rely on acquiring new materials. The important question is, how can we increase reuse and make our procurement more sustainable?

Making costumes requires two kinds of materials, visible and hidden, and these are most often chosen by two different stakeholder groups. 

  • The costume designer and team are primarily responsible for selecting the visible materials seen on stage, which define the appearance and silhouette of the costume.
  • The costume makers and costume workshops are predominantly responsible for choosing consumable and standard materials (like interfacing, lining etc.) that are often used.

There is a shared responsibility between designer and makers in determining which materials are used.  

In terms of sustainability, costume materials can be divided into four groups:

  • Current standard materials (Well known)
  • Available green materials (Less known)
  • Reused materials (Well known)
  • Experimental materials (Mostly unknown)

Current standard materials

These are materials you use often and know well. You know how they will behave in specific circumstances, how they can be embellished (dyes for example), worked with (cutting and sewing), worn (stretch and comfort), cleaned (washability) and maintained (longevity). Standard materials are important for repetitive processes (making tutus for example). Standard materials can also be ready-made, like underwear, t-shirts and shoes. 

The main aim of sustainable life cycle thinking is to reduce material use. Standard materials are an easy and secure way to create costumes, but also an easy solution that needs to be questioned. 

 

Available green materials

More and more green products relevant to costume are becoming available. Verifying what makes these materials a better solution takes time. The two main questions are: 

  • What makes a “green” material and how can I trust these claims?
  • How do these green materials compare to the standard materials that I would like to replace? 

Answers to the first question can come from green certificates, like the GOTS, GRS or OEKO-Tex in addition to background research on the specific material groups (for example, looking into the difference between cotton and bio-cotton). 

When you buy green products they often need to be tested to understand their reliability in a costume life-cycle. Plan time for your workshops to sample new materials and report back to you. Communicate with your peers on what new green materials might be worth testing. 

 

Reused materials 

Reusing materials is a wonderful way to find greener solutions. Used materials can be divided into two main areas: pre-owned clothing and materials you can buy, and used costumes and surplus material from previous productions that have been stored in your own production facility (theatre, opera, film). 

It is good practice to keep track of the amount and origin of new and reused materials used in your productions. This will help you and your team understand the quantities of different materials used, providing crucial information for your next production.

Fig 02

Diagram of different material groups ©Urs Dierker

Experimental materials

Experimental materials refer to the next generation of materials in research and development (R&D) relevant to costume. There are many new bio-based materials in development that will change our view on making costumes. One example is bacterial dyes. Unlike plant-based dyes, where plants must first  be grown to produce plant matter that contains colourants, bacteria can directly produce colourants on textiles under certain conditions. Bacteria’s ability to produce colourants more directly can save resources. Bacterial dyes are still in development, but show great promise as the next generation of textile dyes.

Materials

Janthinobacterium lividum grown directly on textiles. Naturally Dramatic, Aalto University, 2020 ©Urs Dierker 

Biobased materials

Biobased materials describe a range of materials derived from nature that are in principle biodegradable. This means they can be reintroduced into natural life cycles in opposition to mixed materials that contain natural and synthetic materials (for example polycotton).

Fig 03

Inspired by the European Environmental Agency (Source)

Biobased materials that have chemical components added to enhance certain aspects of the natural materials (like fibre blends in textiles such as polycotton) are less prone to being recycled. These mixed materials most likely will leave non-natural particles (microplastics) behind while the natural component of the fibre blend is biodegrading.

Biobased materials can be highly industrially processed which can hinder or slow down natural biodegradation and can release chemical components (for example synthetic dyes) into the ecosystem during biodegradation. Biodegradable materials that naturally, without human help, biodegrade are also called compostable. There are biodegradable materials, especially with bioplastics, that only can biodegrade under industrial conditions. Read more about the definition in the EU policy framework on biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics.

  • Where possible use recycled or sustainable fabrics.
  • Look out for:

– GOTS certification

– GRS (global recycling standards)

– OEKO-Tex standards

  • Use the principles of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
  • Consider fabric from any existing stored costumes and “deadstock”.
  • When buying new fabric try to source from local suppliers (e.g., for Manchester: Huddersfield woollen mills, Biddle Sawyer silks in Manchester or Bennets Silks in Stockport).This helps to cut down transportation.
  • Buying from sample books, not shops, cuts travel . A range of samples books are accessible at UAL materials libraries ( see below) 

If you are a freelance designer or costume supervisor , your local producing house may have sample books that you could ask to view.

  • Make it known to your fabric suppliers that you are improving your sustainable practice and are keen to buy from them if they stock fabrics that are environmentally conscious and have been manufactured with ethical working practices.
  • If there is an option of a washable fabric for costumes, choose that if appropriate to the design to cut down on dry cleaning.

Materials Libraries and Suppliers 

    • New Materials for costume design
    • Central St Martins and London College of Fashion Materials collection 
    • UAL Library Services offers reference access to 2 Materials Library Collections. The collections are part of the many resources for students and staff. These can be accessed within UAL libraries. The collections contain extraordinary materials from a range of industries.
      For example, plant-based materials and objects, like fruit leathers and mycelium plant pots can be found in the collections.The collections are in Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion libraries. Collections are for all UAL students and staff. They are open for browsing when the libraries are open. Alumni and External visitors can visit the collections via the library bookings systems.
    • Stuff in Cycles
    • New Material Cycles for Theatre is an open source project by Barbara Ehnes (stage designer and professor for stage and costume design at HfBK Dresden) and Nadia Fistarol (stage designer and head of practice field scenic space at ZHdK Zurich) for and with all committed theatre practitioners and students. The goal is to jointly bring about increased ecological and sustainable thinking, research and practice in theatre. 
    • The Costume Directory has been  created by Sinéad Kidao to take the hassle out of finding suppliers who prioritise sustainability, environmental responsibility and fair trade. See below for further information os sustainable suppliers. 
    • Contribute to the SBTD Sustainability working group’s materials library. This is an open resource currently under construction seeking case studies and testers – you can find out more HERE 

Making Process

  • There are many examples of sustainable making practices, each as unique as the artist craftsman that has developed them. For some it may be harnessing new technologies, for others it may be nurturing skills that have been passed through generations and often find a place in costume practice where they are protected. The making phase of a costume can bring together many talents and people together, creating groups of interested participants from the theatre’s wider community to exchange knowledge, knit, learn how to sew,make pom poms, break things down, use natural dyes or mend where this is designed to be part of the aesthetic. 
  • Are there modular ways of constructing or assembling  a costume that make it easier to disassemble into usable parts? This is the kind of thinking that set construction is using to interrogate their practice so can the costume department do the same?

Tech and Previews

  • Tech and previews are when costumes are first seen on set and in a group. Amendments to costume design often happen at this stage.
  • Major costume alterations such as remakes or rebuys made at this point are often done with the least sustainable practice due to time constraints and dwindling budget. The benefit of major changes should be weighed against the less sustainable practice necessitated to achieve these changes. A cut off point for design alterations could be built into the production schedule in order that last-minute alterations (often using less sustainable practices) can be minimised.

Use and Maintenance

Costume Organisation

  • Organising a set of costumes may include using disposable plastic garments and shoe bags. Consider using reusable cloth dress and shoe bags instead.
  • If hirers send costumes in plastic garment bags , make sure to keep them and return the costumes in the same bags at the end of the run.
  • Hangers: when garment hangers become broken or of no use , recycle at a dry cleaners rather than sending them to landfill.
  • Have a store of bags to shop with in the wardrobe dept instead of buying new ones.

Laundry

 Try to wash items at 30 degrees, as it is suggested that this temperature uses 40% less energy than washing at 40 degrees. This will also reduce damage and shrinkage to the fibres which will lengthen the lifespan of the item. Use shorter cycles to reduce energy usage and protect the fabric from degradation.

  • Avoid the shedding of micro plastics/fibres

– Wash items in laundry bags to catch microfibers

– Install a Filtrol or Lint LUV-R to your washing machines discharge hose. 

– Use a Guppyfriend bag to wash your clothes in 

– Use a Coraball in the drum of your machine 

– Don’t use a tumble dryer. Tumble dryers have been proven to increase microfiber shredding.

– When buying new washing machines, make sure they have an inbuilt filter such as XFiltra.

– Wash full loads. The less space to move around the less shedding occurs.

– Do not wash unnecessarily.

– Use Natural fibres. Natural fibres still shred micro plastics, due to processing, but at a much lower rate than synthetic.

  • An extra spin, in the washing machine, will cut down drying time.
  • For drying, use a drying cabinet rather than a tumble dryer. They seem to use a similar amount of energy to run, but a drying cabinet is much more gentle of clothing so is very unlikely to cause shrinkage and damage and the items will require less ironing after being dried.
  • If using a tumble dryer use dryer balls to help speed up drying and naturally soften clothing. Don’t add more wet clothing mid-cycle as this will increase the drying time of everything. Dry similar fabric types together and shake clothing out before transferring. This is to reduce wrinkles and make sure nothing is knotted or twisted. Try and make sure the dryer is in a well ventilated room.
  • If a dehumidifier is used to aid drying, use the water collected for your steam iron.
  • On all laundry equipment, make sure to clean filters, hoses and fans regularly to reduce risk of fire and improve efficiency.
  • Clean machines regularly to keep them working well. For natural washing machine cleaning:

– Use distilled white vinegar to wipe around the door and seal.

– Soak drawer in hot water and scrub clean

– Spray vinegar inside the machine (where you removed the drawer) and clean away any build up or mould.

– Replace drawer and add a couple of cups of vinegar

– Add baking soda/bicarbonate of soda or soda crystals into the drum and put on a hot wash (60 degrees or above)

– Open door and drawer and allow to dry (overnight if possible)

  • For cleaning any other surfaces, all of the brands listed below also make environmentally friendly household sprays and hand soaps etc.

Dry Cleaning

  • Don’t dry clean more than necessary.
  • Where possible, use an o-zone treatment instead of dry cleaning.
  • Send dry cleaning in a sturdy reusable bag and ask for it to be returned each time.
  • Return all hangers to the dry cleaning company.
  • Try and organise for your dry cleaning to be done on a day when the collection van is in your area already.
  • Consider hand washing or steam cleaning or ozone treatment for garments that you would often dry clean.
  • See if your dry cleaners offer wet cleaning or cleaning with Co2 solvents to avoid the more toxic perchloroethylene (PERC)
  • Send dry cleaning in fabric dress bags and ask the dry cleaners to return in the same bags. Return any hangers not needed to the dry cleaners.
  • Aim to improve your sustainable laundry practice show by show as you learn more by trialling new methods. Take it step by step and get input from all members of the wardrobe team.

Repair (Maintenance)

  • Encourage strong hand and machine sewing skills to allow for lasting repairs.
  • Staffing levels need to be adequate to allow for all day to day operations (dressing, laundry, paperwork, maintenance, shopping etc) as well as emergencies and repairs. If staffing levels are too low then there won’t be enough hands available and the repair will need to be done quickly and may not last, resulting in replacing costumes more frequently.
  • When a costume is no longer wearable, remove all usable haberdashery to be reused and keep good sections of fabric for future repairs. Then dispose of the rest of the item appropriately (specialist fabric recycling, high street recycling schemes etc).
  • Always repair before rebuying/making.
  • When cutting, plan pattern/block piece placement to least amount of fabric wastage.

End of Use

Here are some options of what you can do with costumes at the end of a production:

  • Costume Storage for Revival
  • Material Storage for Revival
  • Costume Storage for Reuse
  • Material Storage for Reuse

Disposal

If you cannot keep the costumes using the above suggestions, you will need to dispose of them.

Employ a wardrobe staff member to re distribute the costumes in an appropriate way, including;

– Returns to hirers

– Returning to stock or in-house costume hire dept

– Donations to local Homeless shelters/food banks,

– Donations to organisations for interview clothes (eg Smart Works).

– Donations to am dram groups or HE Drama courses

– Donations to charity shops

– Resale to performers

– Resale to public via online stores such as eBay, Debop, Etsy etc

– Resale via dress agencies

– Take unusable remnants and garments to a recycling centre.

Evaluation

    • Have an evaluation meeting with everyone involved about which processes have worked for everyone and how these can be improved on next time. Each production will have different requirements and challenges and need adaptations to processes.
    • Try to share experiences of what has worked and what didn’t with other costume departments and freelancers.
    • Get a better knowledge of issues around climate change and unsustainable practice, join a Carbon Literacy Course if you haven’t already.

If you come across any great suppliers, products or practices that aren’t yet in the Theatre Green Book, get in touch!

Laundry Product Suppliers

There are now many “Eco friendly” laundry products widely available in the UK which are produced without petroleum and reduced use of palm oil.

Some brands of these more sustainable laundry products are owned by larger conglomerates (such as Ecover and Method, part of SC Johnson.)

There are a number of websites that help you compare the benefits of different brands and types of laundry detergent that would suit your particular laundry needs.

Sustainably Lazy

Eco-friendly laundry sheets

Zero waste laundry

The following companies stock a variety of sustainable/ethical laundry products:

Big Green Smile – is an online store with a lot of variety in stock.

Ethical Superstore – another online green supermarket.

The Lab Co

Bower Collective

Peace with the Wild