I think that as little girls, almost all of us make-believe that we are fashion icons. Whether we are slipping into our mom’s high heels, sneaking on makeup and jewelry, or just plain and simply preparing Barbie and Ken for a night out on the town, fashion is something that we use to make a statement in our world of make-believe. It should come as no surprise that the make-believe world of Hollywood is filled with fashion statements. However, unlike our fantasy world that we create as children in which our creativity is limitless; Hollywood employs those whose creativity is limited to budgets and time constraints. These people are known as costume designers.
Alison Freer is one such costume designer who knows all to well about the good, the bad, and the ugly of costuming cast members for Hollywood. It is not always the glamour that it appears to be to viewing audiences; it is hard work for all involved especially those responsible for managing image on screen. In spite of the difficulties Alison faces, she loves what she does and she is here this week to share with Reel Focus readers the trials and the joys of being a Hollywood costume designer.
Thank you for participating in our blog showcase this week. Alison, tell our readers about your career as a fashion designer and how you eventually became a costume designer in Hollywood. Was this a life long dream or did you end up in fashion happenstance?
I actually lied my way into becoming a costume designer. My neighbor was a commercial director who came over to look at how I’d re-finished the floors in my 1912 Craftsman home, saw the former child’s bedroom that was functioning as my closet, and asked: “Are you a costume designer?!” I thought he was cute so I said that yeah, I totally was. He hired me to style a BMW a commercial the very next day.
Looking back, I realized that I’d actually been prepping for this career my whole life — I worked retail for almost 16 years and learned how to sell anything to anybody. A big part of being a costume designer is being able to sell your ideas to the powers that be. So really, the moral of the story is this: sometimes you have to fake it ’till you make it. If YOU believe you are what you say you are, who’s to say any different?
Do you only shop for clothing for cast or are you sometimes responsible for creating costumes from scratch. If the latter is true, provide us with television or film samples in which you creating costumes by hand?
I am a somewhat skilled seamstress — but on a union film or television show, sewing items from scratch is covered by a union seamstress. We shop for everything we can, as time is never on our side, but sometimes you have to go custom-made. I was the costume designer for Nickelodeon’sTrue Jackson V.P. starring Keke Palmer as a 15 year-old fashion designer. Every original ‘design’ that True came up with was really my handiwork. We even designed a dress that she wore in a Bryant Park runway show!
I’ve also dressed a man as a bush (using real twigs, leaves, and mesh fabric) and wrapped an actor up tight in dyed gauze mummy ‘bandages’ without considering that he’d need to use the bathroom throughout the day. Whoops!
Paint a picture for our readers: Once you receive a script, do you have a knack for knowing precisely what cast should wear; or is there a lot of back and forth during the process of shooting a film?
I always have an initial idea, but there is a ton of back and forth between myself, the director, the network or studio, and the actor playing the part. Sometimes my ideas win out, but sometimes you just get forced into a corner. If you’ve ever watched a movie and wondered “What in the hell was that costume designer thinking?!”, chances are some fool somewhere overrode their ideas. It happens to the best of us!
I like to start the design process by asking myself where a character lives, how much money she makes, what books she reads, what kind of music she listens to, and where she shops. I am a lifelong ‘studier’ of people, so I can usually conjure up an idea of what a certain type of person would wear quite quickly. But really, I’m forever basing character’s looks on people I know in real life: my family, crew members, the baristas at my local coffee shop, girls I follow on Tumblr and Instagram. Style (or lack thereof!) is literally everywhere. I never stop clocking what people are wearing.
What advice do you have for aspiring costume designers for being successful in film specifically and in fashion in general?
Fashion is not even close to being my bag — I think it’s way harder to make it there than in the costume design world! The fashion world is based on whims and trends, while costume design forces you to constantly answer only one question: does the costume service the character? Is it what he or she would wear in real life? If so, you’re golden — trends be damned.
As far as being successful in either world, I have two pieces of advice:
One, read everything you can about your chosen career and never ever feel like you’ve learned enough. I am a completely self-taught designer — I’ve taken exactly zero costume design courses. My home library is bursting at the seams with books on every wardrobe subject possible, from Edwardian clothing to the psychology of fashion. If you’re looking to break into a career as a costume designer, you can’t go wrong with reading Holly Cole and Kristin Burke’s Costuming for Film: The Art and the Craft from cover to cover. It really is the costume design bible — full of useful info as to what costume designers do, how they do it, and why they do it.
Second, always be authentic. Very early in my career, I was trying to be someone I wasn’t: always holding my tongue, never saying what I really thought, just riding the horse in the direction it was going. I never did good work because I was always afraid of being found out.
Then one of my mentors (Oscar Award winner Milena Canonero) pointed out that I should just be myself and say what I really thought, because certain people were going to love it — and who cares about the people who hate it?! The world is starved for people who aren’t afraid to be weird, to say what everyone else is thinking, and to possibly not be liked. To this day I have my detractors in Hollywood — but the directors and producers who are into my schtick are die hards. They are into me for life. And it’s all because I’m exactly who I say I am, always and forever.
All images provided by Alison Freer