Choosing costumes for the cast of your school play or for your community theatre group can be a daunting task. There lots of things to consider (colors, size, budget, cohesiveness, theme) and people to please (parents, teachers, administrators, directors, not to mention the cast), but don’t worry! Whether you’re a director, producer, costumer, or stage manager putting on a production in the style of Shakespeare, Broadway, or even Zac Efron, you can rest easy. We’ve put together a complete guide with 150 tips on choosing costumes for your next school musical or play.
We'll start it off with an easy one:
- Plan ahead!
Question: How do I Choose Colors for the Costumes?
The Short Answer: Jewel tones like: reds, blues, purples, and greens
The Longer Answer: Bold, intense colors are always flattering choices when it comes to costumes, but you may not always WANT to look good. Sometimes the pale, sickly characters are the ones that steal the show.
Good Colors for Costumes: Jewel Tones
- “Jewel tones” are just like they sound – colors that resemble fancy gemstones that you would find in jewelry stores. (Think along the lines of emerald green, ruby red, or turquoise.) These colors will stand out on stage and complement your skin.
- If a color can be described as deep, bold, or rich, it’s probably a good choice.
- Good reds: Burgundy, Ruby, Cranberry
- Good blues: Navy, Royal Turquoise
- Good purples: Violet, Eggplant, Plum
- Good greens: Olive, Forest, Emerald
- NOTE: “Bold” doesn’t mean “dark”… dark colors are good, but bright colors can be great, too! And you don’t have to choose just one color; layering is always an option!
Less-Good Colors: Pastels
- Pastels are more likely to “washout” skin and make people look pale.
- If a color can be described as pale, or breezy, you should probably avoid it.
- Pastels are more likely to be see-through. They are also more likely to show armpit sweat. (Gross!)
Colors and Size
- Dark colors recede which makes one's figure look smaller. They deemphasize the area.
- Light colors draw attention to areas and make them appear larger. They can be used to positively emphasize certain areas.
Other Tips about Choosing Colors for Costumes
- Different lights draw out different colors in fabrics, so be sure to test your costumes under the stage lights before opening weekend. (A little pink riding hood could be cute, but not if the playbill says “Red.”)
- Bright whites will look nice and crisp on stage. Dingy whites will look dingy on stage.
- Be wary of yellow. Yellows are either flattering or harsh, and there is neither middle ground nor consistency when it comes to this. Yellow may not be a risk worth taking.
- Colors are important, but you can’t forget about fabric! Blue velvet will look like a regal robe. Blue gingham will look like Dorothy’s dress. Blue spandex will look like a 1990s TLC music video. All of these are awesome options, but they are all very different. The point: you can’t just say “blue.” It’s not that easy!
- Quick tip: If you are debating between two colors, grab three friends (ideally ones with different hair colors.) Hold the color choices in question up to your faces, one at a time. The color that makes the most of you look more “awake” is the one to go with. (If a color makes you look tired, it will wash you out on stage and not look good.)
- Sometimes you want people to look washed out and pale and sick. In these cases, pastel colors can actually be GREAT choices!
Two options if you’re dead set on wearing pastel AND looking great:
- Consider pairing the pastel with a darker color to create contrast (or get a really good spray tan.)
- Choose a high-quality fabric so the pastel is less transparent.
Question: Which Costumes Will Look Good on the Cast?
Answer: First, use common sense. Avoid costumes that are too big or too small. Then, think about line and shapes.
Huh? What does that even mean? Normally, people stand one or two feet away from you. They see the texture of your white cotton tee, the detailed stitching on your double-breasted jacket, and the way your earrings contrast with exact wash of your designer denim jeans. When you’re on stage and under bright lights, the audience only sees big blocks of colors: your white v-neck shirt (triangle), boxy black jacket (square), blue pants (line).
The Basics for Every Body
- Vertical lines make you look taller and slimmer.
- Choose a costume with a matching top and bottom. This will make the costume wearer look long and lean. (Vertical line!) This rule also applies to pants/tights and shoes. They should match to make legs look longer.
- If a costume does have separate pieces in different colors, even one vertical “stripe” of color can have a similar effect.
- Of course, prints with vertical stripes work, too.
- Horizontal lines stop the eye and create boxes. A horizontal line could be made by a stripe printed on the fabric of the costume, a belt, or even the simple imaginary horizontal line where a shirt ends and the pants begin. Horizontal lines segment the body into separate parts. All of these parts take away from the benefit of a long, vertical line and make a person look shorter and wider.
- Triangles and V-Shapes are important, too. V-necks draw onlookers’ eyes upward, toward the face of the performer, which is important in productions. You want to make sure your audience is paying attention to your actors’ animated faces! V-necks also prevent a horizontal line being created from a crewneck (see previous point).
- Curvy lines can make a woman look more shapely. The hourglass shape with a large bosom and hips and a tiny waist was the desired body type throughout many periods in history. Corsets with boning or curved lines are a simple way to achieve the look of an hourglass figure.
Use Common Sense
- Don’t wear costumes that are too tight, or you’ll have to deal with bulges and rolls.
- Don’t wear costumes that are too large, or you’ll look scrawny and small.
- Be wary of wide pant legs and sleeves – your movements may look sloppy.
- Be wary of tight pants and sleeves – they may look hip, but you might have a hard time moving around. You also risk rips and tears.
Underwraps: Necessary Conversations
- Never wear white: Tan tan tan undergarments. Always tan! Especially under white items
- Wearing a dress? Choose matching bloomers. Someone's dress will fly up. Count on this.
- If you have kids wearing costumes, it’s not a bad idea to consider potty breaks. Kids often have to go without warning, and they may not have a long time to take off costumes, tights, undies, etc.
- Consider how long it might take for quick costume changes!
- This is worth reiterating: NO white socks with black pants and black shoes. Unless you are the King of Pop. Only then is the white sock and black shoe combo allowed.
Tops: Obvious-but-Often-Overlooked Tips on How to Choose a Shirt that Fits
- Sleeve length: Rest arms at sides. Sleeves should end where the thumbs begin.
- Shirt length(if worn tucked in): Lift arms above head. Shirt should remain tucked in.
- Shirt length (if worn untucked): Lift arms above head. Shirt should not expose belly.
- Size of the shirt: Move arms front to back, open and closing the chest. The shirt should not constrict movement.
- Neckline: Lean forward. If body parts are exposed, neckline of shirt is too low. Choose undershirt or higher neckline.
- General: Check shirt is flattering from all angles not only the front.
- Important: Be sure to wear any undergarments, t-shirts, or sound equipment that will be worn during the performance while selecting a size.
Bottoms: Great Advice about Pant Length - How Long Should Pants or Jeans Be?
- When you’re buying pants at the store: There should be a “break” at the top of your foot. The jeans or pants should cover the top of your foot without touching the floor in the back when you are wearing shoes or boots.
- For costumes: Roughly follow the above guidelines, but err on the shorter side to prevent tripping and falling.
Skirting the Issue: How Long Should a Costume's Skirt or Dress Be?
- Short skirts will make legs look longer, especially when worn with flesh-toned tights and shoes. This is great for kicklines and musicals. However, short skirts and micro minis may also make parents angry. This can be less great.
- Long, flowing skirts are nice for twirling, but they often hide leg movements.
- Pencil skirts can be difficult to walk in. If a look requires one, be sure it has a slit.
- Quick Tip: Loose, knee-length skirts are a nice compromise – they twirl, are easy to walk in, and foot and leg movements are still visible. You can usually find one to match any decade after the 1920s: flapper, poodle, a-lines in various patterns and fabrics.
Question: Where Can I Learn about Historical Costumes?
Answer: Here are some links to some our favorite resources where you can learn a lot of valuable information!
Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Colonial, Victorian, and More: Clothing and Costumes before the 20th Century
- Ancient Greek clothing guide for kids: https://www.historyforkids.org/learn/greeks/clothing/
- Ancient Greek clothing resource with other regions: https://www.cwu.edu/~robinsos/ppages/resources/Costume_History/greek.htm
- Ancient Greek clothing: https://www.ancientgreece.com/s/Clothing/
- Ancient Greek mask resource: https://www.halloweencostumes.com/guide-to-greek-masks.html
- Ancient Egyptian clothing basics: https://www.dragonstrike.com/egypt/cloth.htm
- Ancient Egyptian embroidery stitching guide: https://heatherrosejones.com/egyptianblackwork/index.html
- Ancient Egyptian garments: https://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/timelines/topics/clothing.htm
- Ancient Roman clothing: https://www.unrv.com/culture/ancient-roman-clothing.php
- Ancient Roman visual guide and how-to: https://www.dl.ket.org/latin1/things/romanlife/home.htm
- Ancient Celtic costume: https://web.archive.org/web/20011205114653/www47.pair.com/lindo/Textiles_Page.htm
- Viking clothing: https://www.cs.vassar.edu/~capriest/thora.html
- Viking clothing: https://www.cs.vassar.edu/~capriest/mensgarb.html
- Middle ages guide to life in the period with clothing section: https://www.learner.org/interactives/middleages/clothing.html
- Middle ages shoemaking: https://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~marc-carlson/shoe/SHOEHOME.HTM
- 14th and 15th century clothing and accessories: https://www.cottesimple.com/
- Medieval textiles: https://www.medievaltextiles.org/files.html
- Medieval weapons and armor: https://www.halloweencostumes.com/medieval-weapons-armor-costumes.html
- Florentine dress: https://festiveattyre.com/research/index.html
- 16th century Germany: https://frazzledfrau.glittersweet.com/
- 16th century Spain: https://sayaespanola.glittersweet.com/
- Elizabethan embroidery: https://www.blackworkarchives.com/
- Elizabethan costume: https://www.elizabethancostume.net/
- Tudor clothing: https://peronel.info/index.htm
- American colonial clothing: https://www.history.org/history/museums/clothingexhibit/museum_intro.cfm
- 17th century clothing: https://www.12eyes.co.uk/
- 17th and 18th century clothing in Europe and the American colonies: https://www.marariley.net/index.htm
- 17th century clothing history: https://www.kipar.org/index.html
- Renaissance clothing: https://www.cwu.edu/~robinsos/ppages/resources/Costume_History/renaissance.htm
- 18th century notebook: https://www.larsdatter.com/18c/index.html
- 18th century New England clothing: https://www.18cnewenglandlife.org/
- 18th century costume terminology: https://people.csail.mit.edu/sfelshin/revwar/glossary.html
- 18th century costume France and Marie Antoinette: https://www.halloweencostumes.com/blog/p-14-historical-costumes-guide-marie-antionette.aspx
- 18th century costume compantion: https://www.songsmyth.com/costumerscompanion.html
- 19th century corsets: https://haabet.dk/patent/index.html
- 19th century Regency period clothing for women: https://www.wemakehistory.com/Fashion/Regency/RegencyLadies/RegencyLadies.htm
- 19th century Regency fashion: https://www.candicehern.com/regency.htm
- 19th century in America: https://www.ulib.iupui.edu/digitalscholarship/collections/CPClothing
- 19th century Women's Day dressing: https://home.earthlink.net/~gchristen/Workspro.html
- 19th century fashion plates and photographs: https://mfaure.are-ata.org/en/couture/ref.html
- 19th century Victorain era: https://www.halloweencostumes.com/victorian-era.html
- 19th century California gold rush: https://www.directcon.net/wander/GR.htm
- 19th century bustles and other tips: https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/patterns/1873bustleinfo.html
- Historical sewing guide: https://www.historicalsewing.com/
- Historical dresses: http://www.koshka-the-cat.com/
- Historical articles on periods and persons: https://aneafiles.webs.com/articles.html
- Comprehensive historical clothing guide: https://www.marquise.de/en/index.html
Question: What Did Clothing from the Past Look Like?
A General Overview
The Roarings 20s: Flappers, Gangsters, and Prohibitions
- Flapper Dresses were popular for women. They had dropped waists that fell to hips. Hem lengths were just above the calf. Busts were minimized, and “masculine” body types were idealized.
- Accessories for women included long pearl necklaces, headbands worn around the head with a feather sticking out, feather boas.
- Shoes were heels with ankle straps, often called T-Bars.
- Men in the 1920s wore suits (today known as “gangster suits”). They featured narrow pants and wider jackets.
- During the war, families had to ration food and other goods. Women had to forgo embellishments and extra fabrics on their clothing, such as cuffs, collars, and extra buttons.
- Mens suits no longer included a vest but were simplified to just a jacket and pants. Broad shoulders were stylish during this period.
- Colors during this period reflected the solemn time and were very plain.
- Girls wore poodle skirts and saddle shoes.
- More rebellious women wore tight-fitting pedal pushers with blouses.
- Men wore tight Levis, black or white t-shirts, and leather jackets. Men slicked their hair back like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.
1960s: Get That Mad Men or Jackie O Style
1960s and 1970s: Flower Children, Disco, and Punk
- Bellbottoms became popular for the flower child counterculture.
- Vests, flowy blouses, and loose dresses were tops of choice.
- Hair was worn long.
- Flared pants, leisure suits, hotpants, catsuits, maxi dresses were popular items during this period. They were best worn bustin moves on the disco floor.
- Highwaisted pants became popular along with baseball jersey type t-shirts.
- This was also the start of Punk Fashion.
Question: Can I Make People Look Like Animals?
Answer: It's hard to replicate fancy blockbuster creatures, but strategic accessories and a little craftiness go a long way. Here are our tips on what items to buy and how to best use them.
- Capes and cloaks are always good purchases: they can be used and reused for royalty, superheroes, wizards, witches, and vampires. Even Darth Vader wore a cape.
- Furry, mean monsters like werewolves are hard to DIY, so a costume is a probably a good purchase here.
- Fairies can wear dresses of any color, shape, or size. Wings are a bit harder to come by, so those are the best investment in this case.
- Colors are important: black and yellow stripes can easily signify a bumblebee, while red and black can say ladybug in an instant.
- Flying animals: tutus are light and fluffy.
- Furry things:terrycloth and velvet are good for all over fur, boas make a nice fur trim.
- Smooth shells: use satin and shiny fabrics.
- If you can't make a whole costume, don't give up. Choose accessories! Mittens, gloves, headbands with ears, antennae, and tails, fuzzy boots and tights, they all make a difference!
Question: What Accessories Should I Choose?
Answer: Think about your grandma sitting in the middle of the auditorium. The bad part: she won’t be able to see that adorable broach adorning the vintage jacket you found for the lead character. The good part: you don’t have to pay for that adorable broach to adorn the vintage jacket you found for the lead character.
Choose Big Accessories
- No one can see the little details from the audience, so don’t worry about them. They’re just expenses that no one will see.
- In fact, little accessories can actually distract the audience.
Pick Only the Most Important Accessories
- You don’t have a ton of money to spend, right? So think about what accessories matter most.
- Examples: Dorothy can probably get by without a basket. She needs ruby red shoes, though. Captain hook needs a hook hand and a pirate hat. Red riding hood needs her red cloak!
Think About Movement
- Will the character shake hands with another character? If so, you might not want them to be holding a sword AND a hook.
- Will there be running or dancing? Hats, headbands, they can fall off. And when they do, it can be embarrassing.
- How many accessories will there be? If just one cane on stage could be distracting, then TWENTY could be a total mess.
Question: How Can I Save Money on Play Costumes?
Answer: There are so many ways!
Easy Ways to Save Money
- Buy in bulk: many costume companies offer discounts to non-profit groups or groups who buy in large quantities.
- Renaissance costumes make really good, reusable basics. Peasant tops, corsets, and breeches are good buys.These items can be used from year-to-year in many types of shows.
- Cloaks, capes, and wings are more items that appear in many productions.
- Choose large sizes so that you can take them in to fit individual cast members as needed. Single stitches are the best and most temporary.
- Convince other departments to pitch in - the History and English Departments could have fun with using costumes to bring lessons to life!
- Use what you have and what others have. Borrow items from the cast, check out yard sales, visit thrift stores, you'll often find a lot of good deals to complete your costume needs.
- Ask for help! There are lots of local businesses that like to donate to the arts. Offering advertising in the playbill is a nice way to say "Thanks."
Question: Okay, Where Do I Start?
- Calculate a budget
- Think about most important characters
- Think about the group as a whole
- Make a wish list
- Prioritize costumes
- Prioritzie accesories
- Look at your budget again
- Get to work!