So, I was talking costumes with someone the other day, and we arrived at the discussion of the semantic difference between “costumes” and “wardrobe”. The problem is, in our business these seemingly trifling semantics can be the difference between respect and trivialization of our work. To many people, the difference between “costumes” and “wardrobe” may seem insignificant. Many people see these words as interchangeable names for our department, but they are not.
Here’s the deal: costumes are worn by performers on stage or screen, whether they are dancers, actors, singers, background players, skateboarding dogs, or trained monkeys. A performer wears a costume. A costume designer designs costumes. A costume designer designs characters.
Wardrobe is what Michelle Obama wears on a whistle-stop tour of the United States with her husband. A wardrobe designer (or fashion designer, or wardrobe stylist) designs or selects clothing, outfits, and gowns for someone like Michelle Obama for the purpose of her public appearances. These are not costumes, even though the person wearing them may appear on TV.
So let’s review:
Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat: costume
Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles: costume
Jamie Foxx in the “Blame It” video with T-Pain: costume
Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana: costume
Miley Cyrus as herself, singing in concert: costume
Marie Osmond on Dancing With the Stars: costume
Kristian Alfonso as Hope on Days of Our Lives: costume
Mariska Hargitay posing for still photos for the DVD of Law & Order SVU: costume
The “Verizon” guy: costume
The “Free Credit Report.com” guy: costume
Paul Magers anchoring the CBS 11PM news: wardrobe
Nancy Pelosi, addressing a press conference: wardrobe
Miley Cyrus on Barbara Walters Special: wardrobe
Michelle Obama’s ball gown from the Kennedy Center Honors: wardrobe
Michelle Obama’s Easter Egg Roll outfit: wardrobe
Miss America contestants: wardrobe (except during the “talent” portion)
Drew Carey hosting The Price is Right: wardrobe
The difference between costume and wardrobe is intention. A costume is a garment that was chosen (designed, pulled, purchased or altered) purposefully to express an idea to the audience. It could be a lime green bathing suit or a dirty t-shirt and shorts, but a costume is meant to tell a story, convey an idea, help the audience to understand who the character is and what is happening to them. Further, a costume is used to portray an image of who the performer wants you to think they are (as in, Jamie Foxx in the “Blame It” video). The costume is a stylized version of the image they’d like to portray. Sidebar – because are we really to believe that Jake Gyllenhaal would drive Foxx, Forest Whitaker and Ron Howard to a club in a Rolls Royce, meeting up with Sam Jackson & Quincy Jones to pick up beautiful, pliant, fawning young women? Sunglasses in the club? Money dropping from the ceiling? Ron Howard partying with T-Pain? Costumers, please. This is a fantasy, a character that Foxx would like you to believe. Ergo: costume.
Wardrobe is worn by people who are not performing or acting. This is the “Michelle Obama on tour with Barack” example. It also extends, to some degree, to game show hosts. Pat Sajak on Wheel Of Fortune? Wardrobe. He’s not playing anyone but himself. Alex Trebek on Jeopardy? Wardrobe. Dr. Phil? Oprah? Maury? Wardrobe. Katie Couric? Barbara Walters? Matt Lauer? Wardrobe. These are not costumes.
As unfair as it is in our business, many people can’t tell the difference between costumes and wardrobe. To them, clothes are clothes. These people lack discernment. We can help them.
It is one thing to go to Barney’s and pull a rack of pretty, camera-friendly clothes for Oprah to wear on her show. It is another thing entirely to design, construct, dye, age and tech a rack of period dresses for Oprah to wear as Sethe in Beloved. We, as costume designers, have to educate the people with whom we work, and the public, as to the difference. We are costume designers. We design costumes. We are not stylists, and we do not design wardrobe. We design characters. We design costumes.
Our artistic integrity is greatly diminished when we allow our costume department to be referred to as “Wardrobe”. For the sake of all of our fellow costume crew members, consider asking your second AD to change the call sheet department header to “Costume Department” instead of the ubiquitous “Wardrobe”. Most ADs are happy to make the change, and if they ask you why you want it changed, print this article out for them. We are not going to change everyone’s attitude all at once. The most we can hope for is a shift in perception, and renewed respect for our art form. Small changes – the call sheet, the crew list, the way we are addressed on the walkie – can add up to more respect over time. Think about it.
So, the next time someone screeches “WARDROBE!!” on the walkie, you just might want to respond with “GO FOR COSTUMES…” It always works for me.