Sustainable Costume Design

Christina Hill

The world currently contains more clothing than its population could ever need, with the UK sending 350,000 tonnes to landfill each year, and whatever you need for your show is probably already out there! It will most likely be more time consuming than dropping items into your ASOS basket, but that extra time will get you thinking more about your design and the elements of it which are most important to you and to the production. In many cases, designing more sustainably will not only be kinder to the planet but better for your budget and some of these tips can even be incorporated into your own style habits.

1. Use what you have at home

The classic school play approach, but the cheapest and most sustainable! This will be most designers’ go-to for things like shoes and contemporary men’s suits that are expensive and need to fit well and basics like white shirts but can be utilised more creatively for costumes of any period.

I’ve often turned to my own or my relatives’ wardrobes, particularly for generic accents like belts or ties, but you can also build more substantial costumes from the actors’ wardrobes. I’ve found that some actors love working on this with me and have a natural knack for it and some get totally freaked out by being given a style brief and turn up with one generic item.

Pros: free, guaranteed to fit and be comfortable, you don’t have to worry about disposal

Cons: actors may find it hard to get into character in their own clothes, some actors may not be happy interpreting a style brief, can be a nightmare to communicate what you want to so many people, you become responsible for other people’s possessions, you’ll probably be restricted to whatever styles are being sold on the high street right now.

2. Hire

An obvious one, especially for period shows, and can be the easiest option. I haven’t often hired costumes due to cost and the fact that this is a tough one to navigate on public transport, but have in the past used the Oxfordshire Drama Wardrobe, National Theatre costume store, and RSC costume store for period productions. You get the benefit of exquisite costumes made by teams of professional costumiers, including many worn in landmark productions, and the knowledge that all the work and materials that went into them have not gone to waste.

Pros: expertly made and maintained costumes, good for complicated period costumes

Cons: very expensive (especially for long runs), limited sizing (RSC clothes can be very tiny), can’t be transported by bike or public transport.

3. Buy second hand

My favourite option for both costuming and for my own clothes. You won’t find the exact thing from your sketches and it and can be very time-consuming, but also very inspiring and you never know what you might find. Go into the process with a good colour scheme and an expectation of what you’re prepared to pay for each garment type. Since the stock turns over every day, start this well in advance and renew your search every week or two if you didn’t find what you were looking for the first time.

Charity shops are amazing. Find the areas near you with several good charity shops that have high quality stocks at low prices (for instance, Oxford city centre doesn’t have many but East Sheen near my parents’ house does). You’ll get a sense of what your expected prices are – personally, I wouldn’t spend more than £10 on a single garment unless it’s really special.

Pros: money goes to charity, you can see and handle things before you buy, can be very cheap

Cons: lots of patience and legwork required, menswear tends to be scarce and plus sized

eBay is also amazing. I prefer to filter listings to ‘used’ to filter out the cheap fast fashion items and filter it down to trusted brands, and you can get hardly worn or new items at bargain prices very easily. It’s harder to get matching items from used clothing, so pick out listings in a style that’s easily recognisable (e.g. ‘pleated pastel midi skirt’) and they’ll be more or less matching.

Pros: variety of things to choose from, genuine vintage and designer items, usually cheap, can be done from the comfort of your home

Cons: postage (cost, waiting time, packaging, carbon footprint, hundreds of parcels at your door), hard to judge fit and colours from photos, might not fit, usually can’t be returned, hard to get matching items

6. Buy new from sustainable brands

I haven’t done much of this myself since buying used usually meets my needs, but these are easily found in a quick internet search. It’s very tempting to fill your basket with cheap buys from fast fashion retailers like Missguided or boohoo, especially for costumes that only need to last a short run, but these wreck hell on the environment and the communities where the clothes are produced.

You should look for brands who use sustainable resources, don’t use noxious chemicals for dyes or on their crops, treat and pay their workers fairly, and sustain mutually beneficial relationships with the communities they work alongside.

Pros: supports sustainable businesses, items designed to last

Cons: more expensive than buying used, still requires the production of new garments

7. Sew

Making costumes from scratch takes skill and time, and I would only make something if I had

something really specific in mind for an important moment in the show. Making your own clothes is ethical in the sense that you know where your labour is coming from, but both industrial and amateur sewers waste around 15% of their fabric, and the same questions of sustainable agriculture and production apply to buying fabric as to buying clothing. Do some research into the origins of your fabrics and trimmings and consider how biodegradable your fabric fibres are.

Digital printed fabrics or natural dying using fruits, vegetables, and plants are sustainable alternatives to chemically dyed fabric which often gets washed into the local water. Different crops also have different water usages: cotton is popular for its versatility, durability, and ease of handling but requires a very high amount of water to grow, whereas hemp and linen have very low water usage. Sustainable fabrics can also be made from bamboo, pineapple leaves (pina is a lightweight fabric and pinatex is used as vegan leather), and wood pulp (Tencel or Lyocell). You might also be able to get fabric offcuts on eBay or use old sheets or clothes for your fabric. Make sure to make the most of your scraps to make matching accessories, or something for yourself!

Pros: unlimited creative freedom, can be made to measure, no unethical labour

Cons: fabric waste, time-consuming, can quickly get very expensive

8. Upcycle & modify

This involves taking a new or used item of clothing and turning it into something new using

trimmings, paint, natural dyes or by completely reshaping and restyling it. This can be as simple as cutting a dress in half to make a skirt or you could bead and embroider a plain dress to make a fancy gown. Some online research will yield some good hacks to making period garments out of contemporary ones, such as cutting the collar of a man’s shirt to make a period one – cosplayers are very nifty at finding budget ways to do this.

Pros: cheap, wide scope for creativity, quicker than making from scratch

Cons: requires some trial and error

9. Disposal

Just as important as sustainable sourcing – don’t be tempted to just toss everything in the skip at the end of your run! You may choose to hang onto things for future shows but the risk of becoming a hoarder is high, so select versatile or hard-to-find things if you want to build your own stock (e.g. hospital gown, white ladies’ gloves). If you know other costume designers or are part of a close community like a university, let each other know what you’ve got to lend and what you’re giving away. The company might wish to keep things to wear or as souvenirs, so let them know what they can buy or keep for free.

You can also return your items to the eBay used clothing life cycle, which can be time- consuming (the eBay app is helpful here) but can make you or your production a little money back and guarantees your garments good homes. If you’ve exhausted these avenues or are in a rush you can donate to charity shops, but most charity shops receive far more than they can sell and will send many things to landfill so avoid this if you can. If the charity shop won’t accept something or if it’s unwearable, look up your nearest clothing recycling point rather than putting things straight in the bin.

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