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Designer Grace Smart: Why costume can tell a character’s whole story

Grace Smart's costume designs
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What do the clothes you are wearing right now say about you? I have my costume head on, as I’m sitting at my desk surrounded by three shows’ worth of drawings. In this phase of the design process, I become obsessed by looking at people.

In this phase, I sit on the tube thinking I’m Sherlock Holmes with an imaginary Watson: “Well, the blue ink stain smudge on his left hand means he has an office job, and is left handed… Elementary.”

Of course, I’m probably wrong in my deductions. People are three-dimensional, and I’m most likely shallow and downright offensive for attempting to psychoanalyse someone based on a shade of nail varnish.

But the point is, I inferred a narrative from these signifiers. If an audience infers the same as me, I can choose to embrace or undermine those stereotypes. Easy, right?

Now, imagine that a woman in a oversized leopard-print coat has just walked in. The click of her stilettos grabs your attention as the smell of her cigarette fills your nostrils. What conclusions would you draw about her? Is she sophisticated or trashy? The height of cool or a total cliche? Sexy or naff?

Your answer depends on a variety of things about you. This makes it hard to plan costumes for a show. The connotations the designer draws from someone’s clothing will never match each audience member’s view.

Even if you are using stereotypes to subvert the expectations, those stereotypes are subjective. Everyone brings their own preference, cultural references and influences from their formative years to a show, whether watching it or designing it.

I grew up in the 1990s, so when Jimmy Fay asked me for an exciting strong Irish woman who could lead a revolution, I went straight to Sinead O’Connor. When Ed Madden wanted a bored everywoman, I went straight to Rachel from Friends, waitressing. And when anyone wants a cool teenager, Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air will sneak on to the mood board somewhere.

It’s fine for designers to have their own internal lexicon of images that mean things to them, semiotically. It’s a jumping-off point – a way to first latch on to an image and relate it to a character.

The nature of research means costume designs happen the same way David Bowie wrote lyrics. We collect thousands of images that we feel are right for the character – historically, attitudinally, emotionally – then cut them all up and see which bits fit together. That way, the connotations span much further than one person’s brain.

But the question still stands: what can people tell about you from your current costume? It’s clear the best designs can tell you a whole story: a character’s icons, dreams, job, background, marital status and reading material. So send your answers on a postcard, in case I ever need to create a costume for someone who reads articles about design in The Stage.

Grace Smart's costume designs for a Mighty Atoms
Grace Smart’s costume designs for Mighty Atoms
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