07 May 2010

Know More: Costuming

So, my year 8 class at the moment is studying the film She's the Man. It's 'inspired' by Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and initially, aside from the obvious Shakespeare connections, I was stumped as to what I could spend my three weeks teaching them. So I decided to take a generalist approach, reasoning that since they were in year 8, they probably wouldn't have done much in-depth film study type stuff before, so we could learn about the general things one needs to know when studying a film.

This week, one of the topics we looked at was costume. Costume is one of the four key elements that make up mise-en-scene, a French phrase meaning 'staging the action'. It's the idea that lighting, costume, acting style and setting play on the viewers' subconscious, adding layers of depth and meaning that wouldn't be there if these elements were consciously controlled.

How does costuming play into this? Well, it's pretty obvious, right? If a guy enters the scene wearing a chef's outfit, we know pretty immediately what his occupation is. But here's the thing: costuming means a whole lot more than just where the character is or what they're doing; it can be subtle, too. (Whee, punctuation!). Some of the questions the students had to answer include the following:

- What kind of clothes are the characters wearing?
- How do these clothes suggest the characters' backgrounds and status?
- How to they wear their clothes?
- How does this reflect their general attitude and self-confidence?

And then we did the same for accessories, and for make-up (which, even being totally 'absent' or natural, is a statement in and of itself).

Why am I telling you all this? Well, it struck me as a pretty useful thing to be aware of when writing. We create pictures, too - just with words. And like film, we are in the business of creating a scene in our viewers' minds - and we have to do it economically, without wasting words. If you really understand the power that something as simple as costuming can have, then you can begin to grasp how a whole lot of meaning can be packed into much fewer words. If something as simple as clothing can demonstrate not only what your character is doing right then, but also suggest things about their background, their preoccupations, their self-confidence and attitude towards life, then your writing will be that much more powerful.

Of course, cataloguing a character's outfit isn't exactly helpful or poignant. It's all about subtlety. But you get the idea.

Two questions, today. First of all, do you have any characters in your writing that have really telling 'costumes', whether just one prop, or an entire outfit?

Second of all, a mini-challenge. What does the costume (and only the props/costume/accessories/make-up, not the facial expression or posture) of this character tell you about them as a person?

Image from Jupiter Images.


Charmaine Clancy said...

Great post Inky!
I con't get much into clothes, just slight details, but I have one girl in my new WIP 'The Warracknabeal Kids' that is always described as the girl with the hungry eyes and dirty dress.
Sounds like your yr 8 class are in for a treat!

Inkblot said...

Charm - Awesome title for your WIP! What's it about?

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