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Costume designers have a need to create sustainable designs in order to slow down climate change

An evaluation of how costume designers can borrow from sustainable fashion designs to become environmentally conscious theatre makers.


The following research paper represents a symposium I completed. The relative costume plates will be uploaded on the design page as soon as the construction is completed.

The theatre industry is incredibly wasteful and costume plays a part in this through energy usage and materials. Academically there’s not been much written or studied into how theatre can become more sustainable. There’s some theory on how supervisors can cut fabric wastage down but there are no guides for designers to follow to ensure they are environmentally friendly. Critically, fashion studies has been analysed in this way. These academics focus on a designers responsibility to provide an environmental outlook for the rest of the making process. I am researching the possibility of this fashion theory aiding costume designer’s processes in becoming more environmentally friendly. I am going to focus on a designers responsibility to create the first changes in the design process but will refer to changes that can also happen in the making period. Specifically, the damage the materials we use do to our natural world. I will end by analysing a possible process costume designers could use to progress in sustainability.


Firstly, what does ‘being sustainable’ mean? By definition, ‘being sustainable’ means being able to continue for long periods of time, causing as little damage to our natural world in order to maintain this world for as long as possible. I’m focussing on how creating more adaptable costumes through less fabric will be more sustainable. There are many positives to cutting down on fabric as most, like cotton, require huge amounts of water to be produced. Other fabrics need huge amounts of energy and ultimately all have to travel a long way to end up in our stocks. There is progress being made into sustainable fabrics, however, these are expensive alternatives and the theatre business cannot always obtain these funds. The lifecycle of fabric begins with the extraction of the raw material, it then goes onto the textile production and then the fabric is dyed, printed, washed and finished. At the end of the life cycle, the fabric can naturally biodegrade or it can be recycled (Davidson, 2018). Often though, they are thrown away and they end up in landfills. As the production is time consuming and expensive, suppliers have found cheaper ways to create fabrics.

To closely study fabric productions effects it’s best to look into cotton as it “...is one of our favorite fibres” alongside polyester. Cotton is produced in around 90 countries across the world. It’s largest producers are China, the USA followed by Pakistan, India, Uzbekistan and West Africa. These 6 countries produce “75% of our global cotton supply” (Grose, 2009:33-34). There are two main environmental issues, the chemicals used in pesticides and the large amount of water used to grow the crop. As a result of using these pesticides there is a runoff that contaminates other vital sources of water. As the need for ‘green’ fabrics increases more sustainable processes are becoming available. I’d like to take some time looking into the benefits of using them in comparison to their high costs and cheaper, damaging, alternatives. On the following slides I compare the sustainable option to the more common and widely available fabrics.


There are a variety of materials that are being recycled. Recycled polyester is a common choice in fabric for sportswear and is made from old nylon. Recycled fabrics are becoming more available through clothing companies like ASOS who offer a small range of clothing made from recycled fibres. However, as a costume maker you can see how it is still slightly more beneficial to choose the non-recycled nylon when restricted by a budget.


Tencel is made from eucalyptus trees. It is made so environmentally conscious that 98% of a usual fabrics wastage is eliminated. It uses barely any water and absorbs dye incredibly well meaning manufacturers can use less. Here is a comparison of tencel twill (a denim like product) in comparison to an actual denim twill. You can see that the tencel twill is cheaper in comparison to the actual denim, but denim is an incredibly expensive product to make.


Linen is one of the best biodegradable fabrics. Here is an organic linen compared to cotton that is made to look like linen. It’s a dramatic enough difference in price for a costume supervisor to turn to the more damaging product.


Cotton can actually be grown organically by not using chemicals which fixes many of the ethical issues of working conditions as well as the environmental issues I pointed out earlier. Though it does use less water than normal cotton production it’s still a high amount in comparison to some of the other sustainable choices. Here I have compared an organic cotton to a normal cotton.


Time and money (Stone, 2009:1) is something we lack as theatre makers and leads us to bring our ideas to life cheaply and quickly. Until sustainable processes become mainstream, being environmentally friendly is just too expensive. As Jones (2013:1) says, “We buy art supplies and create garbage” because everything we buy is often unrecyclable or we don’t have the means to recycle it. In costume, material is our biggest culprit (Stone, 2009:4). There is some costume theory on how to cut down on fabric wastage in response to these damaging fabrics. According to Gwilt and Rissanen (2012: 57), it’s up to each of us to consider the role we can make in changing the environment. There are alternative options from buying materials. We can source pre-made costumes, rent and hire costumes and buy from vintage or charity shops. Stone (2009) suggests that if we must still make the garment, after searching through these alternatives, the designer can choose a fabric that is long-lasting to reduce wear and tear over time (Stone, 2009:5). Buying new fabric should always be a last resort.

There must be an alternative. A middle ground between only sourcing costumes to cut down on fabrics or instead blowing all the costume budget on sustainable materials. Costume theory is lacking in ways to aid the designers sketching processes. Surely if a designer thinks more sustainably from the point they bring pencil to paper it will force the rest of the process to be more sustainable too. Through reducing fabric wastage, time spent on sewing (and in turn less energy is used), and the garments lifespan may last longer due to its adaptability. Gwilt (2014:53), a fashion theorist discusses that a designer must create longevity and function. Traditionally, designers create pieces in line with briefs that won’t necessarily discuss a need to be sustainable. There are many members of the costume team and they won’t necessarily be sustainable simply because they can. It falls on the designers templates to force the rest of the process to be sustainable. One way a designer can make their design efficient is to understand its purpose and who is using it. From this designers can heighten the useability of the garment, finding other ways for the buyer to use it. It helps avoid clothes ending up in landfills, as they have less need to throw it away. It also helps to get the most out of the material, so we are not wasting it (Gwilt, 2012:52). Though this is written specifically by a fashion theorist, I believe what Gwilt discusses about the things a designer must think about are techniques we can transfer to costume design.


Therefore, my proposition is to create a design scheme inspired specifically by Calvin Klein's dress for Emma Watson’s Met Gala 2016 look. It was one garment composed of smaller individual garments. So, you can adapt the individual garments in many ways to create more outfits out of less fabric. This outfit clearly promotes Gwilt’s idea of promoting useability. It keeps the dress renewable without having to buy anything new. I think this is something costume designers can do too. So, I have attempted to create a version of this for an imaginary production of Cinderella. She has three completely different looks and each one represents different things. I thought it would be a good challenge to see if creating a completely adaptable garment made out of smaller garments is a plausible way for designers to become active in sustainability.


There is a total of 4 garments, two skirts, a corset and a shirt. There is also a headband, a pair of shoes and I do sneakily add in a necklace and a petticoat. In the first design, Cinderella’s maid costume, she is wearing all 4 garments with the headband and the shoes as well. What helped me come up with a solution as to how to design 3 seperate looks out of the same garments was looking at traditional versions of Cinderella. Her characterisation has caused many similar designs. She is often seen with an apron over a dress. I realised I could separate each of these things. The apron becomes a corset and a skirt. The dress she wears underneath is separated to become a simple shirt and a longer skirt. In the second costume, she wears the shirt and the longer skirt still with the same accessories of the headband and the shoes. Here she’d simply remove the corset and the shorter skirt. I have added one thing to this design, a set of pearls. I felt this would be necessary for the character as her mother left her the dress and it felt right there would have been jewelry left too. The final look: her ball gown! Now this was much harder than the other two. I still wanted the dress to look glamorous here, but I needed it to look more dull in the first 2 designs. That’s why I have added a petticoat to this, to help make the skirt look flouncier! It makes the look very 50s glam! In this design I’ve also used the headband as a necklace and have clipped on some glittery pom poms to the shoes. This costume is made of the shorter skirt and the corset. I have used the longer skirt as a train for the dress which would be clipped onto some nifty hook and eyes on the back of the corset!


I was incredibly daunted by the task I had set for myself. The idea of creating these three looks felt impossible. When I realised the idea of separating the stereotypical costume I realised the key was simplicity! There was no need to overcomplicate it. I needed to think of Cinderella in a most basic form. What are the needs of each costume? And what must they represent? That’s what led me to this design format. 4 simple items that could have easily been manipulated in other ways to this. With buttons, hook and eyes and ties it’s easy to manipulate costumes in any way. Skirts can appear shorter, attaching things to them or completely manipulating their shape and allow them to become something else.


I surprised myself by how creative I felt creating these designs. When it came to painting I began to feel limited. I wasn’t able to create colour palettes in my usual way. I was limited as I had to make sure each costume had a colour scheme that worked successfully. Originally I had wanted to paint parts of the outfit in a variety of colours. But on my colour pallete board it just looked like 4 separate garments instead of 1 costume! I had to ensure the colours I used were cohesive together and separately. This is what led me to only using blue tones. One set of colours, whether it be blue, green, pink or purple, will always work together. I think I created a good design scheme that has adaptability. When analysing this process, I like to imagine a whole stockroom full of these simple components. It would be an amazing way to pull costumes and enhance creativity in the manipulation of garments. Being able to look at a designers sketches and pull various things that have already been made. It may even allow the colour process to be fixed. If a designer gave a colour palette alongside the design plates, a supervisor could play with different coloured garments from the stocks. But when thinking about this process in the long run I can’t help but wonder about creativity. Clearly here I was limited by this brief, though I felt creative during the process, I wasn’t able to design anything like what I would have done had I been free of this need to make each aspect of the costume work in 3 or more different ways.


Costume design is constantly changing styles and formats due to the creative “mind sets” and the need to “problem solve” that designers have (Blackburn, 2009:4). My proposed design process ensures a large degree of problem solving as it causes you to be creative in new ways. But I can’t help but feel this solution doesn’t respond to a designers innate qualities. There’s no way of knowing this for sure but I can find this out with my future projects to see the reality of this process in the long run. How long will it take me to feel that I have lost my creativity. Despite this issue, I feel as though this is a successful option for designers. At least until sustainable fabrics become more affordable. Where this research differs from what others have done so far is that I have proposed a possible design process, one that can work. Blackburn (2009:3) states: designers “do not have the power to implement environmental changes” as they are restricted by briefs. However, it’s clear that a designer, when informed about possible processes, like this one, can influence making processes. If supervisors cannot get access to sustainable materials due to restricted budgets at least the designer has ensured the costume will be sustainable by allowing it to be reused and adapted for many future costumes.

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