Essential Websites for Costume Designers

Four must-bookmark sites featuring plenty of knowledge, depth, and creativity

La Couturiere Parisienne's Alexa Bender is a big fan of more authentic and historically accurate costumes, and those in the film Dangerous Liaisons by costume designer James Acheson are among her favorites. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

One of the best things about the web for those in the performing arts is the way it preserves and spotlights the research, information, and creative successes of people and productions across the world, and then delivers it easily right to your desktop. The web confers its own brand of immortality, ensuring that the creative genius of past designers will not be forgotten, and that it is in fact almost instantly accessible, across the decades and even centuries.

This wealth of information can be a superb teaching tool, as well as a powerful source of inspiration, and nowhere is that more true than for costume designers.

Those interested in the art and science of costume design must walk an interesting tightrope in their creations, which typically have to fit a number of strict parameters that include character, gender, age, body size, time and place, style, and more. But within those requirements, and armed with the specific knowledge they need to clothe their characters, they can do whatever they want. This means that costume design by its very nature involves a huge amount of study and research, and I’ve found a few websites recently that will provide costume design students, pros, and aficionados with plenty of inspiration when you need it most.

Costumes through the Ages with 'La Couturiere Parisienne'

Named for a French/German fashion magazine from the late 19th century, this site from Alexa Bender is one that costumers and costume students alike will swoon over.

’La Couturiere Parisienne’ is an addictive and incredibly useful site (offered in both German and English throughout much of its content) that offers a wealth of information and reference material on period costumes, ranging from the Middle Ages through the early 20th Century. The site is simply organized by period, style and century, with separate sections on Medieval & Renaissance, Cross-Era accessories and costume pieces, Ethnic costumes, as well as exhaustive information by century on the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s.

Visitors wishing to get a sense of a particular period need only to click on a particular century to be greeted with hundreds of paintings and drawings that immediately capture the clothing of the era in a way no description ever could.

With its slightly imperious, academic air, Bender’s site is like having tea with a fascinating and only slightly intimidating schoolmistress. There are over 4000 costume images in total in the site's database, as well as articles and even some authentic period patterns. It's a great site to get lost in. (But don't say I didn't warn you when three hours have mysteriously passed since you clicked over. It's fascinating stuff.)

“What fascinates me most about costumes and costume design is the multitude of techniques used in creating a look,” says Bender, “most of which have almost died out in this age of mass production. Most people nowadays would think that modern machines were better at producing intricate fabrics, lace, or similar, while in fact period artisans -- especially of the 18th century -- could outclass modern technology hands down.”

When asked about her favorite film costumes, Bender prefers those that blend rather than stand out: “I don't have an all-time favorite film costume because most of them are flawed from an authenticity point of view.

The ones in are quite good, by and large, and the BBC has produced some miniseries like Aristocrats with good costuming, in that none of them stands out from the rest. Not standing out to be noticed is part of period authenticity: The good ones go unnoticed because they blend with the scene so well. It's the bad ones that I notice as being out of place.”

Costume designer Jessica Risser-Milne helms a terrific, no-nonsense blog that offers valuable tips for other costume designers and aspiring designers), as well as production and business insights, and industry interviews with other designers. Her style is smart, fresh and humorous, and she combines creative business how-to's with practical costume design advice (how to work with leather, how to shop for shows) that will quickly make her blog a constant for those of you seeking to learn more about the art of costume design.

“What it’s all about for me,” says Jessica, “is that magical combination of the three elements that -- when combined -- bring me the greatest joy: Fabric, character, and storytelling." You'll quickly feel you've found a friend and ally in the business, and can even view samples of Jessica’s work on the site, as well.

Jessica created her site to share her love of the industry, as well as to explore her own successes and projects as they occurred. “I love the process,” she comments. “The taking of an abstract idea that is without form, turning that into a two-dimensional image, and then taking that two-dimensional image (which is borne of a collaborative effort with other artists involved in the production) and turning it into a three-dimensional thing that is used on stage (or the screen). Further,” she adds, “that this three-dimensional thing is a critical component to the development and communication of a character via the actor's work.” She also enjoys “the thinking, the researching, the reading, and (to a slightly lesser extent) the drawing, choosing the colors, patterns, textures, and shapes, and then all of the parts of turning the drawing into a costume.”

When asked to pick her favorite costumes from stage and screen, Jessica admits that it’s not an easy decision, and, like Bender, she prefers designs that are ‘invisible’ as part of the story. “I believe that the best costume designs are so integral to the story that it would have been impossible to tell the story well without them,” she says, emphasizing that each medium -- from film, to television, and stage – has different needs.

From a visual perspective, her favorites include either “Pushing Daisies” or “Carnivale” for television, and for film either trilogy (“Mainly because there's so much going on in there that every time you watch, there's something new to see in the details”), or Pan's Labyrinth."

Jessica’s favorite costume designs for the stage include those from the production of Brecht’s Chalk Circle, staged in London's West End at the National Theatre in 1997. “In the end,” she says, “it brings me great pleasure to have worked on a show that is appreciated by audiences as a feat of great storytelling.”

Prepare for a treat with Clothes on Film, which is the visual equivalent of a rich and decadent soufflé. The sumptuous images on this website will provide aspiring designers with a wealth of inspiration within seconds of your first mouse click.

Created by Chris Laverty in order to examine "costume and identity in the movies," Clothes on Film offers images as well as examinations and discussions, in some cases, of some of the most gorgeous costumes in film and television, from the cool perfection of Grace Kelly, Bond, or "Mad Men," to the eclectic warmth of The Big Lebowski or The Royal Tenenbaums.

With a spare, elegant yet bare-bones organizational style, Clothes on Film's website can be somewhat confusing to navigate, because the huge amount of information it offers isn’t always apparent at first glance. However, it’s worth the effort to do a little digging, as the sheer wealth of imagery and information on arresting modern film costumes in movies of every conceivable style and budget is sure to bowl you over.

“What fascinates me about costume design is that it can tell a story either integrated or independent of the narrative,” says Laverty. “It can be overt or sub-textual, visible, obscure, purely for display or ripe for analysis. Once you start taking notice of costume design on film, it opens up a whole new world of interpretation.” The site also offers rare interviews with industry A-listers like Colleen Atwood, as well as insightful analyses of iconic costumes ranging from to the Alien films, to current titles ranging from The Tourist to Tron Legacy.

Laverty’s all-time favorite costume? A plain white t-shirt on James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause: “Masculine, exposed, pure,” he comments. “It is the epitome of male sexuality. Much like Dean himself, in fact.”

From James Dean, to Harry Potter to The Hangover, Clothes on Film provides a sleek and seductive way to while away an hour or two -- and you'll leave with a far greater appreciation for the art and craft of the costume designer.

Part vendor resource and online store, the website from Dr. Tara Maginnis isn't the snazziest, but what it lacks in eye candy, it makes up for in sheer content.

Maginnis offers a wealth of information and advice online here, with most of it free for immediate download. Topics and tips include everything from common how-to's, to costume shop safety, channeling creativity, examining (and avoiding) creative theft, and such handy informational pieces as, "Things Nobody Tells You About Sewing Machines (my favorite).

And then of course there's The Costumer's Manifesto, a tour de force resolution and full-length online work that beautifully sums up the responsibility of the costume designer, as well as what makes the profession so special.

It’s a serious motherlode of incredible content, advice, and reference, and while the site itself is rudimentary, cluttered and somewhat scattered in appearance, you could spend months here and still find new things to learn. It's definitely a bookmark to remember.