Dressing The Character

One of the biggest influences on an image are the costumes. A costume can make or break any photo. It is a vital element which can tie the theme in a nice bow or destroy it. They express emotion, time frame, and communicate character. When creating an image costume consideration is vital.

Creating a cohesive and believable story in an image is all about the details. If the details work together to create a story, no matter how outlandish it is, the viewer will accept it as realistic. Costumes are one of the elements that effect an image greatly.

They communicate story without having to say a word.

They provide movement, texture, character, and personality not only to the image but the model as well. They transform a person into a story. They give the character a time line whether it be past, present, or future. All in all costumes are a huge influencer when it comes to planning and creating an image.


Here are a few considerations to keep in mind when dealing with costumes:

1) Understand your image.

The first step when dealing with a costume is to first think of what you want to create and what is driving you to visualize that specific photo.

Fully understanding your motivation for creating and the message you want to share is vital. When we understand the image we want to make, we understand exactly what needs to go into it. The decisions we make for location, model, costume, lighting, etc. should all be made purposefully to help further the story.

The choices we make need to reflect the heart of the story and the message we’re trying to communicate. Understanding where you want to take an image is key to determining the costume you will use in the photo.

Decide on the kind of story and image you are creating. Write down how you envision the final picture looking and the feelings it evokes. The better you understand what you are trying to create the easier and more meaningful your choices will become.


2) Pick a time frame. 

Are you going historic? Futuristic? Understanding your images time stamp helps you narrow down the choices in multiple areas. Someone from the 1800s would not be wearing jeans, while someone from the future might not have clothing made out of the same material as we use now.

There’s also the aspect of whether or not you want it to appear timeless. To erase all sense of time in order for it to be applicable to all ages.

For me, this means using dresses or outfits that do not have a particular time frame that could be associated with them. These costumes appear ambiguous and are seen as whimsical. In my photography, I strive to create timeless images by using costumes that are beautiful yet without time. They could exist now, in the past, in the future, or perhaps in a completely different timeline.

Knowing your timeframe or the lack of time will help you determine the kind of costumes, and other elements such as props and locations, you should lean towards to help you represent time.


3) Know your character. 

The type of character you want to develop also has a heavy impact on costume.

Knowing the kind of character you desire to render can really determine the quality, style, and features of an outfit. No matter the kind of character you will be creating you need to consider the typical costume they are associated with.

Are you making a queen? A teenage girl? How about a business man? Each character mentioned has a very distinct outfit style or specific elements associated with them. Not to mention if you are dealing with fanciful characters such as fairies, fauns, or magicians.

Knowing the character determines the costumes.

You also need to know what the character is doing and has been through. Are they running? Falling? Have they been up for hours or still asleep? Each decision you make should be reflected in the costumes you choose and its quality.


4) Use costumes to communicate theme. 

Theme plays a huge role in determining a costume. Knowing the story you want to tell and the emotions you want to evoke helps you pick a costume to go with it that can emphasize what you want to communicate.

Different items of clothing tell stories all by themselves, either by colors or by the type of garments. Black outfits can be seen as solemn and associated with funerals and death. Red can be seen as power, blood, and passion. A queen will always have a crown as will a king which shows their power. Torn clothing can symbolize a struggle or poverty.

Emotions and associations with costumes are important to remember when making a decision. Also realize what might be widely regarded in one area might mean something different in another area. Keep in mind how different cultures and people groups use costume and how they approach them. Traditions along with emotions might be associated with certain garments.

Before picking a certain item to be used in an image, do some research and see how the clothing could be made more meaningful. Color and association are important factors to think about when dealing with clothing, they can communicate much more than we realize.


5) Sometimes less is more. 

When crafting your image be careful of how much costume you place onto your character. Be weary of drowning your story in so much clothing that you lose the simplicity of it all.

Costumes are a great way to communicate story and character as mentioned above. But too much can overshadow everything else and drown out the important parts of the image. Be careful choosing your costume and make careful decisions. Overcomplicating an image is the last thing you want to do. There are times when an elaborate costume is the perfect fit for a certain character, however, make sure each element you add is purposeful and cohesive.

Choosing one or two pieces that compliments each other and presents a theme cleanly can draw in a person while having a busy costume can sometimes be repulsive. Many times in my images, I have decided to wrap myself in a bed sheet to introduce a single color to the image and keep the costume simple.

Simplicity is a strong communicator of feelings. It presents them in a clear and understandable way that helps others connect in a deeper more intimate way.


6) When editing, keep it realistic. 

How often do we see images where it is so obvious that the different elements are photoshopped in? All to often people ignore or over look the necessity to keep things as realistic as possible when creating an image. Even when doing something completely unrealistic in a photo if all the elements, including costume, work together realistically the viewers mind will accept it as a reality.

When you edit an image keep in mind how you are putting it together. If you are simulating wind, for example, you want to think about the direction you are blowing fabric and other things like hair. If the hair is going one way and the dress the other you are sending mixed signals about what is going on in the image.

Cohesion is key to pass something off as believable. Consider how you want to present your image and look at it objectively to see if it makes sense.

A key element to this is making sure the costumes flow with the rest of the image. If a piece of fabric is even slightly out of place in an odd way, it can throw off the viewer and convince them the image is unrealistic. Even the most fanciful images can be realistic when the editor pays attention to all the small details.


7) Knowing where to find costumes. 

One of the biggest factors when it comes to costumes is finding them. It can often be a struggle to find acceptable costumes that both interest you and keep you from spending a lot of money.

I find all of my costumes in an array of different stores, however, my favorite is by far Goodwill. There are several stores in my area and each is different in their own way. The key to finding good deals, quality items, and the perfect costume is getting to know the stores.

A Goodwill in one area might have slightly different things than one on the other side of town. If the store is in a retirement area, you will most likely find authentic vintage clothing while a store near a college will have trendier and younger styles. The key to finding what you want is making it a habit to peek in quite often and simply browse. The inventory changes constantly and in order to get the good things before they’re gone you have to be active in searching for them.

Another amazing aspect of Goodwill is that they have a “color of the week” sale. This sale covers the whole store and any item that has a tag that matches the color of the week is 50% off. It’s an incredible sale on items that are already inexpensive.

I find 90% of my costumes this way and you’ll be amazed at what you can find when you simply look for it. Also a quick tip for finding formal dresses, the best time to look for them is after prom season. Other areas have different thrift stores that are also worth checking out including individual and local stores.

The other 10% of my costumes come from vintage stores. Although this is a slightly more expensive route to go down I have found multiple beautiful costumes that work perfectly for my images. Vintage styles often contribute to the timeless and fairytale look and contribute a sense of nostalgia to any image they are included in. They are also often made of good quality material and last much longer than cheaper clothing. Vintage stores are especially good for finding nightgowns.

These are my two favorite ways to finding costumes but a few other options are Etsy, Amazon, Ebay, as well as making them yourself which I have done in the past.


8) Have one or two favorite costumes.  

When you find a costume you like, stick with it. Especially if it is a simple, not overly recognizable costume.

I have done this more often than I ever thought I would when I started photography. But the truth is it can be hard to find new, amazing costumes that work perfectly. There isn’t always the perfect outfit just waiting for you at Goodwill. So when you find those simply amazing and perfect costumes, hang onto them.

There are two costumes that I have used many many times in multiple images. The reason why, is that they have a lot of fabric and because of that they flow really well. They are also very generic costumes.

One is a white nightgown that I found years ago in Goodwill in the sleepwear section. It is a couple sizes too big for me, but because of this there is extra fabric to flip around. The color is also very generic and compliments everything it is with. Nightgowns also have a certain element of nostalgia and look incredibly timeless. They also symbolize dreams and the imagination making them interesting elements to add to a story. Here are several of the images I have created using this white nightgown:


The other costume is a blue formal gown also found at Goodwill towards the end of last year. Since I used it the first time I have been amazed by it. The way it flows and moves is like out of a dream, it is perfect for creating movement into any image. The color is also exceptional because it is bright and could easily be changed within photoshop, although I have yet to use it in that way. This is by far my favorite costume and is the one I take with me on trips because it always works in the kind of images I create. Here are several of the images I have created using the blue dress:


As you can see finding a few costumes that really work for you and your photography is a great way to ensure you always have an outfit that would do in a pinch. It is also a way to link different images together if you are creating a series.


There you have it. My eight tips for incorporating costumes into images and a few lessons I have learned over the past six years. Costumes are vital to making an image come together and they can also be one of the best parts of the visual.

Pay attention to the small details and be purposeful in the decisions you make. Above all go out there and have fun creating.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s