Costume Interpretation and Analysis.

Mina Harker

Whilst studying Costume Design many years ago, one of the issues discussed between tutors and costume students was the importance of how a costume reacts with its wearer and vice versa.

The first point to consider is that if an actor is not at ease in their costume, it could affect their performance. Although the part being played by any individual will have certain stipulations when it comes to the design criteria, construction and fabrics used, the designer, if experienced will automatically take great pains to ensure the cast will be comfortable without compromising the overall realism and authenticity for the audience.

A great deal of what an audience sees is trickery, realised by the creative team, both with regards to set and costume design. For instance, despite the rapid development of SFX, smaller budget productions still use simple base materials, such as polystyrene or balsa wood when constructing large pieces of set. When painted by an experienced hand, the experienced eyes can still be fooled into believing that they are looking for instance, at an ornate fireplace or a massive piece of granite. The same applies to costume. Large budget productions can afford to indulge the use of authentic fabrics and construction techniques in order to replicate historical costumes, whereas smaller budget productions may mean cheaper fabrics have to be used and adapted as best as is possible. This does not mean that the experienced costumier cannot recreate to great effect an authentic looking costume. Trickery also extends to how the silhouette of an actor can be altered to suit the character they are playing. The smallest or largest of people can be padded and reshaped to create a totally different outline. This brings us back to our original consideration; how to create a convincing illusion without compromising the actor’s performance.

Learning how to make the costume fit the actor, and the actor fit the costume is arguably the same thing. To teach you the processes involved in this I am going to tutor you using techniques I have used in the past. Over the next few months you will learn how to interpret existing costumes for yourself, and use this knowledge to improve your own design or construction processes and decisions.

Initially, I am going to look at the work of an established designer, Eiko Ishioka. One of the many productions she has designed costumes for, was Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, which starred Robert Carlyle, Keanu Reeves, Wynona Ryder and Anthony Hopkins. We will be looking at one of the costumes created for the character Mina Harker. I chose this film as it is an era of costume which fascinates me; in particularly with regard to the discomfort women must have endured with regard to their undergarments during that time period. I suggest that you watch the film at least once before attempting the construction techniques I will be teaching you. As part of one of my early assignments a few years ago, I chose to analyse the costumes in the film and form my own opinions on several of the costumes worn; those of Mina Harker and the three vampires. I did this to enhance my perception and understanding of costumes in relation to the actors that wear them. Perhaps more importantly I could make my own critical assessment as to whether the costumes in this particular film were realised successfully and whether they could have been bettered. This is of course just a personal opinion and an exercise for my own learning curve as a costume designer.

Please note this does not mean that Eiko Ishioka’s designs are in my opinion any way inferior – they are in fact a visual masterpiece, as is the set and photographic treatment of this sumptuous film.

Eiko Ishioka’s Costume Design

I set out to recreate the costumes with modern fabrics, in order to see if this would be detrimental to the original concept. I had no images of the designs for the undergarments worn by Mina Harker, so undertook my own research into what were the most likely undergarments to suit the costume, taking into consideration Wynona Ryder’s frame and posture. I will take you through, step by step, week by week, how I constructed my own interpretation of the original design, and I will discuss problems and outcomes along the way.

At a later date I will discuss my own interpretation of how I would have designed the vampire’s costumes had I been commissioned to do so, and show you the construction techniques I used to create one of their costumes. To see an illustration of my own vampire costume in advance go to or read more about my work on this blog site, where you will see the finished costume. I chose not to use the Eastern influences that Eiko Ishioka used for her vampire designs. Instead, I mirrored the armour worn by Dracula in the opening scene of the film as my prime influence. I hope you enjoy this experience, and that what you learn helps you with your future commissions. Be inspired by your own imagination and above all – have fun.

Next week – now that you have watched the film, we will begin with the undergarments for Mina. You will need some experience with pattern drafting and costume construction to make the following garments.

Materials needed for week One are:-

Pencil and eraser, ruler, paper scissors, tracing wheel, carbon paper for dress making glued to a sturdy backboard, French curves and pattern paper marked with either one inch or 1 cm squares. The more confident you become, you will find that you will be able to draw curves freehand, without the use of French Curves.

If possible look at Period Costume for Screen and Stage 1800 – 1909 by Jean Hunnisett, published by Unwins, before we commence.

Combinations with Sleeves

Construction of Undergarments.

The combinations I have decided to use for Mina’s undergarments are based loosely on a pattern from Period Costume for Stage and Screen 1800 -1909 by Jean Hunnisett. This is a really worthwhile book to add to your collection, as her books are very detailed and precise.
The garment I constructed was adapted, differing in the girth measurement and fullness, as I found with the initial garment I made that the model found the combinations restricting when she sat down. When measuring your model it is well worth taking the girth measurement when she is standing and seated and compare the two. Personally I would opt for the latter, even though this will give the garment an impression of a ‘baggy crutch’ when standing. This will make sense when you start to draft your pattern. Combinations can alternatively be sleeveless to omit bulk, and due to the nature of Mina’s close fitting sleeves I opted for this pattern change. I do feel that the combinations with sleeves are far more attractive, so when removing the sleeves, I chose to add detail to the lower hem of the trouser section by adding gathering bows. The neckline can be square, but I opted for a feminine gentle curve with a gathering tie through front of the neckline.

Combinations without Sleeves

I have illustrated the combinations adding a side view for clarity. In theory you could adapt and simplify the garment further by having Velcro fastening but it would diminish authenticity. You can however, experiment with modern fabrics and pretty buttons to add your own personal touch, but perhaps make a toile from calico first until your confidence increases. Originally the garment may have been constructed from lightweight cotton for summer use, right through to wool for colder weather.

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