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An Interview with Costume Designer and Wearable Art Creator, Corey Johnston

CoreyJohnstonCorey Johnston originally thought he’d grow up to be a high school English teacher, but once he discovered he could be artistic, using needle, cloth, and thread to actually make something with his hands, there was no turning back. He was “hooked”!

For the past twenty years, he’s spent his life creating costumes and designing special use clothing, first as an undergraduate in theatre, then as a graduate, then as a theatrical costume designer, and finally as a college professor. Today, he has even started his own company with a line of exquisite wearable art.

Alyice: For those who have a hard time understanding what a costume designer is and how it all works, can you give us the inside scoop?

Corey: A costume designer does a lot of things. If they work in the theatre, they have to have an odd amalgamation of skills that may sound like they don’t go together but are absolutely necessary to do the job.

A costume designer has to be able to be a good reader because it all starts with the text. They have to be a good people person because they’re working closely with teams of other designers, a director, actors, and sewing technicians.

They have to know costume history, be able to draw, and know the nature of fabrics and construction techniques. And they need to be able to have a clear vision that allows decisions to be made quickly, because time management is tantamount.

I would say, though, that the vast majority of a costume designer’s job is doing research and communicating with others. No theatrical costume designer does the job in a vacuum by himself.

Alyice: Costume designing is very much an art form, would you say?

Corey: Theatrical costume design is a collaborative art form. It’s not like painting a picture or assembling jewelry. It’s a part of a larger whole that includes the input of everyone on the production, each making they’re specialized contribution.

From a certain perspective, one could say that an audience shouldn’t notice a costume—it should be so integrated into the whole that it doesn’t stand out (unless that’s a conscious choice). Ultimately, a bad costume can make an actor look like they can’t act because it doesn’t gel with their acting choices.

For a costume designer, it can be hard to check your ego at the door in the interest of the show. The challenge is to be able to articulate the reasons for your choices, debate them on their own merits with your collaborators, and know that everyone is working for the same goal. It’s very different than working by yourself in a studio as an individual fine artist.

Alyice: How important are costume designers to the overall theme of a play or film?

Corey: As I said before, theatre and film are collaborative art forms. Interestingly, a designer can be brilliant artistically but if they can’t “play well with others” they’re going to find it difficult to keep working in the industries.

A film, or play’s, theme isn’t necessarily decided upon by a single person. . .

In theatre, the playwright creates an expression, but the director and production designers create the lens through which that expression is perceived. If the lens is dirty, unfocused, or unclear, then it won’t matter what the playwright wrote! All the design elements have to work together to create the right lens for the audience. A costume that doesn’t work as part of the whole is counterproductive. A good costume assists the performer so they can do their job, and therefore helps communicate the overall theme.

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Alyice: How does one go about researching era clothing?

Corey: Things have changed in the last 20 years. . . The internet happened! Ha ha!

It used to be that there were certain books (i.e. “tomes”) that one referenced—some better than others—over and over again because there were so few references. When I was in school, I had to learn all about primary and secondary research, and good images were hard to come by. (And by the way, research was a pain because I thought I was in theatre and there I was spending days and days and days in the library. . . who knew?)

But today, there’s a plethora of resources and sites out there to draw upon. You just have to know enough about the nature of research to know the difference between a good resource and a bad one.

There are no editors on the Internet. Anyone can post anything they want. . . so finding accurate information is sometimes a challenge.

Inevitably, most costume designers find themselves stepping away from the computer and searching out printed information or referring to historical photographs and paintings. But it’s important that one has a good grounding in costume history to even begin to know what to look for.

Alyice: The materials we use today to construct clothing differs from ages past, how do you stay true an era when the materials no longer exist?

Corey: Interestingly, the idea of “staying true to the past” is a relatively recent phenomenon. When you go back and look at movies from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, you can tell pretty quickly what decade they were made in.

Have you seen Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes in Cleopatra? Or My Fair Lady’s 60’s-influenced Edwardian era? Or any of the Three Musketeers movies? I think historical accuracy was “subjective”!

It’s sometimes difficult to regard anything as historically accurate because you’re looking at another designer’s interpretation of that period as influenced by their own era’s knowledge of period clothing. Today, being true to history is just another design choice.

No one would say Tim Burton’s movies have costumes that are particularly historically accurate, for example. It’s not as important to his productions to get the theme of the movie across. Even “Pirates of the Caribbean” takes liberties with history for the sake of the “look” of the characters and the film’s action sequences. It’s rare to find any movie or theatrical production that isn’t influenced by contemporary mores and manners.

Even contemporary television isn’t “historically accurate.” The characters on “Friends” had wardrobes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars—hardly realistic for struggling Gen-Xers in New York City in the 90s. Their attire was far more expensive than their income could support.

Historical reproduction is a rabbit hole. How deep do you go? Where do you draw the line?

In the end, you have to make fabric choices based on what you’ve got available and for the money you’ve got budgeted. You determine where the point is that materials affect the believability of a movie or play, and if that’s important or not. Being historically accurate with appropriate materials might be lower on the list of priorities than other aspects.

Alyice: Aside from making sure the costumes fit the era, they must also fit the characters. How do you go about figuring out what outfits would work best with which characters?

Corey: An audience member forms ideas and opinions about a character before they ever say their first line, just like we do with people in real life.

How a person looks informs us about how we react to them, how we treat them, how we converse with them. Part of the purpose of having a costume designer is to help the audience understand the characters so in the end they can understand the play or movie better. If the costumes don’t “work”, then an audience might think it’s simply a bad production or film.

Specifically, each costume has a specific purpose, too. A costume indicates several things—the Time the production takes place, the Setting or location, the Age of the character, the Gender, the Rank or social status, the Personality of a character, and finally any Changes in any of these factors. I use a mnemonic—The Sea Around Gallipoli Rages Pacifically, C? It’s a device I developed when I was teaching that I still use today to remind myself if a costume is effectively helping to portray a character.

Alyice: What do you wish you knew about costume designing before you got started?

Corey: Honestly, I wish I had truly understood what they meant when they said, “The theatre industry is as much about whom you know as it is about what you know.”

You may have “mad skills”, but that won’t help you if you can’t capitalize on connections. Conversely, being best friends with the hottest director and producer of the moment may get you in the door, but if you don’t know what to do once you get there you won’t be sticking around long. . .

I had a bit of a romantic notion about costume designing, and I should have had a reality check a long time ago. Costume designing is not for the faint of heart. It is truly a “lifestyle choice” that is not for everyone.

It’s hard to earn enough money to make a living, you give up a lot of your personal life, you sacrifice a lot of personal luxuries (sometimes necessities), and it’s only glamorous at opening night parties. A person can be told that’s the reality of things, but until you experience it you don’t really understand how difficult it can be.

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Alyice: What is your creative process like?

Corey: I’m a costume generalist. There are a lot of costume designers that don’t sew, believe it or not. They don’t need to because they work in venues where there are experts that do that job. I, on the other hand, rarely designed for theatres that were large enough to sustain that kind of work environment, so I did most of my own sewing. Therefore, my process was a bit different than most costume design processes because I was designing with my own sewing skills in mind.

I knew that anything I designed, I had to make myself or supervise unskilled students in making it. That makes a big impact on how one designs. . . I knew that I had to think loosely, and that adapting and changing things as I went along was simply part of the process. It was all well and good to paint a pretty picture of a design, but things inevitably changed in the rehearsal process as discoveries were made by the actors and directors, so I often had to adjust things as we went along.

In the beginning, things seem overwhelming, but one learns to shift one’s expectations when necessary to alleviate stress and simple “get it done”. Ideally, a costume is designed before rehearsals start, and construction is already underway. Realistically, the production venues I worked with were rarely in the position to feel confident about design choices until the rehearsals informed everyone what they really needed and wanted. So I learned to plan loosely and be ready for anything.

Alyice: What do you believe is a key element in creating a good costume?

Corey: I’m not sure there is one specific key element that makes a costume good. It’s a balance of many elements. Perhaps that’s it—a costume is great when it balances all the expectations placed upon it. How it effectively serves its many purposes is the sign of an awesome costume. In some cases that may mean being the center of attention at a party. In others, it may mean disappearing into a crowd. Every situation is different depending on what the costume is required to do.

Alyice: Aside from designing costumes for clients, you also run a rather impressive personalized high-end design company for individuals in which you create and sell wearable art pieces. What’s that like?

Corey: To be frank, I decided that I wanted to experience a “less collaborative” artistic experience. Something inside me told me that I had more I could do with my skills than what I was currently doing for others in the theatrical industry.

I had a lot of ideas about creating garments for a more dramatically inclined customer, one that wasn’t afraid of making a statement with their clothing. I didn’t want to go into the fashion industry, however, because I wasn’t interested in manufacturing my ideas and I had a problem with everything being made for “model” figures.

I wanted my clothing to be unique, individual, and (hopefully) unlike anything that could be made in a factory. I wanted them to be individual art pieces. Literally wearable art.

I thought if I could make these wonderful garments for the theatre, why can’t I make them for real people? So I set about straddling the worlds of art, attire, and theatre.

Alyice: What’s the hardest part about transitioning from working for a theatre company to working for yourself?

Corey: Defining my genre. Not style, but genre. Some wouldn’t consider what I do as art. Some can’t understand why I’m not creating a “line” of clothing. I find that people either expect wearable art should be made out of sporks and tree moss to be considered an artistic expression, or they expect me to be going to Market and finding a factory to produce multiples. Both are antithetical to what I’m trying to achieve.

I think wearable art should actually be wearable.

I don’t know anyone in my life that actually buys dresses made with tree branches or condoms—no offense to those wearable art makers! I’m simply looking to create a more practical artistic expression. I’m exploring clothing that wouldn’t be practical to manufacture economically, that can only be made by hand, and that appeals to those that don’t want something anyone else can simply purchase in a mall.

I think of my work as a kind of soft sculpture, but it’s been a challenge. I’m not afraid of working on my own, or hitting the fairs and festivals circuit, or seeking out boutiques but I’m finding it hard to maintain roots planted between two cultural pigeonholes and exploit that as a selling point and not a detriment.

I’ve sought online communities that can appreciate what I’m trying to do, but more often than not they’re either fine art oriented or fashion oriented. It’s been hard to find somewhere that can appreciate clothing in a sculptural, fine art context without it needing to be hand woven out of wool and inner tubes.

Alyice: How do you come up with a profitable pricing structure for your pieces?

Corey: I start with how much I want to make an hour, and then add in my materials and production costs.

Some painters and other fine artists price their work by the square inch. I can’t really do that for my garments. . . I have to adjust based on how much I feel commensurate garments are being sold for.

It’s an interesting quandary for me.

As my pieces get more complicated and require more time to construct, I price them higher. And that’s great if you’re looking at each piece through an art lens in a soft sculpture context. But if you look at the same piece through a clothing lens, people start to question why a piece is so expensive. They want you to back up through the process to understand just why a garment is so pricey; often blaming the materials or manufacturing and distribution processes for a high price point because that’s how they compare it to other garments. But you really can’t do that for fine art.

By attempting to straddle both industries, I invite comparison to both, and that makes for interesting pricing challenges, which I’m still working on. In the end, I feel better if I have a wide variety of prices to appeal to a wider clientele.

You can learn more about Corey’s costume designs and wearable art at his website, www.coreycostumedesign.com and blog.

*Note: this post may contain affiliate links*

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