Costuming and Makeup

June 12th, 2012

Costuming and Makeup for Presentations

“The subjective actress thinks of clothes only as they apply to her; the objective actress thinks of them only as they affect others, as a tool for the job” – Edith Head, famous costumer for major motion pictures.

I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. Well, with costuming and makeup we are creating a living picture for our audience. We’re going to first look at costuming basics and get an idea of where to start when a production needs a costumer.


Costuming is an exciting way to work with the director to bring the characters of a play to life. Determining the time period, characters’ personalities and overall “feel” of the play is essential in lending support to the drama being presented. The first step in costuming a presentation effectively is to get a copy of the script from the director, along with a copy of the cast list. These two things are vital to the costumer.

Next, familiarize yourself with the script and with the characters. By getting a “feel’” for the characters, you will see how to costume them appropriately. Remember, color can play an important role – it can even be prophetic to the character’s nature. Using your color guide will help steer you appropriately in this area.

Go through the script, one character at a time, and write down the scene numbers they are in. This will help you determine how many outfits you will need for each actor.

You should plan a meeting with the director. During this time, inquire of the director what the budget will be for the costumes for this particular presentation, if any. This will help you establish your boundaries with purchasing new material and/or ready-made costumes. You may opt to splurge on one really great piece that will be used through the years, or use the funds sparingly. It will be your job to keep receipts for all purchases made. Also during this meeting, you will need to determine if any main characters have more than one scene that is considered the “same day”, as the actor will only need one costume for those scenes. This may be obvious once you’ve read through the script…sometimes, however, it is not as clear. The director can clarify the vision for these scenes for you. The costumer’s main job is to carry out the director’s vision for the play through the use of textures and color – communication is the key to doing this effectively, so don’t be shy to ask the director to elaborate and give input where needed.

There may be times when scenes that are back-to-back are considered different “days”. Sometimes, there is not enough time for a full costume change, but there needs to be a visual change for a lead character (due to a progression in the script in time passing). In such a case, you will need to check with the director to determine if there will be a set/props change – or monologues in between the two scenes – in order to determine how much time the cast has to change costume. If time is a problem, changing the actor’s costume accessories can accommodate the change simply.

Your next step is to determine which costumes we already have on hand that would be appropriate for each character (as far as size, color, age of character, character’s personality, wealthy or poor, proper fit, time period, etc.). Schedule fittings with the actors for their costumes. If there are things you must have that are not on hand, first check with each actor – they may have something in their personal wardrobe that would be appropriate (shoes, winter coats, dresses, etc. for example) or borrow from church members. If doing so, be sure to take EXTRA special care of those borrowed items! They should be returned in the same condition they were borrowed – cleaned and ironed.

Next, shop for or sew remaining costumes needed (Goodwill, consignment shops, etc. – try Walmart for fabric, they have clearance for $1 per yard). If you need an assistant, now is the time to enroll some help. It’s usually a good idea to have at least two people work on costumes for a major production.

As costumes are decided upon, label them with masking tape, noting the character name and scene #, on the inside collar. Next, accessorize each outfit as needed (belts, headpieces, jewelry, etc. – accessories can be placed in a bag and hung on the costume’s hanger or on an additional hanger. Use twist ties if needed to group together several hangers for the same outfit).

Place the men’s costumes on one rolling rack, and women’s costumes on another in order by scenes, or by character. Familiarize yourself with the script/scene changes so that you can be ready to help the actors change costumes (if you are female, try to gauge if the male actors will need a helper to change costumes and enlist a male to do so – and vice versa!)

Be on-hand the nights of the dress rehearsals and the nights of the play (having a sewing kit on hand is definitely helpful! In addition, be sure to have plenty of safety pins, bobby pins and hair ties available).

Lastly, all costumes should be neatly returned to their proper place. It is your job to ensure the “dressing rooms” have been restored to their former cleanliness. Any dirty costumes should be laundered and returned back to the costume racks. You may enlist assistance with this, as it can be a big job after a presentation.


Next, let’s take a look at stage makeup. This works hand in hand with costuming to bring out the depth of the character. Stage makeup is used to strengthen your features so that they can be seen from far away; it is used to define a character or to completely change one’s looks. Rather than highlighting your facial features you have to cover them with a completely new face and look like a totally different person.

When you’re making an actor to another human you must alter his appearance so it fits into the new part’s character. If the part is mean, kind, fat, thin or stupid you must change the actor’s own features to match this. Also, just as with the costuming, makeup should be age appropriate. Overdone makeup on a child looks inappropriate.

To be able to alter an actor’s appearance, we use a lot of different methods: wigs, false teeth, prosthetics and foam rubber appliances are the most basic way of doing character makeup, with light and shadows using greasepaint. When you’re doing a light and shadow makeup you are really just using the actor’s own features to alter his looks by showing and hiding things that are already there. Some actor once said that all parts are an insult, because the makeup artist always brings out the “nasty” bits of the face when doing a character makeup. Depending on what kind of stage you are working on the makeup can differ quite a bit, if you’re working on a small stage you put on makeup very subtle but on a big stage it sometimes looks really grotesque in person but great on stage.

This type of makeup is very challenging for performers; but once it is completed, it helps them become the character they are portraying, because every time they look in a mirror they see not themselves but that other person.

Theatrical makeup is heavily pigmented so that it doesn’t washout under the bright lights of the stage. If you stood on that brightly lit stage without makeup on the audience probably would see only a blur instead of your face because the strong lights would wash out all your features.

Theatrical makeup will holdup under physical stress such as dancing or singing with sweaty tenors. The style of theatrical makeup application will vary with the size of the stage and audience. “Intimate” theater is a small stage, close to a small audience. Makeup for intimate theater is much more normal looking compared to makeup for a large theater where facial expressions must be projected for a thousand feet.

Makeup Formulas:

In the olden days, makeup was made from pigments and heavy oil. It was called grease paint. Today, the formulas have been refined and the new oil based makeups are called “Creme” makeup. Because creme makeups are oil based they must be powdered to remove excess oil and to set the makeup. Freshly set creme makeup can look fantastic, but it does have the tendency to look a little shiny after a while. Creme makeup is hot to wear; however it is easy to blend. If you apply a creme foundation, then you can use creme rouges, shadows and highlights and blend it all together before you set it with powder. After it’s been set, if you need to touch it up, you must use dry or pressed makeups, such as dry rouge. RMGP, or Rubber Mask Grease Paint, is a special formula of cream makeup for use with rubber prosthetics. Often the base oil is caster oil, which is safe on foam latex. It works great on foam latex, but is heavy to wear on the skin. It does need to be powdered.

Pancake is makeup powder pressed into a little tin. It is often called water-based makeup, but is more properly referred to as water-activated. You must wet it like watercolors in order to use it. Professionals will often spritz their entire tray as they begin their work. This allows some time for the makeup to become saturated. Streaks in pancake makeup are caused by faulty application. It is lighter than creme makeup and doesn’t require setting power. It is “self-setting”. But this means you cannot use creme makeups on top of it (such as rouges or shadows). All makeup used on top of pancake must be dry or pressed. It is far more difficult to blend dry makeup than crème; therefore if you are doing special characters or aging, you should use creme. But if you’re making up a large chorus of teenagers, or covering large portions of the body (arms, legs, etc.) then using pancake will save you a lot of time because you won’t have to powder it. You can make it sweat-proof by using a Ben Nye product called LiquiSet (BN-LQ4).

Body or Face Paint is a water-based makeup in liquid form. It is excellent for body art and coverage of large areas of the body. It can be applied thick or thin. It can be applied quickly with an air paint gun or airbrush. If you are completely changing the color of someone’s skin, use liquid body paint. Make it water resistant with Ben Nye LiquiSet additive. Liquid makeup applied with an airbrush is a new trend.

The Main Components of Stage Makeup and Their Application:

  1. Foundation or Base — this is applied first. It serves the purpose of smoothing out your skin texture, adding a little color, and providing a base for other makeup to be blended into. The color used should generally be just a shade or two darker than your normal skin tone. Start the foundation at the forehead and blend up to the hairline. Then cover the rest of the face, including ears, eyelids, and the neck. The neck is necessary so it doesn’t look like a mask. On guys, the entire neck (back too) is sometimes done, but this is messy. After the general foundation, a lighter color goes over the shadows under the nose and on the chin.
  2. Rouges — for adding color to cheeks and definition to face. Choose a rosy color (paler for men) and streak it over the cheekbone. Blend down and up, about halfway down the cheek. On men, it should look naturally rosy, while on women it should be dark enough that it will be seen on the stage as makeup. The blush is also (very slightly) blended over the nose and onto the forehead. The blush will almost always be darker on women than one thinks at first. This must be visible to the audience from under the hot stage lights.
  3. Eye Makeup — the most complicated part. First a very white ‘highlighter’ is used along the brow bone (right underneath the eyebrow) and under the eye. This should be well blended so there are no white streaks, but the area is lightened. Next, a color that’s a little darker than skin tone is brushed over the eye, just above the eyelid but below the brow bone. This is also blended beneath the eye. Over this, an even darker color is put along the top of the eyelid and is blended downwards. It also acts as an eyeliner, but only on the top of the eye. On men, this may be enough for eyeliner. Over this, for women, find an even darker, rosier color that looks more like normal eye shadow. Put this on as one might for everyday makeup, but make it look more obvious. Blend the color a little above the eyebrow so that it’s visible. Men may not need this; if they do, choose a less rosy color. After color is on, line the eyes with dark brown or a similar color. Black should never be used unless the character is very dramatic and needs wild makeup. Last, mascara is put on the top lashes. Try putting the wand into the actor’s lashes and having him or her blink – this makes errors less likely.
  4. Shadows and Highlights — used for aging and shaping/contouring. The idea is that, in real life, when light hits a wrinkled face the wrinkle is recessed and therefore shadowed from the light, so it will appear to be a little darker than the surrounding skin. Shadows and Highlights are used to simulate that effect — you draw a shadow line and a highlight line directly above it, creating the illusion of a puffed out part (the highlighted part) and a recessed part (the shadowed part), which from a distance, with proper lighting, should appear to be a wrinkle. Shadows and Highlights are usually applied with a Flat Brush.
  5. Lipstick — this is fairly simple. For men, choose a color which is only a little bit darker than their usual lip color. Lip liner should match this. Liner and lipstick can be put on in any order; it depends on the individual’s preference. Make sure that the liner goes on the outside of the lips, and not outside the natural line. This will look fake. Liner can be used over all the lips before lipstick is put on to make it stick better and last longer. Lipstick should fill in the lips completely and be dark enough to be seen from the stage. Up close, it should look garish and unrealistic, like Halloween wax lips. In men, it should be slightly more natural. They shouldn’t look like they have makeup on when they’re on stage.
  6. Color Liners — essentially the same as Rouges, Shadows and Highlights only in different colors. Can be used for eye makeup, special effects, etc.
  7. Setting Powder — used to “set” creme makeup. The creme absorbs the powder leaving a dry matte finish that will last for hours. Dip a large brush into a jar of the powder, then shake it to get most of the powder off. Not doing so will result in a large white streak over the makeup that’s just been done, and will ruin it. Without powdering, creme makeup stays moist and sticky and it will be disturbed easily by minor touching and perspiration.

Since we’re on the topic of makeup, let’s discuss a different style of expression…mime face.


In Postmodern Mime, the world is gearing away from traditional white-face…they consider Marcel Marceau passé. But, let’s take a look where it all started.

It began with the Commedia dell’Arte… a form of theatre popular in 16th and 17th century Italy characterized by stock characters, often wearing distinctive masks, who acted out standard plot outlines (scenarios) usually improvising the texts. Literally, it means comedy (Commedia) of the professional guilds or artists (dell’Arte). Its popularity in Renaissance Europe can be attributed to the unusual and special qualities of the actors who were acrobats, dancers, musicians, orators, quick wits, improvisators, and psychologists, possessing a thorough knowledge of human nature. The populace loved the stock characters and their antics. They were traveling wagonloads of actors. Each traveling team would have the same stock characters, like a soap opera. So, if a new wagonload of actors came through several months later, everyone was acquainted with the characters. Most Commedia troupes performed outdoors in city and town piazzas on stage structures, which they brought with them, carried in carts with their equipment, props, costumes, curtains, and ladders. The stages were usually built high (up to 2 meters), so that spectators had an unobstructed view of the action, and allowing for a storage area and change room underneath. The importance of these typical stage characters, which enjoyed at least four centuries of popularity on the European boards, lies in the influence, which they exerted upon the superior dramatists of a later time.

The Italians had the character of Harlequin (remember his multi colored outfit? Harlequin, a poor character, wearing a colorful patched costume, the patches probably remnants of richer costumes) and the Zanies.

The French, their rivals, had Pierot – the son of a baker who had ‘flour’ on his face and a tear streaming from one eye…he was perpetually lovesick. It was from this character that the white face evolved.

The difference between clown face and mime face:

  • Clowns – you never see flesh color, they are white all over, completely covered. From head to toe, they embody their character. Therefore, they cannot change character. Clown faces are copyrighted!
  • Mimes – makeup is used only to create a ‘mask’. Most times their mask is neutral, thereby allowing them to portray many characters – both male and female – without having to change. When creating your mask, work with your features, not against them. Some cultures are freaked out by white face, it means death to some…be sensitive.

If learning about makeup or costuming has sparked your interest, there are many books in the library, or websites available, to further study out these topics. You can learn how to make prosthetics, character wigs, sew and design period costumes, make patterns and more – all online or from a book.  Have fun!


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