Thursday, 4 October 2012

Building a Costume - Part 1 - The Cost of a Costume

How much does a costume cost?

This is a question I hear nearly every day... and it's still the hardest one to answer.

There are so many factors involved in creating a costume that it's almost impossible to reply to this question without a long list of questions in response.

Design ideas, performance requirements, design complexity, materials, embellishments, time limits... these are only a few of the elements that affect the price of a costume, and that's before you add up the number of hours involved (which must be charged for if the costumier is to make a living).

I decided a while ago that i'd write a series of blog posts about this subject, but kept putting it off because it seemed such a daunting task to tackle (much like working out a costume quote!), but today is as good a day as any to begin, so here we go.

Please note that these opinions are my own and are by no means the opinions of every other costumier ;)

Part 1 - Requesting a quote

Let's say you have a show coming up in a couple of month's time and you want a brand spankin' new costume for the event.  You've seen some pictures online that you like and you've chosen the costumier who you'd like work with... What next?

The best thing to do is to gather your ideas together so you'll be able to give the costumier a general idea of what you want. 

There are even some handy online tools that can help when compiling your ideas visually: Pinterest, Evernote, and Polyvore are all free and pretty easy to use. 

 Sketches, reference photos, video links etc are all very useful to your costumier.  It's ok to reference other performers as inspiration, but keep in mind that most costumiers won't be too keen on making you a direct copy of another performer's (or designer's) costume, as that's plagiarism.. and just downright uncool.

Be honest about your budget

One last piece of information that you should most definitely share with your costumier is your budget.
It's really important that you let them know how much (or little) you can afford to spend.  If the costumier doesn't know what your price range is, then they can't tailor the costume to suit your needs.
If the costumier knows up-front what you are willing to spend, then they'll know exactly how much to allocate to fabrics and trims and how much time/labour is allowed for etc.
And be honest with them - if your budget is low, then they may be able to offer suggestions for alternatives and work out how to give you the most bang for your buck.

If you're worried that the costumier might try to rip you off by charging you as much as you can possibly afford without really following through on value for money, then do a little online research and look at their work.  Facebook, Twitter, Etsy etc are all great tools for checking up on potential costumiers.

Preparing the quote

Once your costumier has an idea of what your costume will involve, it's time to work out a quote.
Preparing a quote can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 days (or more!), depending on the elements of the costume.  Even sourcing the perfect materials can take time - I once spent over 20 hours searching the internet for a specific trim to use on a client's costume, but it was worth it to get the right look ;)

The costumier will need to estimate the cost of the materials required and the number of hours it will take to complete the garment, as well as all the extra elements that go along with running a business.
People often forget that the cost of rent, power, phone/internet, insurance, equipment etc are all essential ingredients and must be accounted for when your costumier charges for their service.

Sourcing fabrics and drafting patterns is only a small part of creating a costume

Some costumiers will charge a fee for preparing a quote, as it involves a fair amount of time (and time is money).  This fee may or may not be applied to your final costume price - every costumier works in their own way.

Is your costume made-to-measure or ready-to-wear?

If your costumier makes their garments from scratch, then the cost will naturally be much higher than if the garments are bought ready-made and then embellished.

A custom-made garment involves planning, sampling fabrics and trims, measurements, drafting a pattern, sewing up a toile (mock-up) of the pattern to test the fit, altering (if required), possibly repeating these two steps a few times in order to get the pattern perfect... and only then does the actual garment construction begin.
If you and your costumier are in a different cities (or countries, as is often the case), then the toile will sometimes be sent back and forth a number of times - so the cost of shipping must also be added to the quote.

A costume made using ready-to-wear garments will be lower priced, and usually a bit faster than made-to-measure.  This type of costume will often begin with plain base garments (Bra, Corset, Panties etc) which the costumer will then decorate with various fabrics and trims.
This is a great option if your budget won't stretch to a custom-made outfit or if you only want the costume for a one-off event.

Custom-made isn't actually expensive... mass-produced is just really cheap

Most of us don't often stop to think about how much time and money went in to making the things we use every day.
Take your shoes for example:  Someone (or more likely a number of people) took the time to design the style, create a pattern, prototype it, source the materials, arrange the manufacturing, market the product and then make the sale.  You may have bought the shoes for $50, but it took hundreds or even thousands of dollars to get the shoe to that point.

A large scale manufacturer will easily sell a hundred, a thousand, even ten thousand of a particular item, and can therefore spread the cost of the development so thinly that each item costs only a few dollars at the wholesale level.

When a costume is made to order, the costumier will need to recover most of the associated costs we've discussed so far in that one item, and all these things must be taken into account when preparing a quote.
That's a basic difference between the price of a custom-made garment vs a mass-produced one.

But don't let this scare you away, it may not be as expensive as you think...

If a one-of-a-kind costume is something that you want, then just go ahead and contact your favorite costumier.  Now that you have an understanding of what goes into a costume, you might just be surprised at how reasonable the prices really are!
Many costumiers will allow you to pay for your costume in installments, but be prepared to pay a deposit up-front before they begin working on your design - as we've discussed already, there's a lot of work involved before anything reaches the sewing machine ;)

Choosing your costumier

There are so many costumiers out there these days, each with their own unique aesthetic.  Search the internet, ask other performers who they use.. it never hurts to ask for referrals. 
Check them out on Facebook and see if people are leaving happy or unhappy comments on their page..  Do they have lots of pictures online that you can look at - particularly pictures that show the costume being worn by a person?
What is their policy regarding changes/alterations if the finished costume doesn't fit or breaks when you wear it? 
Take your time and do a little research, and you're sure to find a costumier who shares your vision!

Whew!  So much has already gone into creating this costume and we're only just getting started!
It's becoming apparent that the price of your costume is more than just the cost of fabric and rhinestones.

Tune in next time for Part 2 - Fabrics and embellishments: The wonderful world of sparkly stuff!

Further reading:

Here's a great article about the differences between a good quality corset and a cheap knock-off, courtesy of the Lingerie Addict blog.
This is not to say that all mass-produced garments are bad, but it really shows why the knock-off costs so much less than the hand-made piece.


  1. This was really interesting! Thanks for sharing The Lingerie Addict with your readers. :)

    1. Thanks for reading it Cora, and thank YOU for your fantastic blog! :)