Technical Theatre

Basic Costume Items Every Drama Student Should Own

Basic costume items every drama student should own
Written by Kerry Hishon

Getting to try on a new costume for the first time is one of every student’s favourite parts of the rehearsal process. A costume helps so much to tell the story of the show, and helps students really become their characters. But before that, it is useful for students to have the following costume basics in their possession.

The following items should be staples in every drama student’s closet.

1. A plain black long-sleeved shirt and plain black dress pants

These are called “rehearsal blacks,” and in many cases, can be used as actual costume pieces either together or separately. The purpose of rehearsal blacks is to create a blank, neutral canvas for the actors so they can truly embody the character without having their personal choice of clothing influence their performance, intentionally or not.

The shirt can be a button-down or a long-sleeved t-shirt. Long sleeves are preferable over short sleeves, as they cover more of the body and make students look more neutral.

The type of pants will depend on the preference or requirements of the teacher or director. Some directors will permit black jeans, yoga pants, leggings, or athletic/sweatpants, but, personally, I think dress pants look the best onstage. Try to find pants with a bit of stretch to allow for movement. If students choose to wear leggings or yoga pants, be sure to check that they are not sheer or see-through under the stage lights!

This should go without saying, but any basic costume items should be logo-free. Try to acquire clothing without visible logos. But if it is impossible, cover up the logos with a small piece of black gaff tape. Avoid details such as stripes, dots, and glitter. Even if the designs are black-on-black, they are still visible onstage underneath stage lighting.

2. A plain white long-sleeved dress shirt with buttons and a collar

A crisp white dress shirt has so many uses – it’s great for portraying a businessperson, a server in a restaurant, wearing under a suit or for any formal occasion, and much more. It can also be worn dressed down with jeans, open over a fun t-shirt, or even as a beach cover-up.

Make sure the dress shirt is clean! If it gets weird stains around the collar, cuffs, or armpits, it’s time to replace it!

3. Appropriate undergarments

For the gentlemen, a plain white T-shirt or undershirt and neutral-coloured boxer shorts. For the ladies, a skin-tone bra, bandeau, or undershirt, and neutral-coloured dance or yoga shorts. Black shorts are generally appropriate and easiest to acquire, but it will depend on what colour the student’s costume is. Black wouldn’t work underneath a light-coloured pair of trousers.

Nothing is worse that seeing visible undergarments under a beautiful costume, and wearing a layer of basic, appropriate undergarments will also preserve students’ modesty if they need to make a quick change. Again, students should stick to plain colours and avoid large prints or logos.

4. A plain leather (or leather-looking) belt

It can be black or brown, depending on the rest of the costume. Having a belt is useful if a student is using a sword onstage, or simply for holding up their pants.

5. Plain black dress shoes for everyone!

For the gentlemen, lace-up shoes are probably the most versatile. Slip-ons or shoes with buckles can be appropriate for certain shows but can look too modern for shows set in earlier time periods. And don’t forget a pair of tall, plain black dress socks. Socks should match the shoes, and they need to be tall so audiences don’t see bare ankles – especially if the student is wearing a suit! Leave the athletic socks and ankle socks at home!

For the ladies, “character shoes” are the most frequently requested by directors. These are a flexible, heeled dance shoe with a strap (Mary Jane style, t-strap, or cross strap) and they come in black or tan. It’s important to note that character shoes should never be worn outside of the theatre or dance studio – they are specifically made to be worn indoors and don’t hold up well on asphalt or concrete. Depending on the show, a simple black flat shoe may also be acceptable.

For younger students or certain shows with lots of movement, black slip-on jazz shoes or black tennis-style shoes may also work. When in doubt, students should always ask the teacher before making a purchase!

Please note that these items need not be expensive. Families may initially be concerned about the cost, especially if their student is still growing, but the majority of these items can be found at department stores, big box stores, or thrift stores. Focus on finding neutral and durable items that can withstand sweat and lots of movement.

Recap:
  • Basic, neutral costume items are staple items in drama students’ closets!
  • Select items that are plain (stay away from patterns and glitter) and avoid visible logos.
  • Keep basic costume items clean – once an item start to get worn or weird stains appear around collars, cuffs, and armpits, the item needs to be replaced.
  • Be aware of what colour the costume is when choosing undergarments so they don’t show through the material.
  • If students are unsure as to whether or not an item is acceptable, be sure to ask the teacher before purchasing the item.
Click here for a free costume basics checklist for your students!

Kerry Hishon is a director, actor, writer and stage combatant from London, Ontario, Canada. She blogs at www.kerryhishon.com.

About the author

Kerry Hishon

Kerry Hishon is a director, actor, writer and stage combatant from London, Ontario, Canada. View her blog at www.kerryhishon.com.