Catherine Charpentier is a member of the Motion Picture Costumers union who has worked on major productions like Man in the High Castle, American Idol, Epic Rap Battles of History, A Christmas Story Live, and at one of Los Angeles’s largest costuming houses. We spoke to her about her work and fashion in general.
Tell us about your job.
I am a costumer. I like to call costumers translators. We usually work with a costume designer, and we are the people who bring the costume designer’s vision to life by finding fabrics. Costumers are also sometimes the illustrators—the illustrator for Black Panther is in the same union as I am.
It’s our job to physically build the clothing that you’ll see on TV and film. Some costumers get sketches and fabrics and build the custom clothing to fit the actor and bring that vision to actual life.
What do you focus on?
A lot of what I do is on set. If a strap breaks, I help stitch that up or put a piece of double stick tape on it.
I also help shop for a lot of clothing. That’s my real focus: to be more of the shopping side of things. Eventually, I would love to start sourcing fabrics, but that is definitely a role that you have to kind of work your way up to.
How are all those costumes created? What’s the process like?
The director will work with a production designer, who is the person in charge of the entire scene. When you watch anything on TV or film, everything from any pencils or pens on somebody’s desk to the eyeglasses they might be wearing is something that has been discussed prior with the production designer, and usually the costume designer as well.
And then we have somebody in our world, who’s usually our costume supervisor, whose role is to read the script and and say, Well, to find 150 head-to-toe outfits from the 1920s, here’s what you’re looking at for that budget. And then the discussion can ensue from there. Sometimes, the director will actually change the script or CGI people instead.
And then we, as costumers, get our marching orders from both our supervisor and the designer. We’ll scour all of our resources here in Los Angeles.
Where do you find all those costumes, especially the ones that have to be historically accurate?
We have a number of very large costume houses. One of the ones I worked at is nine square miles of clothing. And it is our job to then scour these costume houses and pull pieces that fit the costume designer’s vision.
Most of the things that I’ve done have been in period and vintage clothing. That is where my background is and that’s where my passions lie. So sometimes for work I get to go to vintage shopping fairs and make connections with vintage dealers around the Los Angeles area.
Sometimes we go to some of the fabric houses, too. Los Angeles has an entire area downtown called the Fashion District and there are certain fabric houses that only work with professional designers and productions. We can get fabrics there that are genuine from the 1950s—or sometimes you can find bolts of fabric from the 1940s or ’30s. It’s definitely more rare.
It kind of all turns into a treasure hunt.
How do you make sure what you’re buying is historically accurate?
This is where some of background knowledge comes in. We will do a lot of initial research.
One of the things that I did with Live By Night, a gangster movie that Ben Affleck directed, was to spend a week looking at images of 1930s gangsters and looking at the way they were dressing when they were down in Florida versus the way they were dressing when they were in Boston versus Chicago gangsters.
We actually looked for a lot of those mundane images like people sitting on a couch holding their dog, or any really good nuggets that may show the way that somebody tied their scarf, or the way they might have left a button open, especially if you’re doing a true story. With something like The Queen [about England’s Queen Elizabeth II] or Darkest Hour [about England’s 1940s Prime Minister Winston Churchill], we really try and become detectives, where we’re looking at every single tiny little aspect of the way that person presented themselves.
Why are those details important?
I like to think it also helps the actor to also embody that clothing. That’s something that Jacqueline West, the Designer of Live By Night mentioned: when she puts the clothing on the actor, she’s seen them stand differently. She’s seen they walk differently. Sometimes they’ll even start to talk differently. And some method actors will not take their costume off. They might just keep it on and spend a little extra time walking around and just becoming that person.