Both on stage and off, if a costume shows that it has just come off the sewing table it’s not going to do the character any justice. Until recently clothes were worn all the time for years at a time. Your coat was your outer-most layer to protect you from the elements and we weren’t all walking on tarmac every day. Our modern throw-away fashion and (mostly) fixed laundry routines mean we look pristine but to do a period character any justice you need to put those years of wear into a new garment. How would Lord of the Rings look if Aragorn always looked like a men’s magazine model? How many films can you name that have hillariously missed this consideration?
“Breaking down” is the term used to describe distressing costume items to make them look rugged and worn. Specialists in film and theatre have years of experience developing the most effective techniques – some complex but many also very simple like applying grass for grass stains. We cannot do justice to these experts but some basic methods and materials are absolute essentials.
When to break down a garment?
Breaking down a garment is a tough decision to make. While many of these processes are reversible (charcoal is meant to be a good washable medium) many are not. Nevertheless when questioning if about to break down a costume just a little bit the answer is nearly always yes. The very first step should be actually wearing a newly-made garment for obvious reasons but if you want to take it further these are some key considerations.
- Don’t break down an antique piece that’s in otherwise good condition.
- If the costume is for a working class person it should be broken down.
- Apart from a worn-once aristocratic ballgown you should always consider adding at least some weathering to the bottom of a long skirt or trousers.
- If you have just made the piece and want it to look worn and realistic then it needs some help.
- Outerwear like coats, capes and boots should be given the most wear.
- Steampunk always needs breaking down. You want to look like you’ve fallen out of a fantasy world of chaos rather than raiding a dressing up box.
A few spins in the wash can take the edge off the colour of a newly-made garment, or even the fabric before construction. When drying you can choose how wrinkled you want it from the ripples of a loose hang to the bunched creases of being left in a ball. For jackets that otherwise shouldn’t be washed this can also provide some slight shrinkage to make it look like it’s been worn through many storms.
Fullers Earth is the product you’ve probably heard of if you have ever considered distressing a costume. Ironically it is used for cosmetic face masks for making people look younger, as well as to make clothes look older! Simply put it is a ‘clean’ soil alternative. It is used by pyrotechnicians as it makes explosions look bigger and better than actual soil, while set decorators use it as dust and make up artists use it for grubbing up faces. This you simply mix with water and slather onto affected areas like the hems and knees of skirts and trousers.
One of the top-recommended suppliers is the Star Wars cosplay shop Trooperbay (left).
Puffbinder is an expanding texture gel you can use for all sorts of things. Traditionally it’s used for screen printing but that means it can be used to build up textures and create layers like mud or mould.
Spraying is a great way to gently build up layers of dirt. Use a light brown wash to gradually add age to a costume. A sponge can also be used for more absorbant surfaces like shirts just to tone down any bright white. Don’t rule out tea-staining and coffee granules to make some more obvious spills.
Dyes are an obvious way to change the colour of a cosplay item so it no longer looks pristine. Darker colours should be dyed lighter and light garments darker. You can apply by hand for patches or even use a wire brush for more texture. Again a popular option is to boil a few teabags in a large pan and submerge the entire garment.
Sandpaper and wire brush
Think of the areas that get the most wear like the knees and the edges of the fabric and put years of wear into them with abrasive surfaces. You’ll probably want a low-number coarse sandpaper to put very visible scratches into leather and fabric.
This is a good point to consider ripping as well – don’t wear or rip any area just for the sake of it. Really think where gets the most exposure and focus your efforts on those places. Don’t forget the back of the costume as well.
Remember that ripping is accidental, so while a craft knife with multiple attachments can be a great start to puncture the fabric you don’t want to be perfectly cutting each slit. You want to cuts to be ragged and frayed. Consider even using a cheese grater for really damaged patches.
Header image: Great Expectations, BBC.