Costumers Are More Psychologists than Designers

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Feature film costume designer Shay Cunliffe has shed light on some of the role of her profession when confronting clashing creatives in the film industry as well as the vulnerabilities of many actors.

She trained at the University of Bristol in England and began her design career in the New York theater. Her first job as costume designer was on Mrs. Soffel starring Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson. Cunliffe later worked with Gibson on his directorial debut, The Man Without a Face, and with Keaton on several projects including The Family Stone. Her more recent credits include 2012 and the Fifty Shades of Grey sequels as well as the upcoming film The Book Club.

Cunliffe told SheKnows about designing for leading Hollywood celebrities and the way the costume design industry is changing thanks to movements like #MeToo and body positivity. However what stood out from the interview was her focus on the political and psychological aspects of costume that require very careful negotiations in order to form a productive outcome when dealing with actors who hold different views of what their character should wear.

I’m a parent, and that’s certainly made me a better costume designer

“You cannot argue with someone you’re collaborating with. All you can do is say why you think one thing is better than another. I will humor them,” she said. “So, if they propose to me something I think is not a good idea, it’s very time-consuming and sometimes wasteful of money, but you have to let it play out. I will prepare what I think it should be and I will also prepare the thing they think it should be and we’ll get together and try it on. I photograph everything so I create a folder of all the looks we tried on in the fitting. And hopefully, you sit down and you say, ‘You know, you’re idea was interesting, but it doesn’t quite feel like it belongs in this movie,’ or ‘It doesn’t feel right for this scene, and this is why I think so.’ And, most of the time, they will actually say, ‘Yeah, you’re right.'”

“But if you had tried to stop the conversation, I think you would have failed. So costume designers are the most diplomatic and patient of the collaborators in the process. We joke among ourselves that we’re more psychologists than designers some of the time. You know, I’m a parent, and that’s certainly made me a better designer.”

A vulnerable moment

“I realize for many actors, it’s a very vulnerable moment,” she said. “They hardly know you. They met you five minutes earlier and you’re going to say, ‘OK, let’s take off your clothes and try some things on.’ It’s very anxious-making, particularly if they’ve had a hard time finding the right look for themselves. They’re having to trust you. And you have to be very nonconfrontational and let them know you’re not there to criticize. You’re there to collectively come up with something that is great on all fronts… A costume is also a psychological thing. It’s not just literally the clothes they’re wearing. It’s how are they feeling in that scene. So that’s been a hard lesson. It’s been one that’s involved some wasting of money and time, but I realize if they’ve got it in their mind that it’s not right for them, let it go. Try something else. There are always many ways to say the same thing.”

Header image: Fifty Shades of Grey, Universal.