The design of professional movie costumes, even for a simple, contemporary film, takes a lot of skill and thought. Costumes are sometimes made available for display or purchase after a film shoot and people are often surprised at the choices used in their construction. It's still called "movie magic" for a reason!
Origins of the Professional Movie Costume
Movie costumes were originally created by theatre experts and many were simply recycled from Broadway productions. As film became more sophisticated, however, costumers realized they had to create something that would work on screen. A number of considerations were involved, such as what a fabric would look like under bright lights, how it worked on a performer's skin and how it contrasted against the rest of the set.
For the years when films were only in black and white, a fabric's texture was considered one of the most important elements in creating a professional movie costume. Color was more important at that time than you might think, because they translated very differently to the silver screen. Many costumers who were the best in their field were disappointed when all films went to color, as it meant they could no longer play with texture in the same way. Period costumes continue to walk a fine line with being accurate to the time being portrayed and being flattering to the actors wearing them. It can be laughable to historians to look at old movies and see what passes for the costume of a particular era. This is especially true with fabrics. The classic Errol Flynn-starring The Adventures of Robin Hood has Maid Marian (played by Olivia de Havilland) wearing shimmering, sparkly fabrics that are pure 1938 and even in their cuts bear only the slightest resemblance to medieval costume. But even purists don't care, because they still look absolutely fantastic.
Making Movie Costumes
It takes more than just having excellent sewing skills to make professional movie costumes. You have to love research, be inventive, have strong drawing ability, work fast towards deadlines and be able to communicate and cooperate with a lot of personalities. You also have to understand character. If it can be said that "the clothes make the man," it is true then in film, that the costume makes the character. When Sandy Powell, Oscar-winning costumer for Shakespeare in Love told actor Geoffrey Rush that his character was a "one-suit man," Rush found it gave him a lot of insight into the man and how to play him. Even on a low-budget, modern movie, a costumer must still be able to choose items that fit a character's personality and style. It's an art that takes a lot of commitment to learn.
Buying and Collecting Costumes
During the days of the classic studio system, costumes were archived and stored for many years. They were sometimes used again, or made available for rent. As the studios disassembled, costume warehouses were emptied at eagerly attended auctions. Many famous costumes went to museums - Dorothy's ruby red slippers have long been on display at the Smithsonian.
It used to be that if you wanted to buy costumes from a recent film, you had to be in Los Angeles, but now many shops have an online presence. If you're looking for something in particular, try Premiere Props, which sells both props and costumes, almost exclusively from the most recent releases. For better pieces, however, you still have to keep an eye out for auctions. There are still major Hollywood auctions that the public can attend, just be prepared to bid high for something special. If you're lucky enough to win the collectible costume you want, consult an archivist for storage tips, as this is something you'll want to keep in top condition forever.