Mise en Scene: Matching Costuming to Environment

Mise en scene is the make-up of your frame-the information you convey and what the effect of it is. That will tell the audience not only where and when your story takes place, but it will tell them how they should feel about it. Actors, props and action are all part of mise en scene, but so is wardrobe.

Much of creating a project involves character, plotting, scheduling and direction, but when thinking about matching costuming to setting, consider your project in broader aspects. That is, what is it really about? What's your message? Costume as an element of mise en scene is extremely valuable for that.

An Agreement With The Audience

When someone tells a story, the audience has certain expectations. On their part, they come in as part of an agreement called a suspension of disbelief. That means that they willingly suspend their disbelief (or doubt,) knowing that you are telling a story. They'll willingly go along with you-provided you do your part and don't betray their trust by making simple mistakes that take them unnecessarily out of the story.

For Story

Generally, it's critical to match costumes with environment and that includes not only geographic settings, but time settings, too. Hollywood is painstaking in matching costumes correctly to environment. If a detective show has a contemporary New York cop in a uniform that is actually for Los Angeles or Boston, anyone in the audience who has been to any of those three cities (and encountered a police officer) will know that the wardrobe people didn't do their homework. That sort of mistake is unsettling for many reasons. The biggest reason is that it will unnecessarily take the audience member out of the story.

For Tone

Think about the tone of your story. It may be bright or dark, it may be complex or simple, but you need to know the tone of the story you are telling. With that, be consistent in your wardrobe to tell the story in the right tone with the right costumes. If you're making a serious, heart-wrenching romance in 17th century England, but, when the ballroom scene comes up, you put your heroine in a bright orange gown and your hero wears a lime green leisure suit, you'll destroy the tone and you'll lose your audience. That's an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. Make sure your costumes are consistent with your story, tone and environment.

Just as there are rules, there are exceptions. If you're making an absurdist comedy and you want to show a character looking ridiculous, perhaps that bright orange ball gown would be appropriate. However, exceptions are effective when set against the norm. If a character is a New York City cop and he's traveling through time to solve a crime in the past-or the future-the fact that his uniform stands out as being from the wrong time, that could be valuable. As the old adage warns, you must first know the rules before you can break them. Nonetheless, if you do break the rules, do it knowingly and realize not only what effect it may have, but also that it may backfire.