Did you know that we’re all judges? Consciously or sub-consciously we judge and categorize every person we encounter, based in great part on the clothes they are wearing.
By understanding this process of observation – and using it in reverse – I create costumes for characters in a script. The job of a costume designer is definitely part social psychologist: I watch people to evaluate how each person’s clothing functions in expressing his or her individual character and how that person fits into larger society. Armed with that information, I can help actors to build characters by dressing them in ways that will lead the audience to judge them as the script designates.
The process is similar when you dress to speak before an audience.
For me, one of the most interesting parts of costuming for TV and film is the wealth of information that can be conveyed by minute detail. Changing just one item of clothing or accessories can change the character. In a class I teach on the art of creating costumes, I play a game with the students called, “Who Am I Now? What Is My Story?” For this game, I wear a black turtleneck sweater and pants, pearl stud earrings and black low-heeled shoes.
During the first half hour of the class – while introducing myself and outlining the class – I change jackets. I begin with a turquoise, cotton casual jacket with large silver buttons. The students take notes on who they think I am, including what kind of job I have, how much money I make, where I live and what car I drive. Then I change to a more tailored red jacket and ask them to pay attention to the psychology of the color and style change. Who Am I Now? This has opened their eyes to the necessity of attention to detail.
Will you be speaking to inform, inspire or entertain? How you dress will depend on the general purpose of your speech. Here are some tips to help you:
Speak to Inform
When you speak to inform, you present information or technical concepts. First impressions count. You must establish your credibility in your particular field at first glance, whether you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or Jack Hanna with a Lemur on Good Morning America. I would be confused if I saw Jack Hanna in a suit and tie talking about endangered animals in the wilderness. No doubt that’s why he dresses for his presentations in clothing that highlight his expertise as a zoologist.
Your clothes speak. The goal is for the audience to understand that you are the expert and to accept your credibility. When you speak to inform, you want the audience to respect you and then take action. You are achieving an appearance of strength, power and leadership. This look helped me with my film costuming career. When I knew a day “on set” would be challenging, I dressed for power – usually in black with a sophisticated jacket and a striking accent of jewelry to draw focus to my face. In this way, I was able to do my job with less resistance from the strong personalities known to inhabit the film industry.
Speak to inspire
When you speak to inspire, you are telling a story that offers a point of view leading to change. Your goal when you dress is to break down any wall between you and the audience, while maintaining a powerful persona. You could be less formal, a little softer, and more conversational. That might run the gamut from a softened conservative look, such as a dark blue suit rather than a black suit; to the very casual fashion of Wayne Dyer, the expert in self-development; to the out there air of professional speaker Mikki Williams, whose style has been mentioned in this magazine.
Your clothes speak. When you speak to inspire, you want the audience to reach out to you, embrace your ideas and grow personally. Your goal is to be accessible, credible and authoritative.
More game playing. My third outfit in the “Who Am I Now? What Is My Story?” game is a moss green antique kimono. When the students complete their notes on the kimono-clad character, I add a psychic/hippy necklace and ask if the necklace changes – or confirms and clarifies – their description.
Speak to Entertain
When you speak to entertain you will be telling a story that you hope will grab the attention of the audience and add enjoyment to their day. There are two ways you can dress to tell the story. The rule in both cases is that the garments must be congruent with the story:
You might dress to suggest the setting of your story. Francis Hodge, Professor Emeritus of Directing, calls costumes “scenery on the move.” In a recent Toastmasters area contest, a young businessman told the story of his trip into a remote mountain area where his life was challenged. He was dressed in a suit, tie and dress shoes. He demonstrated the physical challenges and spoke of his fear. After the contest I talked with him about the idea of wearing casual clothes to better illustrate the story. Later, at the division contest, he told the same story but wore an oxford cloth, button down shirt – open at the neck with no tie. His sleeves were buttoned at the wrist. He wore tan khaki pants pressed with a crease and new hiking boots. He had taken my advice in a very interesting way. By wearing casual clothes he illustrated the setting of the story. By wearing them clean and neatly pressed he painted a picture of his day-to-day life, amplifying the fact that he had stepped out of his comfort zone and learned a life lesson. His choices told both sides of the story.
You might dress as the main character in the story. In a screenwriting class, I learned that each character must contribute to the outcome of the story. The same holds true for the garments and accessories you use as a costume for your speech: Each item contributes directly to the telling of the story and its outcome.
How Do You Choose the Garments?
Always consider three important guidelines when choosing what to wear for a presentation:
- The clothes should not take focus from you, the speaker.
- You need to be able to perform comfortably and effectively in the costume and accessories.
- The costume should not tell more story than you have time to present.
Once you’ve determined that the costume is appropriate, comfortable and fits your speaking needs, you’ll be ready for the next step. It’s time to weigh the effects of one or more of these design elements, whether you wish to suggest a setting or take on a character role:
Color – The color you use and the way you use it can create power, aggression, focus, humor, gentleness and many other emotions.
Color can create a positive or negative effect. On the TV show Hill Street Blues, I costumed the character of a young female drug addict. She lost her battle with drugs when she overdosed at the end of the third episode. The actress was a thin, frail-looking blonde. For her first change, I dressed her in washed-out tan, which was not her best color. To illustrate her decline I dressed her in dirty yellow and for the final episode in putrid yellow-green, each time making her appear closer to death.
Contrast – Contrast in shades of light and dark as well as the contrast between patterned and solid fabrics can create sophistication, exaggerated humor or low-grade bad taste. Medium- to large-size jewelry can also create contrast. Remember, small details are often not seen from the stage. And don’t forget, a speaker standing onstage, dressed completely in black, can look flat and two-dimensional – without contrast.
Focus – Focus should be kept near the head and gesture area, unless otherwise required by the story, as with Dorothy’s red shoes in the film The Wizard of Oz.
Line – The hard line created by the straight skirt of a woman’s business suit makes a very different statement than the soft line created by a three-tiered peasant skirt. For men, there is a vast difference between the hard line of a double-breasted suit and the soft line of a corduroy sport jacket worn open.
Exaggeration – Exaggerate with caution. It can be great and it can also overwhelm the speaker’s form, making him or her invisible.
A Delicate Balance – Each of these elements of design offer a range of choices from simplicity to complexity. I believe a degree of simplification along with focus should be considered even when the character is frilly, complex or exaggerated. Too many good ideas add too much!
Tips for Fine Tuning
Now that you have the basics, here’s how to perfect your style.
- If you wear a straight skirt on stage it is important, first, to check that your skirt hem is level. While checking your hem, be sure to wear the shoes you will wear with the skirt. Using a yardstick vertically from the floor to the bottom of the skirt, measure the hem length at five-inch intervals all the way around.
- Being seated on stage can cause modesty challenges. It helps if the skirt is an inch or two longer. When you are seated place one foot behind the other, hold your knees together and tilt them to the left or right. This creates a ladylike, modest appearance.
- Wearing shiny or dangling earrings may be distracting to the viewer. If you are physically animated, your speech can become a story about earrings. So limit the loops! Clanking bracelets and necklaces are distracting as well.
- Keep your hair off your face. When it falls forward, be aware that a segment of the audience cannot see your face. In the theater, this visibility is called “sight lines.” Don’t be disrespectful to the audience by obscuring your face.
- Cream-colored lipstick makes it difficult for the audience to see your lips. In most instances it also makes you look sick.
- Your tie choice is an opportunity to visually enhance your power, credibility, accessibility and creativity. The wrong tie could distract the audience or confuse their perception of who you are. The second-hand store is a good place to expand your collection of ties for a very nominal cost.
- Your tie should be tied so the point rests at the bottom of your belt buckle. If you have trouble tying the tie long enough you may need tall man ties, which are available at most department stores, in men’s clothing or the accessories department. Ask the sales-person for help choosing the correct tie length.
- When you are speaking and gesturing, your coat sleeves can appear short. If you do a lot of speaking it might be worth having one jacket or suit coat finished with the sleeves an inch longer than normal.
- The worst pant length is too short. In general, when you are standing, your socks should not be visible.
- Polished shoes and well-groomed nails are a plus.
As you can now see, there are many ways your clothing and jewelry choices affect your presentations. I challenge you – look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Who am I now...What is my story? Am I projecting the image of a person who is qualified to speak on this subject…Do I convey the story I want to tell?” Make educated, attentive choices. Decide to dress your part – and never be misjudged again!
Karen Hudson, ATMB, CL founded the Mindful Communicators club in Woodland Hills, California. She is a retired costumer in the film and TV industry and now teaches costuming. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Miked for Sound
If you’ll be wearing a microphone, your clothing and jewelry should be chosen with care to work with the equipment.
- The microphone will be placed in an area near your neckline. There should be no fabric or jewelry that could rub or bump on the microphone when you move. The microphone will pick up the scratching sounds of hard surface silk and polyester fabrics, nylon windbreaker jackets and plastic rain gear rubbing together.
- You will need a waist band, belt or pocket to carry the sound pack.