How you can turn any school subject into a costume focused study

I have received a number of emails lately from students in High School school  and university who want to study costume design, but can’t find, or afford a program that is costume oriented.

They want to know what they should focus on now in order to get into a better program, or their next school, or if they can even BE a designer if they don’t know x,y, or z.

So I thought I would make a beginning list from each subject to show just how easy it is to further your costuming skills, while learning the standard curriculum.

Consider these as research projects when you are assigned a paper.

I have  not included the obvious subjects of drawing, painting, literature, and home economics. You should have figured that out already.


  • How do you calculate simple shapes? (circle skirts?  Swags?)
  • How do you calculate yardage in a foreign country (one that uses meters instead of yards)?


  • What are the different muscles in the body, and how do they function?  Consider how fabric pulled tight against them will look (sketch it out).
  • How do fat cells work, and how does that affect movement?
  • How does the body age?  What happens to various body parts?


  • How do different dyes affect different materials.  What happens when you add a base, or an alkaline wash?
  • What are the chemical properties of wool? Cotton? Silk? Polyester?


  • What are the physics principles involved in making yarn? (or thread)
  • What are the physical properties of different fibers in fabric?  How do they behave differently to different stresses?
  • How do light waves affect your perception of color?


  • Why do good people do bad things?
  • What could cause a woman to kill her own children? (Electra, or any of the other Greek myths are loaded with questions for this subject!)
  • How do I positively approach actors who are inherently overly body-conscious in a way that encourages them, rather than makes them feel insecure?
  • How can I be the best possible contributor to the collaborative project that is theatre?


  • Traditional costumes, fashion history, French theater in the 1960s are all great topics.


  • Traditional costume, native south American costume, Spanish inquisition attire, Spanish dancing (history of dress) are ideas for topics.


  • Traditional costume, traditional handicrafts (lace making, embroidery, etc), WW2 uniforms just to mention a few.


  • Silk and the silk trade, traditional costumes, opera costumes


  • How do the intricate patterns present in Arab buildings and art translate (or not) into clothing?
  • How does Islam work in the context of dress? (Think outside of just berkas to the more secularized Arab cultures. Eg. Lebanon.)


  • How do you take something from 2D to 3D?
  • How do you sketch a 3 dimensional idea that is in your head?


  • How does music affect the mood of the audience?  Is a story told through music?  How could you visualize that?


  • Pick a time and place and learn about how people lived.  What they wore, what they did, what materials were available.


  • How does the fashion industry create jobs?
  • What are the economics that go into producing a pair of shoes?
  • What are the economics of a major broadway show vs one produced off-off-off Broadway?


  • What is the history of priestly vestments?
  • How do images of the Hindu gods impact religion?
  • Why do the Amish wear old-timey clothes?
  • What is the symbolism behind Hasidic dress?

Physical Education

  • What does a sculpted body look like?
  • What types of clothes are most comfortable for movement?
  • Can you study various dances?


  • How do those without money treat clothing?  How is it the same, or different from those with lots of money?
  • How does what you do, or where you come from affect the way you dress?


  • What have people used in the past to cover themselves?
  • How have we inherited or incorporated old (and at the time practical or necessary) conventions into our dress that today are unnecessary?

I did not take all of these subjects in college myself, but you get the idea!

Where I really pushed this idea into practice was with art history.  I wrote the final paper on the similarities between rococo painting and the exuberance of 18th century dress.  Yes, more typical than some others listed here, but I also wrote a paper for marine biology on the color patterns of a certain marine snail.

What are some creative term papers or projects you have come up with?  Please share!

Written by: Jessica Risser-Milne

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