Film & TV

Martin Scorsese’s Costume Design Tips

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 28, 2019 • 3 min read

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Martin Scorsese Teaches Filmmaking

Martin Scorsese was born in 1942 in New York City, and was raised in the neighborhood of Little Italy, which later provided the inspiration for several of his films. In five decades of Hollywood film production, Scorsese has written and directed some of the most classic, lasting, and iconic movies of all time (including a few that are considered the greatest films ever made).

He’s worked with major movie stars like Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day Lewis, and Liza Minnelli. He’s won all the major awards, and received several lifetime achievement awards for his contributions to cinema. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019) is the most recent of his work to generate buzz.



Martin Scorsese Teaches FilmmakingMartin Scorsese Teaches Filmmaking

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Martin Scorsese’s Costume Design Tips

Here are five costume design tips from Martin Scorsese:

  1. Strive for Total Accuracy in Period-Specific Films. When striving for a period-specific look, every last detail is important. Martin cites Luchino Visconti, the great Italian theater and film director who began working in the 1940s, who demanded accuracy, even down to the underwear—what you weren’t seeing on the screen was just as important as what you were seeing in the complete re-creation of the past.
  2. Use Character to Inform Costume Choice. Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver, and After Hours (1985) required costume design that was less theatrical and more in touch with the worlds the characters inhabited. In these kinds of productions, you need a costume designer that has a deep understanding of character. He or she needs to know where a character would shop for clothes and what kind of clothes a character might inherit. A costume designer must know which colors look right on a character, and then reconcile this with the colors suited to the actor playing the part and the color palette of the production design. Martin says that costume designers of modern film need a thorough comprehension of contemporary expression in dress.
  3. Let Your Actors’ Personal Experience Inspire the Costume. It’s often helpful to empower your actors to help shape their character. This can be especially true with costume design. Martin took his actors along to search for costumes for Mean Streets. Because he grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in a neighborhood near Martin’s, Robert De Niro already had an understanding of the people and culture of the area. His personal experience informed Johnny Boy’s look.
  4. Take Inspiration From Your Environment. In The King of Comedy, Martin had no idea what his protagonist Pupkin would wear. The costume ultimately came out of the actual environment in which the film took place, rather than being imposed on it. Martin, Robert De Niro, and Richard Bruno caught sight of a three-piece suit in the window of a store called Lew Magram, Shirtmaker to the Stars. The mannequin donning the suit even had the right hairstyle and mustache, and at once Martin knew this was Pupkin’s costume.
  5. When in Doubt, Trust Your Instincts. Sometimes, there’s no obvious direction for a character’s costume design. In these situations, it’s helpful to try out a variety of options and trust your instincts. For Raging Bull, Martin’s costume designer Richard Bruno brought in racks of vintage clothing, and De Niro tried on countless jackets. Finally, they settled on one jacket which became the basis of his character. Martin can’t quite put his finger on it, but something about the garment’s boldness, or perhaps the look of the jacket’s shoulders, made it the right fit for La Motta.

Want to Become a Better Filmmaker?

Whether you’re a budding director, screenwriter, or filmmaker, navigating the movie business requires plenty of practice and a healthy dose of patience. No one knows this better than legendary director Martin Scorsese, whose films have shaped movie history. In Martin Scorsese’s MasterClass on filmmaking, the Oscar winner deconstructs films and breaks down his craft, from storytelling to editing to working with actors.

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