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Arts & Entertainment

Creating Characters: Costume, Part 1

Helen Mirren

Lesson time 22:37 min

Helen has a deep enthusiasm for costume. She walks you through how various costumes serve the characters who wear them and how to make more thoughtful choices about what your characters wear.

Helen Mirren
Teaches Acting
In 28 lessons, the Oscar, Golden Globe, Tony, and Emmy winner teaches her process for acting on the stage and screen.
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Costume, what an incredible, powerful tool that is for us actors to have available to us. Here I am in an 18th century costume. This is a costume that I have. This period, I've worn before. It's a period I love. But it's not just the period of the costume, but it's also what this particular costume is saying. I was looking at this and thinking, you know what? A costume like that on a woman of my age means that this is a character who is desperately trying to look younger than she really is. You've got a whole little girly thing going on with it, with the little frills, and the little ruffles, and the little bows, and the colors of it, the pink and the green, and it's all very Little Bo Peep-y. So it's not just the fact that you're wearing a period costume, which of course, says an enormous amount-- the hair, which is so fantastic-- but also exactly what within that period the story that the costume is telling. And I want to talk about the stories that costumes tell. So now, we're in the world of costume, and this is a world that I love. It's the first building block in your character. So when I go to the costume designer, and we have our first costume fitting, I usually have an idea of the look I want, or the colors, or the type of costume. And then, of course, I'm open to the ideas of the costume designer, because often they have their own ideas. In a blessed world, your two ideas are basically the same. That's often the case. Sometimes you're at odds with each other, and then you can talk through it, and discuss it, and find a common ground. I'm starting with this costume, which, when you look at all of them, is by far the plainest. Don't be afraid of looking dowdy, of looking plain. Number one, your costume absolutely must serve your character and nothing else, not your vanity, not how pretty you are, or how fat you are, or how thin you are. Just serve your character. Once it serves your character then you can say, maybe it'd be a little bit more in the waist. Make me a little bit thinner. But primarily, it's got to serve the character. This is very similar to the costume that I wore in Gosford Park. I was playing the housekeeper. Very, very dowdy, absolutely no vanity whatsoever in the costume. But the great thing about a costume like this is what happens up here. Your character can flourish and can flower. You're not playing the costume. The costume is really serving you, and your character is given its fullest expression. Now, we look at something like this. Different period-- actually, not so different period, come see it. That's kind of 30s. This is kind of 20s, so not far apart. But what a different world we're in here. We're in the world of party, of frilliness. I've never worn this costume, actually, or anything much like it, but I wanted to show it, because it's an indication of a comp...

Find freedom in your roles

In her first-ever online acting class, Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren shares the techniques she has learned through the course of her international career that has spanned stage, screen, and television. Her powerful and versatile performances have earned her numerous awards, including the Academy Award in 2007 for her performance in The Queen, a Tony Award in 2015 for her performance in The Audience, and four Emmy Awards.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I`ve learnt slot of technique that I will take with me throughout my career and often come back to.

Some really inspiring classes. And good advice.

Really enjoyed this session and learnt a lot about the process of acting. Dame Helen is an inspiration and a powerful, emotional story teller.

Helen was such a delight to learn from. Very educational and informative! Thanks again Masterclass!


A fellow student

Costume is to serve the character not one's vanity. Practicality for movement one will do. It's not just how the costume looks on the outside but also how it feels on the inside. Considering how the background looks to help determine the color of one's costume perspective.

Madeline E.

I never knew that as an actor you could have such an influence over your costume-interesting!

William D.

Just like Martial Arts, weapons are an extension of the practitioner, the same here. Costumes are an extension of the actor. Love this lesson. although I doubt i will ever wear a dress, (Although one never knows) this applies to either sex/gender. Fantastic stuff. Thank you for sharing your life with us.

Matthew B.

Hi Saw Your New Movie "The Good Liar" today Very Nice Work. Sexy outfits !! I can play melting butter on Mashed Potatoes

A fellow student

Cool insights. The wardrobe is an extension of the character. What the person thinks, acts, overacts, etc; it determines our personality in some way.

Emily O.

Great insight as to how costume helps the actor find character traits, quirks, and habits. Also, I wonder just when an actor gets enough clout that they are allowed to have input into the costuming of a character. For 99% of all (amateur) productions I've been in I've always been told what to wear. It would be nice to tell designers what direction to explore when they are creating a look based on YOUR interpretation of the character. Dame Mirren has certainly earned the ability to weigh in on such things.

R H.

An amazing lesson about how to use costume and what decisions to make about a character when wearing a costume, for example, the practicality and posture when wearing one. However, I do wish that there were more options for Men's clothing and how we should wear men's outfits, e.g how we should wear a suit in different situations, that is a fairly straightforward example but I hope you know what I mean, once again I have loved all of the lessons so far about acting and the industry. Thank you, Helen!


I sort of thought costume as a filmmaker is something I'm not that versed in, so this was a great help, as I explore the world of acting.

Andrea S.

Thank you so much for this. I often accepted the costume... and actually didn't feel good in it... or looked so differently from one scene to an other, because my face changed with the costumes...

GraceAnne E.

Loved this lesson. Details, details, important to notice them so they can enrich your character and performance. Thank you for this! <3