Film & TV

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.

The most important classes for me were chapters 17, 18 and 19.   The most valuable teaching is that if I do not have a clear technique and I do not learn my lines very well, then it is impossible for my talent to be shown because I will not be able to consentrate imagining and living the moment of the character, but in what happens in the set and in the line that I have to say later.

So far so good. I like her simplicity & authenticity. I am seeing how she is connecting with me, eventhough she is speaking to lights in the dark

Helen is a fabulous Acting Coach! Very informative. I understand and appreciate the level of attention to detail that it takes to create ones role.

Helen is great. Listening to her has been invaluable. Thank you Helen. M


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

Nicole B.

Wow! I was blown away by how much a costume can say about something. from the way you wear your belt to the kind of shoes that you need. Thank you Hellen

Beez M.

As a costume designer I BEG you not to wrinkle your wardrobe without first consulting your designer or set costumer. Great thought goes into these choices on BOTH sides. Helen Mirren can step on her costume or wrap it around her pinky if she chooses- because she's Helen Mirren and we love her. Until you reach her status PLEASE don't do this on your own.

R.G. R.

I like her emphasis on costumes and their importance. According to the great acting teacher, Stella Adler, costume does exactly what Mirren suggests. According to Adler, ". . . the costume is a whole creative point of identification." "Costume is more creative than the emotion, much more than the words." I'm not sure if I'd go that far in attributing costume to the level of that importance, but as Mirren, suggests, it can make an important difference in understanding your character.

A fellow student

This is a great course. I didn't realize there was so much to learn in acting. When we first meet especially between men and women we play a game an acting game with each other. Yet in Creation Adam immediately told Eve who she was and why they were to be together. Studying Romeo and Juliet he says exactly what he wants comparing her to a Saint; and he a pilgrim to kiss her. Shakespeare recognizes true love needs to know that love is divine. That's my monologue. .


The Addams Family (1991), which spun from a 1960's sitcom, won an Oscar for Costume Design. It was a comedy-fantasy/horror, where the eccentric costume designs could actually have changed the fashion world. Slicked back hair, tuxedos, slinky black dresses, perplexed school children clothing like uniforms was creepy but friendly and fun. Everyone seemed to have perfect posture even Pugsley. We loved them all. A family of statue and not The Jones. Details matter... button, stripes, colors, etc... Their costume and set design didn't change the nation at a time computers started a chain reaction and it completely could have... That's sad to me. Great class.

Michael O.

As a director, I very often have no costume design concept other than a generalized period. I also write screenplays - the best of my writing comes out the vividness of my vision, and it is almost always grounded in what the character sounds like. That costume has so much subtext, a language if you will, should have been obvious to someone who has spent a lifetime in the theatre. And here it is! Thank you Ms Mirren.

Grace C.

I really enjoyed this lesson! It's crazy to think about something as simple as the thing you're wearing affecting how you act.


This was an amazing class! Very informative to me. I never before thought so much went into costume designing. Thank you Helen.