Artist Diana Haberstick has been working in the costume and production design industry for years, creating the costumes and physical environments for numerous film, TV, and theater productions. Her current project, a six-part miniseries about Navy SEALs for The History Channel, is loaded with extreme action shots that showcase her behind-the-scenes talents.
In the spirit of dressing up for Halloween, TreeHouse Arts’ Editor Natasha Ganes had a conversation with Diana Haberstick to find out more about what it takes to bring an idea to fruition and see it unfold across the stage.
Natasha Ganes: When did your interest in costumes begin? And how did you get your start in the industry?
Diana Haberstick: I started in theatre in Washington, D.C. as a child actor. Then in middle school, we were doing a musical about Tom Sawyer. I was absolutely certain that I should play the role of Tom’s girlfriend, Becky Thatcher. Well…THAT didn’t happen, but I did create a hysterically funny costume for my role as the “OLD LADY.” So that’s how my love for costuming started.
NG: You wear many hats in the costuming world – everything from set costumer to production designer and set decorator. What are the differences between these roles? Do you have some positions that you prefer over others?
DS: Design and applying design for theatre and motion media is about telling stories. So the designer, whether he’s the costume designer or production designer, is answering the question…what’s the essence of the story (or scene) and how will we relate it through the costumes, props, sets, etc.
The difference is in which mediums you use, the materials, the skills you need, and how they’re applied. In costuming, you’re working with actors, helping to portray character, dressing bodies and using mostly fabrics. For production design, you’re creating a physical environment, shaping space, and dealing with sets, furniture, objects, and other considerations in the art department. I don’t think I have a favorite. I’ll let you know when I decide.
NG: What does a typical day on set look like for you?
DS: A typical day starts very early, that is if you’ve slept at all. I actually don’t spend that much time on set because I’m usually working with the costumes needed for a subsequent scene. After the costumes have been rented, purchased or fabricated; the director approves them and you pass things off to the set costumer or set stylist. It’s their job to be sure everything comes off looking perfect. At the end of the day the work really does end up in their hands.
NG: Your Production HUB page mentions that you specialize in high action/extreme physicality costuming. Can you explain that category to us? How does it differ from other categories as it relates to the type of materials used and their durability? What are some of the other categories of costuming?
DS: Somehow I’ve ended up designing and costuming wardrobe for several extreme movement projects. I was the Set Seamstress for a ballroom dance scene for TURN: Washington’s Spies. When a ball gown rips during shooting, production halts; so just being fast and accurate is important.
Anything that will be worn during extreme movement has to be constructed very well, so it looks and feels secure. (The way it feels to the actor is important. A poor fit can become a distraction for them, and they need to focus on the action of scene.)
I’m working on a six-part miniseries about Navy SEALs right now that has lots of extreme movement and stunts. Because synthetics can melt if they catch fire, we use natural fabrics. Costumes have to be loose fitting enough to accommodate under-dressed stunt pads.
NG: What are the differences in the ways costumes are made and used between the stage and screen? Do you have a preference?
DS: Well the adage is: “On stage, it’s 30 feet away; on film it’s 30 feet wide.” So for TV and film in general, the details are a very important.
NG: Do you create costumes for yourself and/or family members? Say for Halloween or the likes? Do you enjoy dressing up for Halloween or are you more of a behind-the-scenes person?
DS: I used to love creating costumes for my children for Halloween. It’s a tradition my mom started. My brother and I never had store-bought costumes. My mom always created them from what we had at home. It was a unique challenge to see what she could create from “nothing.”
At Comic Con this year, I was blown away by the costumes cosplayers had created. I have to believe they enjoyed the process of bringing characters to life through clothing. I think making your own costume somehow brings the character closer to you. Its lots of fun, and something you can do with your friends and children.
NG: Tell us about one of the most memorable costumes you’ve designed. Do you have any favorite productions and/or sets?
DS: I love the Navy SEALs piece I’m working on now for the History Channel. It’s saddening, but at the same time rewarding to learn about military actions around the globe. The costumes really do reflect political movements, ideologies, and warfare tactics.
I’m a particular fan of age and distress work and love to see what our textile artist, Maybelle Pineda, does to impose the environment and circumstances on the costumes. She adds dust, dirt, and sweat so the costumes look real.
NG: Do you have any advice for those looking to break into the costume design business?
Ten Things You Can Do Now to Become a Costume Designer
- Take art lessons or art classes in school. Learn to sew.
- Start working in theatre as soon as you can and start making movies
- Travel, go to the theatre, opera, movies, fringe festival and concerts. Go to museums, and immerse yourself in the visual arts.
- Get your hands on fabrics and other materials and start creating costumes. Sketch and photograph them and create a portfolio.
- If you don’t have a project, create a costume for a storybook character set in an alternate universe.
- Be willing to volunteer for projects that interest you.
- Learn to be collaborative.
- Identify three to five designers whose work you admire and learn all you can about them and their process.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. Costume design takes trial and error.
- Don’t forget to write “thank you” notes.