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  • Writer's pictureKyla Little

From Rack to Reel

Clothes are the way you present yourself to the world; they affect the way the world feels and thinks about you; subconsciously they affect the way you feel and think about yourself.-Edith Head

More often than not, when I speak about my profession, the first question is, “how did you get into costuming?” Like many others in the industry, I thought acting was going to be my gateway. I went to The Governor’s School of North Carolina for acting in theatre, and was accepted into Western Carolina University’s BA program based on an audition. Little did I know, I was starting on the path to understanding character, the first integral part of costume design.

I began working in Western’s costume shop solely because I needed a work study job. At the time, Susan Brown-Struass was the Costume Design Professor. During my interview with her, I told her the only thing I had sewn before were pillows. She looked at me and said, “That’s okay! You’ll learn and it will be FABULOUS!” Her generosity and patience in showing me her craft completely enthralled me. The costume shop quickly became my home.

During that time, I began taking classes within the film department. Theatre was my first love, but there was just something about film that appealed to me. The thought that my art could be on the big screen gave me more euphoria than standing on the stage ever did. I designed the costumes for Around & Around, a student short film, and I was in love.

When designing costumes for theatre, you have to think about the practicality as well as the exaggeration. Actors have to be able to do their blocking (movement on stage as the director sees fit) throughout several weeks from tech to final performance. Audiences have to see your design intentions all the way from the back row. These costumes take a lot of wear and tear and aren’t always the most aesthetically pleasing close up. In film, costumes have to be real. They have to be exact. They have to be raw and beautiful because you never know when they’re going to do a close up. More than anything, audiences have to believe that this character would absolutely wear what you have put them in.

That is why costume design is a study in empathy. You have to, “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” You have to research the screenplay, the story, the time period, and socio-economic statuses. To be a costume designer is to be a historian with a rolodex of knowledge at any time. Not only that, but the art you create is displayed on other people’s bodies. There is a certain care and understanding of human anatomy that comes along with the design. My ultimate goal in my designs is to make sure the decisions are accurate for the character and that the actor can be comfortable enough to be able to do their job. The costume and the actor are the final two puzzle pieces right before the shot is taken.

Kyla adjusting an actor's costume on the set of HERO

Being the Costume Designer for the feature film, HERO, was such a tremendous experience for me. It was inspiring to be around so many artists, both professionals and students, that all shared in the collective passion to make a great film. I loved making my art a part of the greater vision. The director, Dustin Whitehead, the DP, Collin Henderson, the Production Designer, Jordan Postal, and I all had deep conversations, delving into the script and unpacking what kind of visual story we wanted to tell. It was amazing having the writer, Myles Isreal, on set at all times and as an actor. That way, we were all able to honor the story from start to finish. Because of this film, I have been able to grow in leadership, organization, style, and craft.

As I continue on my professional journey, I plan to keep improving my artistry and craft. One of my favorite aspects of costume design is that there is always something new to learn. I hope my curiosity and deeply integrated need to tell stories propels me forward and deeper into the film industry.

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