Costume Designer Heather Pain on Being Eco-Friendly
November 19, 2020

“One day you’re in, and the next you’re out,” are the infamous words Heidi Klum used to tell designers on Project Runway. It’s the most succinct way to sum up how quickly the fashion industry changes.

And while this may be exciting for consumers, it is harmful for the environment. 

You might think, “Well, I don’t care about fashion or trends; I don’t contribute to this problem,” to which I would echo the infamous words of Meryl Streep from The Devil Wears Prada: “…[I]t’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.” And even if you don’t have on a lumpy, cerulean sweater like Anne Hathaway, it still holds true. If you wear clothes, you’re involved. 

Fashion is everywhere you look- from online ads to your favorite movies and TV shows. And it’s there perhaps, that we digest it the most without thinking about it. When a costume designer dresses a character, she influences both the industry AND the consumer.  

Patricia Fields of Sex and the City is the reason we all tried to wear tutus in the early 2000s. A costume designer is as crucial to telling the story as a writer because clothing informs the audience before an actress speaks her first line.  

So how do all these environmental considerations impact the costume design industry where it is literally their business to bring in new clothes for a shoot? I talked to Heather Pain, costume designer for Single Parents, Teachers, Those Who Can’t, and who received an Emmy nomination as an assistant costume designer on Grace and Frankie

Has the costume design industry made strides in being more environmentally conscious in practice? 

I feel as a costume designer, moving towards a more environmental conscious direction has been a little easier in recent years. I know clothing companies for years have offered better environmental practices, but more companies in the past 10-15 years are making it a part of their ad campaigns or part of their company mission statement. This makes it easy as a costume designer working in a very fast paced industry to identify these companies and make informed decisions. With the trend of fast fashion for so long, which is on the decline thankfully, fast fashion has made small strides in eco friendly clothing, [for] example H&M and sometimes Zara.  

When I started out 25 years ago, there was not a lot of talk about the end result of creating a character and the need for the clothing to be eco friendly, sustainable or ethically produced. But in the past 10-15 years, more and more designers, actors and producers understand and want to support companies that produce clothing supporting good environmental practices. 

What do you feel are some challenges in the film industry regarding being environmentally friendly in regards to costumes? 

One of the number one challenges is time. Everything moves so quickly in TV and film; unless, of course, you are on a nice size budget movie with plenty of prep time. Most costume designers are not so lucky with extra lead time and normally, late casting on actors happens too often, so that will limit on where you shop. I have found a lot of these clothing companies are online and have no time to order and ship, or you cannot find style and size for the character you are creating. 

If you are looking for environmentally friendly options, are there specific things or brands you look for?   

When I’m working on a contemporary show leaning towards more fashion, I find it easier to find pieces that fit in the eco friendly category.  I also consider thrifting eco friendly and [pull] from costume houses and do as much of that as I can for a character.  As a costume designer, my first step is, “What is the look of this character? Where would they shop?” If I’m able to achieve a look and still be responsible with how a garment is made and the contents, then that is a bonus.

Is there anything you do in the care of the clothes to prolong their longevity? 

I always ask my costumers to not wash pants, jeans or jackets til they feel it is needed.  I also ask for anything and everything to be cold water washed and not dry cleaned as much as possible. This helps preserve the color and shape of a garment the best.

Are there any fabrics/materials that you will not use or avoid using as much as possible? 

Fur. There is a lot of faux fur offered so I have not found it a challenge yet, but I have not designed a show yet that requires a lot of it. I do know the designer, Justine Seymour on Unorthodox, made the hats worn by the men out of faux fur. I was really impressed.

What happens to the clothes from a production when you are done with them? 

It is different from show to show. Some of the clothing goes to the network costume houses, [sometimes it is] stored til they sell it off.  There are several companies in LA that will purchase used wardrobe from shows and then resell to the public or other shows starting up. It is a great system and seems to be successful. I feel this is a great way to be responsible with how you dress your background artists if doing a contemporary TV show.

Is there any advice you could give to people at home on how to be more environmentally friendly in choosing clothes for longevity and repeated wear?

When you purchase clothes, buy key pieces that can be used over and over.  Also, take time to clean your closet out, revisit pieces you have not worn in a while and reuse in a different way. I’m very big on investing in quality and companies that use good fabrics and [are] easy to clean. With so many consignment stores and cool thrift stores to find cool pieces, it is very easy to add for a season then donate when done. Everyone has their own style, so it can be easy to mix and match through thrifting and consignment stores to enrich your wardrobe.

Written by Jess Owens

Founder & CEO at Greenlist