by guest blogger Michael Bruce Adams

Identify… Embellish… Transform… Transcend

Breaking bad 1

Breaking Bad 1

Every decision we make, from the construct of the largest set piece to the addition of the tiniest of details, has a psychological impact on our audience. Every decision we make either brings our audience deeper into the story or pushes them away.

This means whether we are costumers, directors or writers… we are all storytellers. Storytellers connect human beings by creating universal experiences that we can all relate to… soul to soul.

Dawn Leigh Climie very graciously allowed me to be guest blogger this week, I suspect primarily because she is up to her armpits in mud and bug spray on her current show. But as a screenwriter, I hope to take up the challenge and do her proud.

We are talking about costumes and the power they hold.

In my language that means subtext; the ability of a technical decision… the addition or absence of detail or technique… to provide a deeper insight into character and story, and subtext to me is the most elegant storytelling power.

Costume, from the knickers out, is the most visible and intimate indicator of character within the filmmaker’s toolset. And as character is story, costume then is one of the most powerful storytelling tools.

Color, texture and cut can identify a character as part of a group or set them apart as a true individual. Embellishments and details on costumes give insight to a character’s individuality, expressions and passions. The transformation of a costume or series of costumes within a story provides deeper visual meaning to a character’s transformative journey.

In UNBREAKABLE (costume design by Joanna Johnston), M. Night Shyamalan‘s reluctant hero wears a simple rain poncho that becomes a superhero cape once he accepts his calling.



In the television series ONCE UPON A TIME (costume design by Eduardo Castro), a massive cast is given identity, complexity and transformative weight in both the reality world and a fantasy setting.

once-upon-a-timeIn SCHINDLER’S LIST (costume design by Anna B. Sheppard), Steven Spielberg’s ‘little girl in the red coat’ indicates the death of innocence for the criminals, the victims and the observers who stood by.


Schindler’s List

In ELIZABETH (costume design by Alexandra Byrne), Shekhar Kapur’s telling of the virgin queen’s journey from child to monarch can be tracked through color, texture and cut from the soft white of innocence through the yellow of empathy, the reds of passion, the blue of knowledge, the black of death, then, ultimately back to white, now of enlightenment, with the addition of the impenetrable armor of silver and gold.



In the pilot episode of the television series BREAKING BAD, (costume design by Kathleen Detoro), Brian Cranston’s character is literally stripped down to his most vulnerable… in this case a K-Mart sport shirt and tighty-whities… before he can rebuild himself.

Breaking-Bad 2

breaking bad 2

In DANCES WITH WOLVES (costume design by Elsa Zamparelli), Kevin Costner’s character gradually replaces his soldier’s uniform with that of an aboriginal as he discovers and eventually fully embraces the culture of the Plains Indians.


Dances With Wolves

But even among these wonderful examples, we are still talking about costume identifying, embellishing and showing transformation in character… subtext.

So when does costume transcend subtext?

In writing terms, costume transcends subtext when costume becomes text. By this I mean when the symbolic meaning of a costume answers a question or forwards the story in the same way that action or dialog can.

I think the most eloquent and lovely example of this is in Ang Lee’s film BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (costume design by Marit Allen).

The nagging question that is never fully answered until the final scene sequence is this; are these two men just exploring confusing urges during a dangerous time, or are they connected by a deep love between two human beings? This question is answered without a doubt when Ennis finds his and Jack’s shirts, one fit inside the other, in Jack’s closet… it is love.


Brokeback Mountain

These two costume pieces symbolically connected have transcended the subtext of the story and fulfilled a key element in the completion of this tale… and much more elegantly and believably than hearing an eleventh hour declaration of love by Heath’s character. In writing terms, this is doubly great because the storytellers, by using the two shirts in this way, have eliminated the need for potentially clunky exposition.

If we think of a costume as a symbolic reflection of a character’s state of being at a given point in time, maybe how we view our jobs can take on a deeper meaning… that what we give of ourselves to that reflection has meaning too. Not every costume will transcend subtext, but every costume is in a large part absorbed by the actor who wears it in an effort to build a truthful character. How that costume is prepared and cared for impacts the actor’s ability to become the character… and transcend the page.

In my work, I lay down words on a page in hope that those words will inspire the storytellers who choose to move that story forward. As costumers, your work is all about inspiring as well.

I know it may be hard to see this when you are tasked with washing stinky cast underwear, or traipsing around after forgetful stars who leave costume pieces in their wakes like broken hearts… but believe it or not you are a communicator, an artist of the highest order… part of the most vital service we can labor over as human beings… you are a storyteller.

You are a connector of souls.

Michael Bruce Adams is a produced screenwriter living in Vancouver. He has written 27 feature length screenplays and is a sought after Script Consultant. Michael also has over 19 years of film and television production experience and has worked on over 120 film and television productions as an Assistant Cameraman. The short film BOMBSHELL written by Michael premieres at the Landmark Cinemas in Los Angeles on September 23rd of this year.

Connect with Michael through LinkedIn at:

and IMDB at:


10 thoughts on “FROM THE KNICKERS OUT

  1. Thank you Michael, costumes tell the story between the lines of the dialogue. I am designing a theatre show at the moment and the most interesting character is the one with the fewest lines. Her inner story must be supported by her appearance.

    • You’re very welcome, Charlotte… and best of luck with the show! Theatre is such an inspirational playground for subtext and storytelling… every element has to be bang on. It sounds to me like you have that natural storytelling power deep in your designing process… break a leg! Mike

  2. So great to read your thoughts Michael ! Too often I get the feeling that, because everyone wears clothes , it is the last thing on their minds as they make or watch films. It is a subtle language we costumers speak, thanks for understanding.

    • You’re absolutely right, Christine, for many different reasons during a production these opportunities are taken for granted. I think it’s part of the learning process, to understand how each decision affects storytelling. I know this understanding for me is just the tip of the (positive!) iceberg and I’ve got to keep learning my craft. Hopefully others will be inspired to continue their journey too. You and I have seen too many examples on set where taking the time to do things right is often met with shouts of, “No one will notice!” They forget that we’re the audience too… and we do notice.:) A subtle language indeed… but universally communicative and vital.

  3. Loved this article – just included it in our weekly link roundup of the best articles from the entertainment industry. Big fan of learning something I knew little about – easy to read and digest but extremely informative. nice work!

    • Thanks so much for taking time to stop by, Brian. And for including us in your round-up… man… unreal. Thank you! Both Dawn and I have visited your site and love it… awesome posts, amazing that you take the time to dig in so deep to find them (us!). Very much appreciated.:) Hey my friend and wonderful producer (you won’t see those two words in the same sentence that often!) Rob Cowan is a regular poster on The site might be a bit mainstream, but Rob’s articles are really worth looking at; candid words from a successful producer in… well, you know where. Our sincerest best wishes to you Brian and again… thank you!
      Mike and Dawn

      • Thanks for your kind response, I will absolutely check out Rob Cowans work on Hollywood journal, thanks for the tip. To be honest, I’d love to interview both you and Dawn (separately) for our site. Our content strategy for our site is to teach our audience from the inside out. Clearly you are both on the inside of the film industry, and I know you’d have incredible insight and experience to share with our audience. If you are interested (I promise it will be painless) lets talk – bclapp at

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