Sourcing Sustainable Costume with The Costume Directory’s Sinéad Kidao

Image: Mary Magdalene

Following Little Women’s success at the BAFTA’s for Best Costume Design, costume designer and author of The Costume Directory Sinéad Kidao shares her hopes for the industry and how designers can best incorporate sustainable practices into film and television.  

Costume designer and assistant Sinéad Kidao has made it her mission to incorporate sustainable fashion into some of the industry’s biggest and best film and television. Her approach to the industry aims to tackle how “on any given project, [costume designers] buy or make more clothes than the average person will own in a lifetime.” Having assisted and designed costumes for the likes of Netflix’s Black Mirror, Disney’s Beauty & the Beast and Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louise May Alcott’s Little Women, Sinéad aims to reshape the costume industry’s attitude towards sustainability. 

With an Oscar nomination and recent BAFTA win for the costume design in Little Women, the vintage waistcoats and prairie skirts donned by the March sisters were the work of designer Jacqueline Durran and Sinéad, who works as her assistant. Accessorised with Maison Bengal’s ‘Jute Macrame’ shopping bag – individually woven shoppers made using locally grown natural materials and hand dyed – the March sisters’ wardrobes were built on a foundation of sustainable swaps and thriftiness. When she’s not assisting Jacqueline on big budget films (or working as the costume designer herself) Sinéad produces The Costume Directory: an annually produced resource for those in the industry that collates sustainable brands, materials and opportunities that designers can integrate into their work. 

Image: Little Women

Sinéad’s journey into costume began as a solution to a childhood love of fashion, drawing and theatre. Following the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, and the subsequent awareness of unsafe working conditions and labour rights within garment factories, Sinéad began to consider the responsibility of the costume industry to better source textiles and clothing. “Every industry has to start embracing sustainable practices, but I think the difference between our industry is that we work on very short-term contacts, with each production being staffed by freelancers. This lack of infrastructure means individuals must develop, adopt and implement a more sustainable culture on every job that we do.”

While the nature of the industry requires the mass production of clothing, analysing the lifecycle of each piece of textiles in its entirety is, for Sinéad, the most valuable way for the industry to adopt a more sustainable practice. In doing so, the industry can better consider how textiles are sourced and transported, where fabrics began and where costumes will end up. Through The Costume Directory, Sinéad hopes to “take the ‘hassle’ out of sustainable sourcing for designers.” In such a fast paced industry, that already faces challenges with both money and time, prioritising sustainability is rarely at the top of the list. “The directory is essentially me passing on my contacts and what I have learned about socially responsible practices over the years in the hope that it will encourage others to make changes within their own departments.”

Image: Artisan embroidery for Mary Magdalene

In the interim of the annual publication of the directory, social media offers a platform on which Sinéad can continue to promote better practices within costume design and the wider consumption of fashion. Amidst film clips and behind the scenes shots of her latest works, her feed features reposts of activist Greta Thunberg and statistics on the carbon footprint of fashion, while promoting shopping vintage and second hand – a market that has grown 21 times faster than its retail counterpart in the past three years according to Fashion United.

While sourcing costumes second hand has always allowed costume designers to find unique vintage pieces, Sinéad also advocates choosing second hand for the more ordinary, everyday looks that would usually rely on the high street. When looking for costumes for her sister Aisling Bea’s 2019 television series, This Way Up, charity shops and second-hand pieces provided a degree of quirkiness to the costumes, in addition to continuing her sister’s ambitions to make it “a green and plastic-free set.” So what are her go-to places to source second hand? “It’s getting so much easier to shop second hand online, with amazing websites like Oxfam Online, Depop and a whole host of second-hand designer websites like Hardly Ever Worn It, Vestiare Collective and Rebelle.”

Image: This Way Up

Second hand finds helped to build Aisling’s character of Aine, a quirky TEFL teacher whose life feels a little jumbled. But what happens when the character requires a more formal, put together look? Or in an almost fantastical world such as in Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast? “Design and creating an authentic character always has to be the priority – as soon as you try and push as character that’s meant to be a banker into wearing hemp, you may as well change the profession! But what we have found over the years is that investigating where a specific fabric or textile has come from has led us to finding incredible artisans and textiles that have enhanced the narrative rather than taking away from it.”

Finding ways in which to ensure transparency and ethical working conditions is indispensable to Sinéad’s way of working. While this can be achieved through the ever growing number of independently produced, sustainable-focused brands, collaborating with artisans to create the costumes for the film Mary Magdalene led to what Sinéad credits now as “the most significant pieces” within her portfolio. “The wool and linen we used was handwoven in a co-operative in Western India, and we incorporated multiple pieces of cross stitch embroidery that was hand done by Palestinian women living in a refugee camp in Jordan, who work with the social enterprise SEP Jordan. The skills of all artisans involved created pieces that looked both authentic and unique.”

Image: Head-to-toe sustainable outfit for Beauty and the Beast

Sourcing the costumes is only the beginning, with waste within the fashion industry posing as big a problem as that of fabrics and pollution. According to Wrap UK, it is estimated that “£140 million worth of clothing goes into landfill each year.” Addressing this within film is equally as important as encouraging #30Wears in the everyday, with the very nature of production meaning the lifespan of a costume is limited to that of one film. “On bigger films, where intellectual property is an issue, the studios tend to hold on to their costumes, and they have big warehouses where they keep everything,” said Sinéad. “On smaller productions, we like to pass as much as possible onto costume houses, where they can be hired out to future productions, or to schools or charities.”

Looking to the future, Sinéad’s ambitions for the costume industry accentuate the need for transparency and responsibility. “I would love a typical costume department to be audited in terms of its carbon impact, to see exactly where we can make significant changes and to make individuals more mindful of their personal and collective impact.” It is a matter of asking the industry to consider the often forgotten environmental costs of transporting fabric, plastic-encased costumes being shipped from place to place and the thousands of meters of fabric being laundered and broken down to appear worn. “We need to address these issues now so that, hopefully, in the future we can do our jobs in a more environmentally and socially responsible way.”