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Review: Costumes and Chemistry by Silvia Moss

I only recently came across this book for the first time. I’ve never noticed it before because of the title; if I had seen it before, I would have assumed it dealt only with costumes, not props, and I would have moved right along. Make no mistake though, this book is vital to the props maker. It actually contains almost nothing about making clothes or fitting actors or even that much about fabrics and sewing. Instead, Costumes & Chemistry: A Comprehensive Guide to Materials and Applications, by Silvia Moss, covers all sorts of paints, adhesives, and plastics (in both sheet and casting form) which the prop shop uses. Though the examples shown are mostly costume props and accessories and giant character heads and suits, you can very easily apply it to many of the props you need to build.

Costumes & Chemistry reveals a lot of research and development. It turns costume crafts and props into more of a science where the materials are thoroughly tested and described, rather than a hodge-podge of traditions and assumptions swirling around in each person’s head. Moss talked with chemists, technicians, salespeople and manufacturers of many of the materials you use from basically every company you’ve ever heard of who makes these materials. Armed with a number of grants from UCLA and interviews with so many people working in the field, she has created a reference book that should be on the shelf of anyone working in props and costume crafts, as well as those interested in cosplay and convention costumes, replica prop making, LARP, and even model making.

Costumes and Chemistry by Silvia Moss
Costumes and Chemistry by Silvia Moss

Part 1 of the book is brief, providing much of the same safety information found in Monona Rossol’s book. The bulk of the book is divided between parts 2 and 3, or materials and applications.

The section on materials divides them into categories such as paints, adhesives, plastic sheets, and thermoform plastics. For each type of material in these categories, Moss gives the brand names of the various products that she tested, examples of why and how they are used, a description of the physical properties, how to clean them up (where applicable), precautions and health and safety information, where to buy them, and what sizes and forms they come in. This isn’t where you will find information about making props from paper plates and pipe cleaners; this covers all the modern materials you’ve used or read about such as Sintra, latex foam, leather dye, Kydex, etc.

In the section on applications, Moss breaks down how many example costumes were made. These include costume accessories, headpieces and jewelry from Las Vegas revues, Broadway musicals, advertising characters in commercials, various mascots, and other venues. This section provides some illustrations giving general techniques, but for the most part, it discusses the applications of various materials through very specific examples from a wide variety of craftspeople. Some of the pieces chosen for the book are quite recognizable, and it can be interesting and surprising once you find out what materials and techniques were used to create their look.

Costumes & Chemistry was published in 2004, so it should remain up to date for awhile. I could see an update in a few years to include new formulations of current materials and new brands (as well as the deletion of defunct brands; Phlex-Glu, for example, is listed in the book but no longer produced). For the most part though, most of these materials have been in use for several decades now, and barring some dramatic new invention, should remain in use for several decades more.

Some Thoughts on Brand-Name Props

Let’s imagine you were dressing the set in a realistic manner for a contemporary home. It would be ridiculous to do so without any brand name products. If you step into any random house of the type your characters live in, you will find yourself swimming in a sea of logos and packaging of distinctive colors and shapes. Even something as innocuous as a bookcase can be recognized as IKEA simply by its appearance.

The fact is, to deliberately omit brand names from a contemporary set is not only difficult and time-consuming, it is not realistic. If you carefully construct “look-alike” logos and names, you will merely draw attention to the props. The same holds true if you fill your set with generic brands (such as “Beer” brand beer) – not to mention the fact that a household with all generic products is actually an anomaly and the very opposite of generic.

As you do your research, try to take notice to all the brands around you. Also think about how ingrained some brands are in the fabric of our culture. If a character is drinking a Coca-Cola, you think he is thirsty. If he is drinking an invented brand of cola, you might suddenly wonder if his choice of brand has some significance. It’s distracting.

Fonts and Logos

Will sent me two sites he uses for making paper props.

The first is Best Brands of the World. This has vector files of the logos for many of the most popular companies around the world. What’s a vector file? It’s a graphic you can resize without getting those jaggy edges. You usually work with them in a vector graphics program, like Adobe Illustrator, but you can still use them in a raster graphics program like Adobe Photoshop. When you open the file, it asks you what size you want to make it. I’ll probably be using this site this week, as I have to build a Starbucks sign.

The second is What the Font. Will says:

You can send a scan of any string of text (it has suggestions for size and length) and it will make a pretty good guess as to what font you’re looking for. This is really handy if you’re trying to duplicate something in a paper prop. They also have a forum that has logos and text that have already been worked out.

Maybe one day, Will can write a tutorial on the newspapers he had to make while I was working at Actors Theatre.