Tutorial by Alena
Distressing a costume is a means of artificially enhancing the natural wear process. Clothing worn in daily life tends to get dirty faster around the cuffs, hems and collar, wears out faster at knees and elbows, and gets stains on the chest and top of the thighs from carrying things, spilling food, leaning against tables, etc. To make a costume look realistic, you don’t have to go crazy making your costume dirty – you just have to make it look used.
Think about the kind of wear and tear that your character’s clothes are likely to experience based on the environment, lifestyle, and/or job they are involved in. Does this character crawl through tunnels? There are probably dirt stains on the knees, elbows, butt and shoulders. Get shot at frequently? Maybe there’s a bullet hole in the coat, or a tear in a sleeve where a shot came too close. Work with machinery? There will be oil stains, grease smears, and possibly spots of rust. Run through the woods? There are probably snags or small tears in the fabric from catching on trees. Post-apocalyptic wasteland? Lots of dirt and dust ground into the material. Desert? Sun bleaching along the tops of the shoulders and sleeves; maybe sand or dust stuck to the fabric.
Once you have an idea what kind of weathering your costume should have, you can choose your technique(s). There are many ways to distress a costume, so you have a lot of options! What methods you use will depend in part on what materials you’re weathering (fabric vs. armor, for example) and how permanent you want the distressing to be (dusting with powdered “dirt” for a photoshoot vs. using spray paint to permanently “dirty” the fabric).
For a quick technique primer, check out MangoSirene’s basic video tutorial on distressing fabric. This covers a lot of simple techniques such as tea dyeing, sanding, etc. that are good for creating an overall aged look on fabric. For many costumes, this is all you’ll need to create a great “lived-in” look.
Now, here are some of the specific techniques I use to create various effects on fabric, both for my own costumes, and for my theatre/film work (methods bolded for easy skimming):
For fabrics that need to look well-used, there’s no substitute for real dirt. 🙂 Need to get a white shirt really, truly dirty and stained? Use it as a rag to clean the windows of your house, wipe down your car, scrub the kitchen floor, etc. Rub the dirt into the fabric. It’ll stain beautifully! (As a bonus, your house and car will be nice and clean.)
For light-colored fabrics, I do a lot of tea dyeing to tone down the brightness. For more controlled “dirtying” of clothes, I put a concentrated mix of instant coffee and tea in a spray bottle and saturate the areas I want to come out darker. You can control the strength of your stain solution by adding more or less instant coffee/tea powder. (The stains will be permanent, but they may fade slightly with washing, so it may take multiple applications to get them as dark as you want.)
Here are some tank tops that I tea-dyed, then added fake sweat stains using instant coffee in a spray bottle:
Paint and dye are also great ways to add permanent dirt effects, especially for surface dirt like mud splatters or blood stains. The base mud splatter for My Litzibitz Trost costume started with concentrated brown fabric dye in a spray bottle:
Darker spots and color variation were added afterward with alcohol-based ink and paint (far right picture).
Light spritzes of spray paint can create splotches of grime. For controlled splatter effects, dip the bristle tips of a a stiff paintbrush or toothbrush into acrylic or fabric paint, then scrape your finger along the bristles to flick tiny droplets of paint over the fabric. For soaked-in stains, mix acrylic paint or fabric dye with water to thin it, then drip or paint it on with a brush. (For more general staining rather than distinct spots, water down the paint and apply to wet fabric, then let dry.)
For Mark’s Captain John Hart costume, I took a new white cotton T-shirt, tea-dyed it, then attacked it with thinned acrylic paint:
For permanent surface grit (especially useful on darker fabrics), you can apply dry dust, dirt, or fuller’s earth, and then seal it to the fabric with clear spray paint. For best results, add a very light layer of dust, spray, let dry, then add more layers. Paint won’t hold very heavy applications.
For temporary dirt effects that will brush or wash away easily (for a photoshoot or film scene, for example), I use… food! Ground cinnamon makes great loose dirt/dust, as does coarse flour. Paprika is good for rust stains. Ground mustard (the seed powder, not the liquid condiment) and corn meal are a bit coarser. Make sure these are applied dry, so they’re just sitting on the surface of the fabric, rather than rubbed deeply into the fibers. Otherwise they might be hard to clean off.
Here are some costumes that I “spiced up” for a dusty post-battle scene. (These costumes were vintage wool and couldn’t be washed daily, so I had to use materials that would brush off easily):
Wear and Tear
Fabric tends to wear out faster in areas with the most friction: Knees, elbows, hems that drag the ground, places that are rubbed by straps or bags. To age a costume, you can fade or wear down the surface of the fabric in those areas.
A bleach solution or dye remover can be used to selectively fade fabric. (Note: Concentrated bleach will break down fabric with repeated use, so if you’re starting with a white or dyeable fabric and want to age it before you make the costume, run it through a few strong bleach cycles first. The bleaching will damage the fibers and give the fabric a uniform weathered look.)
For controlled distressing, especially on heavier fabrics like denim or canvas, I do a lot of surface sanding. You can use sandpaper, a metal file, a cheese grater, a wire brush, or a leather rougher(advanced level; those things are vicious!) to rough up the surface of the fabric without tearing all the way through it.
If you need to put holes in the fabric – for example, a character with ripped jeans – it’s best to wear down the area you want to tear out first by sanding, rather than cutting the hole out with scissors. This makes it look more realistic (rough edges, loose threads) and also helps prevent the cut hole stretching and fraying until it’s too big.
Depending on the material your costume is made of, you can also use flame to singe edges or burn holes in the fabric. This can produce great visual effects for bullet holes or torn hems, though it does make the material brittle and easier to damage. This method works best with organic materials (cotton, linen, silk, wool) rather than most synthetics, which tend to liquefy (nylon) or combust in a spectacular ball of flame (acetate) when exposed to heat. TEST ON A SCRAP FIRST to make sure your costume will not turn into a pile of slag!
Elements of the costume that aren’t made of fabric may need to be aged, as well. For metal pieces (buttons, buckles) or pieces with a lot of surface texture, try applying shoe polish or acrylic paint, then buffing with a cloth to remove the excess. Let some paint stick in the surface detail to look like tarnish or accumulated grime.
This antler knife (for my Barbarianna costume) was aged by brushing acrylic paint over the surface, then rubbing with a paper towel to remove the excess:
For plastic pieces that appear too smooth, you can scrape the surface with a wire brush or sandpaper to distress it. You can also apply a small amount of paint with a dry brush or wadded paper towel to add texture.
These molded plastic horns (also for Barbarianna) were dry brushed with acrylic paint to make them look more like aged ivory:
You can also paint first, and then distress the paint job by scraping, sanding, or painting chips or scratches in with metallic paint.
The paint on this helmet was scraped with sandpaper to create surface scratches:
To create the look of damaged metal, a super-fine line of metallic silver paint can produce easy scratch effects. Use a 000 paintbrush or a toothpick to keep your lines thin.
For decorated armor or pieces with relief, try adding some detail paint around the edges of the designs, then buff the paint with a paper towel or cloth. This will make the raised designs more visible, as well as making the piece appear more tarnished or aged.
For large pieces (armor, helmets) that need to show wear, you can also add surface texture into the paint itself. Coat the piece with paint, and while it’s still wet, sprinkle with dirt, makeup powder, ground rust, fuller’s earth, or any other dry media you want to add. Let it dry, then seal with clear matte spray paint.
This new helmet was painted with matte acrylic paint, then dusted with powder pigments (while the paint was still wet) to create the dirt and rust effects:
A few things to keep in mind when you’re weathering a costume:
- Don’t make your fabric unwashable. Ideally, your costume should look dirty, but smell clean. 😉 Even for outer clothing layers, you want to be able to clean the costume in case of accident (someone spills a drink on you, etc.). If you want your distressing to stay through repeated washing, be sure to use impermeable dyes and paints. Keep in mind that some distressing techniques (spray paint, et al.) may require delicate cycle or hand washing to preserve.
- Don’t destroy the costume’s structural integrity. Shredding and sanding fabric can create realistic damage effects, but it will also shorten the lifespan of the material. Make sure you leave structural seams intact, and try to keep most of the damage on the surface rather than tearing huge holes through the fabric.
- Organic materials break down over time. For permanent weathering, use inorganic materials like plaster, gravel dust, or fuller’s earth rather than organic materials like flour or corn starch, which can grow mold or attract insects in storage.