Interactive Costume Design: Reimagining Movie Wardrobes with Digital Fashion

Interactive Costume Design: Reimagining Movie Wardrobes with Digital Fashion

Raquel Ramos, a Digital Fashion student at University for the Creative Arts, explores interactive costume design with a digital recreation of Keira Knightley's Anna Karenina costume.

Raquel Ramos is a Digital Fashion student at University for the Creative Arts. Raquel aims to become a digital costume designer, responsible for dressing animated characters just as actors are dressed in films. In this article, she explores the idea of interactive costume design for films with her latest piece, a digital recreation of a costume worn by Keira Knightley in her portrayal of Anna Karenina.

I am not a gamer by any definition of the word. I can assure you that you will not find me anywhere near strategy, aim, and levels. But if customising an avatar counts as gaming, then call me Player 1 and hand me the controller.

My first contact with the digital world took place with dress-up games. I could spend hours daily dressing digital avatars, going as far as creating stories, personal styles, and following challenges. I don’t think I ever played The Sims for any longer than an hour, after I had spent maybe six of those in CAS (Create-A-Sim – where you can edit your Sim). My favourite console game was Mario Kart, only because you got to select your character, their outfit, and even customise the vehicle. As for the actual race, I always placed last.

This behaviour ended up making a lot of sense considering that I decided to become a fashion designer. But after a few years in the industry, I realised I don’t necessarily love creating clothes from scratch. What I really like is combining, adjusting, and composing outfits that tell a story. Almost like playing dress-up in real life, one could say.

With this realisation, I came across costume design. The idea of helping convey a story and a personality through garments, accessories, and hair was very appealing to me. What someone wears tells their story before they are even able to say a word. Clothing is a form of non-verbal communication, and it is essential to character development.

Project Inspiration

So, when I faced my first project for my master’s in digital fashion, it felt natural to combine my passion for digital dressing-up with costume design. What if, similarly to gaming avatar customisation and skins, we could change actors’ garments while watching a movie?

With this starting point, I decided to create a customisable costume for the character Anna Karenina in the 2012 eponymous movie. Joe Wright’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s story brings strong visuals and a unique aesthetic when it comes to costume design. By blending the movie’s period fashion with the 1950s silhouette, costume designer Jacqueline Durran creates a visual masterpiece.

It was not exclusively the aesthetic factor that drew me in but how the costume is a great example of the way garments evolve with the characters. This transformation is most evident with the main character, Anna, portrayed by Keira Knightley. (I don’t believe it counts as a spoiler when it comes to 19th-century literature, but just in case - SPOILER ALERT) We can notice how she transforms from a devoted motherly figure to a “scandalous” (from the 19th-century Russian aristocracy perspective) adulterous woman just by looking at her clothes.

Understanding the power clothes have in portraying characters, I explored how deeply a costume designer could delve if allowed multiple outfits. Every option given to the viewer would be the result of the costume designer’s intense work. Unlike video game skins, costumes should not be completely customisable. For it to be believable, fit the narrative, and follow the creative direction, costume design requires extensive research and testing. Therefore, garment customisation in film would need some limits.

However, creating such variants would allow for more creative freedom for the designer, as they could explore different perspectives and portrayals. The idea of live-action customisation is heavily based on the principle that each viewer has a different perspective. The designer could then follow different interpretations of the character as the narrative progresses. With such curated options, the viewer gets to match the outfit to their momentary perception as the story unfolds. This would only be possible if the clothes were digital and added on top of the performers.

Film costume live customisation would be a mixed reality experience (the viewer would need a VR headset) powered by AI (handling tasks like 3D image regeneration, motion tracking, and real-time rendering). The viewer would face a configurator interface showcasing the array of digitally created garments, ready to be worn with just a click (or a blink?).

Of course, this proposed experience is just a fun prediction of a possible use of digital fashion. There have been incredible developments in cloth simulation, but we are still a few years away from being able to decide our favourite characters' outfits.

In the meantime, I decided to simulate what this experience might look like with digital fashion. It was my first time truly designing a digital garment, and I just had to create two full 19th-century inspired ball gowns. To say it was an undertaking is an understatement.

After researching the period fashion and Durran's work, I came up with a few modular outfits that allowed for interchangeability while remaining congruent with the story and the character’s journey. Learning how to navigate Marvelous Designer, Unreal Engine, and Metahuman for the first time, all while working with yards of (digital) fabric, ruffles, and many layers, was as challenging as getting first place in Mario Kart while competing on Rainbow Road. Luckily, I discovered I am much more of a digital fashion designer than I am a gamer.

My biggest struggle was the silhouette. How would I achieve such volume without crashing the software? By faking undergarments. At first, I tried to recreate historical undergarments, but they made the file extremely heavy, and I couldn't get past the first skirt layer. My teacher, Emily Shahaj, then shared the idea to use simple 3D objects to simulate the same shape the underskirt would create.

Different attempts to achieve the silhouette with undergarments. (Source: author)

With the base ready, I moved on to the actual garments. Modularity ended up being very important for the customisation, however it happened out of necessity at first. Because the garments were very detailed, I was not able to work with the full gown. Whether it was due to my PC specs or just my own naivety, I had to divide the garments as top and bottom.

Different stages of constructing the garments. (Source: author)

It was also my first time experimenting with materials and textures, so I turned to Substance 3D Sampler, which has easy tools that don’t involve blueprints, such as combining patterns with different materials and fabrics, to achieve the look of metallic embroidery.

Experimentation done in Adobe Substance Sampler. (Source: author)

With the garments ready and an environment built in Unreal Engine, the next step was creating the final simulation, for which I had 11 separate modules (pieces), that also had different materials and colourways each.

Final modules for the outfits (Source: author)

Given that I do not have many video editing skills nor any animating skills, I created the final video similarly to a stop-motion feature. I edited each still frame in Photoshop, matching interface to its respective garment combo. I then turned to good old iMovie to combine all the frames and export the final video.

I am still a little disappointed that I didn’t know about Figma back then, because the final steps were very laborious without needing to be. But if there is something I can take away from this project is resilience. I had to teach myself so many things from zero and had to come up with creative solutions to achieve my desired result. I am sure that I might have not come up with the most practical or even “correct” solutions and there is a lot of room for improvement, but I was able to create something from nothing, with very little knowledge to begin with.

This project made me fall in love with digital fashion (even if I did lose a lot of work to crashing softwares and not saving my projects, multiple times, repeatedly) and the many possibilities it brings. I would never have been able to sew a 19th century ball gown by myself.


But with digital fashion, in under three weeks, there it was. Even if we are not able to add these garments instantaneously on top of an actor (just yet), I believe there is so much to be explored with digital costume design.

Reach out to Raquel and find more of her work via her Rookies profile here.