Shijin Wei: looking at the collection for costume design

During my research project in the photographic library of the Courtauld Institute of Art, I looked through a box of black-and-white photographic prints. In a collection of architectural images, it was amazing to observe images that featured people. These photos record moments of the real world within a past time; the people captured look and dress differently, the culture and atmosphere are different. I found celebrations, weddings, revelry, lonely climbers, busy markets and ports. In choosing the pictures to illustrate my process of creation, I looked specifically for lonely, quiet or peaceful moments, as I get more inspiration from characters who look into the distance in a photograph, or people’s figures seen from behind. I looked at these portraits against the background, at the fascinating relationship between the people and the environment. So I ‘cut’ these ‘characters’ from these moments and turned them into black and white watercolor illustrations, and then combined them with other elements to explore different effects and create an image of a wonderful parallel world. I study costume design for performance, so I often need to do a lot of research on context in my learning process. Different characters tell a different story depending on their surroundings. Looking at the charm of light and shadow was fascinating, I found it so interesting and I really enjoyed the process.

As a separate project, I made miniature versions of a costume, moving towards the project’s more technical aspect. When I finished the illustration series, I was thinking about how to gain more from my Courtauld placement, so I choose a photograph from the photographic library and ‘copied’ the costume in the image. This time, the process was more to do with practicing creating the costume pattern, sewing and doing texture research.

The key aspect, for me, is that all the characters in these photographs and drawings are authentically dressed for their time, which is very important; as my tutor said: costume design is to create dresses for story characters, the clothes help the actors get into character for the role, but they also let the audience believe the story more fully.

During my time at the Courtauld I gained a lot, people were very friendly and it was an unexpected pleasure to get to meet a lot of nice, interesting people who participate to the digitisation project as volunteers. As a foreign student, starting a placement experience in another country can initially induce a sense of tension and anxiety, I worried about my language communication skills and that my behavior might mean that I wouldn’t fit in or even be a nuisance to others. But throughout the whole process I received plenty of help, the communication was friendly and I even made new friends. This is my first internship, and I feel very lucky. This experience made me more confident and encouraged me to seek more opportunities in the future.