Clothes Tell a Story: The “J Peterman” Project

Submitted by Christianne Myers, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


This introductory costume design project invites creativity while disrupting the “fear of the figure” sometimes felt by students. Using an article of clothing, students write a story/situation in the style of the J Peterman Catalog and render the garment realistically.

Length of activity

  • Week Long Project

Area of Technical Theater

  • Costume Design

Activity Objectives


  • Identify how we use clothing to tell a story and define character


  • Professional presentation practices
  • Rendering clothing to match drape, silhouette and color/pattern


  • This exercise is the inverse of designing a play – in a play we start with a character and use clothing to help define it; with this assignment, you will start with clothing to create a character.
  • Each design decision is a building block to telling a story.



  • Select 2 articles of clothing from your own closet.
  • For each article of clothing, write a short description in the style of the J Peterman catalog. The goal is to create the character who, or circumstance when, the garment would be worn. It may be helpful to design for a specific personality who remains nameless in your description. I am asking you, in fact, to do the opposite of what we do in designing for the stage when we start with the character and figure out what they wear. For this assignment, briefly create the story for the clothes; give it a title. Treat each garment separately; they do not need to relate to each other.
  • Render each garment. Look to the samples from the catalog for guidance. No figure is required though the garment should look dimensional. Compose the garment on a dress form, or ask a friend to model it so you can more easily draw the garment from life. Draw & paint the garment, clearly illustrating the color, texture & pattern and accurately showing the style lines.


  • It is up to you depending on the garment- pencil, colored pencils, markers, watercolor, gouache, charcoal pencil, etc…you may combine media but use no more than 2. The rendered garment should be @ 5.” You may create these designs digitally, but they must be drawn, not collaged (nor cut/paste, nor photoshopped). Look at the website for more writing and rendering style guidance.

Time Required

With two garments, this can be a two week project. A suggested structure:

  • Clothing selections & story drafts
  • In Class- Peer Review story drafts; begin rendering garments w/ instructor “shoulder coaching”
  • (10 days in)- Project due, uploaded to Canvas before the beginning of class
  • (14 days in)- Peer Review on Canvas completed before beginning of class

Required Materials

Internet access for viewing J Peterman Catalog. Basic word processing program to complete presentation layout with text block and images. Ability to scan and import non-digital images. Illustration supplies to draw garments (TBD based on student access, lab fee, expectations from teacher, etc… Renderings could be completed digitally or with watercolors, markers, colored pencils, etc…)


Could expand to non-clothing items including hand props.


Additional written comments are specific notes on clarity of stories and accuracy of drawings. Recommended peer feedback- with the catalog presentation style, the presentation should be self-explanatory. Within LMS, the peer review function allows the instructor to assign any number of projects for classmates to comment on.

Example of a Student Project

Project by Nick Carroll

Theoretical Millinery Research Project

Submitted by Christianne Myers, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


This research project introduces students to using digital museum collections, project management and budgeting. Using a museum artifact, students propose a step-by-step build process for adapting the artifact for stage purposes, provide working drawings, and source the materials with an estimated budget.

Read More

Pen & Wet Brush Rendering: Exploration of Light & Shadow

Submitted by Inseung Park, Theatre & Dance, University of New Mexico


This project is designed for our rendering course THEA 292 – one of the required courses for BFA design students. It helps students get comfortable with wet media and acts as an introduction to watercolor without fear. Students will create three thumbnails (about 8″ x 4″ in size), rendering a simple interior box set in perspective with a water based blue pen. After students finish a contour drawing with a blue pen, they add hatching for minimal shading. Then, the wet brush is employed to create impressive moods. During the process of this project, it would be a great idea for students to explore samples of artists’ paintings in varied art media to research how moods are expressed, and apply their discoveries into the rendering. Eventually, students will create three different lighting situations in three thumbnails.

Read More

In-Class Character Design


This is a quick one-class assignment that has the students create and define a character with 2 given prompts, and access to limited costume stock.

I pair them off randomly, then they pull a number to decide an order of choosing prompts. Each pair takes a word and an image, and must create a character from them. After a quick demonstration on dressing a mannequin, highlighting how fit and garment usage can also define personality, they then costume a dress form from a selection of garments, accessories and fabric.

The pairs identify a speaker and end by presenting their character, specifying their impressions from the prompts, the choices made, and the relationship between them.

Read More

Design-A-Toy Project


For an introductory sewing and design course, the students build their own plush toys. Using a simple given pattern, they must design their own toy and alter the pattern or create new pieces to accomplish this. They must utilize the sewing techniques taught in class and decide what types of hand or machine stitch will be best as they plan their project. The successful student creates a sewing plan to organize themselves, but allows room for creative experimentation as they go.

Read More