Urs Dierker: Hollywood costume design goes sustainable

The textile treatments and dyes used in stage and film production costumes are often harmful to health and the environment. We’re working on more sustainable production methods and materials.

Urs Dieker_textile materials

I have worked for many years as a textile artist and costume maker in theatre, television and film, including on large TV shows such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Star Trek: Discovery. Textile design plays a central role in film and stage performances, with costumes visually conveying the story of a character.  
 
If you think about how costumes are made, a film or TV production is a great environment to test new sustainable materials. You select the materials, make the costume, and soon you have answers about what works on-set during the performance and what holds up over time in terms of garment care. 
 
Sustainable costume design is still in its early days. Despite efforts to move to greener processes, stage and film productions still make costumes in traditional ways with little regard for their impact on the environment or employees.  
 
Toxic materials like leather glues or solvent-based paints for plastic are often used to create costumes. These are of course not very good for the people working with them, nor for the environment.  

When I relocated to the Helsinki area a couple of years ago and met people at Aalto University, I became interested in finding alternatives to these materials. I’m also looking to integrate more sustainable practices into TV and film production.

Costume

From symbolic steps to effective action

The industry is already taking symbolic steps to go green – from the Oscars taking on vegan-based menus to the BAFTAs going carbon-neutral.  
 
But to make costume design greener, we need to come together and address a lot of other angles to see how sustainable substances can find their way from petri dish to performance. To become more sustainable, costume design needs to develop less wasteful practices and more circular models. 
 
Natural materials – like the ones developed in the BicMat group led by Orlando Rojas at Aalto University – are one piece of the puzzle in the future for costume and textile design in television and film. 

Cellulose shows exceptional promise

I have worked together with Aalto University experts in chemical engineering, looking at wood-based cellulose, fungi and bacteria to find chemical-free, non-toxic ways of treating materials used in costumes. Cellulose, one of the most abundant biomaterials on Earth and easily derived from wood, shows exceptional promise.  
 
I designed a costume using cellulose-based textiles and wood-derived pigment-free coating to create shiny, iridescent effects – purely from wood. The shimmering wood coating reflects light to create color without any kind of dye or chemical treatment. A big shout out to Noora Yau and Konrad Klockars who have been working with structural colors for several years
 
Hand-in-hand with Aalto researchers, I have also found possibilities for costume design in some less-than-obvious friends from nature. We have been experimenting with using bacteria and mycelia – a sort of mushroom in-growth – to color materials without harsh chemicals. We’ve made some gorgeous, fade-resistant violet-blue in just a couple days!
 
My next step is to find a production  – either in television, film or theatre – to bring these new techniques into use at a larger scale.

Urs Dierker, textile artist
 
Urs Dierker’s exhibition, Naturally Dramatic, on sustainable costume design was featured as part of Designs for a Cooler Planet at Helsinki Design Week 2020.

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