How to Become a Costume Designer
Getting Started as a Costume Designer
Costume design is one of many unheralded responsibilities and professions within the film and theater industry. Viewers are often wowed by the brilliant colors and realism of costumes on a television show set in the 1800s, but the chances that even the most famous costume designers in the industry would get recognized in passing are very slim. The profession still attracts many star-struck designers eager to be a part of the glitz and glamour of the entertainment industry, but the professional costume designers we talked to all cautioned against that view. They explained that costume design is a ruthlessly competitive profession and visions of glitz and glamour soon get replaced by exhaustion from working 18-hour days for weeks at a time.
That said, the costume designers we spoke to unanimously professed love for their jobs and swore that they wouldn’t want to be doing anything else as a livelihood. This is partially because costume designers are essential in today’s entertainment industry, and professional designers who join the union are paid quite handsomely and get access to all sorts of fun perks and networking connections. The job may be a grind at times, but costume designers not only get to express their creativity, but, unlike fashion designers, they get to do so by using clothes to tell a story. Costume designers are responsible for every aspect of the costumes, from the realism, texture, and color, all the way to collaboration with stylists and makeup artists to make sure everything is perfect.
They may not be instantly recognizable on the street, but they are just as important as the directors and are just as responsible for the success and authenticity of a particular film and play. To help readers who are curious about the details of the profession, how to get their foot in the door, and what sort of education they might need, we asked three professional costume designers with a variety of experience to share their stories. We also created this handy visual to serve as a brief overview of what the profession looks like today.
Although there are some professional costume designers who have managed to carve out a career without a formal education, as Professor Karvonides pointed out, those people are very rare. In fact, all of our experts believe that a formal education is very important for aspiring costume designers. Admittedly, all three of our experts are professors of costume design, so formal education is what they do, but they also have more than 50 years of collective experience in the industry and have worked a wide variety of jobs in the industry.
For those interested in formal education, there isn’t just one path to take. Not all schools and universities offer specific degrees in costume design; some offer degrees in related fields like fashion design. Those programs may not have the narrow focus of a costume-specific design program, but they do cover many of the same principals and concepts, and many professional costume designers have a fashion design education background.
No matter the path you take to become a costume designer, you will need to learn basic design concepts, color patterns and schemes, as well as many of the finer points of design and costume design in particular. It may even be worthwhile to enroll in some fashion merchandising classes to see the business side of things as well.
WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE IN COSTUME DESIGN?
- University of California, Los Angeles
UCLA is in the perfect location to house a standout costume design program. Its proximity to the entertainment capital of the world as well, as its internationally recognized faculty and unbeatable production facilities make it one of the best schools in the country for aspiring costume designers. It is expensive, which send some students looking elsewhere, but the education offered may very well be worth the price.
- Parsons School of Design
A strong component of Parsons’ Fashion Design program is its focus on costume design. The school is well-known across the country as a fashion design staple. Its graduates have gone on to become some of the most influential designers in the country, and its events and networking opportunities are perfect for young designers looking to make a name for themselves.
- Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising
With locations all up and down the West Coast, FIDM is a well-known and nationally recognized vocational and design school for students looking for hands-on experience. Their costume design program is a key part of their curriculum and former students rave about their post-graduate career placement opportunities and options.
- Emerson College
Emerson’s Theatre Design/Technology program will help student develop skills in costume design as well as many other aspects of design. The program emphasizes hands-on practice, and its capable faculty and successful alumni are proof that the program has all the trappings needed for an aspiring costume designer.
GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR
All of our experts offered sage advice for students or graduates interested in getting their foot in the door of the costume design industry, but Professor Karvonides offered the most interesting advice when she told us, “every person that you have ever heard of and will ever hear of, I guarantee you, will use every networking trick to get into the film industry. In the beginning, one can get in as an intern or a volunteer. Many start out working on low budget movies with other aspiring filmmakers. If you associate yourselves with young ambitious filmmakers, you could find yourself gaining notoriety if the work starts to get recognized.”
All of the experts also mentioned that if you want to be a costume designer it may help to be willing to relocate to a place where most of the films are being made. Places like Atlanta, North Carolina, and New Orleans have all become hotspots for filmmakers according to our experts, and being around filmmakers and productions may be just the break someone needs to get into the industry.