How to Become 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.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Ellen McCartney

Head of Costume Design at the California Institute for the Arts

Quick Look Bio

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  • Ellen McCartney
  • Valencia, CA
  • 27
  • California Institute for the Arts
  • @TheaterCalArts
I studied Fine Arts –painting and sculpture specifically –and acquired a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the University of Maine in 1981. I later acquired my Master’s of Fine Arts in Design from the Yale School of Drama in 1987. After graduate school, I moved to New York and freelanced as a costume designer for seven years. During that time, I worked in many theaters in Manhattan and I traveled a lot freelancing in the regional theatre circuit. I started teaching design in 1993, and since then have continued to freelance while teaching.

I love that this career involves the study of human behavior because it excites the scientist in me; constant problem solving because it keeps my brain active; historical and contemporary research because it feeds my curiosity; and allows me to pursue an aesthetic practice. It is a complex and fascinating career. I honestly can’t think of anything I dislike except perhaps driving on the freeway in Los Angeles.

Advice

Be proactive
Do not wait to be taught. Theatre is one of the most welcoming of all the art communities. If you are curious, do not be shy about approaching a local theatre to volunteer. Being a costume designer for live performance or film is a lifestyle and sometimes a fast paced one. Experience is the best way to know if you like the lifestyle or not. In terms of preparing skills, start taking drawing and painting lessons EARLY. Draw from life and draw every day. Costume designers need to be keenly observant of the world around them, and drawing is a way to observe, record and develop a skill.

Start with a strong aesthetic foundation
You need the tools to express your ideas, and those tools include drawing, painting and 3D visualization. You also need to develop the crafts of sewing, fabric manipulation and basic pattern-making. Classes in Psychology are profoundly enlightening for a costume designer. Beyond that, a keen interest in the global cultures helps a lot.

Try to find work in a local theatre or film
Do not wait for permission to involve yourself in design. Take any opportunity, whether you are in high school, college or working, to practice costume design. It could be a local community theatre or a local school which offers the opportunity. You will find support and make connections to more work. It’s important to know whether you like to work with others because this is a collaborative practice. If it goes well, you will have gained experience and references for future employment or schools for education. If you are interested in working in film as a costume designer, working in live theatre prepares you for many of the same challenges.

Paula Trimpey

Professor of Theatre & Fashion at Albright College

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  • Paula Trimpey
  • Reading, PA
  • 30
  • Albright College

I received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theater from Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. I graduated in 1981 and opened a bridal boutique. The experience that I had working in costumes during my first four years of college directly related to period clothing construction. So, it seemed like a very natural progression to take historic period fashion and transform it into bridal wear.

I absolutely loved the business, but after five or six years, I realized that it was not something I could do and be satisfied the rest of my life. So, I decided to continue my education and go to graduate school at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. I enjoyed being back in school. It’s one thing to love what you do, and it’s another thing to share it with other people. I had the opportunity to do a lot of designing and construction work, and I enjoyed working with the undergraduate students.

In my second year of school I realized that I really enjoyed teaching. So, I made the decision to be a costume design professor. I can honestly say that was the best decision I’ve ever made concerning my career. I really enjoyed the creative minds of students and helping them to develop skill sets. My students and I are always working on a show. We do period research together, analyze scripts, discuss design concepts, talk about construction techniques, conduct fittings, sew for hours, and celebrate when the costumes are finished.

I love everything about teaching and designing, so it’s really hard to say what I like the most about it. I think it’s the unlimited creativity that’s involved in the designing process and the collaboration that’s involved in producing a show. Monday through Friday I don’t go to work, I go do something that I really love to do.

Advice

Get a bachelor’s degree
I think the soundest advice I can give is to go to college and get your bachelor’s degree in Theatre. That bachelor’s degree is a real foundation that you need to begin good theater work. You will have every opportunity to experience all aspect of creating the play on stage. Many students find that there is one aspect of it they like more than the other. Some people just love to be on stage and are definitely born to be actors. While others really like to be behind the scenes; they would much rather be running a light board or working as a dresser backstage helping actors get ready for a show. If you’re interested in being a costume designer, focus your work in costume production and design while you are in school. Don’t miss any opportunities to be involved.

Make sure to practice what you learn
After completing your bachelor’s degree I think it’s very important to go out into the world and give what you’ve learned a try. If you have the opportunity, work in summer stock theatre or apply for work in a professional costume shop. There are so many areas in costume design and construction. Try everything! Once you’ve worked in the industry for a while, you will find something that grabs your interest, something that you do very well; stick with it and see where it takes you.

Know thyself
I think that getting your foot in the door in any theater costume studio starts with understanding yourself; knowing what you can and cannot do and representing yourself honestly when applying for a position. Honesty, integrity, and a good work ethic paired with a good education and experience will always serve you well. It may seem too simple, but just be a nice person who respects and collaborates well with others. If you can keep these qualities in focus as you work, people will enjoy working with you and will look forward to working with you again.

Chrisi Karvonides

Television Costume Designer and Professor of Costume Design at UCLA

Quick Look Bio

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  • Chrisi Karvonides
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • 20+
  • University of California
At 17, I was accepted into the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. I had always wanted to get into fashion, but after working at some of the fashion houses, I found myself less interested in the direction of contemporary fashion design and more intrigued by storytelling. I wanted to tell the story of why people wore certain clothes rather than just produce what they were wearing. So, I left FIT and went to a community college in Maine, where I designed my first theater production for $200. I made all the costumes and painted all the designs in full Elizabethan silhouettes. After one of the shows, a man in the audience came backstage and asked to meet me. He introduced himself as an acting professor from Emerson College and asked me if I wanted to study there. Long story short, I got a full scholarship to Emerson, where I received my undergraduate degree in costume design. I started designing for small theaters and was eventually accepted to Yale Graduate School for costume design. After, I moved to Los Angeles and worked as an assistant costume designer for film. Finally, I got lucky and began working for HBO. When I switched to TV — everything clicked. Now, I work exclusively as a costume designer for TV.

What I love about costume design is that every time I put costumes in front of the camera, it feels like I am creating a painting. Storytelling is my passion, and I do that through the clothing. I enjoy the process of creating characters through color palates, silhouettes and more. Seeing how the colors work together captivates me, almost like a kaleidoscope. It’s thrilling to create a world and then watch it take life in front of the camera. I also love the collaboration with directors, writers and producers — especially those with an artistic eye.

Sometimes, it gets difficult working with producers who have more of a financial background. Producers have a very strong say in the way the production unfolds and it can be frustrating if they overrule me because they don’t see the whole picture. There are times when I’ve put hundreds of hours into a design and it gets tossed in seconds. But, you just have to let it go and continue to serve the story by trusting the vision of your team.

Advice

Don’t be fooled by the glamour
The career path looks really glamorous when you are on the outside, but behind the scenes it’s an uphill battle of long hours, lots of hard work and compromise. I’d say, when you have the negative realization that there is very little glamour in this, at times taxing, lifestyle, remember: the real glamour does exist somewhere, and it comes from loving what you do! If you have that passion, you’ll be fine, because it will outweigh the rest!

Get ready to work hard
I am always the first one on set and the last one to leave. I like to lead from the trenches. I can’t ask my team to work a 20-hour day and then leave for some fabulous event. You have to lead by example, never being above any task, no matter your position. Also, it is very hard to break in to the film industry. It took me 12 years to really get going, and I worked a lot for free. But once you get into the Film Unions, you can live very comfortably – just keep at it! You need to have an iron will, stamina and an incredible sense of confidence.

Get a formal education
I am a huge proponent of formal education. It is 100 percent because of my educational experiences that I’m where I am today in my career. My professors were all working costume designers. Each one became great mentors and helped shape me to become the person standing here. Four years ago, when UCLA asked me to teach, I was thrilled for the opportunity to give back.

Almost all of my costume department crew have a college degree, if not an MFA in costume design. What’s great about formal education is that when you leave the program you are further ahead in the industry. You learn to take criticism graciously and productively, to take action on it – elevating your abilities to new heights. In the industry, you’re never designing in a void; you are working for a huge team. One learns to work collaboratively in an educational environment. This skill is essential to work in the industry, or you will get chewed up. Some designers get lucky, they make the right connection without a formal education, but those people are very rare.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Costume Designer?


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.