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Getting Started in Costume Design

Get to Know the Job & the Industry

Costume designers are found most anyplace where actors and actresses perform. This might include stage performances, movies, and videos, just to name a few.  The field of costume design covers more than just dressing actors or actresses. As a designer, you'll work to make sure that the costume choices not only fit the character but fit and enhance the overall feeling of the scenes involved too. As with many positions in the arts, a specific degree isn't required. And, some costume designers have degrees from other disciplines which translate well into costume design, such as art, fashion merchandising, or fashion design. However, there are also programs devoted to costume design within many college MFA programs. This course of study can give you the background education you need to excel in the field and make the initial contacts necessary to begin your career.

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Learn the Basics

A costume designer performs a key job in the development of any performance. From the sideline, it may look like all a costume designer does is pick the clothing an actor wears when performing. In truth, the choice of attire is more than just window dressing. Actors and actresses use the costumes chosen by the designer to get into character. A great costume designer will become intricately familiar with the production, story line, era the production takes place, location, etc. Designers might watch multiple rehearsals, watch recordings of the production if it's shot on location in other cities, read the novel a play was based on, and use any other modes of research available for the task.  As a costume designer, your job is to help actors and actresses fully realize their characters.

Costume design isn't simply choosing clothing from off a rack either, although that can be a part of the process in certain types of production. The character's costume encompasses everything they wear or carry and can sometimes include props integral to the story, such as a hat or cane. As a costume designer, you’ll be responsible for insight into the character and the time period, and then working with the production staff to determine the direction of the performance visually. In some cases, this might mean extensive research. For live performances, there will also be considerations for time in-between scenes. The costume designer will take into consideration costume changes that need to be performed quickly and how to best accommodate the look and feel of the piece without compromising the actor's ability to hit his cues on time. 

Actors and actresses will rely on the costume and accessories to help them fully embody the character. In some scenarios, a cumbersome costume might be more accurate to a specific time- period. But considerations need to be made so that actors and actresses can get into character while not hampering their ability to move with agility when the director calls action. Costume designers also realize that the audience cannot be privy to what lies beneath the outward appearance of the costume. They may work with actors and other production staff to realize the look of the piece to varying degrees. In some cases, this might mean complete accuracy to the time-period. In other cases, the costume may just give the effect without including some of the more cumbersome constraints that would be traditionally used during a period piece.

As with most jobs in entertainment or the arts, there are some key abilities all costume designers must have in order to keep the creative juices flowing and not get discouraged. The job can be stressful and you will work under pressure to meet deadlines.  You must have good communication and research skills, be creative and imaginative, and be a great designer. Also, you must have the confidence to motivate a team, break down a script in terms of costume or scene changes, sewing skills, and knowledge of textiles; how they move and feel. It’s also good to have a good understanding of all cultures, stamina for long periods of standing around, and know about era costumes, as well as modern fashion.  Staying on budget and on schedule, and the organization of wardrobes and costumes also play a vital role in a costume designer’s role, so business sense is imperative.

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Develop Industry Specific Skills

Refine Your Skills & Knowledge Through Professional Development or Higher Education

A costume designer is more than a personal dresser. Your skills will run the gamut from understanding characters in a production's and intricate research on worlds different from your own to core fashion design. If your passion for design revels in absolute creativity and you can work with others to enhance their vision in the spirit of performance art, this might be the most exciting field you'll ever enter. 

While there's no bottom line requirement in terms of an education, most costume designers earn a degree. You may enroll in a degree program specific to costume design. You might also have a degree in fashion design or fashion merchandising. Both disciplines will round out your background with the specific skills you'll need to start in this field. Often, costume designers will also enroll in other continuing education classes to better enhance their ability to create new designs.  Some specific skills costume designers need for a successful career, include:

Drawing / Design. As a costume designer, you'll need to sketch out your designs prior to creating the costumes. This process will often go through several revisions and may entail choosing fabric and accessories prior to finishing the initial sketches. Often, swatches of fabric are approved prior to construction.

Research. Research includes reading the script and reviewing all materials pertinent to the production. It also includes meeting with the cast and sitting in on rehearsals. Witnessing how actors portray their characters will help you fine-tune your vision. You'll also need to discuss the look of the characters with other members of the crew, and research can often mean extensive knowledge of the time period and placement of the piece for accuracy.

The Ability to Translate Creative Vision. Your vision for the character's wardrobe isn't the only opinion that counts in a performance. One key skill that successful costumer designers must have is the ability to understand the vision of their colleagues and enhance their goals with your design, rather than the other way around. Think of costume design as more of a collaborative creative project, whereas fashion design is often at the sole discretion of the designer.

Knowledge of Fabrics / Construction. Intricate knowledge of fabrics and design basics are necessary in this field. You may not be doing the day-to-day sewing and construction of individual costumes, but it should be part of your base knowledge in order to successfully design each piece. 

Updated Knowledge on New Technologies. Costume design may lead you in many different directions, intersecting with special effects and crossing different types of scripts and worlds. As a designer, you'll want to research new fabrics and possible materials to fully capture the vision and feel you need for a character. This might have you recreating a town full of sixteenth- century citizens, or it could have you creating a never-before-seen world from some far-off planet. Creativity is a must because some costumes will rely on your ability to solve problems outside of the solutions in traditional fashion design. 

Because of the intricacies of costume design, it's highly recommended that aspiring costume designers pursue a postsecondary degree. There are specific degrees in costume design at both the bachelors and master’s levels, but a degree in performing arts, theater design, or fashion design will typically qualify for most jobs. If you've already completed a degree in a separate field but have some working knowledge of costume design, you might consider taking a few additional courses in costume design to more fully understand the field before pursuing an internship or applying to an entry level position. It is important to point out that the job of costume designer is not usually an entry-level position.  You will not be hired to design costumes for feature films until you have experience and an established reputation. That said, you can begin your career as an assistant or wardrobe trainee. That way, you get your foot in the door, meet professionals in the field, gain an on-the-job understanding of what it’s like to design costumes for films, stage performances, or videos.  Another path is to gain employment for a large costumier. But, to enter this competitive field, you should gain experience in another area within the TV, theater, or film venues.

You'll also need to put together a portfolio and show reel of your designs before obtaining an internship or entry level position. The best place to put together your initial portfolio is through your degree program. You can also learn how to put other a professional portfolio through online videos or by taking a community or continuing education class. Portfolios are absolutely necessary in order to gain employment, or even that first interview. You might have a degree and experience, but if you can’t show your work, it’s just your word, and that’s often not enough.

Get to Know Our Experts

Ellen McCartney

  • Title:
    Head of Costume Design
  • Company:
    California Institute for the Arts
  • Where:
    Valencia, CA
  • Experience:
    27 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Professor
  • Company:
    Theatre & Fashion at Albright College
  • Where:
    Reading, PA
  • Experience:
    30 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Television Costume Designer and Professor
  • Company:
    University of California
  • Where:
    Los Angeles, CA
  • Experience:
    20+ years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.

    Costume Design Infographic