How to Become a Costume Designer

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Photo Source: Phoebe Dynevor in Costume Department of “Bridgerton” Credit: Liam Daniel/Netflix

From Dorothy’s ruby slippers to Indiana Jones’ famous fedora, costume designers throughout the history of film have brought our favorite characters to life through fashion. If you’re a go-getter who loves storytelling, collaboration, research, and of course, clothes, becoming a costume designer might be a natural fit. Read on to learn about the responsibilities and details of pursuing this career.

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What is a costume designer?

'The Walking Dead' Costume Designer Eulyn Womble works on a Walker “The Walking Dead” Costume Designer Eulyn Womble works on a Walker Credit: Gene Page/AMC

A costume designer designs, sources, and creates the clothing and accessories worn by the characters in a film, series, or theatrical production. Their main job is to telegraph who a character is via what they′re wearing. A costume is one of the first things viewers see, and it gives audiences an idea of the story that′s about to unfold. 

To achieve this, costume designers—who head the wardrobe department and are responsible for staffing and managing the team—must tap into their inner psychologist, sociologist, researcher, historian, and actor. Juggling these roles helps them to design, create, compile, and fit the most appropriate outfits and accessories to each character to serve the needs of the narrative and the director’s vision.

What’s the difference between a costume designer and a fashion designer?

Fashion designer drawingsChaosamran_Studio/Shutterstock

Although both positions involve designing clothing, fashion designers create items that are sold to and worn by the general public. Costume designers, on the other hand, specialize in crafting clothing for film, TV, and theatrical productions.

What does a costume designer do?

Scene from 'Black Panther'“Black Panther” Courtesy Marvel Studios

A costume designer’s day is a long, demanding one. During preproduction, they read the script, take notes, and analyze the plot, tone, and setting of the project. They also coordinate daily responsibilities, schedules, and deadlines for the production team, and are hands-on during fittings. 

Though the design portion of a costumer’s job is technically finished once the cameras are rolling, they’re always on standby—and usually on set during production. “Every day you need to use the costume breakdown to set out the clothing you have been preparing” for the scenes being shot, said Molly Rogers, the costume designer for “And Just Like That…,” “Murphy Brown,” and “For Life.” Designers also stick around during production in case alterations or repairs need to be made quickly.

The tasks required of the role include:

  • Analysis: Costume designers analyze the script, talk to the director, and put together visual references before designing and assembling looks. According to Mary Zophres, costume designer for “La La Land,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the process begins on the page. The job is to “read the script and interpret the script,” she says. “You’re servicing the script and the director’s vision first and foremost.” As costume designers read through the script, they might ask themselves: What does this person believe in? Are they organized? What’s their financial situation? Where would this person shop? 
  • Research: After reading the script and discussing it with the creative and production teams, the costume designer researches relevant fashion history and trends. While period pieces require specific study to accurately reflect and immerse the audience in the past, the research phase knows no bounds—especially when it comes to the types of settings depicted in sci-fi and fantasy films. The looks of speculative fiction projects are often pulled from historical architecture and garments. For contemporary pieces, the designer must dig into the culture and vibe of the story’s setting. 
  • Designing: The designer’s research and prep work often correlates with the creation of sketches, fabric samples, digital renderings, and mood boards that show the types of clothing, materials, and patterns they think fit the project. 
  • Planning: The designer then sketches or makes digital renderings for the costume plot, which lists characters and tracks their costumes, scene-by-scene. The sketches and blueprints are presented to the director and other stakeholders, such as the director of photography, the production designer, and members of the hair and makeup departments. Sometimes adjustments need to be made to accommodate a budget restriction, a specific actor, or stunt rigging
  • Production: Once their ideas get the go-ahead from the production team and director, it’s time for a costume designer to track down and/or create every shirt, dress, necklace, and hat worn by every single actor—all while ensuring the costumes can help the actors better understand their characters. “An actor walks into a fitting, and you are there to help them find the character,” says Julian Day, who served as the costume designer on “Rocketman” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

What are the requirements to be a costume designer?

'Bridgerton' Costume department“Bridgerton” Costume Department Credit: Liam Daniel/Netflix

Education

Costume designers generally come to the position from varying educational backgrounds. Many enter from other fields, including fashion, theatrical design, acting, and graphic design. Gene Lakin, a costume designer and professor of fashion design at Pratt, says that there is “no sign-up sheet; there’s no [bulleted] list; there’s no single route that any individual designer takes to get where they are…. Every single person comes into it from a different point.” 

While there are no degrees or credentials required to become a costume designer, many professionals go to college for design. Undergraduate and master’s programs dedicated to costume design offer technical training, apprenticeships, and other opportunities. Some of the more well-regarded institutions include New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, the University of Southern California’s School of Dramatic Arts, the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design at UCLA, the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Center for Continuing Professional Studies, and the Pratt Institute.

Experience

A common career path for costume designers is to start out as a costume assistant or wardrobe trainee and climb the ladder to second assistant costume designer, assistant costume designer, and finally costume supervisor before landing the top gig. This route provides you experience with textiles, sewing, pattern-making, and fitting. 

A PA job is another great foundation; starting as a PA means “[meeting] as many costume designers as you can,” says Cristina Spiridakis, who designed costumes for “High Maintenance.” “You get out of it what you put in…. Put in your time, learn your craft, and work your way up.”

Skills

A costume designer must be:

  • Creative: Costume designers should be skilled in drawing, possess strong creative instincts, be detail-oriented, and have a strong grasp of color and design. According to eight-time Oscar winner Edith Head, costume designers “create the illusion of changing actors into what they are not. We ask the public to believe that every time they see a performer onscreen, [they have] become a different person.” A costume designer’s job is to visually telegraph who a character is by what they’re wearing. 
  • Good at research: Dedication to researching history, filmmaking, photography, literature, architecture, writing, character development, and story structure allows costume designers to build extensive knowledge of period costumes and accessories. 
  • Organized: Costume designers must stay on top of hundreds of different tasks, deadlines, and quick fixes; working under pressure is inevitable.
  • A good communicator: A large part of the job consists of close collaborations and in-depth chats with the creative and production teams. “I work closest with the director and the actors, and then the crew, production design, and cinematography,” says Zophres. “Later in the process, sound comes into play, and the locations department; ultimately, filmmaking is an extremely collaborative art form. My boss, the person I’m trying to please the most, is the director. But my job is to help the actors feel and inhabit their character, so that’s a very important relationship, as well.”

How to get a job as a costume designer

Costume design mannequinESB Professional/Shutterstock

Costume designers can seek out gigs through their personal connections and professional network, as well as on job boards. While costume designers can find opportunities in many cities, from regional theater to local or independent film productions, the main hubs are New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto. It’s a competitive field, so consider looking for work in local theaters and short films. Gain as much hands-on experience as possible, and never stop networking.

What to include in a costume design portfolio

Scene from 'Stranger Things'“Stranger Things” Courtesy Netflix

A costume design portfolio that showcases previous work is key to booking jobs. No matter the position, a portfolio submission will be required, so it’s wise to have one ready to go. Include fully built wardrobes, fabric samples, sketches, mood boards, photographs, and videos. Be sure to include samples from every stage of the process, from initial sketches to images of the finished product, to illustrate how you work. If possible, include designs across mediums, genres, and time periods to showcase your versatility, imagination, creativity, and knowledge.

How much do costume designers make?

Scene from 'The Batman'“The Batman” Jonathan Olley/DC Comics

According to ZipRecruiter, the average costume designer's salary is just over $48,000, but typically ranges between $13,500 and $85,000. However, top costume designers can make nearly $300,000, according to Comparably. Your total earnings will depend on experience, the size and budget of the productions you design for, frequency of work, and location. Guild members working on union productions are entitled to standardized rates.

Do costume designers need to join a union?

Scene from 'Only Murders in the Building'“Only Murders in the Building” Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

While there is plenty of nonunion costume design work to be had, most major productions are unionized. The Costume Designers Guild (IATSE Local 892), Motion Picture Costumers (IATSE 705), and United Scenic Artists (Local USA 829) represent costume designers, assistant costume designers, and costume illustrators in film, TV, commercials, and theater. They offer medical plans, help negotiate contracts, require fair wages, and promote recognition of the profession.

Famous costume designers

Scene from, 'The Wizard of Oz'“The Wizard of Oz” Courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

These costume designers made their mark by conceiving and creating dazzling designs for film, TV, and theater:

  • Colleen Atwood: “Edward Scissorhands,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Little Women” (1994), “Chicago,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Alice in Wonderland”
  • Lemuel Ayers: “Kiss Me, Kate” (1948 Broadway production), “As You Like It” (1941 Broadway production), “Macbeth” (1941 Broadway production)
  • Adrian Greenburg (aka Adrian): “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Rope,” “Shadow of a Doubt”
  • Ruth E. Carter: “Black Panther,” “Roots” (2016), “Amistad”
  • Tim Hatley: “Spamalot” (2005 Broadway production), “Shrek the Musical” (2008 Broadway production), “The Crucible” (2002 Broadway production)
  • Edith Head: “All About Eve,” “Vertigo,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Roman Holiday,” “Sunset Blvd.”
  • Susan Hilferty: “Wicked” (2003 Broadway production), “Spring Awakening” (2006 Broadway production), “Assassins” (2004 Broadway production)
  • Eiko Ishioka: “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “The Cell,” “The Fall”
  • Michael Kaplan: “Blade Runner,” “Flashdance,” “Fight Club,” “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens”
  • Irene Sharaff: “West Side Story,” “The King and I,” “Hello, Dolly!” “An American in Paris”